Mayan Hill Country – Ruta Puuc, Yucatan State, Mexico


The so-called Ruta Puuc includes five Mayan sites (Uxmal which we’ve covered in a previous post, Kabah, Sayil, Labna and Xlapac) and one unusual cave in the Puuc region of the Yucatan Peninsula . Puuc is the Mayan word for hill and even though Yucatan State is almost pathologically flat there are actually rolling hills in this area.

“Southern Mexico is lousy with Mayan sites,” we hear you say. “Why do these get a special route all their own?” Because their architecture and symbolism is different from other sites and marks a transition from the Mayan Classic Period to the Post classic period. That’s why, smartie.

Kabah

As you know, we’ve seen more depictions of Chaac (the Mayan god of rain) than we care to admit and our visit to Kabah on the Ruta Puuc added hundreds more to our tally. On the facade of the El Palacio de los Mascarones (aka, Codz Poop) alone there are 300 Chaacs—no surprise since there are no cenotes (natural water-filled sinkholes) in the area.

Most of the buildings that are visible at Kabah were built between the 7th century and the 11th century though experts believe the city was inhabited as early as the 3rd century.

These figures, unearthed at the Kabah archaeological site, are known as atlantes. 3-D figures of humans like these are extremely rare in Mayan architecture.

What’s even more interesting at Kabah is the pair of atlantes—rare 3-D depictions of humans, iconography not normally seen in Mayan architecture. Add to that the perfect V of the site’s Mayan Arch, an impressive collection of columns (a hallmark of Puuc era architecture), clear remains of a major sacbe (a raised Mayan highway also known as a white road) and lovely jungle to wander through from excavation to excavation and you’ve got one lovely Mayan site.

The El Palacio de los Mascarones at Kabah is decorated with more than 300 stone carvings of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.

The El Palacio de los Mascarones at Kabah is decorated with more than 300 stone carvings of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.

Karen striding through what remains of the Mayan city of Kabah, part of the Ruta Puuc in Southern Mexico.

 

Sayil

Next up is Sayil which was first settled in 800 AD. Sayil has lots of multi-level structures, most strikingly El Palacio with its nearly 300 foot long base and three tiers—practically a skyscraper by Mayan standards. Sayil also reveals more Puuc columns as well as great examples of another Puuc architectural habit: elaborate carved stone “cockscomb” roof decorations.

El Palacio at the Sayil archaeological site

El Palacio at the Sayil archaeological site is nearly 300 feet long at the base and features three distinct levels.

Sayil is a sprawling site with many discoveries, like this, waiting for you down jungle paths.

Be sure to allow enough time to walk through jungle paths to other areas of the Sayil site –though be aware that the Angkor Wat-like all-enveloping tree roots that some guidebooks describes as draping the South Complex have been removed. However, an enormous phallus is still in place at the site which is called The Obelisk or Stele 9 or the Stele of Yum Keep (for real). You’ll know it when you see it.

This roof top stone cockscomb structure is unique to Puuc region Mayan architecture and the Sayil site has some amazing examples.

 

Labna

The remains of the Mayan city of Labna offer more Chaac masks, more cockscomb roof decoration and El Arco Labna, one of the most jaw-dropping Mayan arches we’ve seen. Labna’s El Palacio  is also one of the longest known buildings in the Puuc region at more than 393 feet across the base.

El Arco Labna

The amazing El Arco Labna.

Labna serpent's head

A serpent's head with a human face in its mouth decorates the corner of a building at Labna.

Labna Palace - Ruta Puuc

Structures at the Mayan city of Labna, part of the Ruta Puuc in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

This is one of the tallest examples of the carved stone rooftop cockcombs that are unique to Puuc region Mayan architecture that we've seen.

 

The fourth Mayan archeology site in the Ruta Puuc grouping is Xlapak but we chose to skip that one. Sometimes you just don’t feel it.

Grutas Loltun

The Grutas Loltun (Loltun Cave) is also part of the Ruta Puuc and people have been living in the caves since pre-historic times, including the Mayans who retreated to Loltun during the War of the Castes in the 19th century. These Mayans hid out in the cave, barricaded themselves inside and managed to fend off the Spanish conquistadors for a while.

To commemorate their presence or mark their territory or whatever the Mayans decorated sections of this truly massive cave with depictions of hands and flowers and other simple artful motifs some of which are still visible.

Mother Nature’s art is also visible in the form of huge stalactites and stalagmites. In one section of the cave they’ve met to form columns which resonate with pleasant tones when gently thumped—which our guide encouraged us to do.

Tourist dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of Grutas Loltun in Yucatan State.

After about an hour inside the cave (which does not smell like bat guano) we came to the end of the .6 mile tour and found ourselves in the mouth of a gaping open sinkhole that serves as the exit. At just about the moment we arrived it started pouring.

We stood there staring up from our vantage point in the mouth of the cave under the sinkhole exit as the rain got louder and stronger and it felt like looking into another world. It’s easy to imagine that this is how the Mayans felt as they hid and hoped that someday they might be able to emerge.

As the rain grew even stronger it seemed as if the cave would begin flooding, however, the interior stayed perfectly snug as the water disappeared into the countless cracks and crevices in the limestone. Another brilliant real-estate choice by the Mayans.

The Mayans barricaded this amazing sinkhole entrance to the Grutas Loltun in order to keep Spanish conquistadors out during the War of the Castes in Yucatan State in the 1800s.

 

TIPS

Though our Lonely Planet guidebook said a tour guide (required) was included in the 70 peso cave entrance fee when we got there we were told it would be an additional 600 pesos (more than US$40) for an English-speakingguide. We balked and were eventually allowed to tag along with a group going out with an English speaking guide in exchange for a ‘”tip” to the guide at the end. Also, the cave floor can be slippery so wear sneakers or even boots.

 

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3 comments on “Mayan Hill Country – Ruta Puuc, Yucatan State, Mexico

  1. I just love exploring Mayan Ruins. The Grutas Loltun looks amazing and enormous. You are lucky that you got to tag along. yes, the Lonely Planet is always a little out of date. Thank God for Blogs like yours to give us the updated information:-)

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