Mexico and Central America 2008, part 8 (Uxmal, Merida)

In the continuation of my sightseeing of the archaeological site of Uxmal that belongs to the civilisation of the ancient Maya people, I came to the following important structure and that was the House of the Turtles.

House of the Turtles

The structure was built in the 9th century and it owes its name to the sculptures of turtles that adorn its cornice placed above a simple frieze consisting of upright stone poles.

House of the Turtles

Because of the turtle symbolism among the Mayas, it is presumed that this “house” used to be dedicated to an aquatic deity.

After this I headed again in the direction of the Pyramid of the Soothsayer in order to have a better look at its west side. It was already noon by this time and the temperature had gone up significantly, so I took each chance I had to stand in any shade I came across and make a short break there. As I was standing like that under some trees, I noticed a bird with a very interesting tail. Afterwards I found out that this was a turquoise-browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa) which is in fact a fantastically picturesque and wonderfully colourful bird, but unfortunately this does not come out in my photos, since the bird was standing in a shade and the beauty of its colours was not well pronounced.

Turquoise-browed motmot

Turquoise-browed motmot

After this break I went directly towards the Pyramid of the Soothsayer. Although I passed along the way by a very nice structure, I could not get any information about it, but after all this is not that important. I was relaxed, content and I enjoyed.

Nameless “detail” from Uxmal

And then I finally came to a rectangular inner courtyard by the west side of the Pyramid of the Soothsayer. The courtyard is surrounded from all sides by ground-floor structures in a better or a poorer state, but I was almost not interested in that at all, primarily focusing my attention to the Pyramid. The reason for this is that the Pyramid is so grand that it imposes itself. Still, as I was approaching the courtyard by a path, I could not help but notice a wonderfully rich and pretty decoration that adorns the upper section of the facade of the structure right opposite the western stairway of the Pyramid.

Fantastic stone decoration made in the Puuc architectural and artistic style

Already in part 6 of the stories about my travel in Mexico and Central America back in 2008 I gave some of the basic data on the Pyramid of the Soothsayer in Uxmal. Here I will only reiterate a few details that concern the west side of the Pyramid.

Pyramid of the Soothsayer

On the right-hand side it is possible to see an opening that leads inside the Pyramid in order to get to Temple I, but the visitors are not allowed the access there any longer.

Also, along the right-hand side of the stairway it is possible to see a line of the masks of god Chaac. Throughout the civilisation of the ancient Maya people he was a very important deity in charge of rain and consequently of fertility, primarily that of crops. In addition, in the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal there were no natural sources of water and thus the residents had to build their wells-cisterns, which means that there was a problem with the water supply. Because of this it is likely that god Chaac was perhaps even more significant here than in some other places which would explain the frequent use of its traditional depiction in the decoration of the structures.

That line of the masks of god Chaac can be seen very well in the following photo, too, but that photo is much more important to show the steepness of the stairway on the Pyramid of the Soothsayer in Uxmal. Namely, these stairs ascend at the angle of 60 degrees, so I was quite content that the climbing of them was no longer permitted.

Pyramid of the Soothsayer – the profile of the western stairway

The reason why some things are prohibited today and were not in the past is not only for the sake of the safety of the visitors, but also in order to prevent further damage to the structures. And that is quite fine with me.

Then I went to the northwest side of the Pyramid and there again I could see a nice line of the masks of god Chaac that exists on the left-hand side of the stairway as well and from there I paid a little more attention to the entrance into Temple IV that is located on the top of the large stairway.

Pyramid of the Soothsayer

Temple IV is the most opulently decorated temple, while the decoration on the facade of the entrance constitutes yet another depiction of the rain god Chaac made in such a way that one enters the temple through the very mouth of the god. Still, in order to see this even better, look at the following photo that I made from the southwest side of the Pyramid.

Pyramid of the Soothsayer – entrance into Temple IV

In the photo above, in addition to the masks of god Chaac at the top of the large stairway and the very entrance into Temple IV, one can see very well a smaller stairway leading up to Temple V which takes up the top of the Pyramid of the Soothsayer. By the way, there is the same stairway to the left from the entrance into Temple IV.

With this I practically completed my sightseeing of the Pyramid of the Soothsayer and by extension of the entire archaeological site Uxmal. That was good also because I was starting to get quite hot and among other aspects this also reflected in the redness of my face.

At the Pyramid of the Soothsayer

I continued towards the exit from the site by walking around the Pyramid of the Soothsayer from the opposite side in comparison to the one I followed at the beginning of my visit. But, from whichever side one looks at this Mayan pyramid, that is also specific on account of its oval shape, it is truly impressive.

Pyramid of the Soothsayer

Archaeologists and historians of art presume that this pyramid, like some other structures, used to be covered in plaster and then painted in red with details in blue, yellow and black. With time, the rains have washed away the colours and the plaster, so only the limestones used for the construction of the pyramid can be seen now. Bearing in mind how imposing the Pyramid is today such as it is, imagine how spectacular it must have looked like in its original appearance.

As the end and my farewell from the archaeological site Uxmal, in the photo below one can see well the entrance into Temple II in the shape of a dark spot on the east stairway of the Pyramid.

Pyramid of the Soothsayer – the east side and the entrance into Temple II

As I’ve mentioned at the beginning of my story about Uxmal, it was the capital of the regional state Puuc and it reached its peak in the 9th and the 10th centuries CE, but then somewhere around the year 1000 its population simply left it.

Travelling by coach on my way back to Merida I was thinking about how intensively I enjoyed my visit to Uxmal. The site was great, there were significantly fewer visitors than the previous day in Chichén Itzá and also with my earlier start of the visit I managed to avoid the hottest parts of the day.

When I got back to Merida, first I went to the green market to buy some fruits and then to my room because it was early afternoon and the streets were scorching hot. I took advantage of the afternoon break in order to have shower and wash my hair, using also the internet at the guest-house and that all felt good. It was only around 5 pm that I started with my visit of Merida. By that time, it felt quite pleasant, as there was a wind that cooled the air down. In the part of the city where I stayed, the houses by the rule had only the ground floor and only few of them one floor more, reflecting mostly the architecture of some older times.

Merida close to the guest-house at which I stayed

Merida is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, but on the peninsula of Yucatan there are two more states – Quintana Roo, in which I stayed when in Cancun, and Campeche to which I was going after Merida.

Here is also the map that shows my movements around Mexico during the first part of the journey.

The city of Merida which nowadays constitutes the cultural centre of this part of Mexico was founded in 1542 and although it was very important during the Spanish colonial times, it is interesting that at the beginning of the 20th century it experience a proper economic boom on account of the trade in sisal (a type of agave plant) that is used for making ropes. It may sound a bit incredible at first sight, but apparently at the time Merida had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world. However, this may also be presumed quite easily on the basis of some beautiful houses I was passing by during my stroll. Some of these houses are perhaps no longer maintained at the level of their original opulence, but even today they are undoubtedly impressive for an “ordinary” urban house in an ordinary street.

Merida, a detail

Since I was staying at a guest-house that was practically in the centre of the city, I soon reached the Grand Square (Plaza Grande). In terms of town planning, the centre of Merida follows the classing Spanish approach – a square park in the very centre from which expands a grid of streets cutting one another at a right angle. The streets that run approximately along the east-west axis are marked by odd numbers, while those running more or less along the north-south axis are marked by even numbers. Also, all the streets in the centre are one way, but it is all marked very nicely and I believe that getting around by car is not difficult at all.

In these streets in the centre, one can see from the outside only the pavements and facades of the houses, with no trees, which should not be confusing since very frequently within the courtyards that belong to the houses and that are not seen from the outside (rarely like in the photo above), there are smaller gardens and green “oases.” Still, in the evening people like to go out and go to the Grand Square where they sit on the benches in the park. The park is also used to organise music concerts and dance events, which all provides for a fine break from the heat of the day and also being among tall trees that are relatively rare in the rest of the centre of the city.

The Grand Square itself is surrounded by very important buildings from the time of the Spanish rule, but I first walked to the Cathedral.

Cathedral in Merida

The Cathedral in Merida is the oldest cathedral in continental Americas. Its construction started in the 1560’s and was completed in 1598, i.e., the Cathedral is from the 16th century. I visited it briefly and then walking across the square I went to the Municipal Palace (Palacio Municipal).

Part of the Grand Square and the Municipal Palace in Merida

The seat of the city’s administration is located here, while the building itself is a mixture of different architectural styles and it also has a clock tower from the first half of the 20th century.

Municipal Palace in Merida

When I turned around, on the opposite side of the square, now beautifully lit by the setting Sun, I could see above the treetops the upper sections of the impressive Cathedral.

Part of the Grand Square and the Cathedral in Merida

At the square there is also the House of Montejo (Casa de Montejo) the construction of which was completed in 1549 and it served as the residence of the first Spanish governors. Namely, it was precisely Francisco de Montejo the Younger who founded Merida (the “younger” part is important, since there were three of them with the same name) and therefore this former seat of authority was named after that family. On the front facade of the house it is possible to see statues of conquistadors standing on the heads of the Maya, since the city was founded on the ruins of a former Mayan settlement. Today, I find this loathsome, but around the middle of the 16th century when the Spanish were absolute rulers here there was no need for any respect for the domicile population. Moreover, the stones used for the construction of that Mayan settlement were in fact used for the construction of the churches and palaces built by the Spaniards.

House of Montejo

On the opposite side of the Grand Square in relation to the House of Montejo, there is the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno) built in 1892.

Government Palace

The historic centre of Merida is exceptionally beautiful and also quite big, so there was no way I could visit it all in any details bearing in mind my limited time here. But, I was not too worried about this and just continued walking around nicely and leisurely in line with the recommendations I had in the shape of a photocopied page from a guidebook.

Thus, I got to a smallish Hidalgo Park (Parque Hidalgo) where through the treetops in the park I could see the Temple of the Third Order (Templo de la Tercera Orden), a 1618 Jesuit church.

Temple of the Third Order

And then I also walked to the beginning of a spacious street called Paseo Montejo. As opposed to the other streets in the historic centre of Merida that are one way and comparatively narrow, Paseo Montejo is broad and runs both ways. Generally speaking, “paseo” means more or less a “promenade” and this is the name for streets that have a green refuge island in the middle, sometimes even a whole park, while along this section there are roadways on both sides running in opposite directions. This street is very important and all guidebooks emphasise this, not because it is a two-way street, but because this was the street of choice for the wealthy residents of Merida at the beginning of the 20th century. In line with this, there are elegant and large city houses here that are nowadays used less for housing and more as offices for banks and insurance companies. The street is almost a couple of kilometres long, but by the time I got here I was tired and so I gave up on any further sightseeing of the city and started to go back towards the Grand Square.

Beginning of Paseo Montejo

Along the way, I sat at a café in order to rest a little and get some refreshments.

A break at a square in Merida

As it may be seen, and I’ve already mentioned this, Merida used to be a very, very wealthy city thanks to that agricultural crop and this can be seen even today by the appearance of some of the buildings.

After this break with a beverage, I did not do any more sightseeing, but rather went to eat something in one of the smaller restaurants and there I was completely impressed by the waiter. I asked him and he said he was 14, but I was sure he was younger. This, however, did not affect in the slightest his utterly professional demeanour.

Some start to work very early

And then I returned to my guest-house where I got my things ready for the continuation of the travel around southern Mexico the following day. That evening I learned yet another lesson that I find very important for travelling in the tropics and this one concerns the footwear. When I walked around Uxmal in the morning, I had the plastic-rubbery clogs on, but the material the clogs were made of did not disturb in the least my stability nor did my feet slipped when I walked over rocky stairs. However, when I was walking around Merida, I decided to be more “decent” and so I put on some light ballet flats and that was a completely wrong choice. Namely, when it was very hot, then obviously it felt more comfortable to be in practically open clogs than in closed shoes, no matter how light they were. All in all, from that evening on, the ballet flats were properly packed at the bottom of my big backpack and all the time I wore only those clogs. With time, I improved even this, but more about it some other time.

Verica Ristic

Born and lives in Serbia. Free-lance interpreter/translator for English, but also speaks other languages (this helps a LOT when travelling). Grateful to the Universe for everything.

Belgrade, Serbia

Subscribe for free to Svuda podji - travel stories

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

or subscribe via RSS with Feedly!