Yucatan Day Trip: Loltun Caves and the Puuc Route

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the area, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. The word “Puuc” means small hill or mound and this is the only area in the Yucatan where the landscape is other than perfectly flat. Ruben picked us up in the van about 8 am and we were off south east to the caves, the farthest point away from Merida.

We understood that there were six tours a day in the caves, beginning at 9:30, and knew that we couldn’t enter without a guide. Luckily, we arrived at the cave site right on time and were escorted into the caves by Pablo, a guide with whom we negotiated a tour price. [The entrance fees and guide prices here are quite high, especially compared with Guanajuato and other places we've visited - apparently, the usual guide price is 500 - 600 pesos (about $40 - 50); because there were ony two of us, we paid half this amount, and 204 pesos to enter].

Like the Karain Cave north of Antalya which Tracey and I had visited together, this cave is also lit with many lurid coloured lights, casting wonderful shadows on the walls. Here, too, is evidence of 15,000 years of human habitation, along with the remains of mammoth, bison, felines and deer. The only wildlife in the caves today are bats and cave swallows. Some of the cavern areas are huge and cathedral-like; others are small and quite claustrophobic. In one of the rooms are two hollow columns which, when struck, ring out deep musical notes.

On the walls are carvings, one of a warrior figure, and one of two flowers, the latter giving the cave its name (Lol=flower; tun=stone). From Yucatan Today: “The tour starts at the entrance of Nahkab, or beehive, where the famous bas-relief known as El Guerrero de Loltún (the Loltún warrior) is located, who seems to be emerging from the caves and is believed to be the God of the underworld. Another attraction of great interest is the cave paintings: on one wall one can see negatives of hands, on another there are more elaborate paintings representing faces, animals and staggered fret patterns.

In the diverse halls, galleries and chambers – almost 60 m deep and extending over more than 700 m – diverse archaeological pieces, ceramics, stone artifacts, marine shells and petroglyphs have been found, corresponding to the Mayan culture in its different stages of development.”

Our guide complained that the caves are not well-visited; they are too far away from Merida and Cancun for most people – that’s too bad because they are really quite cool.

Our next stop was Labná, once a city of some 1,500 to 2,500 people, inhabited between 750 and 1000 AD. Presently, four buildings have been  restored. The large palace houses 70 chultunes (water cisterns), used for collecting rainwater, a supply that allowed the Maya to survive the hot dry season; at least six months of the year here there is no water.

Passing the palace we also saw a large private home, and the el Mirador, a watch tower, as well as the arch that is thought to have been the center of the city and the entrance to the sacbé (white road or Mayan highway) that went to Uxmal.

While I was walking around, I slipped on the red mud and, putting my hand down on a rock wall to steady myself, was stung by something that raised a welt and really hurt (still hurts now!).

Interestingly, as in Cambodia’s ruins, here, too, you can see that the architects did not have the hang of the rounded arch; all the arches here are pointed with flat stones at the apex.

Leaving Labna and continuing down the winding road we came to X-Lapak, a name which means “unglued walls”, a site of some 14 mounds and three somewhat restored pyramids. This site and neighbouring Sayil have not been restored and manicured, so we were able to see what the sites looked like when they were discovered.

While Labna’s buildings exist in a park-like setting, reminding both of us of Cambodia’s Angkor Thom, X-Lapak is situated in a beautiful forest of deciduous trees, including one tree that looks very much like a eucalyptus and another that looks like a giant banyan.

Five km from X-Lapak is Sayil, whose name means “The Place of the Ants.”

At the entrance is a small outdoor museum under a thatched roof. This site is home to a beautiful palace that included 90 bedrooms for some 350 people; unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to climb the staircase here. Workmen are putting parts of it back together so perhaps in the future …

From there we travelled to Kabah, famous for its incredibly ornate “Palace of Chaac Masks” (Chaac is the Mayan rain god). “Kabah” means strong hand, and it was the second most important city after Uxmal and the largest site in the Puuc Region.

As in the other sites, here, too, rain water collection cisterns were built.

A turkey vulture was happily sitting atop one of the palaces here; I wondered whether it was waiting for one of us to expire from the heat. Although it had been overcast and somewhat cloudy earlier in the morning, here it was hot as the sun broke through the clouds. Ty and I were starting to wilt so our next stop was the Pickled Onion Restaurant for some very tasty chicken fajitas.

These four ancient cities were all built between 500 and 1000 ad. At all of them, we were the only visitors and we shared the landscape with enormous clouds of yellow, blue, and black butterflies and hundreds of iguanas, large and small. However, when we rolled up to the Mayan piece-de-resistance of Uxmal (meaning “three times built”), all this changed. Uxmal is big business, with a large parking lot for buses, a restaurant, and a gift shop complex. Unlike the smaller sites, whose entrance fees are either 42 pesos or free, Uxmal costs 177 pesos to enter. However, luckily, the city is big enough that it still seemed relatively uncrowded during our visit.

Uxmal’s architecture, some of the most majestic of the Yucatán archaeological sites, is characterized by low horizontal palaces set around courtyards, decorated with rich sculptural elements and details. Uxmal was the greatest metropolitan and religious center in the Puuc hills in the late classical period and thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries ad. Its numerous architectural styles reflect a number of building phases.

The most impressive structure and the tallest at 100 feet is the House of the Magician which we found just beyond the entrance. According to ancient legend, this pyramid was built by Itzamna in one night. It actually appears to have been built in five phases, and it was situated so that its western stairway faces the setting sun at summer solstice. Unfortunately, visitors can no longer climb the great staircase leading to the temple’s peak. The Nunnery, another large building on the site, was so named by the Spaniards because it reminded them of a European nunnery. It was probably used as a school for training healers, astrologers, shamans, and priests.

The Governor’s Palace is an excellent example of stone mosaic work probably created by hundreds of masons and sculptors. It occupies five acres and contains many beautiful sculptures of the rain god Chaac, serpents, and astrological symbols. Uxmal also has a large ball court, enclosing a playing field that is 110 feet long and 32 feet wide.

(Information from the Yucatan Today website). We were able to climb the Great Pyramid and from its top, we had a fantastic view out over the entire site, as well as the Yucatan beyond.

“The UNESCO World Heritage citation for Uxmal recognizes also “its three related towns of Kabáh, Labná, and Sayil”. Their histories have been closely intertwined. At the collapse of Uxmal in the early 10th century A.D., Kabah, Sayil, and Labná seem to have been part of a confederation or regional state under the authority of Uxmal. However, a century before, Kabah may have been as large as Uxmal and its political equal.

Only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) separate the 2 farthest of the 4 cities. A causeway (sacbe) runs 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Uxmal to Kabah, and the general lack of fortifications indicates some form of evolving alliance. Although the 4 cities may originally have been settled at different times, most of their monumental architecture was constructed between the end of the 8th and the middle of the 10th centuries and share similarities in urban design, architectural style, and modes of construction.

To understand the Puuc region, we must recognize not only the ways in which it shares the remarkably widespread Maya culture, but also the aspects of Puuc society that differ from those of other areas. At its peak the Puuc region achieved the highest density of cities of any Maya area, with more than two hundred cities and smaller settlements. In some areas the residential areas seem to have been almost continuous from one city to another. This, along with the lack of fortifications at the major centers, suggests more sharing of power, a more federated society than in other Maya areas. It seems reasonable to suggest that this might be connected with the most esthetically refined, most carefully crafted, least militaristic architecture created by the Maya.” (http://academic.reed.edu/uxmal/cities.html)

For more information on the Maya culture, click here.

See more pics here.

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