Mayapán is around an hour’s drive out of Mérida, with our trusty driver José Luis whisking us from our downtown casa, through the outer barrios and out into the dead flat Yucatan jungle scrub that goes on and on, with little change of scenery other than the odd bend in the road, a dilapidated Hacienda or two, some small dusty villages and frequent signs for the many cenotes that dot this region – more on that later.
Mayapán is pretty much off the tourist trail so there’s very little traffic on the road other than occasional mototaxis (Mexico’s answer to the tuktuk – but even smaller, the driver behind not in front) and the cross-Yucatan buses heading for the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo and the port city of Chetumal that sits on the border with Belize, a 5 to 6-hour bus drive from Mérida.
There were when we got there a few groups wandering around the site but certainly not the hordes you’d expect to find at Chichen Itza – so it was great to be able to wander around at will with no tour guide to command attention (though one politely offered) – just the empty silence of the Yucatan and the ancient ruins.
Mayapán is considered to be the last great Maya capital before the invading conquistadores changed everything. The city was so powerful in its time that it eventually became the sole political and cultural force in the whole of the Yucatan, with an estimated population of some 15,000 people contained within its 4 square kilometre walls and over 4000 structures. Not surprisingly, Mayapán has a somewhat blood-thirsty history, with the aggressive and all conquering Cocoom family ruling the city and all of the Yucatan for some 200-plus years from the mid 1200’s to around the mid 1400’s when they were slaughtered in a bloody battle by a rival blood-thirsty clan from Uxmal.
Mayapán was finally abandoned sometime in the 15th Century with conflicting reports on dates, but contributing factors to the decline of the city thought to be the burning of the city by rival clans and raging pestilence.
Mayapán today has an impressive if compact city layout (given much of it is still lost to the jungle) which is reminiscent of Chichen Itza but on a smaller scale. The main pyramid actually bears an uncanny resemblance to Chichen Itza’s (and is also named the Castillo of Kukulcan) but today the people climbing this particular pyramid (it’s forbidden to climb in Chichen Itza) gave the scale away.
You’re able to clamber over pretty much all of Mayapán in the searing tropical heat with large Iguanas slinking over the rocks and occasionally fleeing at speed right under your legs – I even saw them scaling the pyramids and temples, possibly to shady nests within. There are also circling Vultures so it’s no wonder they’re so fast-footed out in the open.
The influence from Chichen Itza is clear, with the main square bordered by government, religious and ruling class buildings, temples, altars, shrines and platforms including a round observatory. Not many sculptural reliefs remain here unlike spectacular Uxmal, but there are a few impressive carvings and even some frescoes that, after all this time, still retain their colour, showing scenes of the death cult that gripped this society. Archaeological excavation is still going on, with small trails running off from the main site to structures consumed by undergrowth awaiting reclamation.
There are cenotes everywhere in this part of the Yucatan, with some 27-40 in the immediate vicinity of Mayapán including one, Cenotre Chén Mul right beside the main pyramid – a dark gaping hole with huge banana trees hanging over the abyss. This 2-plus kilometres long cave system runs right under the whole site and it’s thought that the Maya used it as an escape route.
There are so many Mayan ruins dotted around the Yucatan that many are probably still awaiting discovery, hidden from view for millennia by the endless Yucatan scrub. Other sites are still in the process of being excavated whilst others have been embraced by more recent settlements, Mayan pyramids and structures adopted as an integral part of village streets. The Mayan is such an incredibly fascinating civilisation with its culture still very much alive and well in modern day Yucatan – especially in its food and language – but thankfully without its death cult.
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“A dark gaping hole with huge banana trees hanging over the abyss” makes me think of a saucy and scanty tropical themed Mardi Gras skirt barely covering some queen’s nether regions. To quote Dick Emery: “Ooh you are naughty, but I like it.” 😜 another fab blog, with the return of your special guest star Jose Luis 👏
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I climbed Chichen Itza in 1975. It was scary as, especially climbing back down. Had to go backwards!
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Even at Mayapan, a much smaller version of Chichen Itza it was scary…bum and feet first. Imagine back in the day these pyramids would have been smooth stucco and vividly painted.
We also climbed Chichen Itzá in the early nineties, when you could. We were up at the top for a spectacular sunset. It’s not far from Mérida, less than 100ks but it’d be packed with ‘spring break’ day-trippers from Cancun. Em, no thanks. Mayapan on the other hand, whilst a lot smaller, was practically empty.