The Labna Arch, one of the most famous structure of the Puuc architecture

Ruta Puuc: 5 Unique Maya Ruins In Yucatan To Explore

La Ruta Puuc, or the Puuc route, is a short, 40 km (about 25 miles) stretch of the road through the Puuc region of the Yucatan, showcasing several spectacular Maya ruins. Broadly, the term also refers to the Puuc region of the Yucatan and the archaeological sites in it.

Part of the Puuc route, or Ruta Puuc, is still a narrow road surrounded by vegetation - in 2024.
Driving along the Puuc route, or Ruta Puuc, part of which is still a narrow road surrounded by vegetation in 2024.

Over the three decades of visiting the Yucatan, we often stopped at the sites along the Puuc Route; they have always been some of my favorite Maya sites. We revisited them during our latest trip to Yucatan, in January of 2024.

This article reflects not only my knowledge of the sites from numerous visits and readings about the ancient Maya and the archaeological sites surrounding their ancient cities, but also updates from our latest visit. I present the archaeological sites along this route, with their unique features, and the best way to explore them (in 2024) to get the most out of your visit.

Puuc Style Maya Ruins

If you ever traveled through the Yucatan Peninsula, you might have noticed how flat it is. Almost everywhere, except the Puuc region. So, it might be easy to guess that the word “Puuc” means “hill” or “mound” in Yucatec Mayan, and it is used to denote this hilly area of the peninsula.

The Puuc region is known as one of the most beautiful, and one of the most fertile areas of the peninsula. The ancient Maya also noticed this, since the area is filled with ruins. Several of these ruins are open for visitors, and considered tourist attractions, which is why the area is known for them.

The main Puuc archaeological site is Uxmal, surrounded by several other sites, declared together a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Puuc architectural style they all share began showing up at the end of the Late Classic (600-900 AD), and reached its height during the Terminal Classic (900-1000 AD) period of the Maya civilization.

Characteristics Of The Puuc Style

Highly ornate and geometric, the Puuc style reaccredits heights in the features facades with intricate stone carvings, and often repeated patterns, often of a “mask panel”. *Often mistakenly referred to as Chaak masks, respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart identified them as animated representations of the witz glyph, meaning “hill”, or “mountain”.

Other characteristics of the Puuc style include limestone construction, with smooth wall surfaces, plaster (stucco) finishes, and styling along horizontal lines. Buildings were decorated with precisely cut veneer stones set into concrete. The lower portion of the facades are blank with a flat surface, surrounding the doorways, while the upper facade is richly decorated with stone mosaics and often alternating repeated geometric elements with more elaborate sculptures.

Besides the highly decorative elements of Puuc architecture easy to recognize, another architectural feature the style stands out with is the use of a concrete core, allowing to build larger and more stable interior rooms.

Maya Ruins Along The Ruta Puuc You Can Visit

The individual archaeological sites along the Ruta Puuc all offer something unique, worth seeing. However, you will notice their collective features, obvious at each of these sites.

The road known as Ruta Puuc starts in Uxmal and it includes the archaeological sites of Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná (in order of driving).

1. Uxmal

The Pyramid of he Magician is the dominant structure in Uxmal. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
The Pyramid of he Magician is the dominant structure in Uxmal (photo credit: Leanne Fromm)

The best known of the Puuc sites, Uxmalis by far the largest archaeological site the region, a designatedUNESCO World Heritage Sitefor its universal value and its structures representing “the pinnacle of late Maya art and architecture.”

Uxmal’s name means “thrice built”. Although the site was occupied from the Preclassic period of the Maya civilization, its main structures date from the Late Classic (550 – 830 AD) and Terminal Classic (830 – 950 AD). They feature predominantly Puuc style architecture (with only a few other motifs).

At its height, Uxmal was the largest political, administrative, and ceremonial center of the region. Abandoned after the 10th century, the city was still used as a pilgrimage place by the Maya in the area until the Spanish conquest.

The Pyramid of the Magician

The massive Pyramid of the Magician, also known as El Adivino, is the first thing you notice as you enter the site. One of the largest reconstructed pyramids on the peninsula, its monumental frame dominates not only the plaza but the whole ancient city.

The stepped pyramid, at 100 feet tall, follows an oval shape instead of a more traditional square. The structure inspired legend says it was built in one night by a dwarf magician – hence its other nickname, Pyramid of the Dwarf or Pyramid of the Magician. However, in reality, the immense structure was built over several centuries (from the 6th to the 10th), pyramids on top of older pyramids. The one we see and admire today is the fifth one, encasing the older ones, dating from the 9th century AD. We used to climb this one!

Other Structures In Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician is the centerpiece of the ancient city, but it is not the only spectacular structure.

West of El Adivino you’ll find the Nunnery Quadrangle, also known as Casa de las Monjas, a complex of four buildings surrounding a large, rectangular courtyard. Misnamed by the Spanish who thought it resembles homes of nuns, according to most Mayanists, the structure was actually a palace for high officials, with a stage for ceremonial dances in the center plaza. The entrance to the Nunnery is marked by an ornate arch entryway in the center of the South building, though you can enter it from any corner, since the buildings are not connected.

Heading south from the Nunnery, you’ll pass through a ball court, reconstructed in recent years.

From here, the main path takes you to the Grand Pyramid. You can climb it to get a perfect view of the site from its top.

My favorite building of the site, the Palace of the Governors, is adjacent to the Grand Pyramid. Its ornate facade features rows of witz carvings (often mistakenly called Chaak masks), beautiful lattice designs, and human figures with elaborate head dresses.

From here, you can take a trail to the recently reconstructed Pyramid of the Old Woman (the Dwarf king’s mother according to the legend), or, walking to the front of the Grand pyramid, take a less-traveled trail to the ancient cemetery.

Tips On How To Visit Uxmal

Over the years I found that the best time to head over to the site is early morning, as close to opening time as possible. This has always been our strategy, for two different reasons.

Early in the morning, weather is most pleasant in the Puuc region. And since visiting Uxmal requires quite a bit of walking, earlier start offers a better experience.

During the past decade or so, Uxmal became a well-known, much-visited site. And, although independent travelers might show up early, tour buses bringing crowds don’t get there until later in the mornings. So, you have a quieter site – for a while at least.

Remember that you will probably walk quite a bit, so wear comfortable shoes. Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat, and water, since you won’t find a lot of shade when walking from one structure to the next.

How to get to Uxmal and where to stay:

From Merida, driving time is about one hour, taking Hwy 261.

To get to Uxmal at opening time, we always found it best to stay in the area. This is also a great place to start your explorations of the rest of the Puuc sites. You’ll find plenty of options in Uxmal. Check Booking.com for best options and deals.

* Affiliate disclosure: The above (booking.com) links are affiliate links; if you book through them, I may get a small commission with no additional cost to you.

2. Kabah

The Kabah Palace
The Kabah Palace

Past Uxmal, the first site along the Puuc Route worth stopping for is Kabah, only 19 km (11 miles) away. According to legend, this is where the dwarf turned king of Uxmal lived with his mother before building the famous Pyramid.

The only base for the legend lies in the fact that Kabah was a smaller site contemporary with Uxmal, as most of its structures date from around 850 – 900 AD, build in the Terminal Classic period, when Uxmal was already the center city of the region.

The name of the site Kabah derives from the Maya expression “he of the strong hand” or “hand that nails”.

The site’s most impressive structure is the Codz-Pop – an expression meaning “coiled mat”, for the resemblance of the curled part of the witz carvings to a rolled mat. A better-known – and easier to remember name of the structure is Palace of the Masks.

The Codz-Pop or Palace of the Masks sits on a platform on top of a high terrace, and features several rooms. However, its main characteristic is the west facade, covered in its entirety in the witz images, a common Puuc style motif, still mistakenly known as Chaak masks.

On the other side of the highway, at the end of a short walk, you’ll find Kabah’s large Arch. This is where the ten-mile sacbe connecting Kabah to Uxmal starts.

3. Sayil

The Sayil Palace
The Sayil Palace

Similar to Kabah, just little further down the road, you will find Sayil (“place of the ants” in Maya) , the next of the Puuc style ruins along this road.

In January of 2024, we found they are building a much larger entrance to Sayil than we remembered, to accommodate more visitors. Indeed, we encountered more visitors to the site this time than ever before, proof that the site is becoming much more popular than we remembered.

The first thing you notice as you enter the site is a large stela, protected under a palapa roof.

A short trail leads to the Palace complex, where you have the opportunity to explore the structure, and notice the characteristics of the Puuc style.

The three-story Palace of Sayil is one of the largest Puuc constructions, one of the masterpieces of Puuc style Maya architecture. Featuring 99 rooms, it was probably used both for living and administration. A wide central stairway runs in the center of the Palace, dividing it into two wings. The wide doorways of the second story are supported by columns, and their upper facades are decorated with the same witz motif prevalent in Puuc style architecture, and representations of the Diving God (also found at Coba and Tulum).

Though the most impressive structure, the Palace is not the only one worth exploring in Sayil. Several trips lead to other structures, like the Mirador, two smaller temples, and another large palace farther down the path.

4. Xlapak

The smallest of the Puuc sites along this road, Xlapak – “Old Ruined Walls” in Maya – is a site we often skip, as we did during our latest visit to the area. If you have the time, you can it is worth a short stop for a look at its only standing structure.

5. Labna

The Labna Arch, one of the most famous structure of the Puuc architecture

Another one of the larger Puuc sites, Labna is known for its elaborate, decorated Arch, although it features several other structures worth a look. The site’s name derives from the Maya “Old Ruined Buildings”.

Its largest structure, the Palace, is a two-story buildings set on a terrace. The two stories were built at different times; The first story was a group of separate buildings, joined later to form the base for the second story.

The group of buildings near the Palace is dominated by the pyramid El Mirador or El Castillo.

However, the Labna Arch is the most famous structure at this site. Also called the Portal or Gateway, it is the best-preserved and most beautiful example of this type of structure, built in the Classic Puuc Mosaic style.

Exploring the Puuc Sites In January Of 2024

We found that one day was enough to explore Kabah, Sayil, and Labna. We knew that Uxmal deserves a whole day, so we didn’t visit the largest of the Puuc sites on the same day. When we do, we usually stay overnight at one of the hotels in Uxmal, and use it as a gateway to the ruins.

However, this time we had a different trip, but found that we easily walked through the three sites in one day, with time enough to return to our hotel for dinner.

On this gorgeous January day, the weather was perfect, cloudy and pleasant, unlike the hot and humid days we usually encounter along the Puuc route. So, we lingered longer at each site, enjoying the structures we remembered, and the newer pathways that made visiting them easier. Although we also found a pathway we used to take in Kabah closed off, with no signs of it being recently in use. It only led to smaller structures, so we weren’t too upset about it, but it was another sign of changing things along the Ruta Puuc.

Kabah was by far the busiest site; We had two full bus-loads of tourists stop and visit the site we used to have for ourselves during our visits in the past years.

Although far from being out-of-the-way, quiet sites, the Puuc sites are worth a visit if you are in the area.

Easy access from Uxmal and from the extremely busy Merida, the Ruta Puuc still offers a slower pace of enjoying the ancient ruins. Even if you only consider the two-lane road, flanked with vegetation that leads to them.

If you want to explore more Puuc sites, consider Chacmultun, and there are others deep in the bush.

Notes:

Representation of the Witz Glyph – not Chaak Mask

* I mistakenly used to refer to the witz representations on the facades of Puuc style buildings as Chaak masks, since it is what most books and articles refer to them as.

However, when I participated in a Maya Workshop at the University of Texas led by David Stuart I learned it was a mistake. David Stuart – and most of the respected archaeologists and epigraphers in the field, refer to the figure as representation of the glyph whitz, meaning hill, or mountain in Classic Mayan.

To read more about it, here is a reference on Mesoweb, a site I reference knowledge about the Maya civilization.

Maya or Mayan – Which One Is Correct?

According to the Na’Atik Language and Culture Institute, the correct way to refer to the archaeological sites, ruins, pyramids built by the Ancient Maya is Maya ruins/archaeological sites/cities, etc. Even though it is used as an adjective, the correct form in this case is always Maya.
Scholars refer to the languages used by indigenous Maya people as Mayan languages. In every other instance, the correct word to use is Maya.

So, besides the Mayan languages, in every other instance the correct word to us is Maya, even when used as an adjective (Maya ruins, Maya people, Maya pyramids, etc.)

FAQ

  1. What is Ruta Puuc?

    La Ruta Puuc, or the Puuc route, is a short, 40 km (about 25 miles) stretch of road through the Puuc region of the Yucatan, showcasing several spectacular Maya ruins.
    The term sometimes refers to the Puuc region of the Yucatan and the archaeological sites in it.

  2. Where is the Puuc region of the Yucatan?

    The Puuc region of the Yucatan is the only area on the otherwise flat limestone peninsula with hills.
    The area is in the center of the peninsula, south of Merida, most of it in southern Yucatan state, though it extends into western Quintana Roo and northern Campeche.
    The name derives from the word Puuc, meaning hill in Yucatec Maya.

  3. Which Maya archaeological sites are along the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route)?

    The largest, best-known and most visited Puuc site is Uxmal. The other larger ones are Kabah, Sayil, and Labna, while Xlapak is a smaller site, on the route between Sayil and Labna.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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