Uxmal. Pyramid of he Magician. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

The Pyramid of the Magician: Myth and History in Uxmal, Mexico

Uxmal, dominated by its massive Pyramid of the Magician, is one of my favorite ancient Maya cities in Yucatan, mainly because of its famous structure.

I was lucky enough to have visited the site when we could still climb this amazing pyramid, standing on its summit with views of the surrounding land of the ancient Maya.

Over the past three decades, my family and I visited the site often, but no matter how many times we do, we still keep coming back over and over. Even if we can no longer climb the Pyramid of the Magician.

The Ancient Maya City of Uxmal

View of Uxmal, the archaeological site from the top of the Grand Pyramid. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
The ancient Maya city of Uxmal.

One of the most spectacular Maya archaeological site in the state of Yucatan in Mexico, Uxmal is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for its universal value and its structures representing “the pinnacle of late Maya art and architecture.”

Built in the specific Puuc style, Uxmal’s main structures date from between the 8th and 10th century AD, when the city grew from a small town to the largest political, administrative, and ceremonial center of the region. Abandoned after the 10th century, Uxmal was used as a pilgrimage place by the Maya in the area until the Spanish conquest.

The site’s name, Uxmal means “thrice built” in Yucatec Maya, referring to the construction of its dominating structure, the Pyramid of the Magician, built on top of existing structures. Also known as El Adivino, the Temple or House of the Dwarf, the Pyramid of the Magician was actually built during five different construction periods, not three.

While it is possible to use Uxmal as the only destination in Yucatan, most of the time we use it as a stop (often overnight) when we visit the Puuc region or as part of a longer road trip through the peninsula.

A Visit to Uxmal (in 2017)

As usual, we were among the first visitors of the day in Uxmal. Early in the morning, we enjoyed the cool breeze as we walked into the site. The humidity, already building, hinted to the uncomfortable hot and sticky conditions we would experience later in the day.

In the hills of Yucatan, a breeze is a rare commodity, and the humidity is high enough to make the heat unbearable.

Like every time we visit a popular site, we got up early to arrive before it even opened. Once again, we beat the crowds arriving later in the morning in the tour buses from Cancun.

The Pyramid of the Magician Is the First Thing You Notice As You Enter Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
The Pyramid of the Magician is the first structure you see when entering the archaeological site of Uxmal

The massive Pyramid of the Magician stood in front of us as soon as we entered the site. Its monumental frame dominates the plaza and the ancient city. One of the largest reconstructed pyramids on the peninsula, it is also my favorite. I find its rounded sides more appealing than the sharp corners of thePyramid of Kukulcanin Chichen Itzá.

The stepped pyramid, at 100 feet tall, follows an oval shape instead of a more traditional square. Though the shape doesn’t follow the Maya tradition, the pyramid itself does, being built in five phases, pyramids on top of older pyramids.

Memories of Climbing the Pyramid of the Magician

The first few times I visited Uxmal, in the early 1990s, I climbed the Pyramid of the Magician.

It was always the first thing my husband and I did after entering the site. In the early mornings, without the sun beating down on us, the strenuous climb didn’t seem so hard. Being some of the first visitors, we liked standing on top of this pyramid, overlooking the ancient city, the surrounding jungle and the nearby modern town.

The ancient Maya knew why they built these pyramids so tall in the center of their cities. Standing up there you really feel on top of the world.

Climbing it from the east side, we used to enter the temple on the stairway, close to the top. Though I saw nothing more than bats roosting inside, it was still a treat. While it was a great spot to get away from the sun for a few minutes, it was more amazing to watch the sleeping bats, though we always startled the tiny cave birds that also lived there.

The Pyramid of the Magician has been closed to climbing since 2009.

Now, when I see it, I notice huge ravens perched on its top. It seems they own the enormous structure. I’m glad they have the structure to themselves, though I always imagine them watching us as we walk around below.

I still love this amazing pyramid, from every angle. However, as spectacular as it is, its architecture, shape and size are only part of the reason for it. The other one is the legend of its creation.

The Legend of the Dwarf and the Pyramid of the Magician

View of the Pyramid of the Magician through an archway from the Nunnery Quadrangle. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
View of the Pyramid of the Magician through an archway from the Nunnery Quadrangle.

Also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf, the Pyramid of the Magician earned its name from the legend of its builder.

According to this legend, it was a dwarf, hatched from a turtle egg, who built the pyramid in one night using magic, hence the name Pyramid of the Magician. While doing it, he also proved himself worthy to be the king of the ancient city.

As all legends, this one also has a few different versions.

In the Incidents of Travel in Yucatan John Lloyd Stevens mentions it, as heard from a local Maya in 1843. The same, and other versions are still told in Yucatan today. They only differ in small details, the main story is always the same.

Once there was an old lady…

In Kabah, a neighbor city of Uxmal, an old woman lived alone in a tiny hut. She had a reputation of being a sorceress, so people feared her; They only visited her when they needed her magic. Most days though she was all alone.

She didn’t mind people avoiding her, however, she had one wish. The only thing she wished for was to have a child of her own.

Day after day she was praying to the God Chic Chan, one of the four rain serpents, or rain gods (or representation of Chac), to help her have a baby. Even when noting happened, she never gave up hope, just kept praying.

Finally, one night, the god visited her in a dream. He told her to look for a turtle egg on the shore of the nearby cenote. When she finds it, she needs to take it home and wait for it to hatch.

In the morning, the old woman went to the cenote the god Chic Chan told her about. Just as the god promised, she found a large, green turtle egg there.

As the turtle eggs hatches, the old woman gets her wish

She took the egg home, wrapped it in cotton and kept it in a corner of her hut. She cared for it day after day, keeping it warm, talking to it, singing to it. A few months later, the egg cracked and a tiny baby boy stepped out.

The old woman was ecstatic! She loved that baby boy with all her hearth, and cared for her the best she could.

The baby developed fast, and by the time he was only one year old, he became smarter and stronger than most adults. But, at that point, he stopped growing. For the rest of his life, he stayed tiny as a one-year-old baby, so people called him the Dwarf.

His size didn’t bother him though, since his mother loved him dearly and he was happy with her in their little hut.

The Dwarf Finds a Tunkul

One day, as he was playing, the dwarf child found a Tunkul. This is a traditional Maya drum, made from the trunk of the zapote tree. Hollowed by hand, it is slit on one side to make different sounds. It is usually played with a wooden sticks.

As all children do, the dwarf struck the tunkul.

Its clear sound resounded through the area, louder than anything he ever heard before.

In fact, its powerful note was loud enough for the king of Uxmal to hear it, miles away. As he did, the king remembered a prophecy about the drum.

The king and the prophecy

According to this prophecy, when the sound of the tunkul would resonate in Uxmal, his reign would end. Furthermore, the person who struck the instrument would become the new king.

The king wasn’t ready to give up his power though. Instead of accepting the prophecy – or ignoring it – he tried to prevent it from coming true.

So, he sent for the person who struck the tunkul. He planned to get rid of him, and by doing so, keep his power.

So, he sent for the person who struck the tunkul. He planned to get rid of him, and by doing so, keep his power.

The king and the dwarf

When he saw it was a dwarf who struck the tunkul, the king thought he had nothing to fear.

Still, to be on the safe side, he gave him a few challenges to complete. He designed the challenges so they would kill the dwarf. However, to be on the safe side, he added that the dwarf would be executed if he failed.

The first challenge

For the first challenge, he ordered the dwarf to build a long road, very straight and very white, in one day.

Following his mother’s advice, the dwarf asked the king to put down the first stone. When the king did, the dwarf set the next one, and in a few minutes, he built a sacbe, a white road that led from Uxmal to Kabah.

The second challenge

Next, the king ordered the dwarf to build a palace bigger and more beautiful than any in his city. He would have to build it in one night or be executed in the morning.

The Dwarf ran home to his mother, who told him to go to sleep, and not to worry about it.

The Dwarf laid down to sleep and woke up in the morning on top of the biggest, most beautiful palace he could have imagined

This was magic that scared the king who decided that he would have to kill the dwarf at all cost.

The Third Challenge

So, for the last challenge, he ordered the dwarf to bring a few cocoyoles, very hard, a coconut-like tropical fruit found in the area.

They would hit each other on the head with it until one of them emerges triumphant, said the king. Since the king was to hit first, he was sure the dwarf would die after the first blow.

However, the dwarf’s mother was smarter than the king. She rubbed her son’s head with a corn tortilla before this challenge, so the blow didn’t hurt him.

With everyone watching, the king couldn’t bail out, so he allowed the dwarf to hit him with the cocoyole. He didn’t have a sorceress for a mother to help him, so he died from the blow.

The Dwarf becomes the new king

The people of Uxmal, who witnessed the challenges, respected the dwarf, even though they considered him a magician. And since their own king just died, they elected him the new king of their city.

Three days after the dwarf struck the tunkul, he indeed became the new king of Uxmal, just as predicted.

During the dwarf’s reign, the city prospered. He didn’t forget about his mother who helped him though, and built her a smaller palace, not too far from his own.

How the Pyramid of the Magician Was Most Likely Built

The legend of the dwarf-magician is a great story; However, the massive pyramid was not built overnight, rather over a few centuries, and definitely not by one person.

The construction of the Pyramid of the Magician was done in multiple phases, new, larger structures encasing the old ones over and over, continuing from the 6th to the 10th century. The one we still see and admire today is the fifth pyramid, encasing the older ones. and it dates from the 9th century.

Other Significant Structures in Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician is the centerpiece of Uxmal, but it is not the only spectacular structure. As we walked through the site, we admired the gorgeous architecture and decorations of many others. Though farther from the main area, for the sake of the story, let’s start with the pyramid of the Magician’s mother.

The Pyramid of the Old Woman

According to the legend mentioned above, this was the pyramid the Dwarf built for his mother, in his new city. We don’t know what it looked like when built, since it is still in rubble, away from the main structures.

After exploring the main sites, we took the path towards the Pyramid of the Old Woman. Overgrown by vegetation, the trail didn’t seem to be used much, though it was not closed. Few visitors wander this far off the beaten path.

We’ve always walked to the site, but for the first time on our many visits, it was roped off. ‘Will they work on reconstructing it?’, we wondered. It is a nice size pyramid, though far from the city center.

Instead of lingering around the overgrown pyramid in rubble, we returned to explore Uxmal’s better-known structures.

The Nunnery Quadrangle

We made our way to the main compound of the Nunnery Quadrangle. If you are wondering about the name, no, the ancient Maya had no nuns, the name doesn’t fit.

The Spaniards mislabeled the building when they first saw it. They thought the plaza surrounded by four major structures resembled a nunnery.

The Nunnery Quadrangle.
The Nunnery Quadrangle

Unlike the Spaniards who first discovered it, archaeologists think the plaza was a palace for high officials. In the center, it has a stage for ceremonial dances.

Walking through it, we marveled at the elaborately decorated facades of the buildings. We can no longer enter any of the rooms, though we remember being inside them during previous visits. They are each very similar, in shape and size, with small variations.

Archway entrance to the Nunnery.
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery

The Ball Court in Uxmal

Ballcourt in Uxmal
Ballcourt in Uxmal.

Leaving the Nunnery Quadrangle, the path took us through the ball court. Not as large as the one in Chichen Itzá, it is still spectacular. This time it looked better than I remembered. We could tell they have worked on reconstructing it,in the past few years.

The Palace of the Governors

Palace of the Governors
Palace of the Governors with its spectacular facade.

One of my favorite buildings in Uxmal, the Palace of the Governors has a spectacular facade. It is the longest one known so far in the Yucatan featuring the Rain God, Chak.

Sitting on a high platform, the building itself is long. Its rooms were not closed, so we could enter them once again.We spent most of our time here, still alone on the platform.

Revisiting the rooms that Stevens and Catherwood, the first Western explorers of the region, lived in, we talked about them. I remembered reading an interesting entry in their book about how a native built the fire for them. The room they used as their home while exploring the ruins still has the marks of that fire on its walls. They wrote theIncidents of Travels in Yucatanbased on their explorations over a century ago, but the book is still a good read.

Detail on the facade of the Palace of the Governors in Uxmal
The facade on the Palace of the Governors

Casa de Las Tortugas

We walked over to the Casa de Las Tortugas, the small structure decorated with turtles. It was getting warm as the day progressed, and webraced ourselvesfor the hot and sticky feeling we always get while exploring Maya ruins.

But this time, Chak must have been in anunusuallygood mood. Clouds rolled in and a welcomed breeze cooled us down.

The Grand Pyramid

View of Uxmal from the top of the Grand Pyramid
On top of the Grand Pyramid

We moved on to a structure we could still climb, the Grand Pyramid. We sat on top for a long time, enjoying the breeze, and the view of the site. A few drops of rain soon accompanied the pleasant breeze as we stood there, stunned.

We visited this site often over the years, but I never remember experiencing rain here. Chak, the rain god, was happy, indeed.

While we were enjoying the light rain, thanking Chak for the treat, we didn’t notice the crowds entering Uxmal.

Suddenly, we looked down and realized that huge tour groups filled the major parts of the site. When one of the groups set off to climb the pyramid’s stairs, we knew it was time to leave.

The Ancient Cemetery

While everyone else was climbing the Grand Pyramid, we revisited the Uxmal cemetery. Most tours and visitors don’t bother walking so far, so we found ourselves alone once again.

Later, we met one lone visitor here, among the stones decorated with skulls. Like us, he was enjoying the quiet that this out-of-the-way part of the site offered.

Leaving Uxmal, Until Next Time

I could have spent all day in Uxmal. But overrun with tourists, it’s not so much fun anymore. Though it is much easier to deal with the crowds here than inChichen Itzá, we didn’t need to. We’ve explored the site plenty of times before.

Still, I know we will return. As crowded as it gets, the site is spectacular and now, since I saw work starting on it, I’d love to see the Pyramid of the old Woman dug out and reconstructed. Or maybe not.

I have mixed feelings about these ancient sites. Part of me wants to see them in their former glory. But on another level, I wish we could leave them covered with vegetation, surrounded by mystery.

Yucatan offers both experiences, at different sites, and I’m lucky to visit so often.

FAQ About the Pyramid of the Magician and Uxmal

  1. Where is the Pyramid of the Magician?

    The Pyramid of the Magician, also known as El Adivino, is in the ancient Maya city of Uxmal, in Mexico, in the state of Yucatan.

  2. What is the Pyramid of the Magician?

    The Pyramid of the Magician is the best-known structure in Uxmal. Also known as the House of the Dwarf (after the legend of its creation), the pyramid stands at about 115 feet (35 meters) tall and a base of 227 by 162 feet (69 by 49 meters).
    Built in the Puuc style, representative of the region, the massive pyramid is the largest at the site and the first one you notice when entering.

  3. What is the legend of the Pyramid of the Magician?

    According to legend, the massive Pyramid of the Magician was built overnight by a dwarf magician hatched from a turtle egg, helped by his mother, the witch of Kabah. After building the pyramid, he becomes the greatest king of the city.

  4. How was the Pyramid of the Magician really built?

    Archaeologists tell us that the Pyramid of the Magician was built in stages, over a few generations, starting in the 6th century AD. As it was customary in the ancient Maya cities, new pyramids were built over old ones, encasing them.
    The Pyramid of the Magician (El Adivino, House of the Dwarf) we see today dates from the 9th century AD and it is the fifth one built on top of older ones.

  5. Can you climb the Pyramid of the Magician?

    No, climbing the Pyramid of the Magician is prohibited since 2009.
    However, if you are looking for a pyramid to climb in Uxmal, the Grand Pyramid is open for climbing, and from the top you get great views of the ancient city and the Pyramid of the Magician.

  6. What other structures is Uxmal known for?

    Besides the famous Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal is known for other structures showcasing the spectacular Puuc style architecture.

    The larger structures include:
    – the Palace of the Governor, known for its spectacular facade,
    – the Nunnery Quadrangle, used most likely as a central ceremonial plaza, and
    – the Grand Pyramid.

    Some of the smaller structures are just as significant, even if not as grand; they include:
    – the Pyramid of the Old Woman (the Dwarf’s mother, according to legend),
    – the Casa de las Tortugas (house of the turtles), and
    – the the ball court.

  7. Facts about Uxmal

    – An ancient city of the Maya, Uxmal was first established around 500 CE; By around 850 – 925 it became the center, the capital of the area known as the Puuc region, and the most powerful site in Western Yucatan. By the 9th and 10th centuries, it became the largest Puuc site. Though it declined starting in 1200, the city was still inhabited when the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, in the 1550s.

    – Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, as it showcases some of the best examples of Terminal Classic architecture of the ancient Maya.

    – Uxmal is the most important representative of the Puuc style architecture that flourished in the Late Classic period, between 600-900 CE. Its characteristics include limestone walls decorated with masks and other representations of the rain god Chac, and styling along horizontal lines.

  8. What is the closest modern city to Uxmal?

    Merida, the capital city of the state of Yucatan is the closest large modern city to the archaeological site. the distance between Uxmal and Merida is 83 km (about 52 miles).
    To get to Uxmal from Merida take route 261 South; it takes about an hour and 15 minutes to get there.

  9. How to get to Uxmal from Cancun?

    From Cancun you have a few options:

    – Take the toll road, 180D to Valladolid, continue on 180 to Mérida, then take 261 South to Uxmal. Driving time: 4 hours 15 minutes.

    – Take Road 307 to Tulum, then take 180 through Cobá and Valladolid to Pisté (and Chichen Itza), Merida, then 261 to Uxmal. Without stops (though you would be taking this route for the stops) driving time would be 5 hours 45 minutes.

  10. Where to stay when visiting Uxmal?

    You have plenty of choices to stay near the ruins in Uxmal. The following are only a few:

    – The Mission Uxmal Park Inn Hotel. It has a perfect view of the Pyramid of the Magician from its rooms. They also have a walking path to the ruins from there; though it’s a bit far, in the cooler season it might be worth it, to avoid the parking. It is also more reasonably priced than some of the other choices.
    – The Hacienda Uxmal is another great option, though more pricey, but nicer rooms and service.
    – The Lodge at Uxmal
    – The Uxmal Club Med

Other ancient Maya structures and archaeological sites to visit nearby:

The Puuc sites: Kabah, 20 minute away; Sayil, 28 minutes away; and Labna, 35 minutes away

Aké Ruins, 1.5 hours away

Chichen Itza and its famous Pyramid of Kukulcan, one of the new wonders of the world, 2.5 hours away

Ek Balam with its gorgeous Acropolis, 3 hours away

Coba, with its famous Nohuch Multiple and other structures in the jungle, 3.5 hours away

Tulum, the most visited Maya archaeological site in the world, 4 hours away

Muyil, 4 hours 15 minutes away

Xel-Ha Ruins, 4.5 hours away

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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