Yucatán State & the Maya Heartland
Sitting regally on the northern tip of the peninsula, Yucatán state sees less mass tourism than its flashy-and-trashy neighbor, Quintana Roo. It is sophisticated and savvy, and the perfect spot for travelers more interested in cultural exploration than beach life. While there are a few nice beaches in Celestún and Progreso, most people come to this area to explore the ancient Maya sites peppered throughout the region, like the Ruta Puuc, which will take you to four or five ruins in just a day.
Visitors also come to experience the past and present in the cloistered corners of colonial cities, to experience henequén haciendas (vast estates that produced agave plant fibers, used to make rope) lost to time or restored by caring hands to old glory, and to discover the energy, spirit and subtle contrasts of this authentic corner of southeastern Mexico.
For planning, a useful website is www.yucatan.travel.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Yucatán State & the Maya Heartland.
Chichén Itzá, meaning 'mouth of the well of the Itzáes' in Mayan, is a stunning ruin well worth visiting for its spectacular, iconic structures and historical importance, despite its huge crowds. Visible even from faraway Ek' Balam, Chichén is the granddaddy of Maya sites in Mexico. To fully take in the details you should hire a guide, but if that's not in your budget, just walking around offers a fascinating insight into one of the greatest cities of pre-Columbian civilization.
Pronounced oosh-mahl, Uxmal's size and uniqueness make it a fascinating stop for ruin-lovers and novices alike. The top draws are the oddly shaped Magician's House, the Pigeon House (a structure with a delicate roof comb still standing that resembles pigeon houses), and the vast Governor's Palace. Part of the Puuc region, it is an unmissable stop if you're in the area.
The great ball court, the largest and most impressive in Mexico, is only one of the city’s eight courts, indicative of the importance the games held here. The court, to the left of the visitors center, is flanked by temples at either end and is bounded by towering parallel walls with stone rings cemented up high. Along the walls of the ball court are stone reliefs, including scenes of decapitations of players.
This is the Ruta Puuc site not to miss. Archaeologists believe that, at one point in the 9th century, some 3000 Maya lived at Labná. To support such numbers in these arid hills, water was collected in chultunes (cisterns); there were some 60 chultunes in and around the city; several are still visible. El Palacio, the first building you encounter, is one of the longest in the Puuc region, and much of its decorative carving is in good shape.
A world-class museum celebrating Maya culture, the Gran Museo houses a permanent collection of more than 1100 remarkably well-preserved artifacts, including a reclining chac-mool sculpture from Chichén Itzá and a cool underworld figure unearthed at Ek' Balam (check out his punk-rock skull belt and reptile headdress). If you're planning on visiting the area's ruins, drop by here first for some context and an up-close look at some of the fascinating pieces found at the sites.
The 74-room, sprawling Nuns’ Quadrangle is directly west of the Casa del Adivino. Archaeologists guess variously that it was a military academy, royal school or palace complex. The long-nosed face of Chaac appears everywhere on the facades of the four separate temples that form the quadrangle. The northern temple, the grandest of the four, was built first, followed by the southern, then the eastern and finally the western.
If you visit one hacienda, make it this one. This vast estate grew and processed henequén (agave plant fibers, used to make rope); many of its numerous French Renaissance–style buildings have undergone picturesque restorations. The interior of the main building is superb. You can enter the sheds with the giant rasping machines that turned the leaves into fiber. The caretaker used to work cutting henequén and has stories to share (should you speak Spanish; tip suggested).
The Governor’s Palace, with its magnificent facade nearly 100m long, is arguably the most impressive structure at Uxmal. The buildings have walls filled with rubble, faced with cement and then covered in a thin veneer of limestone squares; the lower part of the facade is plain, the upper part festooned with stylized Chaac faces and geometric designs, often lattice-like or fretted.
Sotuta de Peón, 32km south of Mérida, is the only working henequén hacienda in the world. Jump aboard a horse and cart and view the henequén process from plant to finished product, visit the original homestead, plus visit a Maya house and cenote (take your bathing suit). The tour takes about three hours.