Monday, December 06, 2010

la ruta puuc

Big is not always better.  At least when it comes to ruins.

I am as fascinated as anyone with Big Buildings -- the monumental structures of civilizations.  The places that make us ponder: "How did they do that?"

But, like most big things, the awe inevitably fades.  And what was once inspiring becomes merely another pile of rocks -- just bigger.

I discovered forty years ago that ancient sites mean much more to me when I can actually feel the presence of the people who once lived in the cities.  The place they called home.  It is hard to feel that way about a building that looks as sterile as a bank in Saint Paul.

Sure, it is possible to get sucked into the imaginative scenarios of virgins being sacrificed on giant pyramids.  But we have all seen enough Hercules movies to not need much imagination for that scenario.  (For those of you under 40, substitute "internet" for "Hercules movies.")

On the other hand, Big Events on Big buildings -- to keep Chac's anger at bay -- were not how people lived out their daily lives.

That is the major reason I truly enjoyed our visit to the "minor" sights along la ruta puuc.

"Puuc" is derived from the Mayan word for "hill."  And hills there are in this southern region of Yucatán -- primarily karst limestone. 

Not big hills.  But hills nonetheless.  As Islagringo and I discovered on the sometimes-useful GPS.  At one point we crossed over a hill at 400 feet above sea level.

That may not sound like much, but compared to the Yucatán flats, we almost expected to run into Julie Andrews and a bunch of nuns.

The hills are why the Mayans came here.  Not for the water.  There is none.  But for the defensive position offered by the hills.  And for the relatively good soil where they could raise their vegetables -- such as corn and squash.

The four sites we explored reached their peaks between 600 and 900 AD -- in the late and terminal portions of the Classical period.

The four cities share a building style with Uxmal -- not surprisingly, the style is called Puuc.  Easily recognizable.  The walls are usually plain at the bottom with detailed stone mosaics on the upper part.  That is the same style we saw earlier on the walls of the Nunnery in Uxmal.

But, with this common style, I was surprised how much each site varied from the other.


Our first stop was Kabah.  Like Stonehenge, it is right on the main road.  Stop the car.  There you are.

And that makes historical sense.  Kabah was connected to Uxmel by an 11-mile raised pedestrian causeway with arches at each end. The Mayans were the Roman builders of their time.  But without the Ben-Hur chariots.

The main building of this medium-sized complex is the Coz Poop (all of you fifth graders please calm down), a palace decorated with the face of the ever-present Chac -- represented over and over (about 250 times) on one wall.  That type of repetition of one figure is unique in Mayan art.

Both Islagringo and I braved the climb to the upper level of the building -- and we were well-rewarded.  A Mexican archaeological team was in the process of sorting and reconstructing part of the structure.  They had laid out thousands of pieces of stone -- just like a jigsaw puzzle.

The place was impressive, but still small enough in its over-all scale to let us believe people -- and not just film crews -- populated the site.


Our second stop was Sayil.  The site's major building is a multi-tiered palace where both the elite and their bureaucratic lackeys lived.

Sayil is one of the few Mayan sites that has revealed how the ordinary Mayans lived.  Archaeologists have excavated small dwellings on the outskirts of the city -- along with the detritus of common life.

In a rush to restore and preserve the Mayans' buildings, archaeologists and anthropologists have not spent a good deal of time discovering the underlying life in the cities.  The rush was understandable.  Putting the buildings together brings in tourists -- few of whom are interested in how the society itself operated.  As a result, there is still much to learn.

Sayil is also a good site to see how the jungle enveloped most of the sites when the civilization itself collapsed.  All of the buildings were covered by jungle.  Unlike Uxmal, where the jungle had been generally cleared, we had to walk through stretches of jungle to get to each new sight.

But we had not yet seen just how completely jungle can hide the remnants of dying civilizations.  That we saw at Xlapak.


Xlapak was the only ruin we visited on this road trip where admission was free.  I suspect because it is very difficult to see most of the site.  The jungle has reclaimed its own.

But there are a few monumental buildings that have been cleared and partially reconstructed.  A palace.  A temple. A house.  Still primarily piles of rubble.  And lots of impinging nature.

While we were there, we were the only visitors.  But that was true for three of  the four sites.  With the exception of Kabah and its tourist bus hoards, we generally did not see other visitors during our walks.

The quiet, the scale of the sites, and the lack of other tourists made it quite easy to imagine Mayans living their daily existence.  Farmers coming to market.  Tax-collectors plying their trade.  Young men seeking the eyes of young women.


Even though I liked Xlapa's decaying ambiance, my favorite site was the fourth -- and last -- in the puuc region: Labná.

The structures at Labná are not as massive -- or jumbled -- as those at Uxmal.  But their scale and arrangement give the place a whiff or Mayan Paris.  Sophisticated.  Understated.  Chic.  No gaudy pyramids here ruining the effect.

The inevitable palace anchors the site.  With a large ceremonial causeway stretching to a small temple -- on a partially-restored pyramid of rubble -- and court yard at the other end.  (You can see a portion of the causeway at the lower left of the photograph.)

At the temple-end of the causeway stands my favorite Mayan structure.  The gateway to an aristocratic family compound.  Looking almost exactly as it did when the explorer Frederick Catherwood first saw it a century and half ago.

You can see it at the top of this post.  I thought it deserved star treatment.

The family's residential compound no longer stands.  But the gate is subtly magnificent, and simultaneously inviting.  As if it is saying: "I belong to a family who lives here.  They matter.  You are welcome."

And it was that last sentence I had been waiting to hear on this visit to a vanished civilization.  A voice from history saying: "We are different from you.  But we are much like you.  Look.  And remember."

It was a voice I would not hear at our next stop: Chichén Itzá.


Calypso said...

Your life was in ruins - and how great! (I had to say it.) Thanks for the continuing report.

Marc Olson said...

Steve I am in agreement with you...the big sites are fascinating, but the smaller, less popular places are where you really get a feel for what life might have been like. That's why I go to these places. I also agree with you about Labná. It it a wonderful place to visit, and I have had the pleasure there, as in many of the other lesser-known Mayan sites, to be the only person there. Fantastic and fascinating.

I am enjoying these accounts of your trip through Yucatán.

Felipe said...

Nice work, señor.

Jonna said...

Fabulous Steve! you really got it. I'm also loving your descriptions and agree completely.

Irene said...

Is the very first picture in this post from Xlapac? It is my favorite picture so far of all that you have shown.

Steve Cotton said...

Calypso -- Just one more and this series will end.

Marc -- I could tell you were a man of taste when we first met.

Felipe -- Great praise, indeed. Thanks.

Jonna -- Thank you very much. Now, I need to get back over there to see some of the other sites. For a longer period.

Steve Cotton said...

Irene -- It is at Labná. I particularly like its scale. I could almost fit it in my garden. That would be an interesting highlight. Or at the front of the house.

Anonymous said...

Your pictures are both beautiful and fascinating. I would love to be there and viewing them with you. Like you, I would lie using my imagination as those of the past went about their daily living. Listening in as the builders are determining where the next building will be and how many stones of which size are needed. Watching the original stones as they are put in place. Marveling at the size of them. Feeling the pain as accidents happen and bodies are crushed under the weight of the fallen stones.