The Puuc Maya Route
South and east of Uxmal are several other ancient Maya cities, small and largely unexcavated but worth visiting for their unique architecture.
Kabah is 28km (17 miles) southeast of Uxmal via Hwy. 261 through Santa Elena, and only a couple kilometers (1 1/4 miles) farther to Sayil. Xlapak is almost walking distance (through the jungle) from Sayil, and Labná is just a bit farther east. A short drive beyond Labná brings you to the caves of Loltún. Oxkutzcab is at the road's intersection with Hwy. 184, which you can follow west to Ticul or east all the way to Felipe Carrillo Puerto. If you aren't driving, a daily bus from Mérida goes to all these sites, with the exception of Loltún.
Seeing the Puuc Maya Sites -- These sites are undergoing excavation and reconstruction, and some buildings may be roped off when you visit. The sites are open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission ranges from 37 to 43 pesos for each city (except Xlapak, which is free) and 95 pesos for Loltún. Loltún has tours at 9:30 and 11am, and 12:30, 2, 3, and 4pm. Even if you're the only person there when a tour is scheduled, the guide must give you a tour, and he can't charge you as if you were contracting his services for an individual tour (though sometimes they try). Use of a video camera at any time costs 45 pesos; if you visit Uxmal the same day, you pay only once for video permission and present your receipt as proof at each ruin.
Puuc Maya Sites
Kabah -- From Uxmal, head southwest on Hwy. 261 to Santa Elena (1km/ 2/3 mile), then south to Kabah (13km/8 miles). The ancient city lies along both sides of the highway. Turn right into the parking lot.
The outstanding building at Kabah, to the right as you enter, is the Palace of Masks, or Codz Poop ("rolled-up mat"), named for its decorative motif. Its Chenes-style facade is completely covered in a repeated pattern of 250 masks of Chaac, each with curling remnants of the god's elephant trunk-like nose. It is unique in all of Maya architecture. For years, parts of this building lay lined up in the weeds like pieces of a puzzle awaiting assembly. Sculptures from this building are in the anthropology museums of Mérida and Mexico City.
Just behind and to the left of the Codz Poop is the Palace Group (also called the East Group), with a fine Puuc-style colonnaded facade. Originally, it had 32 rooms. On the front are seven doors, two divided by columns -- a common feature of Puuc architecture. Across the highway is what was once the Great Temple, and beyond that is a great arch. It was much wider at one time and may have been a monumental gate into the city. A sacbé linked this arch to Uxmal. Compare this corbeled arch to the one at Labná, which is in much better shape.
Sayil -- About 4km (2 1/2 miles) south of Kabah is the turnoff (left, or east) to Sayil, Xlapak, Labná, Loltún, and Oxkutzcab. The ruins of Sayil ("place of the ants") are 4km (2 1/2 miles) along this road.
Sayil is famous for El Palacio. With more than 90 rooms, the palace is impressive for its size alone. Climbing is not permitted, but the facade that makes this a masterpiece of Maya architecture is best appreciated from the ground. It stretches across three terraced levels, and its rows of columns give it a Minoan appearance. The upside-down stone figure known to archaeologists as the Diving God, or Descending God, over the doorway on the second level is the same motif used at Tulum a couple of centuries later. The large circular basin on the ground below the palace is an artificial catch basin for a chultún (cistern); this region has no natural cenotes (wells) for irrigation.
In the jungle beyond El Palacio is El Mirador, a small temple with an oddly slotted roof comb. Beyond El Mirador, a crude stela (tall, carved stone) is carved with a fertility god burdened with a phallus of monstrous proportions. Another building group, the Southern Group, is a short distance down a trail that branches off from the one heading to El Mirador.
Xlapak -- Xlapak (shla-pahk) is a small site with one building; it's 5.5 km (3 1/2 miles) down the road from Sayil. The Palace at Xlapak bears the masks of the rain god Chaac. If you're running out of steam, this is the one to skip.
Labná -- Labná, dating from between A.D. 600 and 900, is 30km (19 miles) from Uxmal and only 3km (1 3/4 miles) past Xlapak. The entrance has a snack stand and toilets. Descriptive placards fronting the main buildings are in Spanish, English, and German.
As soon as you enter you'll see El Palacio, a magnificent Puuc-style building on your left that is much like the one at Sayil, but in poorer condition. Over one doorway is a large, well-conserved mask of Chaac with eyes, a huge snout nose, and jagged teeth around a small mouth that seems on the verge of speaking. Jutting out on one corner is a highly stylized serpent's mouth from which pops a human head with an unexpectedly serene expression. From the front, you can gaze out to the enormous grassy interior grounds flanked by vestiges of unrestored buildings and jungle.
From El Palacio, you can walk on a reconstructed sacbé leading to Labná's corbeled arch. At one time, there were probably several such arches through the region. This one has been extensively restored, although only remnants of the roof comb are visible. It was once part of a more elaborate structure now lost to history. Chaac's face occupies the corners of one facade, and stylized Maya huts are fashioned in stone above the two small doorways. You can pass through the arch to reach El Mirador or El Castillo. Towering above a large pile of rubble, the remains of a pyramid, is a singular room crowned with a roof comb piercing the sky.
Loltún -- The caverns of Loltún are 31km (19 miles) past Labná on the way to Oxkutzcab, on the left side of the road. One of the Yucatán's largest and most fascinating cave systems, they were home to the ancient Maya and were used as a refuge during the War of the Castes (1847-1901). Inside are statues, wall carvings, and paintings, chultunes (cisterns), and other signs of Maya habitation. Guides will explain much of what you see, though their English isn't always easy to understand.
The admission price includes a 90-minute tour. These begin daily at 9:30 and 11am, and 12:30, 2, 3, and 4pm. The floor of the cavern can be slippery in places; take a flashlight if you have one.
To return to Mérida from Loltún, drive the 7km (4 1/3 miles) to Oxkutzcab. From there, you can take the slow route through Maní and Teabo, which will allow you to see some convents and return by Hwy. 18, known as the "Convent Route." The other option is to head toward Muna to hook up with Hwy. 261.
Oxkutzcab (ohsh-kootz-kahb), 11km (6 3/4 miles) from Loltún, is the center of the Yucatán's fruit-growing region. Oranges abound. The tidy village of 21,000 centers on a beautiful 16th-century church and the market. Su Cabaña Suiza (no phone) is a dependable restaurant in town. The last week of October and first week of November is the Orange Festival, when the village turns exuberant, with a carnival and orange displays in and around the central plaza.
En Route to Campeche
From Oxkutzcab, head back 43km (27 miles) to Sayil, and then drive south on Hwy. 261 to Campeche (126km/78 miles). After crossing the state line, you'll pass through the towns of Bolonchén and Hopelchén, both of which have gas stations. The drive is pleasant, and there's little traffic. Watch carefully for directional traffic signs in these towns to stay on the highway. From Hopelchén, Hwy. 261 heads west. After 42km (26 miles), you'll find yourself at Cayal and the well-marked turnoff for the ruins of the city of Edzná, 18km (11 miles) farther south. If you're taking this route to Campeche, this could be the time to see this tranquil, underappreciated ancient city.