Mexico: State of Yucatan (2002 & February-March 2017)

(This banner shows the glyphs of 9 Maya gods, laid over a photo of stairs from the Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal. Maya glyphs form the writing system of the Maya civilization, which has been in continuous use throughout Mesoamerica until the Spanish conquest in the 16th and 17th centuries.)

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The state of Yucatan is part of the Yucatan Peninsula, along with two other Mexican states (Campeche and Quintana Roo) and the northern parts of Guatemala and Belize. The Yucatan Peninsula itself is a (large) portion of the ancient Maya territories, which also include the Mexican state of Chiapas, all of Guatemala, and part of Honduras and El Salvador. The Spanish conquest in the 16th century met considerable resistance from the local people. Even much later, the Maya people continued to engage in revolts, most notably the Caste War in 1847-1901. Efforts over several centuries to eradicate Maya traditions met only partial success. Today Maya culture remains present everywhere in speech, dress, traditions, food, and religion.


As the rest of the peninsula, most of the state of Yucatan is a vast uniform lowland limestone plain. But it is endowed with stunning archeological Maya sites (some of which have yet to be excavated or even discovered), beautiful cities and villages, old-fashioned colonial churches and convents, and crystal-clear subterranean water pools (cenotes).


I have traveled twice to the state of Yucatan, in 2002 and February-March 2017. Except when it is indicated otherwise, the photos below were taken in 2017.



Merida is the administrative capital of the state of Yucatan, as well as the cultural capital of the Yucatan peninsula and its largest city (pop. about 1,000,000). It is located some 35km inland south of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is a thriving city, home of several universities and many theaters, art galleries, and museums. It retains a pleasant and friendly atmosphere. Although its inhabitants are in majority of Maya ethnicity, the main sights of the city (cathedral, churches, plazas, streets...) feel very colonial in style. In fact, several colonial religious buildings were built on the site of former Maya temples, using the stones of these temples.


Cathedral of San Idelfonso (16th century) on Plaza Grande.






Palacio de Gobierno built in 1892, also located on Plaza Grande:


- Inner courtyard


- Mural by Fernando Castro Pacheco, a Yucatan painter, in the staircase (visible in the previous photo). It represents gods observing their creation, a Maya man emerging from an ear of maize.


- Paintings by Fernando Castro Pacheco in the History Room (Sala de la Historia): trade of Indian slaves, the Conquest (la Conquista), and Franciscan priest Diego de Landa (who was responsible for the burning of Maya manuscripts and cult artifacts in Mani on July 12, 1562).



Facade of Casa de Montejo (16th century), on Plaza Grande. On the sides of the window above the gate, two conquistadors stand on the heads of barbarians. (Photo taken in 2002.)


Plaza Grande at night, with its typical face-to-face dual chairs called ″confidenciales″.


Colorful buildings in the historic center of Merida.


Arcade near the Mercado Lucas de Galvez.


In the Mercado Lucas Galvez. Left: man taking a nap. Right: woman making tortillas.


Local jewelry on display in a window shop.


Arches on the eastern side of the old town. Left: Arco Dragones. Right: Arco del Puente.


Old building of the former Universidad de Yucatan (now la Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan).


Iglesia de Jesus (17th century). The last (5th) photo below (taken in 2002) shows a statue of General Manuel Cepeda Peraza, a native of Merida, in the adjacent Parque Hidalgo.



Iglesia de Santa Ana (18th century).


Iglesia de la Mejorada (17th century).


Building of the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, the architecture of which is intended to be an expression of the Ceiba tree venerated by the Mayas.


Sculpture and statuettes in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.



This Maya archeological site is located 80km south of Merida.


View of the amazing El Palacio de los Mascarones (Palace of the Masks), which is decorated by hundreds of trunk-nosed masks of Chaac, the Maya rain god. Unfortunately, only a few of the long noses are intact (see 4th photo below)





Stones carved with Maya glyphs (remains of the former Altar de los Glifos) lying in front of the Palacio de los Mascarones.


Atlantes on the backside of the Palacio de los Mascarones. The atlante on the left wears a jaguar mask on top of his head. (Note the iguana between the two feet of the atlante on the right!)


El Palacio (not the same as El Palacio de los Mascarones) and its plaza. The backside of El Palacio de los Mascarones is visible on the right of the second photo below.



The circular Gran Pyramide seen from the Palacio de los Mascarones.


Arch of Kabah that marked the start of the old sacbe (raised paved road built by the Mayas) connecting Kabah to Uxmal 19km to the northwest.


Two of the numerous iguanas that have made the ruins of Kabah their home.




This archeological site located 70km south of Merida is the second most heavily restored and visited Maya site in the state of Yucatan, just behind Chichen Itza.


The oval-shaped Piramide del Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician), around 35m high.




View of the other (western) side of the Piramide del Adivino and close-up on its temple at the top.



The pyramide in 1913! (Source:


Representation of macaws on the roofline of the Cuadrangulo de los Pajaros (located on the western side the Piramide el Adivino).



In the Cuadrangulo de las Monjas (NunsQuadrangle).



Detail of the eastern corner of the building on the north side of the Cuadrangulos des las Monjas.


The two-headed Throno del Jaguar in front of the nearly 100m-long Palacio del Gobernador


Geometric patterns and masks of the rain god Chaac on the walls of the Palacio del Gobernador.



The Piramide del Adivino (again) seen from the northeast corner of the Palacio del Gobernador.



EkBalam is a Maya site located some 150km east of Merida and 20km north of Valladolid. Although it was first explored by archeologists in the late 1800s, its extensive excavation took place in the 1980s and 1990s. One of its most notable features is the well-preserved stucco at the entrance of the tomb of King Ukit Kan Lek Tok′ (located in the main pyramid, called the Acropolis).


Palacio Oval located near the site′s entrance.


Northern side of the main pyramid. The tomb of King Ukit Kan Lek Tok′ is located midway up on the left.


View (toward the south) of the EkBalam site from the top of the pyramid, with the Palacio Oval in the back at the center-left, the Gemelas (Twins) closer at the center-right, the Arco (Arch) barely visible behind the Gemelas of their right, and the Juego de Pelota (Ball Game Court) in front of the Palacio Oval and on the left of the Gemelas. Note the surrounding flat uniform Yucatan landscape.



Stucco carvings at the entrance of the tomb of King Ukit Kan Lek Tok, representing a jaguar mouth with teeth. These carvings were found almost intact by the archeologists uncovering the pyramid.


Details of carvings showing Maya warriors and (in the third photo below) Maya glyphs.






Prior to the Spanish invasion, Izamal, 70km east of Merida, used to be a major Maya worship center with a dozen pyramid-temples. However, in 1552 Franciscan priest Diego de Landa erased one of these pyramids to build the huge convent of San Antonio de Padua that is now the city′s main attraction. (As mentioned above, a few years later the same priest was also responsible for the burning of Maya manuscripts in Mani.) The city of Izamal is often called La Ciudad Amarilla, for the ochre-yellow that covers the convent and the surrounding buildings.


Kinich Kakmo, the largest surviving pyramid-temple (34m high, partially restored), located a few blocks north of the convent.


View over the convent from the top of Kinich Kakmo.


Left: the facade of the church of the Convent of San Antonio de Padua (photo taken in 2002). Right: Statue of Diego de Landa in a small plaza adjacent to the convent. (It seems that the yellow paint covering the walls of the convent and the surrounding buildings in 2002 was brighter than the ochre color of 2017.)


Left: view of the church′s facade and of a portion of the arcades encircling the convent′s main courtyard in March 2017. Right: inside the convent′s church.


Views of the arcades encircling the convent′s main courtyard.




Backside of the convent′s church.


Colorful carriages waiting in line on the northern side of the convent. Ironically, the name of the adjacent plaza, Parque Itzamna, is the name of a Maya creator god, to which some of the original temples of Izamal were dedicated. Is it a revenge of the Mayas or a mark of their tolerance?





Streets of Izamal.





Oddly shaped, but edible, bulbous roots of jicama, a vine plant (on the left) and dark-green Yucatan squash (on the right) in the small market near the convent.



Valladolid is a city located in the eastern part of the state of Yucatan, 100km south of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and 150km east of Merida. The city and its surrounding were the scene of intense battle during the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901), between Mayas and population of European descent.


Typical street with pastel-colored walls.


Cathedral of San Gervacio, first built in the 16th century, then demolished and rebuilt in the early 18th century.



Convent of Sisal (on the left of the building) and church of San Bernardino de Siena (on the right).


In the church of San Bernardino de Siena: retable, pulpit, and paintings.





Cloister of the Convent of Sisal.


Noria built above the cenote behind the Convent of Sisal. Muskets, bayonets, and other weapons have been found at the bottom of the cenote. It is believed that they were thrown there during the Caste War.



Ruta de los Conventos:

This so-called route meanders on the south-east of Merida through a series of Maya villages with colonial churches and convents, most of them (all?) built on top of former Maya structures.


- Acanceh:

Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Natividad and Mercado Municipal on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (so called because it is bordered by a Maya pyramid, a colonial church, and modern structures).


Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Natividad and, on the left side of the first photo below, Capilla Virgen Guadalupe (both from the 16-17th century). Note the twisted columns at the entrance of the church.


Market scenes.




- Tecoh:

Iglesia de la Candelaria (18th century) built upon the base of a large Maya pyramid.



Church′s nave and retables. Note the curved stones supporting the altar.





On the roof of the church (again with the flat Yucatan landscape behind it).


- Mani:

Mani was the largest city encountered by the Spaniards in Yucatan, but almost no trace of the old Maya structures have survived.


Convento and Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel (16th century), one of the earliest and largest Franciscan monasteries in Yucatan. Maya manuscripts and religious artifacts were burned here in front of the church in 1562. It is said that after realizing his error, Diego de Landa, who was responsible for this auto-da-fe, wrote down everything he could recall about Maya culture in a document called ″Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan″.





Cloister of the convent.


- Teabo:

Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo (17th century) and adjacent chapel.


Hacienda San Pedro Ochil:

This 19th-century hacienda is located 43km south of Merida along Highway 261 that leads to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Kabah. Now a restaurant and hotel, it used to be a plantation of henequen (a variety of agave cactus) and a producer of ropes made from henequen fibers. In the 19th century, these ropes were mainly used in the booming shipping industry. In fact, during this boom, there were hundreds of henequen plantations in Yucatan. But in the 1940s the demand for such ropes went down, these haciendas were slowly abandoned, and today nearly all are in ruins. Since the 1990s some have been restored into luxurious hotels, but have lost much of their character in the process. In contrast, the Hacienda San Pedro Ochil has been minimally restored and has kept a friendly and charming old-fashioned atmosphere.


Narrow rail track (Decauville railway) leading to the various parts of the hacienda, formerly used to transport henequen leaves and fibers on wheeled platforms pulled by mules.


Field of henequen.


Old carriages used for transportation on Decauville rails.


Old rasping machine used to separate the henequen fibers from the plant′s fleshy leaves. Prior to these machines, the separation was a tedious hand process that consisted of beating the leaves against rows of needles.


Moorish-style entrance arch of the main compound of the hacienda.



Left: palm-tree alley between the entrance arch and the main buildings. Right: basin along the main buildings.




Arch between two buildings.




Cenotes are natural holes formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock revealing groundwater pools. There are hundreds of them across the Yucatan peninsula. Most have crystal clear water.


- Kankirixche is a little-visited cenote 9km east of Highway 261 on the opposite side of the Hacienda San Pedro Ochil.



Beautiful Chaca tree near the entrance of the cenote. Its leaves and glossy copper-colored bark are used in traditional Maya medicine.



- Tzapakal, Santa Cruz, and Chelentun are three cenotes in the former Hacienda Chunkanan, 3km south of the village of Cuzama, itself 16km south-east of Acanceh.

Hacienda′s old narrow rail track that gives access to the cenotes.


Tzapakal is a relatively small, but deep and dark cenote. The rope stretched on the water surface is for the safety of the visitors who wish to swim.


Santa Cruz. Left: stairs leading to the water pool. Right: the water pool.


Chelentun, and its incredibly clear water.


- Cenotes of Dzitnup (X′Keken and Samula). Located 5km southwest of Valladolid, they are part of a commercial complex and are very popular with both locals and tourists coming from Cancun (who usually combine their visit to the cenotes with a visit to the nearby Maya site of Chichen Itza). They are nevertheless extremely beautiful.

Left: X′Keken. Right: Samula.


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