Mayapan (means The Banner of the Mayas) is a relative child when it comes to ancient Mayan sites. Founded fairly late in Mesoamerican history (about 1000), it reached its zenith in the 13th century with an estimated 17,000 inhabitants and ruled the area as the last great Maya capital, but fell in the 15th century for still disputed reasons. Clearly patterned after the older Chichen Itza 60 miles to the east, it was not built as well and its buildings are inferior, appearing older now than its nearby neighbors.
Like Chichen Itza, Not Like Chichen Itza
Like at Chichen Itza, the dominant feature of Mayapan is the Temple of Kukulcan (The Castillo). It also features a round observatory like is found at Chichen Itza as well as smaller pilloried buildings that reminded me a smaller version of the Thousand Columns that connect to the Temple of Warriors in Chichen Itza. Mayapan’s structures are much more clustered than many Maya sites and make for an easy, pleasant stroll. The crowds are non-existent. While were were there, we saw one other couple and no vendors at all.
Temple of Kukulkan
Clearly pattered after the structure of the same name in Chichen Itza, this one is still cool. Its poorer quality is revealed in that the steps on one side are off center. At 49 feet high, it is a classical four-sided step pyramid with nine steps. Unlike the one in Chichen Itza, where climbing the pyramid was stopped after a San Diego women fell to her death, you can still climb this one. Standing at the top, you can enjoy a great view of the rest of Mayapan.
At the base of Castillo de Kukulkan are some nice stucco reliefs. These show Mayan figures, some of which still retain a bit of their original paint. One figure has a hole where a head should be. When initially discovered, there was a human skull in this niche.
Temple of the Painted Niches
You can walk into this temple and see 5 murals on the wall. The paintings were done in a style which depicts three dimensional objects on 2 dimensional walls. This illusion must have been amazing when they were created.
Mayapan, like Chichen Itza, has a circular observatory known as a caracol. It allowed for astronomical tracking of the planet Venus. Mayan held Venus in high regard and tracked its location with observatories in most cities. You can enter the observatory here.
Some of the nicest preserved art on site are images of Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. His ugly face with its ever-present long nose is a common image at Mayan sites. You can walk right up to this one and give it a good look. Have some fun posing for pictures, but please treat it with respect. I’d hate to see such easy access result in damage.
26 cenotes are in or around Mayapan and provided the water necessary for the city. One is clearly seen near the observatory as you explore. While you cannot explore this cenote, there are many others in the area around Merida and throughout the Yucatan. I heartily recommend exploring a few cenotes if you have the opportunity. I discuss them and offer reviews of many I’ve visited here.
Mayapan also has three round temples, which is unusual for the Maya, but has no ball court. There are smaller round observatories and platforms that were once homes or government buildings for the Maya. There were once an estimated 4000 structures within the wall of the city but many remain un-restored. It is fun to climb over them and imagine things as they were in the cities hayday.
Mayapan is not nearly as impressive as some of its neighbors like Chichen Itza, Uxmal or Ek Balam, but it is still worth the visit if you are in the area or have a fascination for ancient civilizations like I do. The lack of competing visitors is a huge plus and it is well worth your time.
I’ve but some advice on how to see it yourself here.
To see high-res pictures from our trip, go here.
Want to see where Mayapan ranks in all the Mesoamerican sites I’ve been to? Go here.