What makes this site special?
Spectacular masks and sense of abandonment.
Xlapak is a small but impressive site. These are the forgotten ruins of Ruta Puuc, a string of five well-preserved Maya archaeological sites just a day-trip south of Mérida: Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil and Labná. It sits in scrubland, and in fact, the word Puuc comes from the Maya word for hilly region. All these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc.
Despite being directly off the road and free to visit, almost nobody stops here. So the site enjoys an atmospheric sense of abandonment. The space is not as open as Kabáh or Labná, because the ruins are scattered in the jungle. This adds to the romantic or adventurous atmosphere, if you wish. When we came here with my husband in September 2017, we were the only visitors. At times our walk along the crushed stone paths that wind through the jungle felt a bit spooky, with just spider monkeys swinging in the trees above us.
Xlapak (pronounced (shla-pahk) in Mayan means Old Walls. It can be alternatively spelt as Xlap-pahk or Xlabpak. For the Maya it is a generic name for any old ruins. There are certainly a lot of old 'walls' around. Well, rocks, really.
The oldest evidence in the Puuc area, dating from 7000 BC, is of nomad hunter and gatherer camps. By 3000 BC, there were small villages dedicated to corn cultivation, and capturing local wildlife. The only finds from later centuries are a relief with Olmec touches, found in the Loltún cave, and isolated pottery and flint fragments, leaving much to investigate about the period.
Xlapak city had been occupied from about 250 BC. It reached its climax between 800-1000 AD. The buildings we can see here today are from that time (Late Classic Period).
In modern history, restoration at Xlapak was carried out in the first half of the 20th century by the Mexican Instituto de Antropologia e Historia (Institute of Anthropology and History). Further archaeological investigation was carried out in 1965 under the direction of César A. Sáenz.
The whole Puuc area was densely populated. It is presumed that Uxmal, Sayil, Kabáh, Xlapak and Labná were large autonomous centres with full state organisation, with a paramount ruler at their head. Uxmal had perhaps a dominant position. All sites benefited from their military alliance with Chichén Itzá. They shared the architecture style and the same applied to the social hierarchy and the lifestyle. They all had the same social structure: upper class (ruler, noblemen, priests, scribes, astrologers), middle class who lived in the 'centre' of the city (artisans, architects, craftsmen, traders, warriors) and lower class mostly on the outskirts (peasants, hunters, slaves).
So for a change, in this post I would like to focus on the fashion of the ancient Maya. What did they look like? What did they wear? How to imagine them in the absence of murals, reliefs or stelae?
They exploited the materials available to them in their tropical environment. During public events, such as rituals and ceremonial duties, the ruling elite would wear large feathered headdresses, jade jewellery, and clothing made from the skins of dangerous animals. Jaguar skin was the most precious, allocated only to the nobles. Warriors had protective clothing such as a padded mantle (made from twisted cotton or thick leaves), often covered with animal skin, and shields decorated with animal hide or feathers.
War captives were always stripped of clothing and their ear jewellery replaced with strips of bark paper. Ball players wore a horseshoe-shaped yoke around the waist and padding around the knees and elbows. Dancers, in addition to large headdresses, often wore large backracks with long feathers. Below, the photo on the left, shows ballplayers from vase K1209 (photo by Justin Kerr: research.mayavase.com).
Common men wore a loincloth or short skirt and women a huipil (loose-fitting long tunic). All Maya women learned to weave, the commoners using lesser grade cotton and making simple garments. Weaving fine cloth was the task of noble women. Beautiful woven fabric was often given as tribute to rulers. When marriages were negotiated, the bride's skill at weaving was an important factor in determining the marriage gifts to her family.
Hairstyles were given much attention, and would be tied up (almost never left loose) and decorated with bands of fabric and long feathers. Facial hair was not common and discouraged (by applying hot cloths to the face in childhood). Bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and ear jewellery completed the attire. Ear flares were large and heavy, because they were believed to be conduits for spiritual energy. They were made of obsidian, shell, ceramic and jade (for the nobles) in ear perforations. The pieces were not always worn in the ear lobe – research suggests that large flares were often attached to belts. Nose plugs were worn by men only. Much emphasis was focused around the ritual of a first piercing, which was often a rite of passage and a sign of beauty and tribal status. Tattoos completed the decorations and the noble Maya also scarred their faces.
The Focus: The PALACE
Xlapak features three complexes that can be classified as Palace Type. They are surrounded by groups of housing units, which were built with masonry or perishable materials on top of bases. The main feature of Group 1 is the Palace, which consists of nine rooms with decorated façades. Another palace, badly damaged, is located in Group 2; it is decorated with columns. Group 3 has scattered ruins and stones, overgrown by weeds.
The Palace is decorated in the Puuc architectural style, which makes repeated use of elements. Puuc buildings were made with a solid nucleus of stone and plaster, covered by well-cut stone that is purely ornamental, not structural; that is, if they are taken off, the building would remain standing. The exteriors have smooth walls, sometimes decorated with columns on the bottom and friezes on the top. The decorations include zoomorphic masks, mosaics with fretwork and repeated geometric elements.
The Palace in Xlapak has the step-fret motif, which can be seen from a distance. So what is its symbolism? It could represents stylised waves; another option is that it symbolises a serpent's undulations. More informed research suggests that it depicts the world, the wind or clouds. It could also depict reincarnation with the steps leading down to the underworld, then looping through a cycle and back to the top of the next stairs. In Karl Taube's view, the continuous repetition of the step-fret motif may be an abstracted reference to the Witz Hill, the sacred Mountain (see more in my post Monsters). The question for me is if it is the raised or the sunken part of the image that is supposed to be meaningful? The two stepped frets, the nose in the shape of a letter V and eyes in the step-fret motif. From a distance, to me it looks like the fret motif creates the shape of a monster.
The stepped frame (V-shape on the left of the G-shape) represents the mountain cleft, i.e. the place of creation. This is where life was born because the Maize God (who created mankind) died, then traversed the underworld and then came back to life through a cleft of a turtle (in a V-shape). It is also the symbol of the 'birth' of maize every season
Xlapak was one of the most densely populated areas in pre-Hispanic times, dedicated to the cultivation of land. As the limestone land of Yucatán is porous and does not hold rain water, this was achieved thanks to the development of hydraulic works such as underground storage chambers (often bottled-shaped, see the bottom right photo) called chultún and artificial water reservoirs (aguadas). We could see one chultún right in front of the Palace (the round structure in the left photo). I tried to imagine lush green gardens around the palace, because that is what the Puuc cities achieved: growing fruit trees and herbs in the middle of the town, in the royal garden.
The Mystery: the Masks
All online sources claim the masks to be the mask of the God of Rain, Chac. However, that theory is outdated and contemporary scientists have come up with other explanations by now. Similar to the masks at other Puuc sites, we need to consider three basic options for what the masks represent:
- Chac, the God of Rain
- Witz, the Mountain Monster
- Itzam Kah or (Itzam Yeh), the Celestial Bird
Chac has a long down-curling snout (to create storms). The worship of this god was for an obvious reason: rain (fertility). Witz means 'mountain' in Maya and represents the sacred mountain. He has an extended upper lip, rather than a down-curling nose. Itzam Kah alsohas an extended upper lip.
Witz can be found at many Mayan sites, such as Ek' Balam, Chicanná, Hormiguero, and Balamkú. It was often placed on a pyramid, a place where deceased rulers can be buried but also where they can be reborn. The deceased Maya first entered the water of Xibalbá (underworld), then they entered the road to a flowery paradise. Through this journey (via a Tree of Life) they, or their souls, were reborn. The building with a Witz mask was therefore marked for its purpose as a Flower Mountain. The Flower Mountain, so identified by Karl Taube, was a symbol of paradise surrounded by flowers, birds and music. In summary, it is a symbol of immortality of the kings.
Most researchers now believe that the masks at all Puuc sites and Chichén Itzá are those of the celestial bird Itzam Kah (sometimes also called Itzam Yeh). For the Maya it was sitting on top of the World Tree and was also a symbol of rebirth (according to Linda Schele and Nikolai Grube). The bird also represented the Big Dipper constellation. One can only presume that the resurrection happened in that place (in the sky).
So options 2 and 3 are about the creation myth, an even more serious matter than depicting the symbolic wish for rain on the buildings in the form of the Rain God, wouldn't you say?
Don't Miss: The scattered ruins
The palace in Group 2 is in ruins but you can still see that it was decorated with stone columns, like all other Puuc sites. These are said to be representation of Mayan huts; they are basically columns, or rather half-columns bonded to the cement core of the wall. They are symbols of the reeds or wooden poles used for the walls of the huts, which were built for the common folk. The rural Maya live until today in such houses with thatched roofs. I searched for an explanation of this motif of reed huts and found one in an article by Stephen D. Houston (Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, 1998). Houston states that in Classic Maya monuments temples are referred to as otoch or otot, a term meaning 'house' in Mayan languages. In ancient Maya temple scenes, gods frequently appear in their thatched houses, and the representations of thatched buildings on Maya structures probably denote them as dwelling places of gods.
We loved the walk along the jungle path. I find that if you are in the jungle by yourself, you can better contemplate how the Maya lived in the past. After all, they were forest people. Such a life was not easy. We could probably not survive today as we have lost the survival skills. I kept looking over my shoulder for a jaguar. Just kidding! If you are lucky, you will see (and hear) the spider monkeys above you in the trees and if you are there by any chance in the early morning, watch out for the tropical birds.
The site map
- The site is open from 8am to 5pm.
- Entry is free.
- There are restrooms on the site.
- Bring your own water.
How to get there:
From Playa del Carmen or Cancún, the best option is to rent a car. The fastest way is to go along highway 180, pass Mérida and turn off at the village of Uman. The road is well-signposted but in Uman the trick is to turn off under the bridge. If you go over the bridge, you have missed the turning point. From Uxmal continue on the same road to Kabáh (22km), Sayil is 9km further, then Xlapak 5km from Sayil and the last one is Labná, 3km from Xlapac. It is possible to do all five Puuc sites in one day, if you are travelling by car (if you start early).
If you are going by bus from Mérida, there is only one bus for the Puuc, which leaves from TAME terminal of 2nd class buses on Sundays at 8:00 am, for around $160 pesos. The bus visits first the last site, Labná, then Xlapac, Sayil and Kabáh; in these zones the bus gives you 30 minutes per visit and in Uxmal you get two hours. Personally, I would not attempt all the Puuc sites in one day by bus.
Mix & Match
If you are starting out at Uxmal, it is best to visit the locations in this order: Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, and Labná. To add Loltún caves is a bonus, but you would need an additional day. You could stay for the night at the town of Oxkutzcab, only a 10-minute drive from the caves.