Have you ever seen Chichén Itzá? Meet its former sister city of Mayapán

Mayapán, considered the last important capital of the ancient Mayans, is ideal for visitors who prefer less crowded archaeological areas.

Mayapán is believed to mean “Banner of the Mayans” or “Flag of the Mayas”. The site, about 40 kilometers from Mérida, Yucatán, in the municipality of Tecoh, was inhabited between 300 BC and 600 AD, but the walled city is believed to have been established in the 13th century. It was an important Mayan city between AD 1250 and AD 1450, when its population is estimated at around 12,000.

Spanish Bishop Fray Diego de Landa wrote around 1560 that local tradition named the founder of Mayapán the Mayan lord Kukulcán, who is said to have reigned here for some time before leaving for central Mexico.

Subsequently, Mayapán was ruled by the Cocomes, a wealthy family with the oldest lineage in the city.

According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the city rose to power after the prosperous times of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, although it is believed to have had a centralized government like in Chichén Itzá. It was abandoned after being destroyed and set on fire around the middle of the 15th century.

Mayapán attracts far fewer visitors than other more famous Mayan ruins in Mexico, making it a relaxing visit.

Mayapán spans four square kilometers with around 4,000 structures, but the main area is small and easy to explore. The city wall has a circumference of more than nine kilometers.

Unsurprisingly, given its alleged connection to the most famous Mayan city, Mayapán would have been influenced by Chichén Itzá: its main pyramid, Kukulcán Castle, resembles the main pyramid of Chichén Itzá (El Castillo, also called the pyramid of Kukulcán ). However, the Mayapán pyramid is smaller.

You enter the archaeological area from the north. Climbing is permitted on most buildings on the site.

Near the entrance is the Fisherman’s Temple, with a staircase to the south. This temple contains a mural that is said to depict a scene of a person catching fish.

A beautiful structure in the northern section of the site is the Temple of the Painted Niches. This temple has seven rooms, one of which has a mural that is supposed to represent the entrances to five temples and the heads of snakes with open jaws, on which the temples rest.

To the south you will find the central square, where the government, administrative and religious structures were located, as well as the residences of the rulers. South of the central plaza is the Main Pyramid, the most important and tallest building in Mayapán – the aforementioned Kukulcán Castle. Nine-level pyramid, it reaches 18 meters in height and rests on a base measuring 30 meters on the side.

There are remains of the temple that was built on top of this pyramid, and the columns at the main entrance were once decorated with figures of snakes, according to INAH, which says they were similar to those found at Chichén. Itzá. While the climb to the top of this pyramid is steep, the view from the top is breathtaking.

The south-eastern side of the pyramid has a substructure with stucco reliefs of beheaded warriors. Due to the discovery of a jawbone and pieces of human skulls, the substructure is believed to have been used for rituals, possibly from a death cult that covered human skulls with stucco.

To the east, adjoining Kukulcán Castle, is the Fresco Room, named after the remains of wall paintings discovered here. One scene features two richly dressed individuals holding a circular banner that depicts solar symbols. Other features of this room include a bench and an altar.

To the southwest of the square is the Hall of the Kings, with many columns and a wall with a door. The name comes from the carved stucco human heads discovered here, the purpose of which is considered decorative.

Southeast of Kukulcán Castle, there is a sinkhole called the Chen Mul Cenote. On its southern border, you will find the Temple of Cenote Chen Mul.

The temple has three entrances and its interior features include an altar. There is a platform with a drain that likely drained rainwater into the cenote, and the temple also has a ramp with access to Kukulcán Castle. Near the cenote, the hall of the masks of the god Chaac includes an altar and a shrine and is said to have been a place of religious and ritual activities. The upper part of the structure has masks of Chaac – the Mayan god of rain.

A mask of the Mayan rain god Chaac
A mask of the Mayan rain god Chaac.

East of the central square is a beautiful structure called the Round Temple – a round structure on a rectangular base, which would have been a ceremonial building.

There is a wide staircase to access the building from the west, and the temple has four entrances. There is a cylinder-shaped structure in the center of the temple. The building also includes an altar and a sanctuary.

To the east of the square are other buildings that are worth seeing. A notable one is the Oratory, whose features include two altars in the front and one inside, and a shrine near the staircase where 13 human skulls have been found. Another building is a structure named Xbi Ac, which means “Tortoise-Man”, from the name of a sculpture of a turtle with a human head discovered here. There are also altars in this building.

North-east of the central square, you will see the Temple of the Warriors, thought to be ceremonial. Built on a two-level base, it has an altar inside. Snake heads and dice adorn the top of the staircase panels.

North of the square is the Temple of the Mask with six small altars. It is named after a stucco head discovered here. Next to it is the Skull Sanctuary, named after the human skulls found here. In this section, a structure called the Turtle Hall, complete with an altar, is worth seeing. Stone turtle figurines believed to have been offerings have been found here.

There are several other structures to explore, including the Crematorium Temple, believed to have a ceremonial purpose.

The winter solstice is a good time to visit Mayapán, when a snake-shaped light and shadow effect occurs on Kukulcán Castle like the famous Chichén Itzá effect. Meanwhile, a different astronomical phenomenon involving halo-type light effects can also be observed during the winter solstice in the Round Temple.

Thilini Wijesinhe, a finance professional turned writer and entrepreneur, moved to Mexico in 2019 from Australia. She writes from Mérida, Yucatán. His website can be found at https://momentsing.com/