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Yucatán Cities
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Yucatán Cities

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Yucatan Cities

By George E. StuartPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett

Ancient Maya ruins stud Mexico’s hill country.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The trail into the ancient Maya ruins of Chac, Yucatán, winds through a low gray-green scrub forest where everything seems to have thorns. In the dry heat of March, when the land is without rain, a narrow path of dusty red soil takes me around stunted, gnarled trees and up and down stepped outcrops of gray limestone, pitted and shaped by thousands of rainy seasons. I have made many treks in the thorn forest of northwestern Yucatán during the past four decades. As an archaeologist, I know all too well that many remains of the ancient Maya still lie hidden here, much as they did in the dry season of 1841-42, when the American traveler John Lloyd Stephens arrived.

Plagued by heat, lack of water, and infestations of ticks, the Stephens party came upon marvel after marvel. At Labná they stood amazed by the facade of a lofty temple “ornamented from top to bottom and from one side to another with colossal figures and other designs in stucco . . . such as the art of no other people ever produced.” At Sayil they gazed upon the Casa Grande, the massive remains of an ornate three-tiered palace.

The area Stephens explored in those eight months is known as the Puuc (pronounced pook), Maya for “ridge” and, by extension, “hill country.” The Puuc covers more than 2,300 square miles (5,957 square kilometers) of rugged limestone hills and valleys in the northwestern interior of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Michael Smyth estimates that the Puuc, from some time around A.D. 800 to about 1000, supported some 150 thriving towns and cities such as Uxmal, Kabah, and Sayil and may have held 500,000 people. To sustain such places in a world of little water, ancient engineers constructed thousands of cisterns below plazas and courtyards to catch, direct, and store rainwater.

Get the whole story in the pages of
National Geographic magazine.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The people of Puuc society in A.D. 300 may not have been the “country cousins” of the wealthy Teotihuacan culture after all. National Geographic grantee Michael Smyth suggests that not only was the Puuc region flourishing earlier than previously thought, but it was also benefiting from the rich cultural influence of powerful Teotihuacan through trade. Smyth speculates that when war among the Maya of Guatemala cut off trade routes, the Teotihuacans may have sought out the Maya of the Puuc for goods such as animal skins, exotic stones, sea salt, and cotton. So instead of being the isolated Maya of the Yucatán high country, maybe the people of the Puuc were the Maya of high society.

—Mary Jennings

Dunning, Nicholas P. Lords of the Hills: Ancient Maya Settlement in the Puuc Region, Yucatán, Mexico. Prehistory Press, 1992.

Kelly, Joyce. An Archaeological Guide to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Pollock, H. E. D. An Archaeological Survey of the Hill Country of Yucatán and Northern Campeche, Mexico. Harvard University, 1980.

Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings. Scribner, 1998.

Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, 2 vols. Dover Publications, 1843.


“Ancient Mesoamerica,” National Geographic (December 1997), map supplement.

O’Neill, Thomas. “Yucatan Peninsula: Maya Heart, Modern Face,” National Geographic (August 1996), 108-113.

Stuart, George E. Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, National Geographic Books, 1993.

Stuart, George E. “Maya Heartland Under Siege,” National Geographic (November 1992), 94-107.

“The Ancient Maya World,” National Geographic (October 1989), map supplement.

Garrett, Wilbur E. “La Ruta Maya,” National Geographic (October 1989), 424-479.

Diamanti, Joyce. “Mexican Pastimes: Exploring Yucatán,” National Geographic Traveler (Autumn 1985), 72-83.

Stuart, George E. “Maya Art Discovered in Cave,” National Geographic (August 1981), 220-235.


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