Mayan Ruins: Muyil & Tulum

The Yucatan (and Mexico in general) is well known for some truly incredible ruins: Chichen Itza, Palenque, Monte Alban, Teotihuacan, and, of course, Tulum. Some of these we’ve been to and others are still on our list. However, one that doesn’t often make the cut is Muyil. In fact, when we asked our driver to take us to Muyil before we visited Gran Cenote, she asked us how we had even heard about the ruins. We probably have Lonely Planet to thank for that, but we’re glad we decided to visit.

We arrived at the Muyil Archeological Site (15 km outside of Tulum) just after 9:30 and paid 100 pesos (approx. $5 USD) for entry. We were the first to arrive and strolled through the site at a leisurely pace. Muyil is located in the jungle, so there is plenty of shade (and mosquitos!). Google says people typically spend 15 minutes here and I don’t know how they get through it so fast. Not particularly large, especially compared to the Tulum Archeological Site, there is still plenty to see and do.

To walk between the different ruins, you follow a path made of crushed white rocks. Each stop is well labeled and gives you the history of the place. For instance, Muyil is not the original name of the site. It is also called Chunyaxché, but both of these are contemporary names that come from two of the lagoons nearby.

Construction on this small village began in 300 BC, however, it wasn’t until 250 AD that it became an important city and the platforms and temples were built. In 600 AD construction declined, but in 1,250 AD the area was repopulated. It remained that way until the 16th century when the Spanish conquerors arrived. Then it stayed relatively empty until the middle of the 19th century when the Maya began to occupy the area around it again.

Some of the ruins have completely crumbled, shown in the image above. Others have been better preserved.

The most famous of all the structures is known as the Castle. It consists of two construction phases and when the peak of the temple was excavated, 264 ornamental objects were found in two different offering locations.

Chandler will tell you that I have this annoying habit of wandering around all sides of a structure – just read my blog about the Great Pyramid of Giza if you’re not sure why : ) But this time it proved incredibly useful. Behind the Castle was a path that led to Sian Ka’an, which in Maya means ‘Origin of the Sky.’

Sian Ka’an is a biosphere reserve and home to diverse tropical forests, palm savannah, pristine wetlands, lagoons, extensive mangrove stands, as well as sandy beaches and dunes. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had debated visiting when we planned out our Mexico itinerary, but couldn’t find a way to do it sans tour guide. Turns out all we needed to do was head to Muyil.

We followed the path to a small guardhouse and paid another 100 pesos to enter the biosphere (or a small section of it, since it covers 528,148 hectares of marine, coastal, and terrestrial ecosystems). The path left land and became a rather rickety dock that took us through marshland.

Indigenous to the area are spider monkeys, raccoons, black headed trogons, laughing falcons, plain chachalacas, brown basilisks, northern tamanduas, and keel-billed toucans. We, of course, saw none of these, but we were once again very grateful for our mosquito repellent.

Halfway along the path, we discovered a high structure meant to observe more of the biosphere. Signs were posted that climbers ascended at their own risk. Despite my realization a few years back that I have a bit of vertigo when I climb, I was still excited to see more (Chandler was not). However, it only took a few steps up to realize that the wood was soft in some places and covered in spiderwebs. I figured it was just as likely that I would let go or break a step, so I quickly descended.

We continued along the path until we came out at the canal. There we were offered boat rides further into the biosphere, but we knew we had our driver and Gran Cenote to return to.

We retraced our steps and made our way back to Muyil to finish our tour of the ruins.

Our second experience with ruins was at the better known Tulum Archeological Site. By this point in our trip, my sister had joined us. We once again used our driver to stop first at Tulum, before heading to Cenote Dos Ojos (can you sense the theme – morning at the hot ruins, afternoon in the cool water).

Most of the photos we had seen of the site included either the small lookout tower or the Castle, with a backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. Due to our wonderful luck, the beach (as well as the beaches in Playa del Carmen and down the peninsula) was covered in sargassum from an unusually large algae bloom. This turned out to be fine as the ruins were significantly larger than we imagined and provided plenty of other lovely photos.

Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya and it was at its height between the 13th and 15th century. It only managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico due mainly to diseases brought to the city.

I’m not actually sure the best route to take when visiting the ruins (the paths were not as well labeled as they had been in Muyil), so we walked toward the water first. There were a number of small structures/watch towers, like the one pictured above.

Because we took this path, we made it to the main attraction, the Castle, without getting a good view of the structure from a distance. Instead, we were up close and personal, and it felt huge. I could definitely see why it made such a strong defensive site.

Even with the sargassum, the coast was still lovely, though I certainly wouldn’t have recommended swimming, which you can normally do on the beach below. Walking along the cliff was our favorite part of the experience, because the wind coming off the water felt fantastic and it was the most comfortable place to be.

After our cliff walk, we continued down into the site itself. Now we could see the different structures and we began to blend in with the copious amounts of tour groups. Tulum was a completely different experience than Muyil had been. While the site is incredible, you share it with thousands of other people.

Chandler stuck to the shade, while my sister and I made a point to follow every path and visit every structure up close.

We had come full circle and found ourselves back at the start, when Brittany and I noticed a small structure up on a hill, away from everything else. We set off to explore and along the way, realized the incredible views we had almost missed.

By sticking to the trails, we hadn’t gone to what is probably the most famous part of the site (or at least where the most signs and information are located). We had nearly missed the best views of the Castle. If I were to return to the site with someone new, I would probably start in this spot to better understand the expanse of the site before walking up along the coast.

Nevertheless, we had a fantastic time (hot and sweaty as we got) and then we promptly headed to Cenote Dos Ojos for the most fantastic cave cenotes of our time in the Yucatan.

Someday we’ll return to Mexico to visit Palenque, but until then, I’m quite happy with the ruins we have been able to explore.

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