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A fantastic way to reconnect with the history and culture of Mexico is along the Ruta Puuc, a string of five well-preserved Maya archaeological sites just a day-trip south of Mérida in the southern state of Yucatán. Visitors can connect with the spirit and pathos of the Mayan people with an intimacy and immediacy that is lost in the bigger and more-trafficked Maya sites of the region, like Chichén Itzá and Tulum.

To begin your adventure, head south from Mérida via Route 18, where you will hit the first of the Puuc sites, Labná. This is a rolling scrubland, and in fact, the word Puuc comes from the Maya word for hill. Archaeologists also use the term to describe the region’s unique architecture. The “V-shaped” corbelled arches like the one you will see at Labná are one of the architectural highlights of the region. Also worth noting are the ornate facades, amazing masks, delicate figures and intricate designs that adorn many of the buildings. Strap a gargoyle on the corner and you would think you were in baroque Europe.

Next up on your journey is the small site of Xlapak. At Xlapak, check out the site’s main attraction, El Palacio. With more than 90 rooms, this palace is impressive for its size alone. Continue on to Sayil, where you will find a pyramid with a delicate roof-comb not unlike the ones you will find in the larger Maya sites of Calakmul and Palenque south from here. Remember that while these sites are a drab limestone grey today, history was never in black and white, and in fact, most historians say the buildings were painted in brilliant reds, blues and whites.

Kabah is the next site along the route. Here you can travel along an ancient Maya road, known as a sacbé, to the Palacio de los Mascarones, where you can marvel at a broad collection of some 300 masks dedicated to Chac, the rain god. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for Mot-Mot birds, iguanas and other wildlife. Modern-day Maya still live in the region, and stopping to chat about the local flora and fauna is always a welcome break.

To finish the tour, head to the large site of Uxmal. This impressive collection of pyramids, galleries, plazas and palaces flourished during the Late Classic Period of Mayan history (600 to 900AD). The site is nearly five times as big as any of the other sites along the Ruta Puuc, and comes with all the tourist trappings you would expect (including a laser light show). You will definitely want to spend an hour or two here, but you will probably miss the quite solitude and cosmic connections to be had in the other sites along the Ruta Puuc.

Getting there and back
While many travellers go with an organized package from Mérida through an operator like Nomadas Travel, adventurous spirits can rent a car to check out the sites at their own pace. As in most places, a basic understanding of Spanish is recommended for those who decide to go it alone. Those deciding to stay the night along the Ruta Puuc will want to stay in either Ticul or Santa Elena. On your way back from the Ruta Puuc, extend your trip with a dip in the crystal clear waters of the cenotes (limestone sinkholes) of Cuzuma.

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© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘The forgotten ruins of Mexico’s Ruta Puuc’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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