What’s the Ruta Puuc?
Away from sandy beaches and massive hordes of tourists lies the Ruta Puuc, a beautiful itinerary between Merida and Campeche that comprises 5 Mayan archaeological sites. If reconnecting with nature and ancient history is one of the goals of your Mexican trip, don’t miss the Ruta Puuc. But I’ve already been to a lot of other ruins, you may object. Fair enough, there are a lot of them in this area of Mexico. The sites on the Ruta Puuc, however, boast a peculiar and very unique style and architecture, called (guess what?!?) Puuc and characterized by incredibly detailed ornamental elements, such as masks of the god Chaac, drums, mosaics and more.
What are the sites of the Ruta Puuc and how do I get there?
The five sites of the Ruta Puuc are Labná, Xlapak, Sayil, Kabah and Uxmal.
The easiest way to get there and visit everything at your own pace is by renting a car in Merida. Instead of making it a day trip, you can decide to stay the night in Sant’Elena and dedicate the second day to the visit of the Grutas de Loltún or to the cenotes of Cuzama (well worth it!).
However, if you are a solo traveler like me, with time constraints (like a flight on the next day) and not excited at the idea of renting a car and navigating the Mexican roads by yourself, there is a solution. Every Sunday, a nice Oriente bus leaves from Merida’s TAME bus terminal at 8 am and takes happy tourists to the five sites and back. It works exactly like a guided tour, except for the fact that the bus driver is not a tour guide. You get 30 minutes for each of the first four sites and 2 hours to visit Uxmal.
I’ve seen many anxious tourists asking on Tripadvisor “Is the Ruta Puuc bus service still running?” And the answer, as of 2018, is yes, it is still running on Sundays for the reasonable price of 180 pesos (entrance to the sites not included).
Let’s start our day trip!
A complete guide to the Ruta Puuc
The bus leaves at 8 am sharp from the TAME bus terminal in Merida, so be there 10 minutes early to purchase your ticket. My bus was only half full, so I don’t think it’s necessary to purchase tickets in advance, but if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises, get yours the day before. Soon after departure the driver will give you a brief overview of the program of the day, but don’t worry if you don’t catch everything, he will repeat the important information at each stop. Pick a seat and get comfortable, as it takes a good 2 hours to get to the first stop.
Labná (Old house) – 30 minutes – 45 pesos
Labná is a fairly small site, famous for his refined arch and its geometrical mosaics. In 30 minutes you get to see everything without rushing, so there’s no need to sprint out of the bus and run around like a mad person (like I did). We were the only people there, so it’s a very peaceful environment, where you get to enjoy silence and nature.
Xlapak (Old wall) – 30 minutes – Free
Xlapak is the smallest of the five. 15 minutes would be enough to visit it all. There are three major groups of ruins that boast many geometric decorations as well as representations of the rain god Chaac. Being the path circular, you won’t have to come back the way you came from. Therefore, you don’t need to worry about being late to the bus (like I did).
Sayil (Place of ants) – 30 minutes – 45 pesos
Sayil is big and 30 minutes are not nearly enough to visit the whole thing. Right at the entrance, an incredible palace will welcome you with its three levels and what’s left of its 99 rooms. After that, you’ll have to choose whether to go right or left. I chose to go right because everyone was going left. And I was wrong. Non-conformity is not always a good thing. The south-end palace was more than 1 km away, so by the time I got there it was time to run back. I managed to twist my ankle in the process, which made the run a lot more painful. Anyway, just choose left and enjoy the closer part of the complex that sadly I wasn’t able to see. I feel like the whole place would require at least 1 hour for a thorough visit.
Kabah (Powerful hand) – 30 minutes – 45 pesos
Kabah is an impressive complex, but only the east group is open to the public, making your 30 minutes a sufficient time for a complete visit. Take your time in climbing both the Great Palace and the Codz Pop and admire the incredibly detailed decorations. There is a small kiosk on site where you can buy refreshments (mainly bad ice-cream and coke).
Uxmal – 2 hours – 117 pesos
The other four sites are quiet and amazing, but Uxmal is the highlight of the day. This huge Mayan complex is comparable to Chichen Itza, only way less crowded and with some climbable groups of ruins. At the entrance you have all the touristy stuff, typical of the bigger sites: a coffee shop, a restaurant, a souvenir shop, nice restrooms, an ATM and more.
Leave it all behind and make your way to the ruins: Uxmal is waiting for you! You can follow the longest path (lime green) or the shorter one (red), depending on your level of interest and energy. Needless to say, I recommend the long one. The site is also wheelchair accessible (to some extent), follow the dark green path.
Right at the start you’ll be welcomed by the stunning Pyramid of the Magician. With its 35 metres, it’s the tallest building in Uxmal. This is one of the few structures you can’t actually climb, but there’s going to be plenty afterwards, so be patient.
After the Nunnery Quadrangle and the Birds’ Quadrangle, there’s the Ball Court. Every time I see those rings in mid-air I can’t help but think of Quidditch. Apparently, however, the Mayan ball game was quite violent and sometimes losers were used as human sacrifice. Not quite as magical as Quidditch I guess.
After the ball court, you can turn right and follow a path through the forest that will take you to the Cemetery. There’s nothing to be scared about though! The skeleton-shaped decorations alone are worth the walk, and no one ever takes the time to get to this part of the site, making you one of the few dedicated real explorers.
If you’d rather skip this part, you can turn left instead and soon enough you’ll see the Grand Pyramid as well as the Palace of Governors. Climb the pyramid and enjoy the view from above, as it’s quite unbelievable. Take your time to walk around this area, where you’ll also find the House of Turtles and El Palomar.
Your visit is complete! Now you can rest and buy a fresh overpriced coconut juice or water or coffee. When the 2 hours are up, the bus will get you back to Merida in one hour and a half.
A couple of practical notes
- You’ll be outside in the warmest hours of the day, so dress accordingly. A hat will save your life. However, bring also a light sweater, as the air conditioning inside the bus is usually in full blast.
- There’s no real lunch break and, other than in Uxmal, you won’t find food anywhere. Plan accordingly and bring lots of water and your lunch (and/or snacks).
- Make sure to have either a watch or a charged phone. The bus driver will tell you exactly at what time he’s expecting you to be back on the bus, so you want to be able to tell what time it is.
- Most sites don’t allow drones or tripods, so if you’re planning on bringing with you professional equipment, take into account these factors.
Overall, the bus option is a great alternative to the car, even though the schedule is not as flexible. If you decide to go, let me know what your favourite site was! For other Mexican destinations, take a look here.
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