Sayil – Yucatan – Mexico



More on the Maya

Sayil – Yucatan


The archaeological area of Sayil is situated 25 km south-east of Uxmal, Yucatan. To reach it, take federal road 180 and then state road 131 to the site. The Puuc region is characterised by karst landscape and uneven topography, with no sources of surface water, only cenotes and aguadas, natural wells and depressions. One of its principal cultural traits during the pre-Hispanic period was the development of a technology to store rainwater in chultunes or cisterns dug out of the rock. The vegetation in the Sayil area is at different stages of growth, giving rise to a thick layer of secondary vegetation that makes it relatively inaccessible. This vegetation is the produce of the last 400 years of seasonal farming characterised by the cultivation of small plots of land which are rotated every so often when the nutrients of the soil have been depleted. This modern farming method, combined with the low levels of population it sustains, is a stark contrast to the high population levels in the Puuc region during the pre-Hispanic period, especially the Terminal Classic (AD 750-950.)

Pre-Hispanic history

The size of the civic-ceremonial precinct at Sayil was only eclipsed in the region by Uxmal. Near Sayil are various minor sites, including Kabah and Labna. These civic-ceremonial cities are situated at regular intervals of between 10 and 12 km, with dense human conglomerates between larger centres. The density of the pre-Hispanic population was such that in certain areas of the Puuc region it was continuous, leaving very few places without any human presence. The growth of Sayil as an important centre was probably the result of the collapse of other centres and the population decline in the southern lowlands during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. Over the course of the following centuries, the majority of the population in the southern lowlands probably moved to areas with a greater stability in terms of resources or to less populated regions, such as Puuc. The rapid population increase in northern Yucatan is therefore almost certainly related to the decline in importance of Peten in the political and economic history of the Maya area, but also to a major change in rainfall levels and improved farming potential in the Puuc region at the end of the Classic period. Based on the capacity of Sayil to accumulate water in chultunes and on the number of rooms per building, some historians estimate a population of between 4,000 and 8,000 during the Terminal Classic (AD 750-950) and a possible area of influence of 70 sq km with a total population of 16,000.

History of the explorations

Sayil was first visited and its ruins presented to an international public in 1841, after it had been recorded by John Stephens and Frederick Cartherwood. Although numerous travellers and researchers have published their impressions about their respective visits, relatively little is known about this archaeological site beyond the architecture of the core area. Until recently, the most complete perspective of this site, and indeed of any other site in the Puuc region, was the map drawn up by Edwin Shook in 1934 showing the layout of the buildings and documenting some of the most notable structures. Evidence of the principal period of occupation was limited until a few years ago to the existence of certain calendric dates on inscriptions and on the ceramics uncovered during minor excavations conducted at the site by Brainerd in 1958. Most of these pots correspond to the Cehpech ceramic group, which dates from between AD 800 and 1000. Between the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the University of New Mexico conducted a longer and more detailed archaeological project at the site.

Site description

At its peak, Sayil may well have comprised four architectural groups of varying sizes and importance: one to the north, another two along the causeway running north-south through the site, and the largest to the south-east. The main settlement is concentrated in the bottom of the valley, where five main groups are arranged in an approximate north-south axis along the main causeway. The location of the settlements not directly associated with the causeway is determined by the presence of limestone rocks, which were required for the construction of chultunes. The site continues, practically in all four directions, to the foot of the hills that form the valley


This is the best known building at Sayil, being noted for its sheer scale and decoration. In certain publications it is referred to as the Great Palace or the North Palace. It was built on ground that had been levelled and adopts the form of a vaulted group on three stepped tiers comprising over 90 rooms; its basic function was to serve as the residence of the governor’s family and closest circle. The main facade faces south and rises from a platform which also marks the beginning of the causeway that leads to the other groups that form the urban landscape of Sayil. The first two levels are defined by ‘tripartite’ entrances which eventually lead to each of the rooms inside the building. The width of these opening was achieved by a novel technique in the Maya area: the use of modestly decorated, monolithic columns, which permitted the creation of large, well-lit surfaces covered either by flat roofs or corbel vaults. The facades display a harmonious and balanced combination of various decorative panels: on each level, the facades have a different type of decoration, the most notable being the middle section with its complicated mosaic designs, typical of the Puuc style. On the bottom level, the west facade once displayed medial moulding combined with zoomorphic masks, the latter no longer visible. On the east facade, the smooth panels are combined with a frieze decorated with colonnettes. The second level offers a magnificent example of Puuc architecture at its height, combining simple entrances with much wider ones and a decorative repertoire defined by the use of colonnettes on the lower frieze. Medial and upper mouldings decorate the short sections of these same elements which alternate from wall to frieze between the doorways, the portico openings and the sculptural decoration. The walls are decorated with colonnettes with ataduras or moulded bindings in the middle and at the ends, while the frieze, simple and bare, serves to accentuate the wall decoration. On the frieze above the central openings are robust stucco masks representing the front view of a long-nosed deity, flanked by serpents shown in profile. The decoration of the lower levels of the Palace contrasts enormously with that of the top level, which is much simpler. This level was added at later date and part of the lower levels must have been filled in to support the weight of it.


Situated next to the south end of the causeway and built on a stepped platform, the reconstructed building we see today is defined by its high corbel vault and an equally high roof comb. Nowadays, the facade is bare and simple, with medial moulding that must have contrasted with the roof comb which still displays traces of butts for stucco anthropomorphic figures. The building originally contained five rooms, of which only one has survived.

Temple of the Hieroglyphic Lintel.

This forms part of a small quadrangle. It is poorly preserved, with only three of its original rooms still visible today. The north room displays an interesting doorway from the architectural point of view and relatively rare in the Maya area: a band of 30 glyphs, many fairly well preserved, decorates the jambstone and lintel of the main entrance to the building.

South Palace.

This is a fairly simple, three-room structure with a central portico defined by two columns, lintels and capitals with carved figures and anthropomorphic deities. It is the largest building in the south group. A two-level structure, its main facade faces east. On the ground floor the rooms are arranged around a solid volume. The central room on the facade has three doorways. Nearly all of the decoration is articulated by horizontal lines of colonnettes.

Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp 375-378.



1. Palace; 2. Temple of the Hieroglyphic Lintel; 3. Mirador; 4. South Group.

How to get there:

Not easy if you don’t have your own transport. There are no buses or colectivos that run along this road. Although the three sites (Labna, Xlapak and Sayil) are all within a 15km stretch of the road unless you hire a taxi from Santa Elena (expensive) you have to depend upon your wits, imagination and good luck.


20d 10′ 47″ N

89d 39′ 16″ W



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Tskaltubo – Prometheus Cave

Prometheus Cave

Prometheus Cave

More on the Republic of Georgia

Tskaltubo – Prometheus Cave

What’s there?

A wonderful and not too exploited and damaged natural wonder. There may be many of them in the world – after all so much of the world’s land mass was once under the sea – but that doesn’t lessen the amazement of what you see and pass that took millions of years to create.

And I think the Prometheus Cave is a good example of the different manner in which these limestone caves evolved into the natural wonders they are.

There are the classic stalagmites (rising up from the ground) and the stalactites hanging from the ceiling – the way we were taught to remember the difference when I was young was the idea that tights come down.

But as in all limestone caves there is everything in between – and more.

Cascades that look like frozen waterfalls. Huge globes of accumulated limestone which have percolated through the rock above. And shapes which are difficult to imagine how they were formed with the accumulation of a grain of sand at a time. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to visit such caves I’ve seen something I had never seen before.

Once you have an idea of the process of the construction of these weird and wonderful formations you realise how insignificant our short time is on the planet. When it takes a thousand years for a small stalactite to grow one centimetre and then you see huge pillars that have taken millions of years to reach such proportions we should reflect of the minor part we play in the Earth’s development although play the major part in its destruction.

We are told that Georgians have really embraced religion since the fall of the Soviet Union. How deep that religious feeling is I don’t know. When certainties collapse people have often, historically grasped for something to take its place. The fact that such beliefs can provide some comfort goes no way in solving the economic, social and political problems that gave rise to the uncertainty in the first place.

That being the case I always wonder how Georgians, clutching at these religious straws, rationalise locations such as the Prometheus cave. Why would a all-powerful God make something of sea creatures, then push that land high into the air and then ‘destroy’ the creation by forcing water through it? It must be great when you accept a religion (of whatever brand) as it allows you to avoid the awkward questions of life and you can just switch the brain off.

Why go?

Because if you are near by it would be a shame to miss it. You could take the approach that once you’ve seen one limestone cave system you’ve seen them all. But that’s not true. Every time you go around a corner you see something unique and unrepeatable. A result of the structured chaos that is nature.

And the way the whole cave is illuminated makes a difference. I thought, in the main, the lighting in Prometheus was used in a reasonably subtle manner. And digital cameras are great at creating a colour scheme that wouldn’t have been possible with film – unless you spent hours in a darkroom.

What’s presented in the slide show below is an idea of what you would see in an hour or so walk in the semi-darkness.

It might be worth mentioning that there are a lot of steps, both going up and down, on this expedition. It’s also wet, after all the water dripping through was what created the cave and its architectural wonders in the first place. If that’s a problem DON’T GO!

How to get there

From the nearest town of Kutaisi (unless you are staying in the spa town of Tskaltubo) take the No 30 Marshrutka from the other side of the Red Bridge to the town centre – to the west of the market area. They leave every 20 minutes, more or less, on the hour, 20 and then 40 past. The guide books say GEL 2 but the cost is GEL 1.20 (shown normally on a piece of paper above the driver’s head at the front of the mini-bus). Journey takes about 20 minutes and get off at the market area, just after you pass the large Hotel Prometheus on the left. The road into Tskaltubo goes around the outside of a park and it’s when you leave the park behind and head into the commercial part of the town that you want to get off.

When you get off the No 30 look for the No 42 – or if you look like a tourist they will look for you. This has no set timetable but will leave when there are at least 3 people. In the low season that might mean a bit of a wait – I was there for over an hour before two other people arrived looking for transport. The journey takes less than 20 minutes and you will be dropped off at the car park at the entrance to the Visitor Centre. Cost of one way journey GEL 2. The driver will wait to take you back – about an hour or so later.

Cost of visiting the cave

I thought it was against World Trade Organisation rules for there to be a different price for locals as opposed to foreigners. That is increasingly not the case as I have now experienced this situation in a number of countries.

Assuming anyone reading this is not Georgian then the prices are:

Adult entrance: GEL 23

For the boat trip at the end of the walk: GEL 17.25

Prices for children are roughly half the adult fare.

Sitting in a boat in a cave doesn’t really rock my boat but it might some. More for the children, I think.

Once out of the cave system turn left, uphill a bit, and about 10-15 minutes later arrive at the car park where the No 42 Marshrutka that brought you will be waiting.

Opening times

10.00 – 16.00

but last ticket will be sold a little more than an hour before closing time.

Closed on Mondays.


There’s another cave system close to Kutaisi, this time at Sataplia. This is not that easy to get to by public transport as some guidebooks would suggest. The direct marshrutka wasn’t running the day I visited and I had to take the one that dropped me off at the bottom of a 2.5km climb up quite a steep road. The road is a dead end as it only goes to the cave.

Sataplia is now open everyday, 10.00 – 18.00. Cost is GEL 17.25 for foreign adults (less than half that for locals).

There is a guided tour with set departure times. They alternate between being Georgian/Russian and Georgian/English. Apart from the cave there’s also a small ‘museum’ with information about the park (in Georgian and English) as well as a moving (and roaring) model of a meat eating dinosaur.

A cafe and viewing platform – with a glass floor – has also been constructed which provides a view down on the valley of the River Rioni as well as the town of Kutaisi.

Personally I was disappointed with Sataplia. Perhaps I had been led to expect more. I thought Prometheus by far the better of the two. And unless you have your own transport it isn’t always convenient to get to and away from.

Dinosaur footprints

Sataplia is also unique in the fact that it is the site of an small area where dinosaur footprints, dated more than 100 million years ago, can be found. What also makes it quite unique is the fact there are prints of vegetable feeders as well as meat eaters – although separated by a few thousand years.

This, I must admit, I found slightly underwhelming. The fact they are there is more interesting than the reality. Preserved footprints, however old, don’t look much more interesting than a dog’s footprint in modern cement. But then I might just be being churlish.

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