It’s not every day that we visit a world-famous site like Chichen-Itza, so it was with some eagerness that we waited in our car for the Zona Archeologica to open. We stayed the night before in nearby Piste and were in line with a dozen other cars. Finally, we were let through and we found a parking place. Walking to the entrance, I was miffed to find that there were already hundreds of people milling about the modern structure that acts as ticket office, restrooms and a restaurant. We found the whole process a little disjointed but got our tickets and quickly made our way out of the bustle. I was fearful that the actual ruins would already be too busy for a nice experience.
But my fears were allayed when we stepped out into a large grassy area and most of Chicken-Itza was before us. The site was huge, and only a few people dotted the landscape and we made quickly for the most prominent of them, El Castillo, otherwise known as the Temple of Kukulkan. I quickly took a few pictures of the stepped pyramid, pleased to find it free of tourists. Nearby was a trio of Mexicans who are speaking in English. They also took their turns posing for a picture, and one grins broadly and announced that our day’s goal has been met: getting a picture alone in front of the impressive pyramid.
We took time then to study the pyramid at more leisure. It is 98’ high and consists of nine square terraces each about eight feet high. There is a twenty foot high temple on the summit that has an opening on each side. A steep stairway leads up to the top from each of the four sides of the pyramid. There are 91 steps on each side that, when combined with the temple platform as a last step, add up to 365.
Excavations into the interior of El Castillo has revealed a common tactic of ancient Mesoamerican architecture, the nested temple. El Castillo was built on top of another temple which was built on top of a third structure. Inside has been found burial crypts and artifacts. Additionally, they have now determined that the pyramid sits on top of a large cenote, an underground river.
In my mind, I compared it to the Egyptian pyramids I have visited. Certainly smaller in height and overall dimension, it is nonetheless impressive. The artistry in the stonework is compelling and being much less old, the stone is in much better shape and its original form is clear.
Birds and Snakes
Nearby, a group of tourists had a local guide, and he was showing them another interesting aspect of the pyramid. If you stand at the base of the stairs and clap your hands loudly, the pyramid replies with a chirp-like echo that has been compared to the Quetzal bird revered by the Maya. The effect is mesmerizing.
On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the later afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of shadows that some feel looks like a serpent wriggling down the staircases. Whether this is a purposeful homage to the serpent god Kukulkan is debated. On these days, the place is crowded as you would expect.
We sauntered around its base and we were surprised to see that on the other side the temple is less repaired. The entire site of Chichen-Itza had been overgrown with vegetation in the hundreds of years it had been abandoned, and it wasn’t until 1923 that repairs had begun.
Temple of the Warriors
We turned our backs to El Castillo and walked the short distance to the Temple of the Warriors and the Group of a Thousand Columns. The columns cover a large area and are impressive in their own right. Once holding a roof, all that is there now are the columns restored to their original positions. Round and square columns exist, with some carved intricately in bas-relief showing warriors in outlandish costumes. I tried to imagine the whole place as it once must have been. The ancient Mayans covered their structures with bright colors as proven by remaining pigments that can still be seen in places.
Looming over the rows of columns is the impressive Temple to the Warriors. Decorated stonework abounds, with the corners showing the long-nosed image of Chaak, the Maya god of the underworld. Stepping back a bit, at the top of the stairs I could see a reclining statue known as a Chaak Mool, a common form of Mesoamerican art.
We walked along several smaller structures and then took the short hike down a dirt road to Cenote Sagrado. It was a place of pilgrimage to ancient Maya and archaeological investigations have found thousands of objects at the bottom including materials of gold and jade, as well as skeletons of children and men. At 200’ in diameter, with sheer cliffs that drop 90’ to the water, it is a large cenote.
Returning back down the path, we walked along the some other small structures and the cool Skull Platform. The walls of this small building are covered with hundreds of relief skull carvings facing to one side. This reminds us of the violent aspect of the Maya as prisoners were routinely sacrificed on the pyramids of their cities.
Great Ball Court
Continuing along, we arrived at the Great Ball Court. Measuring 551 by 230 feet, it is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. Featuring stone hoops set in opposing 26 foot high walls, the platforms above offered places for spectators to watch. On all sides of the stadium as temples which seem like special seating for the powerful not unlike what we have in modern stadiums.
How the game was played is still mostly a mystery. It involved a rubber ball of indeterminate size and may have been batted with only hips. Some art suggest that a stick was used in a variation and some other art suggest that the field may have been used for many other kinds of sport, including wrestling, as well as feasts.
Throughout the ball court and these temples are many bas-relief carvings depicting battle scenes or the familiar feathered serpent that represented their god Kukulkan. The walls of the ball court itself shows carvings clearly depicting ball players being beheaded, with great, exaggerated gouts of blood spewing forth. Archeological evidence suggests that some games had the captains of the losing (or winning) team being sacrificed in this way.
Take a Map
We had explored for three hours and we left, not knowing that we had missed a large section of the site that included the El Carocol observatory and the Nunnery. I had been surprised that no maps were handed out and little signage was evident. I should have planned it a little better and taken my own map. Many folks hire a local guide to give them a tour as well, which would have prevented this as well.
A Little History of chichen-Itza
Chichen-Itza is close to two cenotes that gave the town its name “At the edge of the well of the Itza people”. In a
ncient times, the cenotes were invaluable as water sources for the Mayas. Founded in the 5th century, it rose to prominence around 600 AD and maintained control over the region until its decline around 1250 and was supplanted by Mayapan at about that time. It was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived and was eventually conquered after considerable resistance. It was abandoned soon after that and fell into ruin. Excavations and research began in the 19th century and continue to this day.
The laurels that Chichen-Itza has acquired is evidence of its importance and wonder. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was voted as one of the New7Wonders of the World in 2007 . It receives a minimum of 3,500 visitors every day, with busy days over 8,000. Most come by bus from the Riviera Maya (Cancun and Playa del Carmen). By driving ourselves and staying nearby, we were able to beat a lot of the rush. But Chichen-Itza is a must-see if you are able, even if you have to resort to a bus ride there. Most of these tours include a stop at nearby Cenote Ik Kil or the Dzitnup cenotes, which is also a nice visit that offers a chance to swim in a cenote yourself.
Unlike Chichen-Itza, many other Maya ruin sites in the Yucatan allow you to climb upon the pyramids or go inside of the buildings. A list of my favorite ones that I have visited is here.
To read about my advice on how to see Chichen-Itza, go here.
You can see a gallery of pictures from our trip here.