Chichen Itza!

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March 29th 2010
Published: April 27th 2010
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After getting up at 4am yesterday, travelling for more than 12 hours, being ill, getting lost in Cancun airport while trying to find my boyfriend, being ridiculously overcharged for a taxi to the bus station because I assumed the price was in pesos only to be told it was in fact US dollars, losing my jumper on a bus and arriving at our hostel to find our room not available to the following night I was pleasantly surprised that I made it to the end of today and actually had fun. We had a nice room in the hostel although we were promised our en suite for tonight. We awoke to find our included breakfast was more like a banquet. One long table of fresh breads, croissants and pastries, cereals, milk and juice, tea and coffee, more fresh fruit than I've ever seen before and staff who hung around chatting in two languages while they cooked eggs for everyone. We planned to take the local bus to Chichen Itza and since we decided to go in the afternoon to give us time to move into our new room we had an incredibly relaxing start to the day. I actually spent nearly two hours at the breakfast table chatting with other travellers and the staff seemed in no hurry to move us on or stop serving us food.
Eventually we dumped our bags in the new rooms, grabbed a map and set of in the direction of the train station. I soon found that booking tickets in advance would have been a better plan as we found ourselves with an hour's wait before our bus left. I asked how long it would take to reach Chichen Itza and was disappointed to hear it would be 3 hours as I thought it would be faster with the first class buses. Checking the guide book it said an hour and a half and went to confirm with another member of staff who said yes, it was close to two hours not three. Eventually we boarded the bus and I asked the bus driver what time he expected us to arrive at the site as I was worried about how much time we'd actually have. He mumbled something in Spanish as he walked away and I had to get on board. As we settled into our seats I decided to try again, so I sliped off the bus and politely asked the driver if he could tell me roughly what time we'd arrive. Again he mumbled as he walked off to do something. When he returned I tried one last time only to have the man literally grab my arm and man-handle me back onto the bus yelling 'CUATRO HORAS' as he did so. I stumbled back to my seat feeling like a school kid who's been told off for disrupting a school trip and sat and seethed over the man's rudeness and fretted about not reaching Chichen Itza on time.
Fortunately the journey only took 2 hours and we soon pulled up by the entrance. Hopping off the bus and making our way across a market square we arrived at the ticket office and from there proceeded onto a footpath lined with craft stalls. I urged my boyfriend along, still anxious about how far we'd have to walk and how long we'd have to get around the site when there, smack-bang in front of us, was El Castillo, the iconic image of the Chichen Itza site. My boyfriend calmly sat down on a bench and pulled out our long forgotten lunch while I stood and gaped at the pyramid.
Chichen Itza was an important Mayan city which covered an area of approximately six square miles. Of it's hundreds of buildings around 30 are preserved and open to tourists while many others remain in much poorer condition, most of them reduced to mere mounds of earth. The ruins of Chichen Itza are from two distinct time periods. One group belongs to the classic Maya Period and was built between the 7th and 10th centuries CE at which time the city became a prominent ceremonial center while the other group corresponds to the Maya-Toltec Period, from the later part of the 10th century to the beginning of the 13th century CE.
The Maya name "Chich'en Itza" means 'At the mouth of the well of the Itza', while Itzá is the name of an ethnic-lineage group that gained political and economic dominance of the northern peninsula. The name is believed to derive from the Maya itz, meaning "magic," and (h)á, meaning "water."
It is likely that the area was inhabited owing to the two large cenotes nearby providing water in an otherwise arid landscape. The more famous of the two 'Cenote Sagrado' was used by the pre-Colombian Maya as a place of sacrifice. Between 1904 and 1910, American-born archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains.
Chcichen Itza was probably invaded by the Toltec king, Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl in the late 9th century, as evidenced by the two styles of architecture and the combined use of images of the Maya rain god Chac and the Toltec cult of Quetzalcoatal, the plumed serpant.
Chcichen Itza fell into decline and was abandoned for unknown reasons in around 1000CE although continued to be used for religious ceremony.
The Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the Spanish crown in 1526 to lead an expedition to conquer the Yucatan peninsula in 1526. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha', south of what is today Cancún. Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and took Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital. Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers. The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived. Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining forces. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula. Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.
We first explored the area around El Castillo. I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively few tourists at the site, I faced far worse in Egypt at the pyramids. Unfortunately it was still crowded enough that it was impossible to get any clear photos of the pyramid without tourist-bugs swarming around the base. Still tourist-bugs are pretty good at showing scale and it wasn't until I saw people standing close to the pyramid that I could appreciate just how big it is. El Castillo is actually the Temple of Kukulkan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl and famously on the equinoxes the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent along the west side of the north staircase. The currently seen temple was built over an older and smaller one and during a 1930s excavation of the building the other temple was found and inside the temple chamber was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of Jaguar, painted red and with spots made of inlaid jade.
We strolled around the temple, two sides beautifully reconstructed while the other two have been left in their ruined state. We walked over to the Temple of the Warriors. This building dates from the Toltec era of Chichen Itza, and like so many buildings was constructed over an older building, in this case the temple encases or entombs a former structure called The Temple of the Chac Mool. The current structure still bears a Chac Mool at the top of the stairway.
We stopped at the thatch covered shelter where carvings of jaguars, still in colour, were displayed before walking back past the Temple of Warriors and its rows of stone pillars. In the grassy space behind the temple we paused to rest and dart furtive glances at the craft stalls beside the trees. We eventually stopped to ask about prices but having just arrived from Sahuayo where my weekly market shop never costs more than $30 the $100-150 price tags seemed over the top. As we moved onto the ball court the little boy from the stall came running after us to say his dad was offering the mask we'd been looking at for $80. We agreed and said we'd come back in a little while but the boy stood anxiously by the wall watching us in case we left without returning to buy the mask. We followed him back and made our purchase and then walked back past the Temple of Warriors and down the trail to the Ossario group of buildings.
The Ossario pyramid is on a smaller scale than El Castillo, but follows the same basic form of four sides with stairases leading to the top. There is a temple on top, but unlike El Castillo, at the center is an opening into the pyramid which leads to a natural cave 12 metres below. We walked around the area and then folowed the trail onwards, sidestepping more touts by their craft stalls until we reached 'El Caracol', the observatory. It's nicknamed El Caracol ("the snail") because of the stone spiral staircase inside. The structure with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape (the others are rectangular, in keeping with Maya practice), is theorized to have been a proto-observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens.
We hurried on to view the next building, an impresive structure with carvings on the facade, and just beside it the elaborat little temple, nicknamed 'La iglesia' with numerous carvings of the rain god, Chac on its walls.
We made a quick circuit and walked back along the trail towards the main site, just in time as the path was being roped off fo cosing time. We still had a little longer back at the main site and tok the opportunity to take a few last photos of El Castillo, unfortunately still surrounded by groups of tourists, and bad photographers who took no less than five pictures of me and my boyfriend in front of the temple at an unusual slant and with the top cut off! Typical!
We walked back to the front to await our bus. We accidently hopped onto the wrong bus who shooed us off pointing out we had first class tickets not second class, and a few minutes later our bus arrived and we were on our way back to Merida. Back in the hostel we unpacked properly in our new room and played around with the taps and shower until we perfected the art of tricking the boiler into giving us hot water. We made use of the internet cafe, wonderfully positioned on the floor beneath the hostel, and then set off to track down some food. We wound up in a tiny pizza restaurant where we bickered about what pizza to get. My boyfriend eventually conceded to get a 'grande' to share which was just as well as it turned out to be 'pretty damn grande' and we couldn't manage to finish it. Our waiter looked mournfully at the remains and asked if we wanted to take the leftovers with us. The thought of stale pizza with congeled cheese in our room tomorrow morning was not pleasant so we merely paid and left. We sat in the plaza digesting and people watching. There were some amazing artists and street performers around the plaza and the plaza looked rather pretty at night, with the church lit up and the palms framing the stars. We enjoyed the cooler weather and just being able to sit and do nothing. I have to admit despite the hassle of getting here and only half the time I would've liked at Chichen Itza, it has still been a remarkably successful start to our sightseeing and I'm looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Additional photos below
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28th April 2010

Sounds a bit like our trip there, only for us getting there was really easy, it was coming back to our digs that was the hassle. We left just as a massive thunderstorm let rip, water flooding the place, thunder so loud and close it rattled the buildings, lightning that left you blinded, and far more people than seats on buses. But regardless of all that, and all the "tourist-bugs" (love that term!), it was a great afternoon out.
28th April 2010

Yeah, travel is often so much more fun in hindsight. Photographs really just don't convey heat, sickness and stress! I think I was really lucky with the weather in Merida. It wasn't great that first day but the sun came out when we were at Chichen Itza, and the next couple of days were lovely.

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