Chichén Itzá

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February 9th 2016
Published: March 28th 2016
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We entered through the barrier and almost immediately Mario stopped us in the shade of a large tree. We couldn't see anything noteworthy, certainly not the dramatic stone temples we were expecting.

Mario, a 5'9"ish, dark skinned Mayan, was dressed in a heavy sweatshirt and trousers despite the sweltering heat of the day. As we were drinking litres of water and mopping our foreheads, he just took a few small swigs and dabbed gently at the side of his face. His English was phenomenally good, extending to botanical descriptions of different trees, archeological descriptions of stone carvings, stories about failed human sacrifices and even jokes which revealed a quick wit and an excellent grasp on the sometimes ridiculous nuances of life. This feat was even more impressive when you realise that English is Mario's third language (after Mayan and Spanish). Mario is not an archeologist, but thirty years of giving tours around one of Mexico's premier archeological sites has given him a depth of knowledge that most would envy. From what he says, he appears to be a voracious reader, in all three of his languages. He loves questions, and on the rare occasion that you ask one he doesn't have the answer to, he is delighted to have the opportunity to do some new research. Mario was such an engaging personality and just speaking to him was one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico.

We had arrived at Chichen Itza wondering if it could possibly live up to the hype. We'd been advised to get there before the tour buses and we arrived as the gates were opening. There was already a queue in front of us. As we got through the ticket barrier we set about looking for a guide. Mario approached us, appearing somewhat shy. We were happy to engage his services but he was a bit beyond our budget. When we tried to negotiate he suggested he could find another family to join us. We accepted this offer and Lindsey went to get coffee whilst we waited. Soon an American family joined us and we were ready to go.

In the shade of the tree, Mario asked us if we had lots of time or just wanted a quick run through the main features of the site. We were all in a relaxed holiday mode so said we'd like the full tour. This meant that we stood in the shade of the tree for an extra five minutes, hearing about how its sap was used to make chewing gum. When we moved on to the next tree, I was starting to wonder if we'd made the right choice.

In another few minutes we did move beyond the shade of the trees, past the first market stall holders who were just unpacking their trestle tables, and onto a wide causeway. We paused here to see the external wall of the ancient city, which was not so much a wall as the buttressing edge of a vast flattened area which formed the foundations for the main complex of Chichen Itza's ruins.

We continued walking for a few hundred metres and suddenly an immense stone pyramid came into view. Bathed in the early morning light I could not begin to describe how impressive it was. This imposing structure dominated the landscape, drawing attention away from its surrounding, equally impressive buildings. We paused at the foot of the temple and gazed up at the ten levels which reached up to 24m total height. The square-based "Castle" or "Temple of Kukulkan" appeared to have been preserved in pristine condition and it's silver-grey surface gleamed.

Mario spent some time describing the complexity of its construction to us. He told us how the Toltecs had conquered the local Mayans and subjugated them. The temple was built, using Mayan slave labour, over the top of a pre-existing Mayan structure, partially to show the dominance of the warrior Toltecs over the agrarian Mayans. We then considered the astronomical significance of its construction. Up each slope of the pyramid is a staircase of 91 steps. These 364 steps, plus the actual temple on top, represent the days of the year - 360 days divided into eighteen months of twenty days plus five "ill omened" days. Additionally, the tiers of the temple had fifty two recesses, relating to the years of a full Mayan cycle. Mario then explained to us some of the REALLY cool design features of the temple. At the bottom of the staircases are the heads of snakes - the symbol of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god. In the right light, once per year, the edge of the tiers lights up, apparently in an undulating form, giving the snake heads a body. Additionally, the staircases were acoustically modelled so that if you clap perpendicular to the faces of the temple you hear an echo that sounds like a bird singing.

We spent a few minutes wandering around the base of the pyramid, exploring its magnificence from every direction. What we discovered was that the apparent pristine condition is actually a reconstruction. Some of the facade has been left in the condition it was discovered in to show how it looked after the ravages of time. I found it fascinating to see the two histories side by side.

As the tour groups around the Temple of Kukulkan became thicker, we moved on. Behind the pyramid was another architectural wonder - the Temple of the Warriors. This huge structure comprised a set of large, square based stone pillars (each representing Toltec warriors) which stand before a five-tiered temple. A wide staircase leads up to the square upper temple. In front of the upper temple is a statue of another Mayan god, Chac Mool, which was used to collect offerings. Chac Mool statues have been found all over Chichen Itza.

The Temple of the Warriors, impressive as it is, is dwarfed by its neighbour, the Place of the Thousand Columns. The stone pillars for which this building are named are rounded rather than square and lie in four rows which stretch around the four sides of a giant stone plaza. All around the edge of the square is a stone bench. Apparently this was the centre of government of the city. Here Mario pointed out to us the unusual truncated vaulting of Mayan arches which would once have roofed the columns. Each of the columns has a carving of a warrior, all different, forming a procession towards the Temple of the Warriors. Mario told us that the entire complex had taken three hundred years of slave labour to complete. Given the scale of the construction, this was not difficult to believe.

Having walked through the Place of the Thousand Columns, we came to Temple of the Little Tables, which, in comparison to its surroundings, was as unimpressive as it's name suggests. Beyond this though, we found a large raised platform with a huge columned structure on top. We couldn't see much but it was a grand building. Mario explained that this was the city market, the centre of the vast trading empire of the Mayans. Behind this we came to a small but significant building, the Steam Bath. This was the setting for a key part of the Mayan rituals, where sacrificial victims and priests would be purified before the ceremonies.

We walked back through the Place of the Thousand Columns, still awed by its scale; past the imposing Temple of the Warriors; over the plaza where the crowds were gathering around the Temple of Kukulkan; and turned up a road which by his time was lined on both sides with market stalls. This road, which led to the Sacred Cenote, was possibly the least pleasant part of the day. We had to push our way through crowds, even though it was only around 10am. Every stall we passed seemed to have the same kind of goods - generally carvings in various stones, chess sets, Mayan calendars, stone combs and brass statues. The stall holders had a particularly annoying trick to try to attract visitors, they would shout out "one dollar, one dollar" repeatedly. We all knew that we couldn't get anything remotely close to one dollar. They knew that too. I decided that I wasn't encouraging this pointless deception and refused to acknowledge anyone who tried it.

By the time we'd pushed through the crowds and walked the half kilometre to the end of the road we were tired and hot. We stood in a wide open space just before the edge of a circular chasm. In front of us was a vertical drop of at least twenty metres, down into a murky green pool of water. On the edge of the pit lay another steam bath. Here, the children who were to be sacrificed to appease the gods during the long dry summers, would bathe and then be dressed in the finest Mayan jewellery before being pushed over the edge. Mario told us that the Mayans did not generally know how to swim so it was extremely unlikely that anyone surviving the fall would be able to stay above the water. He did tell us that there are a few recorded instances of people staying alive for over half a day in the pool. These lucky few were deemed to have been rejected by the gods and were recovered from the pool. Once they had been rejected they took on a prophet-like status and were alternately revered and feared by the people.

We pushed our way back through the market, which seemed to have more people than a few minutes earlier and came to a grouping of small but ornately carved platforms - The Platform of Venus, the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars and the Tzompantli ("Row of Skulls"). These smaller structures, with their exceptionally well preserved carved walls, gave us more of an insight into Mayan art, which is dominated by stylised carvings of animals, deities and men doing various acts. The Tzompantli had a very striking frieze of row upon row of impaled skulls. This is believed to have been a place where the skulls of captives were shown off.

Beyond here were the tell-tale parallel constructions signifying a ball-court. This was on a scale so much larger than any we had seen previously though. At one end was a royal box and at the other a designated place for the high-priest. Along the edges of the buildings the upper-class of Chichen Itza would have sat looking down on the action below. The players must have been fit because the court was immense. To raise the ball to the height of the rings with only elbows and knees could not have been easy. Mario pointed out the carvings on the walls depicting human sacrifices associated with the ritualistic game. It is believed that, for big significant games, the captain of the winning team would be sacrificed. I can't see much incentive for him to win!

Exiting at the other end of the ball court, the Temple of Kukulkan was on our left. We carried on walking for about ten minutes, leaving this behind. We came to another pyramid, slightly smaller, though still magnificent, pyramid. This was the Ossuary or bone store, where significant priests are thought to have been buried.

Opposite the Ossuary was another dominating building. Rather than the harsh, solid, square buildings we were used to, this one had an elegant round tower. For someone who has studied astronomy the design was obvious... the Mayans may not have had telescopes but here was the unmistakable shape of an observatory. This was a sacred space for the cosmic-minded Mayan people. Here the priests would take their meticulous measurements of the heavens, allowing them to discern the patterns which would form part of their calendar. Here too, the priests could determine the seasons and use this knowledge to dictate farming activities. Finally, the priests would attempt to use their observations to determine the mind of the gods and identify sacrifices which could appease them.

Beyond the Observatory, the archeological style changed significantly. Here the buildings were smaller and rougher - we were seeing the work of the original Mayan inhabitants rather than their Toltec oppressors. The stonework here reminded the Spanish adventurers of the convents in their home towns. For this reason they called it The Nunnery, a name which has stuck. This small squat building, whilst less grand than the Toltec edifices, has a charm of its own. Next to the Nunnery is significantly larger building which has been called The Church due to its proximity to the Nunnery and its superficial resemblance of a cathedral.

At the back of The Church, Mario told us another story about how an American with a French surname came to "excavate" the Church. Rather than doing a complete study of the site, carefully entering, formally documenting the contents and leaving it for posterity, he took a different approach. Impatient to begin looting the treasures of the site, he blew a hole in the back of the building with a few sticks of dynamite. What he found was an impressive construction of four buildings, richly loaded with cultural treasures which he stole. The building held up well against the explosion but now has a big circular hole in its rear.

Now we came to the end of our tour. We were tired but it had been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Mario, who had imparted so much knowledge and passion to us and was still bursting with energy after three hours, said goodbye to us in the shadow of the Observatory. We spent some time wandering the ruins again and then went to haggle with a few market stall holders.

It was about 2pm when we left Chichen Itza and we were keen to get to our next destination, which was en route to the airport in Cancun. We had heard about the experience of swimming in Cenotes and wanted to have that experience for ourselves before we left Mexico. We weren't sure where we should go so we started driving back to Cancun. After about thirty kilometres we came to Cenote Suytun. There were no signs explaining what was going on here and we couldn't find a place to pay. We tried to communicate with the people there but none of them understood us. Eventually we took an American tourist at his word, that the place was free to enter. We descended the rough hewn staircase and came into a vast, cool, dark underground chasm. A steep staircase led down to tiered rocks where we could leave our towels. The cave was quite busy but the lovely blue water didn't wasn't too crowded. We got into the cool water and enjoyed a good swim. As we swam I noticed the people were leaving. I suspected that if we waited for long enough we could have he place to ourselves. Sure enough, in fifteen minutes, Lindsey and I were the only ones there. With the place to ourselves we sat enjoying the peaceful surroundings and let the water become very still. It is impossible to describe the depth of the spiritual experience of being somewhere so uniquely beautiful and being able to sit and reflect on the scene in stillness.

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away. By the time we left it was going dark. I had hoped to be able to drive back to Cancun in the daylight. The journey back was very arduous and I was so relieved when we got back to the airport. We stopped briefly for a meal at a restaurant which turned out to be the worst on our travels to date. We then spent an hour packing our bags in the dark car park outside. We handed the car back and got a lift to the airport. We had hoped to spend the evening sitting comfortably but it turned out there were no facilities there. The cafés all closed at 10pm, half an hour before we arrived. The toilets were closed. There weren't even any seats. We felt miserable as we sat on the floor. I wrapped Lindsey in a sleeping bag and watched over her and our bags as she slept. It was a really difficult end to a long but amazing day.

Additional photos below
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28th March 2016
Pyramid of Kukulkan

Mayan Mastery
Really warms the heart to see Mayan sites so lovingly restored to their ancient grandeur and elegance. Great pics Richard of what must be a truly spectacular site to walk through and be.
29th March 2016

Fabulous trip
Sorry to hear that your Mexican trip ended in the way that it did, but I've really enjoyed following your journey - especially this post on Chichen Itza. The detailed carvings look amazing and I can't wait to see it for myself in a few weeks. Safe travels!
29th March 2016

Re:Fabulous Trip
Thanks for your comment RENanDREW. Our Mexico trip certainly had some (very high) ups and some (very low) downs... But at least we have some great stories to tell. I had a captivated audience at a family wedding last weekend! Hope you have an amazing trip - Chichen Itza is definitely as awesome as you will have heard.

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