Cloud of unknowing in Chichen Itza

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North America » Mexico » Yucatán » Chichén Itzá
May 4th 2016
Published: May 13th 2016
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Today we were travelling west from Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza and then on to Merida.

We woke early, organised our packs and left Hotel Casa Tucan and walked to the bus station, which was just around the corner (and over the road from the Corpus Christ Church where we had been the night before). We grabbed an iced coffee, chocolate milk and a couple of muffins for breakfast, then jumped onto the luxurious public bus at 8am (luxurious, that is, in comparison to the minibuses we had been travelling in for the past two weeks). The bus had leg room, seats that reclined and a toilet on board – what a treat!

As we drove out of Playa del Carmen, I realised the beachfront town wasn’t small at all, but rather a sprawling metropolis that remained unseen from the tourist streets close to the beach. We drove in comfort, listening to Mexican cartoons and a Pierce Bronson movie (dubbed in Spanish) while gazing out the window as the landscape gradually transformed from built-up suburban into lush green rural forest.

We arrived at Chichen Itza at 11:30am. The car park was full of tour buses, so we knew there was going to be a lot of people. By the time we started our tour, it was midday, and the sun was searing down upon us. We continually sought out shade as we walked to Kukulcan’s pyramid, the ball court, the platform of eagles and jaguars, the temple of warriors, the square of 1,000 columns, the temple of carved columns, the temple of osario, the observatory, the nun’s house and the red house. While Kukulcan’s pyramid was incredible, I was awestruck by the stark and expansive ball court – the level of fitness of the players (two teams of seven) must have been amazing. The size of the ruins allowed us space away from the thronging crowds, which made photography so much easier.

Thunder clouds began to roll in as we walked around the ruins, followed by a few thunder claps and a sudden downpour of very heavy rain. It was so refreshing. We made our way out of the ruins in the pouring rain, jumped into a taxi and headed into the tiny town of Piste, a few kilometres from the Chichen Itza. We asked our taxi driver to recommend a restaurant, and he took us to a big tourist place in town. We told him we’d rather try something local – somewhere he would eat – and he looked at us in utter disbelief. He then smiled and took us to a little strip of eateries opposite the church, and we sat down at Loncheria Los Arcos. We ordered a couple of melon liquados (smoothies) and shared a sopa de lima (tostadas, shredded chicken and juice lime) and an omelette with ham and cheese. The food was fantastic, and it was an amazing place to watch people go about their daily lives. We were the only tourists in town, and we drew much amusement from the locals, especially when we took photos of the dishes in front of us. The woman at the table behind us took photos of us as we took photos of our food.

We wandered around Piste for a while and then started walking back to the Chichen Itza ruins. We dropped into local shops and watched the general comings and goings of the town before jumping in a taxi for the last kilometre. When we arrived we wandered around the many trinket stalls scattered around the visitors centre before hydrating with a few very artificial tasting liquados (i.e. pina colada and grape). Our bus was due to arrive at 5:10pm, so we picked up our packs from the visitor centre’s storage room and walked to the bus area, which was literally bursting with buses. We watched each bus depart one by one until the area was deserted. It was 5:30pm, so we were a little concerned. We were travelling to Merida, which was more than 100 kilometres west of where we were (at least two hours’ drive). It was getting dark, and we suddenly discovered our bus had actually left on time, right under our noses. Things were looking grim, so our guide left us standing under a tree in the Chichen Itza car park and caught a taxi into Piste, arriving back 15 minutes later with a minibus and a driver. We squeezed into the minibus with our packs and left the ruins at 6:30pm. We were finally on our way to Merida! It’s a strange feeling being stranded in the middle of nowhere in Mexico, but we didn’t mind. There was a chance we would beat our original bus to Merida, as it had to stop along the way, and we obviously didn’t. A young guy from Mexico City had also missed the bus we were meant to be on, so we offered him a ride in our crammed minibus. He was very grateful.

After an earlyish start at 7:30am, we walked to the bus station in Playa del Carmen to catch a bus to the famed ruins of Chichen Itza in the northern Yucatan lowlands. We bought a chocolate milk, a cappuccino slurpy, muffins and water from the bus station shop to sustain us until lunch.

The ADO bus was large and comfortable and the trip was fantastic, as it gave us our first glimpse of real Mexican life in the little towns and villages. We also experienced our first rain shower on the trip while we were on the bus, but it didn’t last long.

Chichen Itza looked crowded as we drove in, and got worse as we walked through the ticket area, but once we were inside it wasn’t too bad and our local guide managed to steer us through an uncrowded path and via the shade of the few trees. We had a few hours to spend at Chichen Itza before we travelled onwards to Merida.

The Maya, an ancient Mesoamerican people, have occupied the Yucatan Peninsula for millennia, so unsurprisingly it has a rich history. Chichen Itza (600 – 1200AD) is supposed to be one of the most impressive Maya sites, and was one of the largest cities built by the Maya. As soon as we walked in I recognised the famous Pyramid of Kukulcan (the Maya feathered serpent god). The pyramid is also known as El Castillo, and easily dominates the ruins. The pyramid’s four sides each have 91 steps, which when totalled with the platform step on top, adds up to the number of days in a year. As I mentioned in our Tikal blog, the Maya were able to accurately determine time and had precisely calculated every solar and lunar eclipse until December 21, 2012 (when some people thought the world would end, but clearly it didn’t).

The site was very very packed, but given its ‘seven wonders of the world’ status, it really wasn’t surprising. And where there are tourist crowds, there will always be sellers of tourist crap. I was very surprised that the hawkers were actually inside the archaeological park, lining every path between the buildings. Even though they were persistent in their sales pitch, they really weren’t as pushy as I thought they’d be. I had thought it would be the hawkers or the crowds that would get to me the most, but the most tiring thing about this site was the little to no shade, which made me more tired than I should have been. I had my ‘uv protection’ umbrella that I’d bought in Malaysia, which gave me some protection.

Tourists used to be able to climb the pyramid steps, but this was stopped in 2006. As much as I loved that they were protecting the pyramid, it would have been great to get a panoramic view of the city ruins from the top as we did in Tikal.

The El Castillo pyramid has special significance on the spring and autumn equinoxes, and thousands gather to see the shadows on the steps of the west wall. The shadows form the image of the holy feathered serpent and this only happens on those two days. The Maya were either extremely talented, or it was completely accidental but brilliantly made into a feature! 😊

Another example of Maya architectural genius at this ruin was that if someone clapped near the steps, an echo was produced, but not of a clapping noise. The echo resembled a loud chirp, similar to the chirp of the quetzal, a sacred Maya bird. It was beginning to become obvious that there were way too many clever design features to believe they were accidental.

The nearby long Pok-a-Tok playing field also had impressive acoustics. Each end of the field had a raised area for spectators, and apparently a whisper at one end could be heard clearly at the other, which has attracted sound engineers from around the world to study the acoustics. Pok-a-Tok was a Maya game where the aim was to propel a nearly 2kg solid rubber ball through a small stone ring attached more than six metres above ground on the two high side walls.

No one really knows the rules or actual purpose of Pok-a-Tok. It’s believed that it was part of a sacred ritual and that racquets were used. A game could have taken days before anyone scored, and the contest ended after the first goal. The games were depicted in carvings on the walls.

Most accounts hold that the losing Pok-a-Tok team, or its captain, was sacrificed to the gods. But our concept of victory may be quite different to theirs, and it was also thought that it was actually the winning captain who was sacrificed. Normally, a Maya would have to pass through many stages to get to heaven, but a Pok-a-Tok victory was thought to have provided a direct route.

Archaeologists have excavated the nearby Cenote Sagrado (well of sacrifice) and found jade, copper, gold, and many human and animal bones. The human sacrifices were thought to be to Chaac, the Maya god of rain. The sacrifices were likely offered to end periods of drought.

The site contains many other buildings, and my favourite was ‘la Iglesias’ (the church) which is part of the La Monjas group. It is thought to be the oldest and best preserved structure, and hasn’t been restored at all. The facade was covered in carved faces of Chaac.

It was quite spooky that as we were discussing Chaac, a thunder storm started gathering speed. I asked the guide if the rainy season had started and he said that it hadn’t rained yet for the year. As I was photographing the many faces of Chaac the heavens opened up. The first rain for the year was a heavy downpour, and we managed one more photo of the Pyramid of Kukulcan before we had to hightail it to the exit for some shelter.

Our public bus wasn’t scheduled until 5:10pm, and we’d finished the tour by 2pm. We were given a few options to fill in time, and Andrew and I decided to explore the little nearby town of Piste. It was a drive-through kind of town, but with the help of our taxi driver (who first wanted us to go to a tourist buffet place and couldn’t believe we wanted somewhere local) we got to Loncheria Los Arcos. We seemed to be the only tourists in the whole town, and we loved our very local menu choices. We shared a very delicious omelette con jamon y quesa (with ham and cheese) served with rice and slaw, and a sopa de lima (broth with tostada chips, shredded chicken and lime) – a local Yucatan dish. It was pure comfort food for me, even though I’d never had it before. Andrew ordered a liquado (smoothie) with melon and milk and I made a mistake by ordering a agua de horchata (milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon) which I saw being made with water from a jug on the table…. It may have been completely fine, but given we had a three hour bus trip that afternoon, I decided not to drink it. I felt bad, but erred on the side of caution and had a coke.

After lunch we wandered around the town, checked out a small church ruin and looked in shops as we walked back towards Chichen Itza where we’d left our luggage in storage. Back at the entrance to Chichen Itza, we ordered some icy smoothies and settled down to wait for our bus. We were about half an hour early, but the scheduled 5:10pm departure came and went, and about half an hour later we realised something was wrong. It turned out that our bus had arrived but the driver had misunderstood Fabian and told him it wasn’t our bus. The only way we were going to get to Merida that night was to charter a minibus, which Fabian did. We ended up leaving at 6:30pm, and also gave a lift to another guy who had missed the bus. He was very grateful.

The minibus wasn’t anywhere near as comfortable as the large spacious clean public bus, but the uncomfortable seats had a hidden benefit I could never have predicted – I wasn’t lulled into a sleep like I normally am on anything that moves, so I caught up on a lot of writing in those two hours!

Reflecting on our visit to Chichen Itza… as much as I had been in awe of the construction and design of the Chichen Itza complex, I just couldn’t forget that this, like all mighty ancient structures, was built on the back of slavery. It also occurred to me that this sacred city seemed to have been obsessed with death and time, keeping in mind that this was the archaeologists’ interpretation of what’s left of the ruins.

We were completely wrapped in history and ancient architecture during our few rambling hours at Chichen Itza. Sadly, the jungle has been cleared back very severely in comparison to the Tikal ruins, and instead of the sounds of birds in the jungle canopy, the soundtrack to our walk through Chichen Itza was the eerie noise produced by hawkers using a wooden toy to mimic a jaguar’s call. I think that about sums up Chichen Itza quite poetically.

As ruins go, so far Tikal (Guatemala) is my favourite, followed by Chichen Itza and Tulum (Mexico) …but we still have a few more ruins to go. 😊

Next we travel to west to Merida in Yucatun, Mexico.


14th May 2016

Damn we won!
Great story about Pok-a-Tok, you sure wouldn't want to be picked to play, and I guess you can understand that the game taking a long time if they kept killing the winning team, a sort of reverse Olympics. The place looks stunning and you managed very well to keep the crowds out of the photos, lots of patience I am guessing.
14th May 2016

Re: Damn we won!
Thanks. Haha yes, I cam imagine that the training sessions wouldn't have been too enthusiastic. The crowds were spread out, so it wasn't too difficult... but I tried hard to keep the hot pink umbrella tour group out of my shots :)
15th May 2016

Great to catch up on your adventures again this weekend, thanks for posting - Mexico seems very different so far from your experiences in Belize - more touristy it seems...? Glad you were able to charter a minibus to Merida in the end - and I know that feeling of being stranded oh so well... Well done for keeping cool and still making it to Merida! I look forward to reading your next entries, enjoy :)
17th May 2016

Re: Great
Thanks Alex. Yes that part of Mexico was definitely more touristy, and we found that the areas further inland were more to our taste :)
15th May 2016

Can you imagine!
Can you imagine, if Pok A Tok was applied to sports nowadays. Losing team captain sacrificed! Sounds like Hunger Games almost. So cool, thanks for the Mayan history lesson. AND now you've done it, posting my favourite soup in Mexico, the sopa de lima.......ahhhhhh SOOO bueno!!!
17th May 2016

Re: Can you imagine!
Well if that was the case, less public money would be spent on sport for starters! Sopa de lima remains the best soup I've had in Mexico... so delicious and comforting :)
16th May 2016

Mayan Ruins
I'm always in awe of these places as they are architectural marvels. It is amazing they did such and impressive job with so few tools. I believe pride in their work is a component, slavery or not. I imagine that was an awful moment realizing you had missed your bus. I'm glad it worked out.
17th May 2016

Re: Mayan Ruins
Some people we've met seem to think the ancient Mayas had more tools than we realise, but it's all conjecture really. It may have been pride in their work, but I still wish that their pursuit of pleasing the gods and asserting their greatness hadn't involved the killing thousands of slaves.

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