Chichen Itza. We’re both excited to finally visit a site that has been on our bucket lists for years. Built between 750 and 900 AD, the well of the itza is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
A Mayan adventure without the sacrifices.
In our minds we’re expecting to hack our way into the jungle to get to this ancient site, like something you would see in an Indiana Jones movie. It’s not long before we realize that, unfortunately, commercialization has reared its ugly head and has taken away some of the amazement out of the experience. The roads within its vicinity are clogged with tour buses boasting free WiFi and air conditioning. Street peddlers are cooking up tacos and meat and rice dishes that would set off alarm bells in the eyes of most food inspectors. Bright woven hammocks hang from rough shacks, all available for purchase (of course).
As you approach the site, you’re greeted by a modern forecourt that looks part cultural center, part shopping mall. Negotiating hustlers and guides, tickets are purchased along with extra charges for video cameras ($4USD – robbery!). No tripods are allowed inside and larger backups may be denied access. Stepping through the turnstiles (yes, turnstiles) you encounter markets full of locals pedaling cheap woodcarvings that reek of petroleum, which they are bathed in to kill the termites. Our guide points out that none are legit and would definitely not make it through customs and border security in most countries.
Above, a thick canopy of rubber leaves and poinsettias provide a cooling shade that offsets the stifling heat. Most tour guides distribute golf umbrellas to people too clueless to know how to use them without permanently maiming those around them. We pass stallholders making strange jaguar roars from ocarinas and head north to the clearing that houses the sprawling complex of Mayan ruins.
The centerpiece, El Castillo dominates the site. We stand in awe of this magnificent, mysterious structure. It’s just like it is in the books, documentaries and the gazillion slot machines that somehow equate the size with golden treasures.
The ancient city spans across 6 square kilometers, but it’s well contained. In fact it’s a much smaller site than we imagined. From prior reviews, we had expected to be caught in a sea of people shepherded through the site. However, to our surprise, while there where many tourists there, the vast size of the site is so spread out that crowds really aren’t any issue and everyone can perfect their photo bomb-free selfie from any angle.
Our guided tour featured plenty of conjecture, challenging many of the perpetrated myths and mysteries and a complete reliance on drawing mud maps in the dirt to explain the significance of each ruin. The site, after all is constantly revealing new secrets, the latest being that recent scans of El Castillo have revealed an earlier temple within. The legend is that the temple was built over the mouth of a cenote or well. Three sides have been restored, but the fourth remains as found. It’s a nice touch.
The other popular legend of Chichen Itza is about the “ball court” where history books dictate that games featuring 7-a-side teams were played. Historians have painted the Mayans as athletes with Shakira-like hip swiveling abilities, where they can bounce a hard rubber ball with their hips (that don’t lie) through a ridiculously high hoop. The reward for these impossible feats of dance floor mayhem and pelvic thrusts? Getting sacrificed. In reality, the hoops jut out high above, from stonewalls, but immediately below a thin ledge, so the concept becomes even more unlikely.
What makes Chichen Itza so fascinating is its advanced understanding of math and science. For the Mayans, the number 7 represented the underworld. The game was played 7-a-side. When you clap within the confines of the ballgame, the clap echoes 7 times. The rock carvings on the walls of the structure show the teams dressed in heavy armor with swords, and a person, faintly representing medusa, with seven snakes coming out of their head. Snakes represent the underworld. Even the stairs of the pyramid represent a snake slithering down from the top. Clapping in the central area in front of the pyramid emits a strange, audible call in the echo. Add to that the fact that its steps and sides all equal a calendar and it all comes up amazing.
Sun is something the Mayan people have in bountiful supply. They are the people of the sun after all. It’s beating down and we’re sweating profusely. Iguanas sun themselves on ancient ruins. A well-preserved sacrificial platform features a bounding wall of carved skulls. The Tzompantli, or Skull Platform (Plataforma de los Cráneos) is the site of human sacrifices, fast tracking their path to the underworld. Could it be the place the football premiers were dispatched after their grand final glory?
With only an hour of free time to explore the site (damn package tours), we get to explore the Temple of 1000 Warriors with its hundreds of original columns still intact and manage to completely miss the observatory which is hidden away at the other end of the site. It’s something we regret but it’s also a reason to return in the future.
So while we do say that a visit to Chichen Itza is not what you’d expect, we were blown away by its preservation and the history surrounding a visit to the site. Definitely a must see if you wear some blinders to the blatant tourist trade.
Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the modern world, is famed for its innovations and human sacrifices.
Yucatan Peninsula, Mexican
Traveling from Cancun, Chichen Itza is a direct 3-hour drive, best done as early as you can to beat the peak of the midday heat. You can also book various day trips to the site either from your hotel or through online travel sites, like Viator.