Chichen Itza ancient Mayan city
Chichen Itza is without doubt one of the most famous and best-preserved Mayan sites in the world. It is also one of the best-excavated and restored ancient cities. It is no surprise that Chichen Itza is thus also one of the most visited sites. Tours are offered from most tourist cities in the Mexican Caribbean. One can only marvel at the amazing achievements of this great people. At a time when the rest of the world was still in the dark ages, the Mayan city of Chichen Itza flourished. Evidently Mayan Civilization had developed a sophisticated writing system, mathematics, astronomy, calendars and architectural perfection. Bringing water and food for such a large population was no easy task.
The Maya ruled the area for over three thousand years until they started to abandon their cities around 900 AD. It was long believed that the reason was a long drought and a large overhead of a non-working ruling class that lead to a shortage in food and water. Recently another theory emerged. The Maya were not the peaceful people as we assumed for so long. They were skilled and fearsome warriors constantly at war with each other. The main war between the two superpowers of Tikal and Calakmul lasted a full century and ended around 700AD.
Chichen Itza was a major center of political, spiritual, and military power. The city is believed to span around 100 square km (39 sq. miles).
Tours are offered from almost anywhere. From Cancun, take the Freeway (180). The toll for the freeway is pretty steep (around $60 if I remember correctly). On the freeway you will meet locals who carry wood on their bikes. It is rather disturbing rushing along the freeway when you suddenly pass people on their bikes. You can take the exit near Valladolid and check out this charming city at the heart of Yucatan.
There is also a road parallel to the freeway. The road will lead you through small villages and is in a really bad condition. I took this road twice and it has cost me at least 3 hours vs. driving on the freeway, since you have to slow down constantly for some extremely nasty speed bumps.
If you do not want to pay the toll, consider taking the road from Valladolid to Tulum via Coba and then 307 back up to Cancun. It is a long detour, but the road is so much better, that you will still end up saving quite a bit of time. I know it looks different on the map, and you are welcome to try any other route. After 5 hours of driving and hitting speed bumps hard you will remember my words. One more advice, if you are not traveling on the freeway, get behind a local. They drive very fast and know all speed bumps and radar traps along the way (They saved my twice by unexpectedly braking very hard in front of me).
From Meridia take 180 east to Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza is a large city to explore. The grueling heat and the swarms of tourists should be avoided whenever possible. Fortunately, since this has become such a historical Disneyland, the sanitary facilities are up to western standards. Water and food can be bought near the entrance. English speaking tour guides are available, too.
Before dusk you will have to leave the city, but stick around for one hour or so and save your ticket. A stage is being prepared for a spectacular light show. Your admission tickets will be good for the lightshow as well. If you like you can rent translation equipment, since a narrator will give some interesting historical facts during the show.
You will not be allowed to bring tripods into any of the major Mayan sites. Since noone is searching your backpack, you could easily sneak in a mini tripod (had I only known) to photograph the lightshow.
While you are waiting outside you have the opportunity to shop for junk or go to your car and rest from the exhausting day at Chichen Itza.
The castle, as the Spaniards named it, is actually the Pyramid of Kukulcan. It is a perfect rectangular shape with 91 stairs on each side plus a platform at the top equaling 365 stairs (one for each day of the year). The pyramid was constructed so that during each vernal equinox the setting sun would cast a shadow in the form of a serpent meandering down the stairs.
You can climb up the 91 stairs to the top of the pyramid for a spectacular view. Although this pyramid is not nearly as steep as the one in Coba, you can see plenty of people coming back down on their butts. Mayan stairs are very steep and can be somewhat scary to climb down on. The temple on top of the pyramid is somewhat small for the many tourists squeezing into it. Be careful not to be pushed over the edge. During the afternoon you can see a colorful crowd crawling on the pyramid.
From up here you will have a wonderful view of the Ball Court and the Temple of the Warriors. You can also watch the sun set over the jungle treetops.
Temple of the warriors
The endless columns, which extend far into the jungle next to the temple, are even more impressive than the temple itself. The columns were once supporting a large roof under which a market and meeting place was housed.
All major Mayan cities had a ball court. The ball game had an important political and religious background. While it was mostly played for entertainment purposes, it is believed that it also served to resolve disputes, in case of which the loosing team would loose their life. Others believe that the winner would actually be sacrificed having earned a way into heaven.
The goal of the game was to get the ball through the small hoop at the top of the slanted walls without using their Hands or Feet. A score was so hard to achieve, that it usually marked the end of the game. It is hard to imagine anyone would ever be capable of doing this when you are standing in this large ball court.
The acoustics of the ball court are superb. The voice of the ruler, who had a special place at the end of the court, could be heard effortlessly across the whole court.
The hoops at both ends of the ball court are decorated by carvings of serpants.
Observatories are also found in many ancient cities of the Mayan empire. The Mayans had a great understanding of astronomy. Many of their constructions are related to celestial events and resemble calendars of sorts.
The deep understanding of astronomy helped the Mayan people to develop mathematics and understand the cycles of nature thus becoming excellent farmers.
The structure of the observatory is unique due to its rounded tower that rests on top of two rectangular platforms (notice a resemblance with today’s observatories?).
The Nunnery in the southern part of the city is believed to have been the housing for the elite due to its intricate carvings, which are omnipresent. The naming of the structure is due to a misunderstanding by the Spaniards.
Carvings also cover the church, which is found next to the Nunnery. As with most structures you are free to enter it.
Not a structure but not to be left out is the cenote (underground water cave) in Chichen Itza. It is believed to have been of religious importance.
If you are vacationing in the area (Cancun, Meridia) you should not miss to visit Chichen Itza. Even though it is the most visited site it is also the easiest accessible and most convenient site to visit. The lightshow is not bad either.
You can spend a whole day here, but you should be prepared for the heat and humidity. It is worse here than near the coast in Cancun.
You can enter each of the structures and relive the ancient times. Bring a blanket to rest under one of the many trees.
Mosquitoes are not as much a problem here as elsewhere in the Jungle.
Chichen Itza has been commercialized too much, but this way many more people get a chance to visit one of the best-preserved sites effortlessly. The terrain is flat making it easily accessible for disabled or families with small children and strollers.
More things to do
About 6km east of Chichen Itza are the Balankanche Caves. The caves were a ceremonial center of the Maya. Many artifacts (jewelry, ceramic pots, ceremonial offerings and others) and an altar have been left behind and can be seen today. The cave was discovered in 1959 and opened to the public years later. It is very humid inside.
Stalactites and Stalagmites and a mirror lake are some of the natural wonders to be admired here. Since you probably will stay in Chichen Itza for the lightshow, you should visit the cave before you drive to Chichen Itza.
Have some pocket change ready for the children who will watch your car and maybe even clean it for you.
All Images and text by Andre Gunther