Visiting the Mayan City of Chichen Itza


I got reacquainted with the Mayan civilization - which extended from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala all the way to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico -  when I saw a TV documentary about ancient cultures a few years ago. The Mayans established theirs around 2000 BC, and it flourished before the end of the first millennium. They developed math, astronomy, arts and architecture that rivaled other great civilizations. 

One of the places that the documentary mentioned was Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan city-states. It  became the dominant city starting around 10th century AD, after the decline of Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala, Bonampak in Chiapas, and Althun Ha in Belize, enabling it to control the Yucatan peninsula and set its hegemony. It was conquered by the Spanish conquistadores in the 17th century.

The steps of El Castillo. Notice the zigzag pattern of the shadow

I was armed with this historical back story when I set out on a 150-kilometer bus ride from Cancun to Tinum to visit the ancient city. Lots of other bits of history were dispensed by our guides, a Mexican professor and a post-grad student, during the journey that took us deep into the Yucatan (We made a side trip to a cenote halfway through our trip). I explored the ancient city with my two bus seatmates and another old lady from the US. 

The north side of El Castillo

The first structure that we explored was the main reason why I wanted to visit Chichen Itza in the first place - the well-preserved pyramid that still stands in the location of the ancient city. That pyramid was called  the Temple of Kukulkan. It was dedicated to the feathered serpent god of the same name (equivalent to Quetzocoatl for the Aztecs). It is also known as El Castillo, Spanish for castle,  the name of which was given by the conquistadores

When I set foot on it, it seemed to me that I didn't just traveled hundreds of kilometers to get here, but that I also traveled back in time to see an ancient civilization. It was not as grand as those in Teotihuacan - the rivals of the Mayans to the north - but it was arguably in a better shape than the former.


The city was not as large as Teotihuacan, but it was still immense. El Castillo, measuring 180 feet on its base and 78 feet tall, dominates the complex. Each of its four sides has 91 steps, and when added together with the temple on top, equal to 365, which is also the number of days of the Mayan calendar. During the equinox, the setting sun would cast a shadow on the steps that would give the illusion that a snake - the god Kukulkan - is descending from the temple.

Another fascinating thing about the pyramid's steps is that when you stand in front and clap, the sound will bounce all the way to the top and echo back as different sound - something similar to a chirp of a quetzal bird.We stood in front of the pyramid doing this.

The acoustics of the building was also designed such that the priests from ancient times can stand on top of the pyramid and can still be heard by the people below. The guide said that classical singer Placido Domingo did a concert in Chichen Itza, singing on top of the pyramid without using any sound system, and still be heard perfectly by the concert-goers.

The Great Ballcourt 

El Castillo is not the only large-scale structure in the city though. To the west of El Castillo is the Great Ballcourt, which at 550 feet long, is the largest in Mesoamerica. It is where the game called ┼Źllamaliztli was played in ancient times. 

┼îllamaliztli is similar to the modern-day raquetball. Players would hit the heavy ball made of solid rubber using their hips and try to shoot them through stone rings installed along the walls running along the court. 

The Great Ballcourt as seen from El Castillo

The games were only witnessed by the powers-that-be of the Mayan society, and the ordinary people are not allowed to watch them (although people play them outside in their homes). The players were handpicked from the best of the best, and the prize for winning the game is to be ritually sacrificed in the temple. Losing the game would mean humiliation as losing players were considered unfit for the gods, while winning one would mean eternal glory, although at the expense of having one's heart cut out after being decapitated.

The Temple of the Bearded Man


At the end of the ball court is the Temple of the Bearded Man. The building, decorated with bas-relief, probably is where the nobility and the priests watch the games.  Two more temples - the Temples of the Jaguars - were built on top of the walls flanking the court. One overlooks the court, while the other faces the main plaza. These temples were decorated with bas-relief too, with the serpent the predominant motif. 

The inscribed skulls at the wall of the tzompantli
Adjacent to the great ballcourt is the tzompantli, a rack where the skulls of warriors, captives, sacrificial victims, and the winners of the games were displayed. The skulls were strung together through the sides, like that of barbequed meat. 

Beyond the tzompantli are two platforms, the Platforms of the Eagles and Jaguars, and the Platform of Venus, dedicated to the planet that figured so much in Mayan astronomy. Beyond it was the Sacred Cenote, the water-filled sinkhole that became a pilgrimage site for the Mayans. Archaeologists recovered human remains, gold and other offerings from the bottom of the cenote. It's not as big as the one in Hacienda Lorenzo Oxman though. 

The Temple of the Warriors

On the east side of El Castillo is another stepped pyramid called Temple of the Warriors. On the top of the pyramid is a chacmool, a sculpture depicting a reclining human figure. On the figure's stomach is a bowl where human hearts are deposited during the ritual sacrifices.

Group of a Thousand Columns

Surrounding the Temple of the Warriors are groups of stone columns. These columns, grouped along the front, back and side of the temple, once supported the roof of a building.

Aside from these structures, the complex also contained the structure called mercado. It could have been a market where people display their wares or used as some ceremonial functions. Beyond it are more buildings which I did not visit anymore, the El Caracol observatory, the osario (which is another step pyramid), and several other platforms. 

It was late afternoon when we finished exploring the complex. The old lady who was with us was already panting after we went round El Castillo to see the north side. We went back to the waiting bus, after which we settled in for another long ride back to Cancun. 

A selfie in front of El Castillo
How to Get There
Chichen Itza is located in the town of Tinum, in the state of Yucatan. It is about 150 kilometers from Cancun, via Valladolid. The easiest way to get here would be to book a tour from Cancunm, which would cost about 450 Mexican pesos. You may also take an ADO bus from Cancun, for about 200 pesos.

Useful Info
The complex is open from 9am to 5pm, everyday. Entrance fee is 59 pesos. There are gift shops and stores at the entrance of the complex. There are also many ambulant vendors roaming inside, as well as hawkers peddling souvenirs. 

Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Climbing up the pyramids is no longer allowed. 

Comments

  1. I think Chichen Itza is one of the places that everybody should get to visit. It's a unique proof of an old and amazingly developed civilization.

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    1. True. and I think those nuts who say aliens were responsible for these pyramids are disrespecting the achievements and capabilities of the Mayans :)

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    2. Totally agree! Having said that, my favourite site is Uxmal. Really less touristy than Chichen Itza and the Puuc architecture is outstanding :-)

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    3. Will try to visit that next time I'm in Mexico, thanks!

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