Monday, January 4, 2021

CHICHEN ITZA: At the Heart of Mexico's Ancient Mayan World, by Caroline Arnold at The Intrepid Tourist

Chichen Itza, El Castillo


The ancient city of Chichen Itza, with its towering pyramid, 13 ball courts, many temples, giant market, and numerous other buildings, is the most famous and best restored of the many Maya ruins in the Yucatan. Once a thriving religious and political center, Chichen Itza was abandoned in the 14th century.  On a trip to Mexico in July, I visited the ruins with my family. As we explored, we could only imagine what it was like in ancient Mayan times.

Chichen Itza, ruins of the observatory as seen from the Mayaland Hotel
We stayed at the historic Mayaland Hotel, surrounded by lush gardens and adjacent to the archeological site. From the window outside our room we viewed the back of the ancient observatory, which, after dark, was lit up with a beam of light, making a dramatic vista.  Shortly after we arrived that afternoon, even though it was raining lightly and it was the end of the day, we decided to visit the ruins. Inside the compound, we were almost completely alone except for a few vendors packing up their wares.  With the light rain and waning light it all felt rather ethereal.  We returned to the hotel for a light meal before going to a planetarium show called Mayan Skies–a useful introduction to Mayan history and culture and a glimpse into the incredible knowledge the Mayas had of astronomy.

Ancient gate to Chichen Itza
All the tourist books strongly advise visiting Chichen Itza early to avoid the crowds, so we set our alarm to be up for breakfast at 7:15 so we could go in when it opened at 8:00.  We arranged for a guide and were impressed by his dramatic telling the story of the Maya and the building of the city.  When we asked, he said his first language was Mayan, then Spanish and English.  He also spoke German and French!

Ceremonial structure at the top of El Castillo
Our guide emphasized several times the even though the pyramid is called El Castillo, the Spanish word for castle, it is NOT a castle but a ceremonial center.  He pointed out the importance of numbers in the structure, 91 steps up each of the four sides plus one large step at the top to make 365 representing one year. (In the past, tourists could climb to the top, but that is no longer allowed, partly for safety and partly to preserve the monument). In Mayan times, every 51 years an extra 13 days were inserted into the calendar and used for a celebration and to make up for the missing leap years.

Feathered serpent head at entry to ball court
On one side of the pyramid, huge serpent heads frame the first step and it appears that a large serpent is sliding down the sides of the stairway.  The building is designed so that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows of the corner blocks ripple along the stairway edge making it appear as if the serpent is alive.  Everywhere in the complex we saw images of feathered serpents, jaguars, and harpy eagles.

Stone ring, ball court, Chichen Itza
We were particularly intrigued with the huge ball court where players had to hit the ball--with their hips, and also with a wooden bat--through large stone circles mounted on the walls of each side. We were told that ball courts of various sizes and designs have been found throughout Mexico and Central America and that rules varied–from games for fun to games where  the captain of the losing team was beheaded.  Some rather grisly stone murals of beheaded players lined the side of the ball court. Outside the ball court was a platform (filled with grass and iguanas sunning themselves) supported by a stone wall decorated with carvings of skulls.

Sacred Well, Chichen Itza
We proceeded with the guide to another ruin (which he characterized as the Pentagon of the Mayas) and to the rows of columns that had supported the roof for a large marketplace.  We had one last stop with our guide at the ruins of the observatory and then had time to wander on our own. We followed a long pathway lined with vendors to the cenote (a sinkhole filled with water) known as the Sacred Well. Wells and caves had a special significance in Mayan culture as entries into the underworld. The name Chichen Itza (pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable) comes from three Mayan words meaning “the mouth of the well of the Itza”.  From the railing at the top, we watched birds with long blue tail feathers (turquoise-browed motmots) swooping over the water.

Platform decorated with carvings of skulls

After several hours exploring the ruins the day had grown warm and tour buses had arrived.  It was time to leave. We walked back to our hotel and jumped in the pool to cool off.  We had gotten a taste of the incredible richness of Mayan culture. It made us want to learn much more.
Note: In 2007 Chichen Itza was placed at the top of the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World, a poll of famous monuments initiated in the millennium.  Other monuments on the list are Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janiero, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra, the Taj Mahal, and the Colosseum in Rome–all worthy of anyone’s “bucket” list.

You can also read about our trip to the Yucatan in my 8/19/2013 post, Mexican Food in the Yucatan, and my 8/5/2013 post, Akumal, Mexico: Place of the Sea Turtles. 

All text and photos copyright Caroline Arnold.

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