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CHICHÉN-ITZÁ                                                                            Printer friendly version


The famous Mayan pyramids of Chichén-Itzá are over 1500 years old and are located only 75 miles from Mérida. The name Chichén-Itzá is a Mayan word: CHI (mouth) CHEN (well) and ITZA (of the witch water). Some say this is because people were often thrown into the nearby cenote as sacrifices, and those who survived were believed to be seers.

The ruins of Chichén-Itzá lie about midway between Cancún and Mérida, so that the journey from each city takes around tow or three hours via the new expressway. It is possible to see the main structures on a day trip from Cancún, and many tour buses do just this resulting in a large influx of visitors around 10 – 11 am. Chichén-Itzá is the most visited site in the Yucatán and it can get very crowded here, so if at all possible try to arrive soon after the 8 am opening. This will give you time to climb the Pyramid of Kukulkán before it gets too hot, and will allow you to view the whole site from the top before the crowds swarm in. Alternatively, leave your visit until later in the day and stay overnight nearer the site, returning in the early morning. Ideally, you will need two days for a good understanding of the site, which covers four square miles.

The site is divided into three sections. The North grouping of structures is distinctly Toltec in style. The central group appears to be from the early period. The southern group is known as "The Old Chichén." All three can be seen comfortably in one day.

Try to visit Chichén-Itzá early in the morning or late in the afternoon, as the sun can be punishing at midday. The main attraction is the central pyramid, The Pyramid of Kukulkán “El Castillo de la Serpiente Emplumada,” which means "Castle of the feathered Serpent." The feathered serpent is a popular deity in various Mesoamerican cultures. Among other names, the Mayans called this God Kukulkán. It is sometimes possible to visit the inside passageway of the pyramid, but we would encourage visitors who are claustrophobic to skip that part of the adventure.

If you are up to the challenge, inside you will find a narrowly enclosed staircase that leads to a Chaac Mool, an altar where sacrificial hearts were placed to be offered to the gods. Climbing to the top of the pyramid is a popular thing to do, and a guide rope is provided. Take it slowly and you will enjoy one of the most beautiful views of the Yucatán from the top.

Just beyond El Castillo you will find a large ball court where Mayan men played a game called “Pok ta Pok.” Anthropologists believe that the object of the game was to hurl a ball through a ring that was mounted on a wall, seven meters above the ground. Each team had six field players who would attempt to pass the ball - using any body part except their hands - to their captain who would attempt the shot using a racket of sorts. The captain of the team that made the first successful shot was then decapitated as a sacrifice to the gods. This was seen as an honor and guaranteed entrance into heaven.

There is a certain mystical energy about the ball court that begs to be experienced first-hand. One fact worth noting is the repetition of the number seven, which was sacred to the Mayans. There were seven players on a team, the rings were seven meters high and if you clap your hands or shout in the court, the sound will echo exactly seven times. There are carvings on the stone walls that depict the ball players (some of which are remarkably intact) and after the captain is beheaded, seven serpents grow out of his neck.

But the true mystery behind the ball court at Chichén-Itzá is the Mayan prophecy that on December 22, 2012, the great warrior serpent Kukulkán will rise from the ground beneath the playing field and end the world for good. Even if you're not one to believe in predictions, it's still exhilarating and eerie to stand in the middle of the court, close your eyes and imagine.

Chichén-Itzá has been widely studied, and excavated and restored more than any of the other Mayan cities. Yet its history is still clouded in mystery and there are many contradicting theories and legends.

It is clear that a large Mayan community thrived here between around 700 AD and 900 AD, and built most of the structures in the southern area. However, the main buildings in the central area, including the Pyramid of Kukulkán, the Temple of the Warriors and the Ball Court, are Toltec in design and influence.

The Toltecs originated from Central México, and one respected theory suggests that the Toltecs invaded Chichén-Itzá and imposed their architectural style on new constructions. Alternatively, we know that the Maya traded extensively and it is possible that they were influenced by the Toltecs in their own architecture. Another more recent theory claims that Tula, capital of the Toltecs, was actually under the domination of the Maya, resulting in a transfer of style from one city to another. There are fragments of evidence to support each line of thought, but no conclusive evidence for any single theory.

Compounding the mystery are ancient legends passed down through the Mayan tribes and also the Toltecs. According to Toltec history, in 987 AD the legendary ruler Quetzalcóatl was defeated and expelled from Tula. He was last seen leaving from the Gulf coast on a raft of serpents. However, in the same year, Mayan stories recorded the arrival of a king named Kukulkán, the Serpent God, whose return had been expected. Kukulkán defeated the Mayan city tribes, and made Chichén-Itzá his capital.

Towering above the other buildings at 79 feet (24 m) high, the Pyramid of Kukulkán has a structured feel about it. Two of its sides have been completely restored, the other two were left to show the condition before work commenced. Each side had originally 91 steps, adding the platform at the top as a final step there are 365 in total one for every day of the year. Further evidence that this building was linked to the Mayan interests of astronomy and the calendar is demonstrated at the spring and autumn equinox. On these days the shadow of the sun playing on the stairs causes the illusion of a snake processing down the pyramid in the direction of the cenote. Naturally, it’s an impressive sight, and there are usually thousands of people on the site at these times.

It’s quite a climb to the top, but once you are there you will have a terrific view of the rest of the ruins. The temple at the top of the pyramid has carvings of Chaac, the rain god, and Quetzalcóatl, the serpent god. As at Uxmal, this temple was built over the top of an original structure and at limited times of the day (check at the entrance) you can enter the old temple via a passage under the northern stairway. Inside you’ll see a sculpture of a jaguar, painted red and with jade eyes, exactly as it was discovered.

From the Pyramid of Kukulkán, head north-east to the Great Ball Court, the largest of its kind in the Maya world. There are eight other much smaller ball courts at Chichén-Itzá and more in other Maya cities, but this one was deliberately built on a much grander scale than any others. The length of the playing field here is 40 feet (135 m) and two 25 feet (8 m) high walls run alongside the field.

The game itself involved two teams, each able to hit the ball only with elbows, wrists or hips, and the object was to knock the ball through one of the stone hoops on the walls of the court.

Look at the carvings on the lower walls of the court and you will see that this was not a casual sport there are clear depictions of one team member with blood spurting from his headless neck, while another holds the head aloft. Some people think the captain of the losing side was executed by the winner; others suggest that the winners earned an honorable sacrifice. No-one knows for sure. It is said that the game was used either as a method of settling disputes, or as an offering to the gods, perhaps in times of drought. Only the best were selected to play, and to be sacrificed in this way was a great honor.

Imagine, then, the significance of this giant court, where the goals are 20 feet (66 m) high and the court is longer than a football pitch. The acoustics here are superb - a low voice at one end of the court can be heard clearly at the other end and the atmosphere during a game must have been electrifying. It is said that only the noblest could attend the court itself, the general population having to listen from outside.

From the ball court, head east across the central area towards the Group of the Thousand columns. On the way, you will see the Temple of the Jaguars with its friezes of the Toltec jaguar emblem, and the Tzompantli or Platform of the skulls. It is believed that the Tzompantli (a Toltec word) was the platform used for the sacrifices resulting from the ball game.

Before you reach the Group of the Thousand Columns, you will see a pathway heading north, just by the Platform of Venus. This is actually the route of an ancient sacbé, and leads to the Sacred Cenote.

A cenote is a sinkhole in the limestone bed, accessing an underwater river. These cenotes were very important to the Mayans as their main source of water and had great religious significance. Here you will see a deep almost circular hole with steep sides and murky green water beneath.

There are stories of sacrificial victims being thrown into the cenote, along with offerings of treasure. In 1901 an American, Edward Thompson, bought the land around the site and proceeded to dredge the cenote. He found jewelry, pottery, figurines and the bones of many humans, mostly children. An international dispute arose when he shipped the findings to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, where some still remain (the remainder have since been returned to the Mexicans.) The evidence, however, was inconclusive as it was feasible that children were most likely to fall into the cenote during play rather than as a deliberate act of sacrifice.

A stroll to the cenote is a pleasant diversion from the ruins and makes an ideal refreshment stop. There is a small café/shop nearby and restrooms are available. 

After visiting the cenote, head back towards the Group of the Thousand Columns. This complex incorporates the Temple of the Warriors and a series of columns, some of which feature carvings of Toltec warriors. It is believed that the columns originally supported a thatched roof which may have been used to provide shade for a market place.

The temple itself displays another aspect of Toltec architecture the use of “Atlantean figures,” or statues supporting the altar. Here the statues are of warriors, each with the appearance of a different racial type. It is unclear as to whether these designs were accidental or whether the Maya were really aware of the diversity of the human race.

Look also for the large Chaac Mool sculpture, again a feature of Central Mexican rather than Yucatecan design. The reclining figure holds a bowl, awaiting some sacrificial offering. 

From the central plaza, take the path to the southern area of the ruins. This is thought to house the oldest constructions, and is predominantly Mayan in design.

The Nunnery (Edificio de las Monjas) and the Church (La Iglesia), both erroneously named by the Spanish, are in relatively poor condition. Look for depictions in La Iglesia of the four bacabs; these creatures (the crab, the armadillo, the snail and the turtle) were believed to be responsible for holding up the heavens.

The most impressive structure is the Caracol, named for its curved inner stairway reminiscent of a snail. Also known as the Observatory, this tower was used for astronomy. Its windows were aligned with the four cardinal directions and the position of the setting sun at the equinoxes.

At the entrance to Chichén-Itzá, there is an informative museum, a dining room, clean restrooms, a few gift shops and vendor stands. If you didn't bring a hat, it's a good idea to buy one from one of the vendors outside before you go in.

For prices, reservations, availability and bookings, please contact us at: visit@luxuriousmexico.com

Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological Zone, Pyramid of Kukulkan 3 - El Castillo - Photo by German Murillo-Echavarria 0405
The Pyramid of Kukulkán "El Castillo" at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological Zone, Temple of The Warriors 1 - Photo by German Murillo-Echavarria 0405
The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological zone, Ball Court 1 - Photo by Chichen-Itza
The Ball Court at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological Zone, Astronomic Observatory - El Caracol 2 - Photo by German Murillo-Echavarria 0406
The Astronomic Observatory "El Caracol" at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological Zone, Thousand Columns, Detail 2 - Photo by German Murillo-Echavarria 0405
The Thousand Columns at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological Zone, Pyramid of the Ossuary 1 - Photo by German Murillo-Echavarria 0405
The Ossuary Pyramid at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological Zone, Temple of the Jaguars and Eagles 2- Photo by German Murillo-Echavarria 0405
The Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological zone, Sacred Cenote - Photo by Chichen-Itza
The Sacred Well at Chichén-Itzá
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Archeological zone, Pyramid of Kukulkan, Equinoccio - Photo by Mayayucatan
Yucatan, Chichen-Itza, Equinox