And we are off to the Mayan ruin of Chichen Itza. We leave Merida rather early to get a jump on one of the more popular and visited ruins in Yucatan. The original game plan did not include a visit to Chichen Itza, but it becomes apparent that this is one of those things that one MUST do. It is conveniently located near enough to Merida to make the decision an expedient choice. Let’s lighten that bucket list by one, even if it was never on the list in the first place.
We have been warned to arrive early to beat the rush. Believing the park opens at 9, we arrive at the sound of the opening bell to discover that the park opened an hour earlier and we are now at the end of a very long queue at a well developed entrance that begins to resemble Disneyland. I have been thinking a guide would serve us well today. Providence provides us shortly with a young man who speaks well-English and invites us to hire his services. How many in the group? One other couple. Can he get us out of the line? Absolutely, and we are happy to follow.
Have I mentioned that none of the Archaeological Zonas take credit cards or accept anything other than the native Mexican currency? Arrive prepared with coin of the realm or look for an ATM. (Believe me, they have them handy.)
Beyond the entrance we make our way down a long path of hawkers and barkers setting up for a hard day of playing jaguar flutes and selling widgets and trinkets. (Along the way there are some bonafide artists, but largely pretty standard concessions.)
And then we see the magnificence of El Castillo, the great Pyramid of Kulkulkan, the feathered serpent. Much can be said of this imposing structure, which may be the most iconic image of the Mayan empire (though it exhibits much later Toltec influence as well). I will leave it to the reader to enjoy a more thorough description through Google searches. Or you can drop into the Wiki site for El Castillo linked here. With the advent of massive commercialization and tourism, many people are disappointed that they can no longer climb the temples and monuments. Personally I had no problem with this restriction. As a photographer I preferred the clean shots of the ruins without people crawling up and down like an ant hill.
We do start to glean some very interesting information from our very reasonably priced guide. The city of Chichen Itza was never found by the Spaniards. It was buried in jungles, having suffered a terminal decline after wars with Uxmal and other cities along with a variety of stresses including resource depletion. Also we learn that El Castillo was not built in a day, as the saying goes. We have already discovered that monuments such at the Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltun were found to be covered by larger structures. We learn something of the Mayan calendar in this regard. To make a long count short, the calendar makes a complete cycle very 52 years known at the Calendar Round. At the time of these cycle completions, new pyramids were often built over older structures.
Another curious calendar fact related to the arrangements of months.
The Haab is a 365-day solar calendar which is divided into 18 months of 20 days each and one month which is only 5 days long (Uayeb). This short month of the nameless days was considered to be a time of ill-fortune, and children born during the Uayeb were often offered for sacrifice. For those interested in trying to wrap their heads around the intricacies and subtleties of the calendar I would recommend the following links:
Wikipedia’s Mayan Calendar and The Mayan Calendar at TimeAndDate.com
Our guide led us to the Temple of the Warriors, the Venus Platform and the Ball Court. Interesting stories at each and every turn, which Carolyn paid attention to as I was merrily clicking away. The Ball Court was of particular interest in several respects. It is different than the court at Uxmal, with the rings being higher and smaller. This necessitated a change in the way the game was played. No longer what the player restricted to use only hips arms and knees. Given the size and weight of the ball (Mayans developed a technique to make chicle bouncy) it would be physically impossible for a player to score a point unaided. Given this physical limitation a net on a stick (think lacrosse?) and a bat were used. One score generally meant the game is won.
Having won the game, our guide confirmed the captain would be sacrificed. Term limits in sports … what a concept. Our guide showed us a fresco of a ball player, having lost his head, with serpents emerging from his neck. Remember in the Uxmal blog I mentioned that “The Mayan people believe in reincarnation. The face in the mouth of the serpent suggests the rebirth of a soul, and can also be interpreted as the return of an ancestor. According to several Mayan guides, human sacrifices were often voluntary, as a means of giving a life for the benefit of the people.” Our guide suggested that perhaps the rendition of the snakes emerging from the sacrificed player might suggest the sacrifice was a virtual-style sacrifice, wherein the player was reborn into a higher caste of the society, thereby sacrificing his old identity. And perhaps this interpretation was meant to appease the sensibilities of his more civilized guests. At this juncture, he left us to our own devices and times, and we happily tipped his sensitivity to our sensibilities and for his job well done.
On our own we walked down to the Sacred Cenote, This sinkhole was a place of pilgrimage for the ancient Maya as most of the objects that were offered were not native to the Yucatan and pilgrims must have travelled great distances to offer their precious objects to Chac. When the cenote was dredged they found numerous precious objects including gold, jade, shell, wood, obsidian and wooden objects which were preserved in the water. There were also skeletons of men and children with wounds consistent with sacrifice. Chichen Itza was a ceremonial center, and only the guardians of this center lived on site. All others lived outside the center. There are other cenotes such as Xtoloc Cenote on the opposite side of the compound which we came to understand was the place where the Mayans drew their drinking water.
Chichen Itza is a rather huge and well developed “ruin.” As such it is largely overrun. There are hawkers and concessionaires along every lane and margin of the grounds. I grew quite tired by the end of the day of the ubiquitous jaguar whistles. Most of the offered goods was the same schlock from one end of the compound to the others leading me to believe that a central enterprise was at play here and using the locals on a commission basis. On occasion we would see a true artist at work on a unique carving. Overall, I felt like I was in the midst of a Mayan Renaissance faire.
There are lots of arms and avenues to explore and we spent the better part of the day engaged in wonderful discovery. I will share one more photo of the grounds and then invite you to visit the Chichen Itza Gallery for a more complete offering of photos and tidbits of information. High on the list of things I wanted to see was the Observatory. Back in its day, this structure was actually a set of stacked cylinders, stuccoed and painted. Centuries later through the decay of age, it now resembles Palomar. Could this be how it got its name? There is so much to learn. We have but scratched the surface and caught an itch that deserves deeper scratching.
And once again, as a our reward for a day well spent, we visited the local cenote. Ik-kil Cenote proved to be as popular and commercialized as Chichen Itza, but once in the waters, it was all good!
Stay tuned for a link to our next day’s foray to Izamal.
Previous days in the Yucatan: Marida and Dzibilchaltun and Uxmal
As usual, there are many more photos and information about the buildings of Chichen Itza to share, which can be found in the Chichen Itza Gallery