Mayan majesty rises out of the past and into the future
The sacred Mayan city of Chichen Itza holds many secrets within its ancient stone walls-including what the end of the Mayan calendar really means–but its eloquence and grandeur are no mystery. Though its zenith as a thriving metropolis and seat of power ended nearly one thousand years ago, this bewitching city will stay with you long after you leave.
Known for their extraordinary skill in mathematics, astronomy and art, the Maya were one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the ancient world and built architectural wonders that we still marvel at today.
The majestic city of Chichen Itza is dominated by the Pyramid of Kukulcan (Feathered Serpent), rising up from the Great Plaza towards the sun. You can easily imagine a bustling urban populace watched over by this architectural wonder, also known as El Castillo (Castle). Unfortunately you can no longer climb the steep 91 steps to the top of the temple, but if you visit during the fall or spring equinox you can witness the mathematical genius of its designers.
As the sun slowly sets on Kukulcan during the equinox, light and shadow create the body of a giant serpent slithering down the main staircase to join its massive stone head at the base. You can bet this/*phenomenon was part of the reason the site was recently named a New Wonder of the World.
Ancient Temples and a Deadly Game
Only a small portion of Chichen Itza has been excavated, but you can easily spend the day exploring its myriad treasures. I recommend you take a guided tour of the complex first to get acclimated—and the guides have a wealth of history to impart.
The Sacred Cenote, for example, is a large limestone well that was believed to grant access to the Underworld and the Gods. The ruling elite tossed offerings of jewelry and gold into its greenish depths, and it was also used for ritual sacrifice. Over 30,000 objects have been retrieved from its murky bottom. Meanwhile your first glimpse of the Observatory (El Caracol-the Snail) will make you wonder if you’ve gone back to the future–its dome bears an uncanny resemblance to today’s observatories.
Temples large and small populate the site including one for the sacred jaguar. This ferocious feline was revered throughout Mesoamerica and believed to have carried the sun through the Underworld each night. In step with this ancient warrior culture you can also follow the Group of the Thousand Columns to the Temple of Warriors.
Chichen Itza’s Great Ball Court is the largest in Mesoamerica and the games played within its walls were deadly serious. Courtside art depicts players being decapitated but the jury is out as to whether these were winners or losers. Teams had to knock a 20 centimeter rubber ball through a small ring seven meters off the ground without using their hands.
Most structures are heavily adorned with the celebrated work of Mayan artists depicting their rich and vibrant culture, so fans of pre-Columbian art will be amply rewarded. You cannot purchase the real thing of course but there are plenty of local merchants selling their 21st century interpretations at designated areas throughout the site. Buy something to remember your visit, but make sure your barter–it’s expected.
Chichen Itza and Cancun Beach
Chichen Itza is a World Heritage Site in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, approximately 75 miles from Merida and 125 miles from Cancun. Making Cancun your home base to visit Mayan ruins gives you the opportunity of a top-tier Caribbean vacation as well. Visit Cancun Travel for more information.
Designed as a beachside playground with all the amenities, Cancun Beach has plenty of hotels, but you cannot go wrong with two side-by-side waterfront Marriott venues. CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort is a AAA four diamond venue loaded with charm and perfect for getaways, families and groups.
JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, () is a AAA five diamond venue with a Mayan-inspired world class spa. While there try Balche, a Mayan drink made with honey, lilies and calendula. Both hotels are offer reasonable deals year long so visit the websites for details.
If you go: Chichen Itza is a well maintained site with restrooms, refreshments and paths that offer shade. Even so, dress for the heat and bring a hat, sun block, insect repellant and water. Take the guided tour and if you plan to visit during the equinox be prepared for a huge crowd.
Below in order of appearance: 1)Today’s pre-Columbian art interpretations 2) The Great Ball Court where the game was deadly serious 3) Highly decorative motifs adorn most structures 4)The three-story Observatory (El Caracol) rises up towards the cosmos
All photos by Karen Jones