Day 33: Chichén Itzá

Sat. 15th September 2012

El Castillo - The Pyramid of KukulcánToday was Chichén Itzá day and we weren’t sure what to expect – Wonder of the World or astronomical let-down. After spending something around 5 hours on the site, it is definitely the former.

We had an early start and were at the ticket office by 8:30 in order to beat both the heat of the day and the crowds – if the other sites are anything to go by, once the tour busses arrive, the site will be packed. Our hotel was by the entrance at the East Gate, which is the smaller of the two entrances. As we were to find out the West Entrance is much bigger and busier.

Chac-Mool - Reclining god above the Templo de los GuerrosThe advertised price for a guide was Mex$600 (£30) per group – after a bit of dithering and checking with the Swiss couple beside us as to whether they wanted to share a guide, we ended up cutting a deal for Mex$400. This was really worthwhile – we learnt so much more from our guide than we would have got by our selves or from the guide book. For example:

  • The Toltecs came after the Mayans civilisations and brought in the human sacrifices, but also built upon the Mayan beliefs (as well as building over the Mayan temples – there is a Mayan temple inside the Pyramid of Kukulcán);
  • Snake carving (and head) on this wallThe most important god for the Mayans was the Rain god (Chac-Mool). For the Toltecs, their main god was the Snake god (Quetzalcóatl/ Kukulcán). For the Mayans, the snake was a symbol of fertility and hence you you see carvings and representations of snakes everywhere;
  • The echoes and acoustic properties of the Pyramid of Kukulcán (if you clap in front of one of the staircases, the echo sounds like a bird’s call) and clap in the main ball court and there are  seven echoes.  See the video below which I have managed to upload on to YouTube (yes, I did hate myself for using a Google service!);

  • Even in 900AD, the Mayans (Toltecs) had no metal tools, no wheeled vehicles and no use of horses – they would have been rubbish in a real life game of CivIII! On the other hand, their maths, astronomy and architecture skills were first rate.

Templo de los Guerros (Warriors' Temple)Overall, we were blown away by Chichén Itzá. Whilst it is on a smaller site than Coba, there were more buildings, more variety and more to see. It was clearly more important to the Mayans than other sites – for example,  the size of the Juego de Pelota (ball court) was 3 or 4 times the size of the equivalent at Coba. The Grupo de las Mil Columnas is so named after the forest of columns that supported a building some 400m x 300m.

The site was quiet first thing in the morning and it got busier through the day – both with tourists and traders selling goods – though it never got quite as busy as we feared it would. Some of the goods being sold by traders were well made and beautiful (for example, some carved wooden masks) and we would have bought one had we been on a normal holiday. Most goods were, however, just the usual utter tat. “Almost free!” and “only one dollar’ are the cries (lies) from the hawkers.

Snake heads at base of Pyramid - waiting for feathered serpent to descendObviously, one of the highlights was El Castillo (the Pyramid of Kukulcán). Yes it is a cliché, but it is absolutely stunning, particularly when you stand at the north east corner and you see the two faces that have been restored (they are no more original stones with with to restore the rest). It is set apart from other buildings (so a crowd could gather around it). It is precisely aligned N,S, E, W – famously the setting sun on the Spring & Autumn equinoxes gradually lights up be balustrade of the northern steps, creating an effect of a feathered serpent coming down the steps.

It is an astronomical as well as an architectural feat –  there are different numbers of steps on each face – 90 on East face, 91 on North and 92 on each of the West and South faces to represent a total of 365 days. (Mayans then stopped their calendar every 52 years for 13 days of religious festivals – as opposed to our additional day every 4 years).

One half of the Juego de PelotaThe Gran Juego de Pelota, was not only much bigger than the ball courts at Coba but it also had vertical walls (previously the walls had been on a slope). Apparently, other pitches were purely for training and this one is only used once every 4 years. There are carvings on the lower walls that illustrate the game and it does seem that the winning captain has the honour of being sacrificed – perhaps to go to the afterlife himself, or perhaps to promote fertility for the people – either way, no thanks!

Wall of skullsOther highlights include the ‘wall of skulls’ and the chac-mool reclining god statues (see picture at the top of the post) that are scattered around the site – and seen more widely in the tourist shops all around the Yucatan.

Whist we were a little disappointed that the evening sound & light show mentioned in the guides was not running (due to some of the renovation work) it was still a great day.

In Cancun & Playa del Carmen, we saw tours to Chichén Itzá advertised for US$107 per person. Like Miraslava (from Tulum) we would definitely recommend that you avoid them like the plague. Go for the DIY option like we did – we spent less money (including two nights accommodation, entry fees and guide) and we had far longer on site and a much better guide experience than just being herded around. Start early in the morning whilst it is cooler and (hopefully) the light show will be running again so you can go back in the evening.

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