The famous Mayan pyramids of
Chichén-Itzá are over 1500 years old and are located only 75
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
The ruins of Chichén-Itzá lie
about midway between
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
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 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
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.
THE PYRAMID OF
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
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.
THE BALL COURT
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.
TEMPLE OF THE
JAGUARS AND THE
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
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
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.
GROUP OF THE
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.
THE CARACOL (THE
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
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.
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