Chichen Itza

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… looking up the from the corner of El Castillo, the central pyramid at Chichen Itza…

As a student of history, I really love a good archeological exhibit or museum.  In the case of Cancun with its never-ending parties, warm and inviting beaches and wonderful food, I had always wanted to “supplement” my visits to the Yucatan with a trip to Chichen Itaza.  Again and again I talk to Americans that have been to Cancun a dozen times and have never been to the Mayan pyramid ruins.  Hopefully this post will encourage more to make the – fairly easy – trip to this ancient spot.

It seems that every hotel is offering tours to the ruins, whether it be in a private car or in a tourist bus.  Certainly these are the easiest ways to get there but I opted for more of the “local route” on the public bus system.  Not only would this give me a chance to mix with the locals (and practice my Spanish), but it is certainly a lot less expensive.  Tour bus trips vary in price from $25 to $50 depending on your choice of bus or private car.  One advantage of these package deals is that they pick you up at your hotel.  Instead, I took the local bus to the central terminal (pictured below) and then purchased tickets to Chichen Itza.

A round trip ticket (in 2001) was a little less than $7.  The bus terminal was clean, efficient and felt relatively safe.  A security guard (also pictured below) patrolled the parking lot with a large-caliber 7.62mm FN-FAL folding stock rifle.  I am sure that he deterred any would be criminals from the area.  Knowing a bit of Spanish made the ticket purchase much easier, but if you don’t speak spanish, consult your phrase or travel book, write out your destination and time and present your paper to the clerk.  This helped me quite a bit in Russia on my trans-Siberian railroad tour.  The bus ride was comfortable and on time.  The time in transit from Cancun was about 2 hours.  We were informed where our bus would pick up and that the last bus out was at sundown.  It was a relatively easy process; anyone visiting Cancun – I certainly recommend that you make the trip.

Once we paid our admission fare to the park, we made our way down a jungle trail and at the first opening we came to El Castillo, the central pyramid of Chichen Itza.  It was quite an amazing site and seeing it for the first time made me quite happy that I had taken a day away from the beach to come and see it.

The pyramid or Kukulcan Temple was built, as many other cultures have done, on top of a smaller older temple.  Excavations inside the pyramid have revealed a throne, jaguar statues and older temples that preceded this building.  The depiction below (borrowed from Wiki) shows the layout of the pyramid and surrounding buildings.

My jaw almost hit the floor when I saw people climbing the stairways and “hanging out” on the upper level.  I had never considered that tourists would be allowed to climb on this ancient structure but I was pleasantly surprised as I wanted to ascend it myself.  I had always heard of the stories of the tourists climbing the great pyramids as Giza and when I arrived in Egypt I learned, do my dismay, that the Egyptian government had banned tourists from climbing on them some years earlier.

I scaled the pyramid and once on top I could see above the jungle for miles.  I thought back to what it must have been like for the Royal family and the priests who scaled this pyramid, looking down on large crowds of their subjects and the endless jungle on the horizon.  It must have been a remarkable sight.  In the movie Apocalypto by Mel Gibson, he was able to show (somewhat) what it must have been like.  His movie focused on the great pyramids at Teotihuacan.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it.  Be forewarned, it is a bit bloody as was the custom of the time.

On the insides of the upper chamber of the pyramid were beautiful engraved walls.  Again, I couldn’t believe that they let the tourists come up here and I saw one tourist after another touch and feel the carvings and I wondered if they would last for another two or three generations before they were worn smooth by the tens of thousands of oily touching fingers.  In the background on the photo below is the great ball court – an INSANE game played for the pleasure of the emperor and his court.

On the other side of the pyramid, just below is the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors).  Archaeological evidence shows that this complex fell into disuse about a thousand years ago.  Considering 10 centuries have passed and the jungle that covered it before it was re-cleared, it is amazing that it is in the fine shape that it is in.  As I stood on top of this 1,000+ year old building looking out over the Yucatan Peninsula, I couldn’t help but think about so many of my friends that have been to Cancun a dozen times and have never come to this spot (yes Mike K., I’m talking to you!).

From this side shot of the pyramid, you can see how steep the stairs are.  Many of the tourists eagerly climbed up the stairs to find out that they were scared to death to come back down.  As you can see in the second photo below, looking down is a lot scarier than looking up.  Most of the people sat down on one stair, lowered their legs to the next and then repeated the process, pretty much dragging their tail ends all the way down the stone staircase.

The photo below is of the observatory, explained in the guide-book as one of the most important buildings at the site.  The Mayans were keen astronomers and kept close watch on the sun, moon, planets and the stars.  They were able to track and predict the solstices as well as solar and lunar eclipses.  I am sure that knowing that the sun was going to go dark would put the high priest and the emperor at a position of awe and wonderment in front of their people.  The round structure in the center of the building was an actual observatory where the priests would watch and measure the movements of the planets, stars, sun and moon.

As with many of the ruins that I have seen around the world that are located in jungle areas, when you get up close you are able to understand how entire cities go “lost” for generations.  Dirt and leaves accumulate on top of the pyramids and then seeds sprout sending their roots between the stones.  Eventually the pyramids and buildings are completely covered by jungle and then look just like hilltops.  As I was wandering around some the hundreds of smaller secondary ruins, I came across the root of this tree that had traveled down and over the stones again and again eventually forcing them apart.  In doing this, the trees break down the ruins and cover them at the same time.

The photo below shows the great ball court.  In this – rather crazy game – the object was to place a small rubber ball, about the size of a tennis ball through a hoop about 18′ (6 meters) high on the wall.  If you look at the photo below, on the left side, you can see the “hoop” where the winning team would score a goal.  On the inset photo on the right, I am standing below the hoop so that you can see how high it is.

To win the game, the winning team only had to score one goal and then the game was over.  But here is the catch, you could not use your arms.  The goal had to be scored using feet and legs only.  We were told stories that the game could last as long as 2 days and some players dropped from exhaustion during its course.  And the second catch: the winning team had their heads cut off.  Apparently it was a great honor to die for the emperor and you were playing to get your head cut off!

The Mayans, like the Aztecs and Toltecs were pretty bloodthirsty.  Ritual sacrifices were common and one platform called the platform of skulls was stacked high with the skulls of the sacrifice victims.  Stone engraved skulls also covered the platform and it had quite an eerie look.  In the photo below, the emperor is shown carrying the head of a victim.  It seems that decapitation was a common practice and they didn’t seem to think badly of it.  I wondered how many thousands of victims were killed here.  After seeing the movie Apocalypto, I had a mental image to go along with the stories I read in the tourist guide-book.


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