The Kukulcan Pyramid: The Best Time To See the Feathered Serpent’s Shadow

Kukulcan, the mythical feathered serpent of the ancient Maya, still shows up every year on the pyramid named after him in Chichen Itza. At least his shadow does.

It happens at sunset during each equinox. However, it’s not only for one day.

Equinoxes, both spring and fall, marks the time when the sun is positioned directly over equator and the length of day and night is equal. Or nearly equal. The word “equinox” comes from the Latin: equi = equal non = night, or, the full word: “equal night”. 

The day of the spring equinox marks the beginning of spring and the end of winter, while the autumn equinox marks the end of summer and beginning of fall. Throughout history, people marked and celebrated these events, especially the spring, or vernal equinox, since it marks the beginning of nature returning to life after the long winter sleep.

In Mexico, Chichen Itza is the most popular spot to celebrate the spring equinox. Thousands of visitors gather to watch the mythical serpent’s shadow descending the steps of the Castillo. The phenomena of the light and shadow movements looks like an enormous snake is creeping downstairs.

Though the light show is most obvious on the date of the spring equinox, you don’t need to be there on the exact day and battle the inevitable crowds to see it. Of course, if you don’t mind them, or enjoy watching the phenomenon in a huge group of thousands, nothing wrong with it. But if you just want to see it for yourself, in a quiet setting, there is another way. And you don’t have to pay extra for the experience, either.

A Trip of Many to Yucatan

A few years ago, we ended up in Yucatan around the spring equinox (March 21st). Our trips had to align with the spring break for our kids, and that year, the break was very early in April, so we knew we might see Kukulcan if we visited Chichen Itza.

By then we were skipping the well-known site during our trips to the peninsula; we didn’t want to deal with crowds. But realizing that we could see this phenomenon, we decided to go for it.

However, we needed planning, more than our usual go-with-the-flow, drive and stop when we felt like it style travel.

To avoid the front-gate madhouse of the popular site, we stayed at one of the hotels behind the ruins, the Hacienda Chichen.

Staying at the Hacienda Chichen

We wanted to stay at the Hacienda Chichen for a while because of its history. This turned out one of those opportunities that worked out and we went with it. Traveling with three kids, the youngest one still a toddler, made this hotel the highlight of the family trip. At least until we saw the shadow of Kukulcan.

We had our own cottage, with a palapa roof and a porch with a hammock and chairs. Two pools on the premises also meant a great time for our kids. In fact, we spent all day at the pool and hotel, didn’t even bother going to the ruins during the Chichen Itza rush-hours.

After dinner, about half an hour before they closed the site, we walked over. The main reason we chose the Hacienda Chichen for our stay was its proximity to the back entrance to the ruins.

Visiting the Ruins of Chichen Itza Just Before Closing Time

A UNESCO Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the ancient site of Chichen Itza is deservedly popular. Being one of the most visited Maya Ruins everywhere (the only one more popular being Tulum), it is hard to time a visit without dealing with crowds. But since we visited the ruins many times before, we skipped the walk through the whole archaeological site. We only wanted to see the Pyramid of Kukulcan, and hoped to see the shadow of the feathered serpent god descending its stairs.

This was the reason we entered the site a few minutes before closing time, at sunset. No one was lined up to enter so late in the day. The gatekeeper shook his head when he saw us.

“We are closing soon, you have little time,” he said.

“We know; it’s ok,” I answered, and pulled out the money to pay.

Looking at the kids, he waved us in.

“Not enough time to visit everything. You need to be fast,” he added.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan

We’ve been at the site so many times by then, we knew every structure, every turn. This time, we only wanted to see the Pyramid of Kukulcan at sunset. We were hoping to see the shadow of the feathered serpent descending the stairs.

Almost a week after the equinox we weren’t sure it would still happen, but we tried anyway. We walked over to the Castillo.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan is impressive, no matter how you look at it. Sitting in the center of a huge plaza, it dominates the ancient city. As customary for the ancient Maya, they built it on top of an older pyramid, which encased an even older one, which encased a cenote in its center.

Front view of the Castillo, Pyramid of Kukulcan, from across the Plaza

The Maya considered certain locations sacred, and they built their most important structures there. They never tore down an old pyramid or temple; Instead, they encased it in a newer one. That’s how we ended up with gorgeous, well-preserved structures after the top layers crumbled over the centuries.

But in Chichen Itza’s case, nothing crumbled, at least not enough to fall apart. And when archaeologists discovered the pyramid, they reconstructed it. They kept a narrow stairway leading inside the pyramid open; We used to take guided tours inside to see the older structure.

They eventually stopped the inside tours, so our kids never got to do this. I feel extremely lucky I still did. I remember how dark and hot it was inside, as we climbed the stairs in the belly of the pyramid. Once on top, behind a mesh, I glimpsed a jaguar throne, and beside it, the Chac Mool figure.

But we didn’t get to go inside this time. Watching the bigger pyramid, built on top, was enough. Especially if we would also see Kukulcan, the feathered serpent descending its stairs.

Though the stairway looks like it’s waiting for someone to climb it, we can no longer do it.

Years ago I climbed the Castillo, stood on top and walked into the temple. It was a great experience, it still saddens me that my kids didn’t get to do it.

They closed it down the year I promised my son I would let him climb it. The previous year, he begged me, but at five years old, I thought he was too young. We would come back, I assured him, when he was older. He remembered the promise the next time we visited. He was looking forward to climbing the structure. None of us expected the rope that stopped us from getting close. Now you can’t enter it, you can’t climb on it… but you can still admire it.

The Magic of the Castillo

The pyramid we see today dates from between the 9th and 12th centuries, the Post-classic period of the Ancient Maya civilization. It was a temple dedicated to Kukulcan, the feathered serpent of the Itza people.

Perfect symmetry, nine terraces, 365 steps, a temple on top, statues of Kukulcan on the stairways, an older pyramid encased inside it, built on top of a cenote make the Pyramid of Kukulcan one of the New Wonders of the World.

Built using square terraces, the pyramid is symmetrical, with four stairways leading to the top. If you’d count the stairs leading to the temple on top, you’d realize that there are 91 of them on each of the four sides. 91×4=364, and adding the one step that leads into the temple, makes 365 steps by the time you enter it. This corresponds to the number of days in a solar year, Haab year as the Maya called it.

Sculptures of Kukulcan decorate the sides of the four stairways.

Adding to this architecture is the spectacle of Kukulcan’s shadow descending.

The Descent of Kukulcan

We were standing in front of the pyramid, trying to see the shadow of a feathered serpent.

The sun was setting, the site was closing, and we had to leave soon, but I saw nothing interesting happening. Looking around, I doubted we would see anything we haven’t seen before. No one was there, waiting for the famous phenomenon; the last vendors were packing up their fare.

I turned to leave, telling the kids the site was closing when I heard my daughter ask,

“Is that it?”

I looked back, and noticed it, too.

The sun’s setting rays illuminated the north side of the stairs, forming a series of interconnecting triangles, and the head of the serpent on the bottom. With a bit of imagination, it looked like a huge snake laying on the stairway.

Kukulcan descending the Castillo

As we were watching it, we noticed it getting thinner and thinner, until the top fragment disappeared. By then the next part was thin until that one also disappeared. The same thing happened to all the other triangles. At some point, all we saw was a narrow line running down a few steps to the bottom. At last, it all disappeared, except the huge serpent head at the base, still illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. Finally, as the sun set, even the head disappeared into the shadow.

It all lasted for about twenty minutes.  As the triangles disappeared, they created the illusion of the serpent crawling down the stairs. It was a show I’ll always remember.

No one is sure if the ancient Maya designed the event on purpose or it happened during the pyramid’s reconstruction. It would make sense that they did. But even if it happened by chance, the light-and-shadow show is spectacular, and I was glad we saw it.

Who Was this Feathered Serpent, Kukulcan?

The feathered serpent Kukulcan was one of the main gods of the Itza people, one of their creators.

Like most ancient people, the Maya had more than one creator god. Kukulcan was special because he had both a human form and one of a feathered serpent.

In earlier Maya traditions he was the War Serpent, later the Vision Serpent, who helped the rulers connect to the Divine World.

But by the time the Itza adopted him, his cult became similar to the Aztec’s Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. He became the head of a pantheon of deities of mixed Maya and non-Maya origins.

He was the Sky God and the most powerful of the Maya deities.

Kukulcan head in old Chichen

In Yucatan, they mix references to Kukulcan as the Plumed Serpent or Feathered Serpent, with those of  Kukulcan as a human figure. The ancient city might have had a ruler named after the god.

Maya Folktales of Kukulcan

The Maya people in Yucatan still tell folk stories about Kukulcan.

According to my favorite version, Kukulcan was a boy born as a snake. As he grew, he turned into a feathered serpent and needed to hide. He moved into a cave, away from people. The only person who saw him was his sister, who cared for him. At least as long as she could. Eventually, Kukulcan grew so big that his sister could not feed him. That’s when he flew out into the sea, causing an earthquake as he left.

Other versions talk about Kukulcan as a winged serpent, telling stories about him flying up to the Sun or flying ahead of Chaak, the Rain God, helping to predict or bring rain.

No matter what version we go with, the Feathered Serpent Kukulcan has many representations through Chichen Itza, proving that he was an important deity for them.

Thinking of the Mythical Feathered Serpent

I am not watching Kukulcan’s shadow descending the Castillo of Chichen Itza today. But since it is the equinox I know he will descend again.

I wonder how many people watch it. I also wonder how much more we would know about this mythical figure if we could read the ancient Mayan books, or codices, with all their stories.

It is so sad when a new religious culture tries to destroy the old. More so, when they burn books in the name of their new religion. An overzealous Spanish priest, Diego de Landa,  ordered all the Maya books, beautiful, colorful codices, burned since he thought they were the “work of the devil.” Only three of them survived.

But the Maya stories survived even without the books. They are still told as folktales, and the stelae preserve the history and sometimes legends of the ancient Maya.  Though no tales about him survived in a book, Kukulcan still marks the equinoxes in Chichen Itza.

You Can See Kukulcan’s Shadow – Even Without the Crowds

You might never be able to see the real serpent, or read about him in an ancient book. But you can see sculptures of him in Chichen Itza and other ancient Maya sites. You can also see the shadow of his representation on the steps of the famous Castillo.

We saw the phenomenon alone at the site. If you time your visit right, you can, too.

The shadow of the mythical serpent Kukulcan descending is still visible up to a week before and after each equinox.

The time of the day will be different though, might be earlier or later than on the actual day of the equinox. So if you want to beat the crowds, but still see it, plan your visit a few days before and after the equinox, and make sure you stay until closing time or sunset.

In a nutshell: Things To Know

  1. Who (or what) is Kukulcan?

    Kukulcan is the mythical feathered serpent from the ancient Maya mythology.
    In the early Maya traditions, he was the war serpent. In later years, he was the vision serpent, connecting the Maya rulers with their ancestors.
    But he is best-known as the Sky God, one of the major gods of the ancient Maya, one of their creators. This is the role he has at Chichen Itza, where they built the Pyramid of Kukulcan in his honor.

  2. What is the “descent of Kukulcan”?

    The phenomenon referred to as the “descent of Kukulcan” takes place each year during the equinoxes, both vernal (spring) and autumnal (fall), and it consists of an illusion of a giant serpent descending the staircase of the Castillo in Chichen Itza. In fact, it is a shadow on the staircase slowly narrowing then disappearing altogether as the sun sets.

  3. When is the descent of Kukulcan visible on the Castillo?

    The descent of Kukulcan is visible during sunset on and around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Though it is generally believed that it is visible only for one day, the phenomenon is in fact visible up to a week before and after the equinoxes.

  4. Why is the Pyramid of Kukulcan so special?

    The Pyramid of Kukulcan, also known as the Castillo of Chichen Itza, is one of the masterpieces of the ancient Maya civilization in the post-classic era.
    The pyramid dedicated to the serpent god Kukulcan is symmetrical, with four stairways leading to the top. The number of steps on the pyramid correspond to the number of days in a solar year called Haab by the Maya (365: 91 on each of the four sides +1 leading into the temple on top).
    An intact older pyramid is buried inside the one we see today which encased an even older one, and a cenote is buried underneath them all.
    Sculptures of Kukulcan decorate the bottom of the four stairways. During the equinoxes, at sunset, a shadow resembling a serpent seems to descend its stairs.

  5. Where is the Pyramid of Kukulcan?

    The famous Pyramid of Kukulcan or Castillo is in Chichen Itza, one of the most visited and best known Maya archaeological site in the state of Yucatan, Mexico. The site is about 70 miles (115 km) from Merida, and about 125 miles (200 km) from Cancun, the closest international airport.

  6. Why is Chichen Itza one of the New Seven Wonders of the World?

    A UNESCO Heritage site since 1988, Chichen Itza was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 due to its largest concentration of culturally significant, ancient man-made structures. These structures include the Castillo, or Pyramid of Kukulcan, the Temple of the Warriors, the Great Ballcourt (the largest in Mesoamerica), and El Caracol (the Observatory), among others.

About the author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix. 

Exit mobile version