Chichen Itzá is probably the best-known and the most spectacular ancient Mayan site. It is not only a World Heritage site but also one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. Architectural wonders, of course.
Over the years we visited the site often. While we always noticed changes, our latest trip, seven years after our last, took us by surprise.
We Notice the Changes As Soon As We Return
Once upon a time, it was possible to visit the site without the crowds that it attracts today. I remember climbing the Pyramid of Kukulcan, walking through its temple, and taking a tour inside of it. We climbed the Temple of the Warriors and even sat on its jaguar throne. No one stopped us, all the visitors did it. Only a handful of us drove to the site anyway. We climbed the Observatory or Caracol and walked through its rooms. I remember with nostalgia watching our kids play in the enormous ball court, and being virtually alone in it.
While we knew that we couldn’t do any of those things now, we still decided to revisit the site. Our youngest daughter was a tiny baby last time we walked through the site and she didn’t remember it. She wanted her to see this famous place.
At first I was disappointed. We stood on a long line for at least an hour to enter, even though we stayed in a hotel basically on the premises. As soon as it opened, the crowds were unbelievable. Vendors lined up the trails, calling to us as we passed by, offering tourist junk made in China. Yes, it was annoying.
“Call something Paradise, kiss it goodbye” – in this case, call it a “wonder of the world”. So true. However, we are trying to preserve these wonders for future generations. So I understand and even agree that no one is allowed to climb or even touch the monuments. When they get thousands of visitors a day, it is the only way to keep them from getting destroyed.
A Walk through the Ancient City
Once passed the shock of the changes, we managed to have a wonderful time.
How could we not? The structures are all spectacular, even more so than we remember them. More of the facades are restored and the paint in some of the rooms looks more vivid from outside.
We didn’t have a lot to walk, most of the trails we used to walk on are closed, and to look to the structures takes less time than to climb them. While I missed the old trails, it was nice to take it easy and be able to leave by noon.
Our first stop was the Sacred Cenote, where legend has it that virgins were sacrificed. I’m not so sure the legend is true though. Some of the early archaeologists searched the cenote and found lots of offerings. Not necessarily human ones though.
Thousands of beautiful artifacts found their tomb in the bottom of the cenote. Of course they found human remains as well, but not enough to prove the idea that they were sacrificed. It is quite possible that people fell into it by accident, either in the ancient times or much later. The edge is very steep, I remember worrying about my own kids a lifetime ago when we used to visit. It is not possible now to get close to the edge, so no danger of that kind lurks around it. The remains of the ancient temple sit on the edge of the cenote.
Walking through a Line of Vendors
Walking back towards the main plaza, we watched the vendors set up their fare. We walked fast past them, avoiding eye contact. We didn’t want to hear their offering of things that we were not interested in buying. I have trouble saying no to anything, and they seem to know it.
Though we entered the ruins as soon as they opened, by the time we were in front of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the crowds have already descended on the plaza. Fortunately, it is a large enough area that we could enjoy the monuments if we lingered a few minutes in front of each.
The Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors and Caracol
The Ball Court is the largest in Mesoamerica. As I walked through it, I heard the familiar yells and hoots of the tour guides, demonstrating the acoustics of the place. It still makes me smile. The Maya figured out how to build an outdoor monument with perfect acoustics. If a person talks on one end, his voice is audible and sounds clear on the other side. It rivals the best opera houses of the modern world. And it is outdoors.
The Temple of the Warriors sits as magnificent as ever, though we couldn’t get too close to it. The Mercado with its hundreds of columns is off limits, as well. It is still beautiful to look at from the trail that goes around it.
We walked to the Observatory or Caracol and to the structures around it. As we shared the plaza with hundreds of tourists, people watching became part of the game. The Observatory is spectacular from the outside as well.
Looking at it makes me think of the ancient Maya watching the sky, night after night. Based solely on their observations alone, without the aid of modern telescopes, they understood the movements of the planets, the moon, and the stars. They were even able to predict eclipses, both lunar and solar. They based their calendars on the movements of these celestial bodies they watched from structures like this one.
The Pyramid of Kukulcan
Still, the greatest structure in Chichen Itzá remains the famous pyramid. I am lucky to have climbed it once upon a time and even walked inside it. But even looking at it from outside it is spectacular.
It sits in the middle of an open plaza, dominating the center of the site. Stairways lead to the top on all four of its sides, but the most spectacular one is the one facing north. It is the only one where two huge serpent heads adorn the bottom of the stairs. These are the representations of the mythical great serpent-god, Kukulcan. Hence the name.
During both spring and autumn equinoxes, at sunset, the whole serpent is visible, descending the stairs of the pyramid. How did they know to face the building in this way?
A few years ago we ended up in Chichen Itzá soon after the spring equinox. Though it was about a week later, we were still able to see the shadow of the mythical serpent descending the stairs of the pyramid.
In addition, the number of stairs on the four sides of the pyramid equals the number of days in a year. Each side has 91 steps (91×4=364), and one extra step on the top leads into the temple.
Leaving Chichen Itzá
We knew that it was probably the last time we would visit this amazing site. We’ve seen it many times, we have explored it, we have even seen the great serpent Kukulcan, descending the stairs a few years ago. We happened to be there about a week after the equinox. At the right time, it was still visible. We have seen the night show, where they reenact the great serpent descending, with artificial lights, as they tell stories from the ancient city. The show is spectacular, especially if you understand Spanish. You can listen to it in English as well, with headphones, but this version is never quite as vivid.
If it is your first time, it is worth the time and effort. Try to get there early though and remember that you need to deal with crowds. Sort of like Disneyland. If you don’t let the crowds and the heat (during the day) get to you, you’ll have an amazing experience.