Chosen as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, Chichen Itza continues to draw visitors from all over the globe. Though its central feature El Castillo was closed in 2006 after a vistor from California tumbled to her death, the pyramid continues to impress at ground level.
Clouds hang above the ruins like a crown. The rain recently departed, has left a smattering of raindrops that sparkle in the noonday sun. The rain-cooled air begins to warm around the edges, the humidity to rise—an infernal hug.
Chichen Itza ground level is vast. At more than 25 kilometers in total, there is much to take in: the crumbling Nunnery; La Iglesia; the spiral-shaped observatory—el Caracol; the Sagrada or Sacred Cenote; the infamous ball court; and El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulkan. I wander drawn by the awe these ancient Mayan ruins inspire and discover details lost in panoramic views.
Hook-nosed gods nod from once brightly painted facades now bleached beige by the sun. Entwined serpents and jaguars wrangle, their aggression stone frozen. Mottled iguanas warm themselves amidst tumbled walls. While all around, a myriad of intriguing structures hover in the midday heat.
El Caracol, so named by the Spaniards, is impressive with its spiral-shaped passageway. Astronomers believe the curved shape allowed the Mayans to achieve their precise astronomical observations of the seasons, planets, and stars. You can enter from either of its four doorways and will be drawn upward by a curving passageway into a chamber that still bears three of its original windows. Archaeologists believe the Mayans made their observations utilizing the windows and doors centered on the path of Venus. I take in the azure sky and cumulous clouds.
The Sacred Cenote, another of the site’s central features, is located north of the main pyramid and can be reached by a dusty, limestone-paved 900-foot causeway or sacbe. With its moss green waters, the cenote entices on a muggy afternoon, but the 27-meter (89-foot) drop and the knowledge of what archaeologists discovered in its depths gives me pause. Beautifully-wrought items made of gold, shell, jade, wood and obsidian, as well as the bones of sacrificial victims, were found littering the sandy bottom. Just thinking of it makes me shiver despite the oppressive heat.
Pyramid-enthusiast that I am, I save the best for last and head out across the main plaza drawn by the perfect symmetry of the Temple of Kukulkan. Its sheer volume and state of preservation are truly impressive given how many years have passed since its construction.
The temple’s broad staircase is steep and intimidating, but I am determined to make it to the top. This rise of each step is short and the treads narrow even for my small feet. My fear mounts with each one I climb. I commit to one foot in front of the other, eyes straight ahead—looking neither left nor right, up or down. Guided by the thick chain bisecting the staircase, I make it to the 91st step and the main platform. Once my beating heart has calmed and my equilibrium regained, I begin to circumnavigate.
Right around to the left, I admire the ruins of the Temple of the Warriors with its 100 columns in the distance and the peaceful view of the Yucatan plain beyond. Out of curiosity, I stray towards and glance over the edge only once, wary of the breathtaking ten-story drop. I peek into the vaulted rooms ending in the sacrificial chamber.
I admire the artistry inherent in the sculptures of Kukulkan—the plumed serpent god—and try not to fixate on the beating hearts once sliced out and offered in tribute to Chac Mool, their rain god. Without rain, there would be no crops and no food for the Mayan people. Bloodletting was an integral part of their culture and necessary, in their view, to recognize and honor the cycle of life.
Eavesdropping, I learn El Castillo was built over a much older pyramid and that I could access it via a door at the base of the structure. According to the guide, the interior staircase was formerly the older pyramid’s outer staircase and it was open to the public.
Another pyramid? I couldn’t believe my good luck and began my descent through waves of heat kicked up by the rising wind. My confidence in descending safely while upright soon waned and I began to boot-scoot like a child, as quickly as possible, one goal in mind: must reach the inner pyramid.
The portal to this ancient world is non-descript, unimpressive. The entry chamber is close, humid, with rivulets of moisture coursing down the stone walls. A cheap, plastic fan turns in the corner, circulating the moist air. My skin, like the walls, runs with perspiration.
I queue up just behind a young man from Italy and began to climb when my turn comes. The staircase is so narrow, only slightly larger than my body’s frame, steep and slick with moisture. My throat is dry, my voice caught—perhaps, from fear? I began to climb, no sky ahead—only darkness and the knowledge of so much weight above.
The staircase ends in a chamber barred by an iron gate. Beyond, a jaguar-shaped throne and the statue of a supine Chac Mool stand in the half-light. The throne is red with spots of jade, fangs of ivory and features unblinking eyes that gaze ever forward into the dark. My time there is brief, anticlimactic. There’s no time to ponder, as others are waiting to make their way into the mysterious Mayan past.
I emerge into the sunlight blinded and breathless. The shift from semi-darkness to sudden light was obviously shocking, but so was the realization of just how little of this expansive site has been uncovered. To date, only 8 kilometers of it have been brought to light. Around me, undiscovered wonders beckon from every un-excavated hillock, biding their time in the jungle beneath blankets of earth and trees, tangled vines and scrub.
Ever since John Lloyd Stephens introduced Chichen Itza to the outside world with the publication of his 1843 book, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, archaeologists have found their way here. Sylvanus Griswold Morely, rumored to be the inspiration behind Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones character, was one of the first to work on site and many have followed. Like time, work marches on as experts continue their attempts to unravel the truth surrounding this impressive complex.
Considering what has been learned so far, archaeologists discovered the residents of Chichen Itza were cosmopolitan, boasting influences from several cultures, like the Toltec, in both their art and architecture. Sophisticated with their feats of engineering. Forward-thinking with their mathematical and astronomical calculations and predictions and the site of a thriving civilization for nearly 1,000 years. What happened to it? Why was it abandoned? The mysteries remain.
I read later on the long bus ride back to Playa del Carmen that I could have stayed at the Hacienda Chichen. Founded in the 1840s, this was the chosen spot for the various archaeologists and archaeological groups to lay their weary heads. Too bad I hadn’t discovered this earlier and planned appropriately. I might have stayed in one of the cottages and communed with the sleeping souls that once resided here and, some say, still wander here.
For more information:
- Chichen Itza official site
- New 7 Wonders of the World
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Visit Mexico
- Chichen Itza is maintained by the National Institute of Anthropology & History
What to Read:
- Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichen Itza
- Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya
- Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan
- The Lost Cities of the Maya: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood
- A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya