Chichen-Itza, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
As you come out of the ‘jungle’, this is the main piece of architecture that you first see at Chichen-Itza. Also known as the ‘Temple of Kukulcan’, it is definitely the centre of attention with every camera and camera-phone pointed its way. The most interesting days to view the temple are apparently on the dates of the Spring and Fall equinoxes when the shadow of a serpent slithers down the stairway on the North side. I love photographing snakes but I missed it!.
We visited Chichen-Itza as part of a tour and our tour guide was pleasant, kept us o schedule, and provided many a tidbit of information which helped us to understand the significance of the site and the historic interpretations of what each of the structures was used for or might have been used for. It is equally possible to do the site as a self-guided tour and glean similar information form any of the many tour books written about this famous landmark. Following the purple line on the map, gets you to all of the sites and back again to the entrance without any fear of getting lost. El Castillo is right in the middle and hard to lose :-). There is bottled water available at the parking lot and a good thing to have since temperatures can be hot and it’s a lot of walking to see all of the grounds.
We were just one of many tour groups on the well-marked, well-trod pathways going into the Chichen-Itza site. Of course, I wanted to stop everywhere to take a photo while, at the same time, I had to keep a constant eye on our tour leader’s whereabouts. When there are that many tourists in one location, after awhile they all start to look alike :-). Our tour guide carrying sign #43 was of Mayan descent and an excellent group leader, knowledgeable and fun to listen to. Often, when asked where he got all of his information, he would happlily reply “National Geographic” and pull out his NG scrapbook to show us the specific articles :-).
Although the site is surrounded by ‘jungle’ the site itself it cleared and well trod upon by tourists. I can’t remember seeing anyone in wheelchairs but the site is flat so I expect that wheel-chairers could navigate most of the site reasonably well keeping in mind that the paths are not paved and the area to cover is significant and the temperatures can be hot with only limited shade.
Access to EL Castillo from the main gate is via a walking path that is wider than some Scottish roads that I have driven on -:) but has to be to accommodate the annual influx of tourists.
Unlike other sites, Chichen-Itza would certainly be viewed as a small ‘c’ commercial site. Local merchants display wares for sale along both sides of the many pathways. I’m not sure what the ‘rules’ were but the vendors were not out in the open areas and certainly no significant ‘harassment’ to buy anything. On reflection, maybe I was asked more than a dozen times if I would like to buy a replica of ‘Castillo’ :-). A simple “No, thank you” seemed to work fine.Lots of other tourist traffic to approach so no reason to waste time on me once I said that I was uninterested.
The pathway vendors at Chichen-Itza seemed to have an almost endless assortment of items for sale. Although there were displays of clothing and bead-work, I found the carvings and colourful hats (sombreros) to be among my favourites – probably just a Canadian’s mid-winter response to any colour other than B&W of the snow scenes left behind.
The hot Mexican sun can do strange things to tourist brains. Why else would tourists stand out in the middle of an open field in front of this side of El Castillo and clap their hands? No kidding! That is exactly what I found. Don’t despair. There is an explanation. It turns out that the acoustic design of El Castillo is such that a single hand clap will be echoed back from the upper levels and sounds like the cry of an eagle. With a bit of reluctance, I clapped. The eagle cried out and I quickly looked for a spot in the shade. Can’t trust that Mexican sun :-).
The Mayan pyramids were the work of many years and new ones were built on top of older ones, etc. so they got higher and higher. In earlier years, tourists were able to climb the stairs and explore the inside of El Castillo. That activity is no longer permitted so I will never know if there is a great big bird living at the top of El Castillo just laughing at all the clapping tourists down below :-).
Where tourists once thrilled to the climb up the steep steps of El Castillo, barricades now prevent such ascents.
91 stairs on each side and one on the top = 365 steps. I didn’t get to climb them to confirm that number, but others indicate that a number of aspects of this pyramid reflect aspects of the Mayan calendar.
Chichen-Itza – The Great Ballcourt
The Great Ballcourt at Chichen-Itza is apparently the largest of the ballcourts uncovered to date. It is one of seven courts found at Chichen-Itza and is indeed an impressive structure. The court measures more than 500 feet by 200 feet. The sculpted side panels were somewhat gruesome. The heads sculpted into the side panels were purported, by some, to represent the head of the captain of the losing team while others suggested that it might be the head of the captain of the winning team. Either way, certainly brings new meaning to the phrase “Quit while you’re ahead” :-).
The wall of the main ballcourt is over 500 feet long.
Various locations in and around the courtyards have paneled sections which apparently tell various stories. Despite an explanation having been given, the exact meaning of these stories remains a mystery to me. As archaeologists try to draw conclusions about the nature of the game played in the Great Ballcourt at Chichen-Itza if is often necessary to “fill in the blanks” i.s make their best educated guess. Even when nothing was missing, I decided I would need more time to figure it out so I just took photos instead :-).
One of many sections of the informative stone panels found on the Ballcourt wall and surrounding structures where these stone panels outlined combatant clothing and provided some hint of the nature of the game.
Probably not a good sign if you ended up with your head symbolized in relief on this “Wall of Skulls”. The skulls were thought to depict the heads of the losers of the game in the ballcourt where other wall reliefs depict beheaded competitors. Other theories indicate that it was the captain of the winning team that would lose his head :-(.
Chichen-Itza – Temple of the Warriors
This complex included a small pyramid, many carved columns on either side (depicting warriors) and a plaza.
Chichen-Itza – Platform of Jaguars and Eagles
A rectangular platform felt to be of the Mayan-Toltec style and dating back to 900-1200AD. Likely used for religious or ceremonial purposes. The stair cases on each side have balustrades of plumed serpents culminating in serpent figureheads by the top of each staircase. Prostrate figures are in stone relief in the panels of the walls along with jaguars and eagles clutching what appear to be human hearts. (or perhaps the equivalent to the rock concert stage of the day :-)?)
Our tour guide intertwined stories of his own Mayan ancestry with knowledge gained from National Geographic articles and local materials in a most delightful fashion and kept the attention of our tour group throughout the day.
Chichen-Itza – The Observatory
After El Castillo and the Ballcourt, this is probably the most recognized building on the Chichen-Itza site. Thought to be used for celestical observation and tracking of objects across the sky.
Chichen-Itza – “La Iglesia”: The Church
With elaborate ornamental frieze this small building quickly catches the eye with its many hook nosed masks of Chac, Mayan god of rain and thunder.
There are many other examples of rather intricate stonework especially in the area of “The Nunnery”. Archaeologists are continuously finding, cataloguing and restoring Mayan ruins found in and around the major sites such as Chichen Itza.
Chichen-Itza – “Las Monjas”:The Nunnery
Apparently the Spanish nicknamed this complex Las Monjas or the “Nunnery” based on its design or suspected use. It is now thought to have been a governmental palace. The building to the left is thought to have been a small temple, La Iglesia.
Although many areas of the Chichen-Itza site looked ‘finished’, archeologists are continually working at the site to put the jig-saw puzzle back together. Many pieces of stone would have been taken from the site over the many years in order to build another structure or many pieces could still be simply ‘missing’ and be only a few meters away covered in jungle vegetation. Reconstruction of Chichen-Itza is a work-in-progress and as can be seen in this photo, the back-side of some buildings look nothing like the front side that the regular guided tourist would see (I tend to wander more than the average tourist :-)). Looking at all of the bits and pieces, I am in awe of the amount of work that must have already gone into the restorations as we presently see them at this site.
Chichen-Itza – Temple of the Deer
The Temple of the Deer is an example of the ‘work in progress’ nature of many of the reconstruction activities at Chichen-Itza, once you leave the main areas of El Castillo, the Ballpark and the Temple of the Warriors. Bits of formed rock and other objects are scattered about but likely will find a place to ‘fit’ eventually.
And for those who might wonder about security, I saw plenty of ‘staff’ walking around this large site but if anyone was sticking their nose in where it didn’t belong they would likely have met the resident guard Iguana or the fast moving lizards that come out to sun themselves on the stonework.