Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist
destination, and rightfully so. The Yucatan's grandest archaeological
site is Chichen-Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage area of immense cultural
Chichen Itza is perhaps the largest, most famous and most
accessible Mayan site, about 125 kilometres west of Cancun and Cozumel.
This ancient Mayan ruin, a major tourist stop in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, is
a rugged place of soaring pyramids, massive temples, startling carved columns
and do-or-die sports fields.
The focal point of the region, an amalgam of an older Mayan
city and newer Toltec settlement, is the towering Castillo pyramid, which is
fraught with cosmological symbolism. Its four sides contain 365 steps
(depicting the solar year), 52 panels (for each year in the Mayan century as
well as each week in the solar year) and 18 terraces (for the 18 months in the
religious year). Inside, the Castillo is an interesting temple accessible up a
Mayan sports included a game with a
soccer-sized ball that had its own intricate rules and provided exciting competition for huge
crowds of spectators.
The enormous Chichen-Itza court where this game was played is the largest ever found and is
lined with fascinating carvings that display the rules and details of the sacred game. One carving even shows the
captain of the losing game being beheaded.
The site also contains a sacred well, the astronomical Observatory, the imposing Temple of
Warriors, the reclining Chac Mool figure, a form of classic Maya sculpture believed to have served as an altar for
sacrifices, and the Nunnery.
During the fall and spring equinoxes, the sun's shadow forms an enormous snake's body, which
lines up with the carved stone snake head at the bottom of the Castillo pyramid.
At Chichen Itza, the Sacred Cenote is a natural well 60
metres in diameter with sheer, escape-proof walls plunging 22 metres. Winsome
maidens aside, excavations in 1882 and 1968 discovered that strapping six-foot
warriors - old scores settled? - and infants were also tossed into the pit.
Across from El Castillo, the Temple of the Warriors is also
known as the Temple of the Thousand Columns. On top of it there is a stone on
which steaming human hearts were offered to the gods.
Paintings on the outdoor pillars have all but disappeared,
but inside an older temple beneath this one, colors are as bright as when they
were freshly mixed from vegetable juice and mashed insects.
Several smaller buildings hold interest mostly for their
relief sculptures depicting dire events of the time. But one that really makes
you sit up and pay attention is a huge ball park.
Each of two 27-foot-high walls running its 480-foot length has a small stone ring near the top,
through which a hard rubber ball had to be shot.
When you cross the highway bisecting the archeological zone, you leave behind unpleasant murals
and evidence of human sacrifice, for these are buildings from pre-Toltec times. Unfortunately the Spaniards
destroyed all religious records.
In consequence, nobody knows for certain that the ornate structure, 70 yards long and 18 yards
high, was actually a nunnery.
However, built in 600 A.d. beside a church, it has many little rooms reminiscent of the convents
in Spain so they named it the Nunnery.
In Chichen Itza you can also find the Caracol (Spanish for snail), so called for its spiral
staircase. The substructure is believed to have been completed around 700 A.D., and the 48-foot circular tower
added later. This is the all-important observatory.