The early morning sunlight warms up my skin. Birds are singing as loud as they can while hiding themselves in the exotic tree tops. The earth smells humid from the night before as we walk towards a big clearing. It strikes me: the impressive El Castillo dooms up in front of us, its grey stones contrasting with the deep blue sky. We are the first visitors of the day at one of the Seven New World Wonders: Chichén Itza. For about one hour we are the only ones taking in the beauty of this ancient city in Mexico, the most important archeological vestige of the Maya-Toltec civilization in Yucatan.
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During the 10th century, the Toltec coming from the Mexican Plateau took the old city of Chichén Itza and the Yucatán Peninsula. The new rulers influenced the new buildings, mixing both cultures and completing the Maya monuments built between the 6th and the 10th centuries.
The observatory gives us only a small clue of the extensive astronomical knowledge of the Maya’s. Indeed, El Castillo or the temple of Kukulkan exhibits many symbols:
- The steps (91) of its 4 staircases, added up to the upper platform totals 365, the number of days in the year.
- The orientation of the pyramid is perfectly aligned with the cardinal points, every one of them being of great significance to the Maya’s: the East where the sun rises, the West where it sets, the North where the gods would live, and the South representing the underworld.
- For the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadow of the staircase falls on the pyramid drawing the shape of a snake. As the sun sets, this snake seems to descend the steps to eventually merge with the sculpture of a snake’s head at the foot of the pyramid.
We take a break in the grass overviewing the impressive ballgame area where the pelota was played. The dimensions of the court are huge, making it the largest in Mesoamerica. A ball made of rubber could only be touched with hips, knees and elbows to score through a hoop. Stone hoops stick out in the middle of two long walls which are beautifully carved with plumed snakes, warriors, winners who had the honor of being beheaded as a sacrifice to the gods…
A bit further, we are intimidated by an eerie platform: thousands of skulls are carved on its sides to exhibit the skulls of enemies or sacrificed prisoners. This for sure frightened neighbors and potentially rebellious subjects.
It is still early in the morning when we walk towards cenote sagrado, one of both cenotes from which inhabitants would get access to drinking water. Representing the other world, they were also used to sacrifice subjects who were to jump in alive. Our feelings contrast greatly with the enthusiasm we had diving into Grand Cenote the day before!
With the arrival of buses of tourists, the merchants who had been spending hours preparing the display of their colorful crafted goods are eventually ready and start hassling visitors. It is time for us to leave and we feel lucky to have experienced the grandeur of Chichén Itza in the early morning light, having to share the site with only some iguanas.
It is hard to understand the reasons why its 90,000 inhabitants suddenly abandoned this sophisticated city and trading hub during the 15th century… Chichén Itza will probably remain full of mysteries.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photographs)
- Arrive early! Most tourists come from Merida and Cancun and arrive at 11. Sleeping in Valladolid (a nice city to check out) is only 40 minutes away and will give you a head start.
- In preparation of your trip to one of the stunning Maya sites you might want to read this practical and interesting guide written by Christian Schoen. Click on the link for more information about the guide.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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For more to do in Yucatan: