Operation Yucatan: Chichen Itza

Today was our day in Cozumel, an island off the coast of the Yucatan in the state of Quintana Roo. But today we weren’t spending much time in port, because I was going on an eight hour-long excursion through Norwegian to Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan ruins. I’ve been wanting to do this ever since I played “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” which had amazing scenery and exploration of ancient tombs. (But what always has bothered me about that game is the fact that Lara explores Mayan ruins in Peru and doesn’t bat an eye; if archaeologists discovered that the Maya had extended all the way into the Amazon, they’d lose their #$%& minds and it would shake the notions of all pre-Columbian history.)

Stepping off the cruise ship at Cozumel, we didn’t even leave the jetty before boarding a ferry to Playa Del Carmen, a resort town on the mainland of the Yucatan Peninsula. This forty-five minute ferry ride was extremely turbulent, the ship rocking left and right. Anyone with seasickness should not take the risk on this. On the landing at the bottom of the staircase there was some guy vomiting into a bucket. When we docked in Playa Del Carmen we walked through what was essentially a shopping mall of designer-brand stores and bars specifically aimed towards clueless tourists. The tour guide led us through the back, and we transitioned from a tacky tourist zone and into a sketchy, deserted neighborhood where we boarded into our “buses.” These were less of buses and were more like those black panel vans that armed balaclava-wearing kidnappers jump out of when they’re doing a roadside ambush.

We boarded the buses, and we, a group of about fifteen to twenty cruisers, crammed in, and we settled down for the two-hour drive from Playa Del Carmen to Chichen Itza.

I got a window seat, but there wasn’t much to see. Just some forests of brown and dark green, no tropical or verdant rainforest. All that was left to do was sit back and wait to get there. We were given some Mexican Coca-Cola, renowned for its lack of corn syrup, and I tried it, although I hardly could tell the difference.

When you park at Chichen Itza, you enter to a concrete visitor’s center where you first interact with one of the site’s trademarks: the vendors. Researching the reviews on this place, the biggest complaint was about the merchants and how they “ruined” their experiences. They try to peddle a ton of goods. I’ll return to this later. Anyways, the Norwegian folks did a great job because we quickly skipped the line and entered the site, an expansive outdoors area cleared out by a great landscaping team. You enter a clearing, and before you is El Castillo de Kukulcan, the nine-layered castle and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, as announced in 2007. Not only is its architecture unsurpassed, but it demonstrates fantastic artistic skill and carving expertise.

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I’d done a ton of research on El Castillo. For instance, this nine-tiered pyramid combines Mayan and Toltec influences, and reflects the former’s vast knowledge of the cosmos. Their famous 52-year calendar can be seen in the staircases; on each of the pyramid’s four sides, there are ninety-one steps. Multiply that by the four sides, you get three hundred and sixty-four stairs. Add the top platform- and you get three hundred and sixty-five, the number of days in the year. (91 X 4) + 1 = 365.

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I asked our guide earlier if he would talk about the “Chichen Itza Chirp,” and as we walked to the base of the pyramid, he mentioned my request and talked about how Kukulcan, a prominent Mayan god, was similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. For those of you out there who aren’t into ornithology, a quetzal is a rare bird found in Latin America whose long feathers were treasured by Mesoamerican cultures. They also had a distinctive chirp. So the guide explained that somehow, the Mayans oriented the stones of the pyramid, so during rituals when the priests would clap, the sound waves would bounce off the pyramid and echo them in the form of a quetzal chirp. Listen to the following audio clip.

Whoever designed this pyramid was a genius. Not only does the Castillo reflect sound, but it plays with light as well. Should you come during the spring or autumnal equinox, I have read, the sun moves as a shadow along the balustrade to the carved serpent heads at the base of the pyramid to where it looks as if Kukulcan, in the form of a snake deity, slides down the side. The diligent guide showed us a picture, and shows that the shadows, reflecting from the stairs, makes the snake’s slithering body out of seven triangles. Then he pointed to a nearby stone platform and showed us a Mayan relief carving featuring seven triangles.

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Chichen Itza is known both for its Maya and Toltec influences. Evidence suggests that the Toltecs moved into Chichen Itza, and added to its designs. There are other theories, suggesting the Maya moved into Toltec territory, but either way, both had significant influence on the architecture and artwork. Here are some examples.

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The Central Mexican Venus symbol.

We walked over to the Venus platforms, which had huge heads through which torches could be installed. Venus symbols are visible, but this is a Toltec symbol. The guide pointed to a damaged part of the platform, and explained that some nutjob named Plongeon decided to partially dynamite the site. The name reminded me of some other random Chichen Itza trivia. According to Professor Erwin Barnhart, this same man, Plongeon, was an excavator who had a dream in which some guy named Chac Mool ruled the Mayans and went on to found the kingdoms of Egypt. (From what I can gather, people had these insane theories that Rome and Egypt built the Mayan cities, but we know better, thanks to the Stephens and Catherwood Expedition. Long story.) So the next day Plongeon wakes up and sees a statue that he recognizes as the one he saw in his dream and named it after the name in his dream. So indeed, Chac Mool isn’t a Mayan name or anything; it’s just some name some crazy guy made up.

Nearby is a skull rack, reminding visitors of the Mayan penchant for human sacrifice. This is reminiscent of the Toltecs, because this feature is native to Central Mexico. Also, there is a raised platform called the Temple of the Eagles, which has bas-reliefs of eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts, with intricate jaguar spots and patterns, also a trademark of the Toltecs. As you walk to the ball court, look up at the backside to see full, beautiful etchings of jaguars. Then you step onto Mesoamerica’s largest ball court, where Mayans would launch spheres through stone hoops. Imagine the reactions of conquistadors when they saw these Mayans playing with a ball that was- bouncing? They never would’ve seen anything like it, because for the Spaniards it would be the first time any European would interact with rubber.

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On one of the walls you can see a marvelous stone carving into the wall showing two teams of ball players, six on each. According to our guide, these pictures show the winning team. And the captain of the team has no head, and instead serpent head spurt out of his neck like blood. The guide claimed that the winning captain was sacrificed to the gods to gain his “freedom.”

After this, we were given some independent time, so I made a point to make the arduous walk all the way to the Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Cenote. For those in the dark, a cenote is a limestone sinkhole scattered all throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. It was the primary source of freshwater for the Maya, and were considered to be portals to the gods. This particular cenote gave the site its name; Chichen Itza translates directly to “the mouth of the well of the Itza.” Here, people were given free tutorials in synchronized diving as they were shoved into the murky, muddy water to appease the rain god. And by free tutorials I mean human sacrifice. Those who survived the drop were considered magical, but others weren’t so lucky. Eventually divers in the, led by Edward Thompson, went down and found bones. He also discovered some copper bells made in Chaco, in New Mexico, proving that the Maya had a long-distance trade network.

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The cenote is beautiful to see, even with the dark water, the carved limestone walls and creepers and vines draping down. Here, I bought my souvenirs. I purchased a magnet, a scale model of the side, and lastly, the best one of all. This was an obsidian knife, similar to the ones used by the Maya. It’s not that sharp, but it does make for a nice letter opener. Other products that could be haggled over were handicrafts “Mexico! No China!” as one guy said, whistles that make jaguar noises (literal catcalling,) and small-scale models of The Predator. For some reason.

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My obsidian knife. Perfectly balanced… as all things should be.

All too soon we had to return to the bus, and re-board the cruise ship. But I had more than enough time to enjoy the archaeological site and draw a conclusion. Chichen Itza is well worth the hype. The merchants stop hassling you as soon as you show disinterest. The gardens are well-manicured, the sites are preserved, and I never felt crowded. I would definitely come back. In fact, my only complaint isn’t with the site, but with the entry in 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. Chichen Itza only gets two paragraphs. If I were involved with the next edition, I would suggest mentioning the cenote, the ball court, and the detailed carvings. They deserve the recognition. Chichen Itza is a veritable open-air museum, yet it still feels alive. 5/5 Stars .

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