The Chilling Charm of Chichen Itza

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The bus inches along the road jammed with tourist buses, cars, motorcycles and cargo bikes and we are becoming impatient.

We’re only a few minutes away from one of the world’s most famous sites and anticipation is building. The traffic jam is mandatory, part of the territory as we near Chichen Itza, the heart of the empire built by the Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

More patience is required as we exit the bus, receive our tickets from bus guide Hugo and line up to wait for another guide, whose name is Luis, to lead us around the site. He turns out to be a formidable cultural force with a running commentary in English and German on much that is intriguing about this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We shuffle down the path from the entrance and after 200 metres we step into the plaza where the astonishing pyramid called Kukulkan rises in perfect four-sided symmetry before us.

Many groups of people are wandering the grounds and during the high season over Christmas and New Year’s, Chichen Itza will attract 8,000 tourists each day.

But the site doesn’t feel crowded because the gawkers come at a steady pace beginning early in the morning rather than all at once and leave after a couple of hours. The first arrive from the nearby cities of Valladolid and Merida and later on the hordes from Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the resorts along the Riviera Maya will pour from buses in the parking lot.

Luis leads us first to the ball court, a feature of many Mayan ruins, and this one is said to be the biggest of all the sites so far uncovered. It is nearly 83 metres long.

There are feathered serpents carved into the two walls, each holding a stone ring through which the teams tried to launch a ball.

Grim reminder

And woe be tide the losers. Beside the ball court is a rectangular structure in which skulls were carved into stones. It’s where the heads of the losers were tossed at the end of a game.

It’s one of the grim reminders of the brutal side of the culture of the creative and perceptive Maya who built their cities with careful attention to the details of the earth’s revolutions around the sun and the movements of heavenly bodies.

They also developed written languages and numbers, including zero, as well as intricate calendars to mark the passage of thousands of years of time.

It is this culture which attracts people from many parts of the world. On our bus from Playa del Carmen, there are tourists from Finland, Germany, Serbia, Israel, Argentina, China and Canada. We have come to see what remains of this ancient civilization, which developed tools, an extensive agriculture, traded along the coast of the Yucatan and built magnificent cities with superb architectural and engineering talent.

They also come for the endless beaches, swimming and snorkeling at the MesoAmerican reef (second only in length to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia), the excellent cuisine ranging from street carts to linen-cloth restos, music and, of course, the shopping.

We enjoy all those activities and attractions, but the star of the Yucatan spectacles for us is the ruins and we have visited eight sites in our trips to various parts of the peninsula in recent years.

We are paying close attention (especially my wife Stephanie) as Luis leads us over to the pyramid of Kukulkan with its steep staircases each with 91 steps. The top platform is another step in the staircase bringing the total to 365, which is the number of days in a year.

At one time, visitors could climb the pyramid, but that practise was stopped some years ago because of the danger of slipping. I climbed Kukulkan in the mid ’70s and the descent was scary. My wife and I climbed the higher pyramid at Coba a couple of years ago and I was glad to return to the base. The steps are small, although there is a rope to provide some semblance of stability. I understand that someone took a fatal slip at Coba a month or so earlier. Visitors are not permitted to climb the magnificent pyramid at Uxmal.

Pattern of light

To further accentuate the Mayan relationship with the sun and the counting of time, there is also an undulating pattern of light on the northern staircase for several hours during the days of the spring and fall equinoxes.

Luis also points out that Kukulkan (the Spanish called it El Castillo, the castle) was built by Toltec invaders over another pyramid, the centrepiece of an earlier city built by the Maya, which has yet to be uncovered much to the chagrin of academics, who study the Maya.

Digging can only continue by closing the site to tourists and Mexico is reluctant to do that because of the jobs and huge revenues the industry brings to the country.

Luis then leads us over to the Temple of the Warriors, on a stepped platform, which is reached by a steep staircase. Adjacent to the platform are colonnaded halls.

Another similar structure was discovered under the Temple of Warriors and it is called the Temple of the Chacmool, according to the excellent book called The Maya by Michael D. Coe. There are several chacmools – reclining figures- above ground.

Next stop is a few hundred metres away and it is the Sacred Cenote, a deep sinkhole with a gruesome history. The Maya tossed live humans into the sinkhole as sacrifices and Luis tells us that they were first drugged and cleansed in a sweat lodge.

Skulls and other body parts have been found in the pool of water at the bottom along with pieces of jade and gold discs.

We follow Luis back to the main plaza and he disappears into the crowds, likely going back to the entrance to pick up another group of tourists.

He has spent almost two hours with us and we are due back at our bus shortly. We have missed seeing the observatory, an important part of the site.

It’s a disappointment, for sure, but that means we’ll have to make another trip to Chichen Itza, which will give us much to anticipate.


Good to Go


Our trip with Easy Tours cost us $50 U.S. each, a relative bargain compared with other companies, which charge $100 or more.

ADO, the local inter-city bus line, also travels to Chichen Itza from Playa del Carmen and we might try that next time. We would be able to spend four hours at the site before the return trip.

On the way back to Playa, we stop at the Ik Kil to visit the Sacred Blue Cenote crowded with swimmers. It’s quite the sight. We decide not to swim, instead opting to take pictures and sit for an espresso at the coffee shop.

2 comments on “The Chilling Charm of Chichen Itza
  1. Brian Swan says:

    Thanks David for the revisit to theses special ruins, I was there 19 years ago during the Spring Equinox, it was quite special. Since you have visited a number of the same sites I have you should add Tikal in Guatemala. This ruin is so large it is hard to imagine how it could have been built. Brian Swan, I am a good friend of Archie Smith and I met you on a canoe weekend, I believe it was on the Madawaska.

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