Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Chichen Itza was a Mayan city. It is a current archeological site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The most iconic structure of Chichen Itza, El Castillo (The Castle),
Temple of the Kukulkan
In Mexico, a part of the Yucatan peninsula in the Yucatan State, Chichen Itza occupies an area of four square miles. It was once one of the largest cities of the Mayan civilization. From their capital, they stabilized a trade empire reaching as far south as Honduras.
When at the Chichen Itza Park, expect to walk an average of two miles in direct sunlight. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Don't forget to pack water, sunscreen, and bug spray. From the Cancun resort area, Quintana Roo State it is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive; approximately 120 miles.
If you choose to rent a car and drive there, be sure to bring pesos to pay the tolls. The tolls are currently $319 MXN (Pesos Mexicanos) and $78 MXN for the second one. The two of them are due both ways. The exchange rate is currently at about $1 USD to $20 MXN.
Renting a car is fairly easy and affordable as long as you choose a trustworthy company that won’t try to charge you for a mandatory insurance fee higher than the car rental itself. A small economy car can be rented for less than $100 USD per day (including insurance) and $800 MXN should be enough to fill up the tank of an economic car. Gas ranges at about $20 MXN per liter.
Mexicans are extremely friendly and welcoming, but some tend to be pushy. After our experience with the first car rental agency, we became very skeptical of anyone who approached us with any kind of offer. We placed our reservation through a broker but ended up deciding to cancel the car rental. Two other American families who were about to rent a car at the same time as us also considered the company practices shady and requested to cancel their car reservations as well.
Even while on the expressway, we were flagged by Yucatan state representatives who requested that we stopped at their kiosks. They alleged the government was running statistics on tourists, meanwhile offering information about tourist attractions at the state. They tried to sell us overpriced tickets to Chichen Itza. The ticket prices on site are $406 MXN plus taxes $75 MXN per adult. Children only pay the $75 MXN for taxes. At the expressway, they were charging over $600 MXN per person.
Kiosk by the expressway at the border of the Yucatan State with Quintana Roo
At Chichen Itza, there is parking right by the ticketing area. However, I am not sure how much it costs since it was already full when we arrived. The park opens at 8 a.m., and by the time we made there from Cancun, it was past 10 a.m. We were redirected to a nearby parking lot a little over a half-mile walk from the park entrance. The parking fee was a flat rate of $60 MXN.
As you walk toward the ticketing area—all along the way from the parking area to the entrance and even inside the park—there are all kinds of vendors. Most of them are willing to negotiate prices, usually if you offer to pay in American dollars. Despite the fact that it is very easy to get distracted by all the merchandise available and the vendors trying to get visitors’ attention, the main areas of the park are mostly filled with tourists.
Chichen Itza's Ball Court. Mostly tourists and tour guides; no vendors at the ruin itself
Chichen Itza was the center of the Mayan empire in Central America. Despite the fact that this ancient city was located in an arid area and had no rivers around the region where the Mayan tribe based themselves, at this location there were two cenotes, or “wells.” These wells were naturally formed by sinkholes in limestone formations. Their importance was great because they were the only permanent water source used and retained rain water. Nevertheless, the city was named after the cenotes: chi (mouth or edge) ch'e'en (well) “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” The Itza were an ethnic group of Mayans.
Cenote Sagrado (sacred well) viewed from above
Besides a water source, historical Mayan documents define this well as a ceremonial center where religious rituals were conducted.
Sidewall of the cenote, 60m in diameter, 22m from ground level to water.
Water depth is from 6 to 12m.
The Mayans believed in gods, especially a rain god thought to live in the well's depths. To please the god, they would make human sacrifices by throwing in living young females wearing gold and other precious objects such as copper, tombac, quartz, as well as skeletal remains, mainly from children and adult males, expecting that the god would send rain. Others would offer themselves as a sacrifice. A recent search performed at the well turned up human bones.
At the largest known site in the Americas, a ball court hosted ritual games where players would try to score by throwing a rubber ball through stone hoops placed up high in the walls. Sometimes, the winners or losers of the ball games were offered as sacrifice. Some historians believe that the games ended with the serving of the loser's heads. It is, however uncertain, since it appears it was an honor to be sacrificed. The vast majority though, believe that the losers of the fierce games were the ones decapitated.
Besides the two cenotes and the ball court, the ancient city also had a market, an observatory, the Platform of Venus, the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars, the Temple of the Warriors, the Pyramid, and a couple of other structures.
The Temple of the Warriors
Surrounded by hundreds of columns, this Temple, along with the other structures, is believed to have been built between A.D. 750 and 1200, more precisely, in 950 A.D. The Temple of the Warriors was named after the columns carved with warriors. At the laterals on the top of the stairs, there are two statues of Chac Mools, considered messengers of the gods. It is believed that on the flat plate at the level of the figure's stomach, religious offerings such as the beating hearts of the sacrificial victims were placed as a spectacle for the crowds.
Right next to the Temple of the Warriors and it's 200 columns, from less than a quarter mile from the park entrance, it is possible to see the most iconic archeological structure of Chichen Itza: “El Castillo” the temple of the Kukulkan, a feathered serpent deity and the snake god of the Mayans. This step pyramid has four sides each facing a cardinal direction. Every side has 91 steps for a total of 364. The step at the top of the temple adds the last one to complete 365, representing one step per day of the solar year.
I wasn't able to witness it myself, but it is said that the busiest days at the park are during the spring and autumn equinoxes when the sun casts a shadow in the shape of a serpent descending the steps toward the stone serpent head sculpted by the base of the staircase, known as the "descent of Kukulkan."
Around the park, it is very common to hear tour guides and tourists clapping close by the base of pyramid stairs to hear the sound of a chirp echo back; they say it is the sound of a sacred Mayan bird. When calling the Kukulkan during worship, a priest would face the pyramid, create the chirp by clapping, then would turn toward the Temple of Warriors and clap again. The sounds created by the claps were believed to be the voice of the god. Beneath this castle, there is another older structure perfectly preserved.
After centuries of prosperity, the city met its end during the 1400s when its habitants abandoned Chichen Itza. It is believed that droughts and exhausted soil may have been the main reasons for Chichen Itza's demise.
Sometimes, as we learn, it becomes very hard to smile . . .
Surprisingly, this experience and all the findings during this trip to Chichen Itza didn't top the sad energy of the Colosseum in Rome. Maybe because, in this case, they had a purpose when killing, while in Rome, the main objective was to entertain and distract the crowds from the political events happening at the time. However, just as I felt during my visit to Rome's Palatine Hill, the sense of being finite struck me once again.
It is just incredible to me that humans can be so barbaric toward each other. It seems as though the life of others doesn't have as much value or it is acceptable to take away the rights of others to live and survive. It’s like when conjugating a verb—the first person is always more valuable than the second or third. Scarily enough, we haven't changed much over thousands of years.
It is amazing to see the same story repeating, after rulers use their power and put human lives above any type of values and beliefs, that only buildings are left to tell a story based on findings and studies, since no one, regardless of how powerful they were, were able to prevent droughts or escape their own deaths. Bottom line: after so many lives were taken away—children, young females and others unwillingly sacrificed in the name of a god—the city was abandoned.
Unfortunately, killing others in the name of a faith, personal values, or beliefs still seem current. However, the fact is while physical structures can stand for thousands of years, we will pass. We come to this world with an expiration date. And all that’s left of our life after we are gone are stories to be told by others.
What we do and live for might become history if we are lucky enough to at least be remembered by our descendants. We can believe we are allowed to do anything we want as long as we are in power but we cannot, as humans, live forever in this world, no matter how powerful we believe we are or how many people we rule. Some might be remembered, but after they’re gone, it doesn't add any days to their lives.
I guess our best bet is to be the greatest versions of ourselves, to use our time here wisely, and make positive contributions to other’s lives. While I can't do anything to change history, at least I can take advantage of this acquired knowledge and reflect a little bit to grow as a person.