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Solstice Time at Chichen Itza

Emese has been exploring ancient Mayan ruins for over twenty years. She learned a lot about the Maya and enjoys sharing her knowledge.

As old as it is, this is one of the best-preserved sites on the peninsula.

As old as it is, this is one of the best-preserved sites on the peninsula.

Chichen Itza, a World Heritage Site

One of the best-known Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula, Chichen Itza is a World Heritage Site. It has also been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I'd say it qualifies as an architectural wonder.

Over a million visitors go through its gates each year to marvel at its architecture. The plazas are large enough to accommodate the crowds. Still, it can be hard to enjoy a visit with so many people around.

The site's name, translated, means "at the mouth of the well of the Itza people". People lived in this ancient city from around 600 AD till about 1200 AD. These dates correspond to the Late Classic and Postclassic periods of the Ancient Maya civilization. As old as it is, it is one of the best-preserved sites on the peninsula.

The Serpent Kukulcan "descending" the stairs of El Castillo in Chichen itza, at sunset, a few days after the spring equinox.

The Serpent Kukulcan "descending" the stairs of El Castillo in Chichen itza, at sunset, a few days after the spring equinox.

Our "Meeting" With Kukulcan

The ancient Maya built the famous Castillo, or Pyramid of Kukulcan, in an ingenious way. During both spring and fall equinoxes the shadow of the mythical feathered serpent, Kukulcan seems to descend its stairs at sunset.

Visitors from all over the world tend to go there on those specific dates to witness this phenomena. Because of this, we know that it is always extremely busy at those times of the year, so we try to avoid the "equinox rush". However, as an amateur astronomer, my husband knew that the shadow would be visible up to a week before and after the actual equinox.

A few years ago we had the opportunity to visit the site in late April. It was about a week after the spring equinox, and we knew we would see the serpent.

We stayed in the Hacienda Chichen, the historic hotel close to the back entrance to the ruins. This gave us an opportunity to walk in to the site later in the day, at sunset, right before closing time.

I wasn't so sure I believed him, but my husband assured us that we would see Kukulcan descending the stairs of the Castillo, right around sunset. I didn't mind trying, it was a pleasant walk late in the day, when most of the tourists had left, and the sun's heat subsided. Only a few vendors were still lingering, packing up their fare. We stood in front of the Castillo, staring at it. It was sunset and I haven's noticed a thing yet, so I started to doubt that it would happen. After all, the equinox was about a week past, and no one was waiting for the famous serpent to appear.

I turned around, ready to leave, when I heard my daughter say "Is that it?". I turned back to look at the Castillo. I had to admit, it was spectacular. The whole pyramid was in shadow by then, except a line on the stairway, which indeed resembled a huge snake descending. Its body was made up of triangles lit up by the rays of the setting sun, and it looked like it was lying on the stairs of the pyramid. As we were watching it, we noticed it getting skinnier, until the top fragment totally disappeared. By then the next part was very skinny, until that one also slowly disappeared. The same thing happened to all the other triangles. At some point all we saw was a narrow line running down a few steps to the bottom. At last it all disappeared, except the huge serpent head at the base, still illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. Then even the head disappeared in the shadow.

All this happened in about twenty minutes. We all sat there, mesmerized. I could finally see what the big deal was all about. The shadow really did look like the mythical feathered serpent, Kukulcan, and as the sun was setting, he seemed to be slowly descending the stairs of the pyramid.

The ruins closed and we had to leave. They would reopen in another hour, after dark, for the light show. At that time they would reenact the descending of Kukulcan, with artificial, colored lights. Though the show is spectacular and we've seen it before, we had no desire to come back for it. We didn’t need to. We finally saw the real thing!

El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcan,  just before sunset, a few days after the spring equinox.

El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcan, just before sunset, a few days after the spring equinox.

El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kukulcan

It wasn’t the first time we visited Chichen Itza. The Yucatan, with its amazing pyramids, had always been our favorite destination. In fact, we went there for our honeymoon some twenty years ago. Almost every time we used to visit, we spent at least one day, sometimes two, here.

I liked all the buildings, and I especially enjoyed strolling through Old Chichen. Still, I always found the Castillo, or Pyramid of Kukulcan, the most amazing structure.
About 75 feet tall, it sits in the center of the huge main plaza on a square base. Four stairways lead to the top, but only the one facing North has serpent heads carved on the two sides of it.

Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, it entombed an older structure. This was a common practice among the ancient Maya. The older structure is still there, under the new one, and sometimes they used to have tours going inside.

Dark and damp in the belly of the huge pyramid, I felt claustrophobic when we took the tour about twenty years ago. Although the limit was only about ten people, it still seemed too crowded for the narrow stairway. I was climbing in the dark, seeing nothing more than the back of the person in front of me and the walls all around me. It was a bit claustrophobic.

It took me a few seconds to register what I saw at the top of the stairs when I finally made it. Behind another gate, a faint light illuminated the most amazing artifacts I have ever seen on site. The jaguar throne, green jade, looked new. So did the chacmool figure sitting by it. The chacmool is a sculpture of a seated person holding a bowl on his stomach. The bowl held the offerings to the gods in ancient times. After the tough climb, I wanted to stay longer to admit the artifacts, but we had to rush back. We had a time limit, so the next group could come up. But even for those few minutes, I could gaze at those artifacts, and the climb was worth it.

The newer Castillo, built on top of the buried one, has 91 steps (4 x 91 = 364). I had the opportunity to count them since years ago we were able to climb the Castillo. On the top, one extra step leads into the temple. That makes exactly 365 steps, one for each day of the year!

How did they know?

The ancient Mayas were great astronomers. The calendar they developed is even more accurate than ours today. They knew the movements of the stars and planets and of the moon. They could predict solar and lunar eclipses with precision.

They built this pyramid following the paths of the sun and the moon. They made sure that during the spring and autumn equinoxes the shadow of a descending serpent was visible on the Northern stairway at sunset. We were lucky enough to be there at the right time to see it.

The stone head of Kukulcan.  Not yet reconstructed, we saw it on the trail in Old Chichen.

The stone head of Kukulcan. Not yet reconstructed, we saw it on the trail in Old Chichen.

Who Is Kukulcan?

Kukulcan, the mythical feathered serpent of the Mayas, is one of their major deities. He corresponds to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent. He has his origin as the Vision Serpent of the Classic Maya, the main means of communication between the ruler and the deities.

But, for the Itza of the Post-Classic period, the vision serpent took on a different role. He became more of a symbol of their powerful state.

Legend has it, that Kukulcan helped his people during the time he was among them. When he left, he promised to return by water. In a way, Kukulcan was the reason for the decline of the Maya. Most Mayans thought Kukulcan was returning when the Spaniards showed up. After all, they came by water, as Kukulcan promised. So instead of fighting the Spaniards, they gave them everything they could. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late.

Stelae in Chichen or History Written in Stone

Stelae are stone columns with ancient Maya writings on them. As historical notes, they depict important moments from the lives of the rulers. Every ancient Mayan city has a few stelae. But the Classic sites have more than the post-classic ones.

Using glyphs, the Mayan writing is very complex. It took epigraphers and linguists a very long time to decipher them. Added to the complexity of the glyphs, they are not consistent. The same glyph might correspond to either a full word or a syllable. To make matters even more confusing, many of their words had the same meaning.
After deciphering the glyphs, Mayanists finally realized what the stelae were meant for. They were history written in stone. Lucky for us, it ensured that their recorded history survived for centuries.

The books, or codices, with the longer stories, got destroyed. The Spaniards considered them "work of the devil" and burned them. A few survived, saved by Mayans who risked their lives for it. But they were not enough to learn much from them. Without the proper books. Stelae became important in the study of the Maya.
A few of these stelae stand in the ancient city of Chichen Itza as well. They commemorate important events in the life of the city, and of its rulers.

Reconstructed Stela in Chichen Itza

Reconstructed Stela in Chichen Itza

Traveler Guide

Chichen Itza is located in Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan Peninsula. To get there from anywhere other than Mexico, fly into Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico. From Cancun, there is a toll highway that takes the visitors directly to the site.

Alternately, the old road goes through a lot of towns, some, like Valladolid, that are definitely worth visiting. It is a lot slower since there are plenty of topes (speed bumps) along the road, but we personally prefer it for the experience of being in Mexico.

Accommodations in and around Chichen Itza are plenty, ranging from smaller hotels in Piste to the historic Hacienda Chichen and Mayaland Resort.

The Hacienda Chichen.  Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo

The Hacienda Chichen. Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo

Where to Stay - My Recommendations

Unless you are on a budget, by far my favorite place to stay is the Hacienda Chichen. It is closest to the ruins, with the possibility to walk to them. The rooms are cozy and clean, each with its own patio and a small table and chair, as well as a hammock. The setting is perfect, with a beautiful garden and a clean pool. Their restaurant is also good, no need to drive to town for a meal. A close second is the Mayaland Resort, with a very long history as well.

If you are on a budget, The Piramide Inn in Piste is a great choice. I've stayed there, rooms and restaurant are clean and the staff is pleasant. It is in the middle of the town, so if you enjoy the hustle-and-bustle of Mexican towns, it is great.

Another great hotel is the Dolores Alba, located on the highway towards Chichen. It is quiet and tranquil, with individual rooms opening in a garden, pool and hammocks set up in an outdoor area, all for a reasonable price.

Questions & Answers

Question: How long does it take for the serpent to descend the temple at Chichen Itza?

Answer: I think it was about twenty minutes or so.