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Visiting Mayan Ruins: Chichen Itza

Updated on April 10, 2017
Emese Fromm profile image

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

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. | Source

Our "Meeting" With Kukulcan in Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the best known Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula. A World Heritage Site, it has also been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Because it is so well-known, each year thousands of visitors go through its gates to marvel at the architecture of its pyramid and other structures, built thousands of years ago.

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 be descending 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 a few days after the event. 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 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. | Source

El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kukulcan

It wasn’t the first time we had visited Chichen Itza. The Yucatan with its amazing pyramids and other ruins has always been our favorite destination. In fact we went there for our honeymoon twenty years ago. Almost every time we visit, we spend at least one day, but most of the time two, here. Though I like all the other structures, and I especially enjoy strolling through Old Chichen, I always find the Castillo, or Pyramid of Kukulcan, amazing.

Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, it sits in the center of the huge main plaza on a square base and it’s about 75 feet tall. Four stairways lead to the top, but only the one facing North has serpent heads carved on the two sides of it.

Like most Mayan pyramids, the Castillo was built on top of another, older, structure. 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 we had just climbed, I felt claustrophobic when we took the tour about twenty years ago. Although the limit was only about ten people, if I remember well, it still seemed too crowded for the narrow stairway. We were climbing the inside of the Castillo and the stairway was too narrow for two people. We were climbing in the dark, barely seeing anything other than the back of the person in front of us and walls all around us. It too me a few seconds to register what Ii saw at the top of the stairs. Behind another gate, the perfectly preserved jaguar throne and a chacmool figure were illuminated with a faint light. The chacmool is a sculpture of a seated person holding a bowl on his stomach. The bowl was made to hold the offerings to the gods. Though after climbing in those circumstances I wanted tasty longer, we had a limit until we had to leave, so the next group could come up. Even for the few minutes I could gaze on those artifacts, the climb was worth it.

I'm not sure if the old pyramid, buried under the Castillo had the same number of stairs, but the new one on top has 91 steps (4x91=364). 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 so that during the spring and autumn equinoxes the shadow of a descending serpent could be seen 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. | Source

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.

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

Legend has it, that Kukulcan has helped his people tremendously during the time he was among them. When he left, he promised to return by water. Because of this, many of the Mayans thought Kukulcan was returning when the Spaniards showed up, so instead of fighting them, they gave them everything they could. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late.

Stelae, or Writing in Stone

Reconstructed Stela  in Chichen Itza
Reconstructed Stela in Chichen Itza | Source

Stelae are stone columns with ancient Maya writings on them. They are generally historical notes, mostly depicting important moments from the lives of the rulers. Every ancient Mayan city has stelae, though the Classic sites have significantly more than the post-classic ones.

The Mayan writing is very complex and it is comprised of glyphs. It took epigraphers and linguist a very long time to decipher them, since they are corresponding to either full words or syllables. In addition, they had multiple words with 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, since their recorded history survived for centuries this way. The books, or codices, where they wrote many more of their stories, were destroyed by the Spaniards, who considered them work of the devil. A few survived, but not enough to learn much from them. So stealae have a great significance in learning about the history of the Maya, and specifically about the history of the sites they were erected at.

They had erected a stela to commemorate important events in the life of the city, mostly when they coincided with important events in the life of the rulers. Rulers definitely seemed to have an ego. Most cities have multiple stelae in each city, and each of them seem to commemorate the life of one of the rulers.

The Hacienda Chichen

The Hacienda Chichen is one of the oldest hotel in the area. More than a hotel, it is a historical site, since the first team of archaeologists excavating the site, lead by Sylvanus Morley, lived there while working in the area. It is also the closest hotel to the ruins. Although it would still be a ride to get from it to the front entrance, the back entrance to the ruins is a short walk from the rooms. For us, it was the best place to stay when we had an infant with us, especially if we wanted to avoid the most crowded places.

Staying here also gave us the opportunity to enter and exit the site multiple times during the day, while we took a lunch break in the room. The rooms are basic, but great. They all have a patio with a hammock, a few chairs and a table where we could relax in the shade after hiking through the ruins.

The Hacienda Chichen.  Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo
The Hacienda Chichen. Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo | Source

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 right to the site.

Alternately, the old road goes through a lot of towns, some, like Valladolid, 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.

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 beautiful garden and clean pool. Their restaurant is also good, no need to drive in 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, individual rooms opening in a garden, pool and hammocks set up in an outdoor area, all for a reasonable price.

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      A fascinating article. Thanks for the history and the tour. I've never seen this place but you have me interested.

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 2 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      This brought back fond memories, thank you, my better half and I explored this site and Coba or Koba in the 80s. I think we slept at the same hotel. It had nice wood work, ceiling fans everywhere in the open hall ways, and a beautiful outdoor pool with boganvilla at one end. Very romantic...

    • Emese Fromm profile image
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      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      billybuc: thank you for your kind words. I hope you do get a chance to visit this place, it really is worth it.

      connorj: It must have been such a great experience to be there in the 80s. My husband has been there at that time, it was very different to travel there. My first time was in the early 90s, it was still less crowded, less touristy than it is now. It does sound like you stayed at the Hacienda Chichen, that place hasn't changed, it's probably the main reason it is still my favorite. Koba is one of my other favorite sites. They have changed so much since the eighties though, especially Koba, you would not recognize the sleepy little village around the site. Thank you for your comment, I'm glad my article brought back pleasant memories for you.

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 2 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      I enjoyed both sites; yet Koba was significantly fascinating because it seemed mostly untouched and remote. They only person we "ran into" was literally a guy on a donkey with a rifle...

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      I remember the days Koba was so remote... I miss those times, we used to be pretty much the only visitors. Now there are buses coming in from Cancun all day long, it gets pretty crowded. But since it's such a big site, it is still possible to find a quiet area. The great thing now is that you can rent bicycles that make it easier to roam through the site. They also excavated a few more structures so it is still worth going back.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      wow, this is an awesome lace to visit, if you like historical sites

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      @peachpurple: It sure is, and there are so many others to visit. Thank you for stopping by

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 2 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      Thanks once again for writing an excellent hub and simultaneously bring back wonderful associations...

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for stopping by

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 2 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      The observatory building at Chichen Itza was most fascinating; located close to the hotel we stayed at. In the 80s I picked up some obsidian around that site and contemplated that these Mayans actially understood enough to use lens in that beautiful structure...

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      You would not find a piece of obsidian anywhere close now. But yes, I think you might be right about them using it as a lens. The observatory is a beautiful structure, no doubt.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Wonderful hub with amazing pictures!

      I love travelling and seeing the historical and archaeological sites. I have not seen this beautiful place but would love to visit.

      Thanks for sharing and voted up! Welcome to HubPages and wish you great times ahead!

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      @ChitrangadaSharan Thank you so much! I hope you do get to visit it, you'd really enjoy it. Thank you for your support

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great article! I so enjoyed reading this. I have to get to the Yucatan Peninsula to see the serpent. I am so glad you had the opportunity to see it. The Maya were are are a fascinating culture to learn about. The number of stairs and the serpent show how knowledgeable they were about the yearly calendar. It is too bad their culture died out. And yes, when the Spanish came that really finished their culture.

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      You should definitely go and see some of these sites if you enjoy learning about the Mayan culture. I've been traveling there a lot, saw most of the sites even the more remote ones. Yes they had such an amazing culture! I will definitely write a lot more about this subject in other hubs. Lately it's easier to travel there but I feel that it lost something from the remoteness that I used to enjoy. However it is more accessible and it would be a great trip to visit most of the ruins on the peninsula. The serpent is spectacular indeed. Hope you get to go. Thank you for your support.

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 2 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      I've been to Chichen itza and it was incredibly hot at the top of that pyramid. I don't know how the ancients could stand the heat in that little room! Like you, I had a great time exploring that region.

    • Emese Fromm profile image
      Author

      EmeseRéka 2 years ago from The Desert

      Yes, the heat gets to me every time. Not only on the top of the pyramid, but all over the site. It's nicer in the winter though, but that only lasts a few months there. In fact I just returned from a visit in the Yucatan last week, but skipped Chichen Itza and its vicinity because of the heat. Instead, we stayed closer to the coast, where it's much nicer, at least there is a constant breeze. Thank you for your comment, I'm glad you got to enjoy a visit in the region in a time when it was still possible to climb the pyramid.

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