Visiting Mayan Ruins: Chichen Itza
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.