The Mysterious Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza

In March 2019, I crossed another destination off my bucket list — to visit Mayan Ruins. We had this opportunity with one of the destinations of our Caribbean Cruise with Holland America.

Our ship docked in Cozumel, Mexico, which itself is an island off the eastern coast of the Mexican Yucatan Penisula. We boarded a ferry for a 45-minute ride to the resort town of Playa del Carmen, Mexico and met our tour bus for the 90-minute ride into the north-central part of the Yucatan. Mile-after-mile on a mostly straight 4-lane highway we passed through what felt like, and was in reality, the middle of nowhere.

The closer we arrived to the Chichen Itza site billboards and advertisements appeared along the roadside and into the small town of Tinum, Mexico. Obviously, this tourist site is what draws nearly 2.5 million people annually to this desolate location.

The bus dropped us off in front of the entry gate as the fifty or so of us got off. Our tour guide as he rode with us on the bus gave us a history lesson about the Mayans, Chichen Itza, and the current people living in the Yucatan. Once we stopped, he assembled us together as a group passing out headphones to hear him during our visit.

Chichen Itza (chit-zin it-sa) was built by the Maya people between 750 and 900 AD and was one of the culture’s largest cities. The location was even referenced as a mythical great city in early literature in the region prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The name is spelled Chichén Itzá in Spanish and translates to “at the mouth of the well of the water” – this area of the Yucatan is fairly dry, however, rivers with tributaries run underneath the ground in the area causing many sink holes and caves in the region.

And, it is these sink holes (cenote) where Mayans sacrificed objects and even people as a form of worship to the Maya rain god, Chaac.

The area and its culture have been studied in recent decades to understand the political, economic, and historical context of Chichen Itza. But, regardless of its past, the current site is amazing to me from the context of how everything had to have been built without any modern-day lifting equipment.

Chichen Itza is not the only Maya ruins, as numerous ancient cities existed in this period throughout Mexico and the Central American countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Hondurus. But, it is one of the largest.

By 1100 AD, Chichen Itza had declined as a regional center and may have even been abandoned. In 1527, Spanish conquistadors conquered much of the Yucatan Peninsula. However, fierce fighting in the area around Chichen Itza caused the Spanish to leave the immediate vicinity by 1535 when all of the Spanish were driven away from the Yucatan — with its eventual fall by 1588.

After this time period, the land basically retook the structures. Vines and trees filled in the open areas almost covering the complex. In the late 1800s, efforts began to excavate the area clearing away the debris.

Archeologists from the US recovered many artifacts from the site. But, the Mexican Revolution and World War I delayed these projects until the 1930s. Not until the 1960s through efforts by National Geographic and private interests fully recovered the site.

Chichen Itza is a site consisting of many stone structures. The most predominate one of course is the step pyramid (El Castillo) at the center. Technically, this is called the Temple of Kukulcán, a Maya feather serpent, which symbolizes its divine nature with its ability to fly and the serpent representing human nature.

This step pyramid stands 30 meters (98 feet) tall. The steps are at a 45 degree angle reaching up to its top terrace area. The amazing detail with this structure is the edge of the steps… based on the right sun angle at sunset at the Spring & Fall equinoxes, the edges rise above the steps providing an illusion that the feathered serpent is slithering down the pyramid.

Another impressive structure is the “Great Ball Court” – that measures 168 x 70 meters (551 x 230 feet) with the walls standing 8 meters (26 feet) high. On each end of the court is a Temple, and along the stone walls of the court are carvings of faces and men being decapitated – which evidently was the outcome of the potential loser of the game.

As far as the game, a stone circle stands 8 meters tall with the opening sticking out from the wall. Players scored by getting a 4kg (9 pound) rubber ball through the opening on either side while the opposing team physically fought to prevent this from happening. The tops of the walls are platforms where spectators watched. The game typically became a ritual event combined with religious human sacrifice.

We enjoyed walking the site and taking in all the history and legends of Chichen Itza. You could sense the electricity of the place and gain a sense of why this area flourished once in history… a place where I can check another destination off my bucket list.

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