Chichen Itza

We spent a whole month in Playa del Carmen avoiding packaged tours to Chichen Itza because we knew it would be easier and cheaper to visit from Merida. The bus station nearest our home has three buses that leave each morning and stop at Chichen Itza’s main gate. At 5:30 in the evening, another bus that makes the return journey. The best part is the tickets costing between $3 and $5US per person each way, far cheaper than booking a tour.

El Castillo, gorgeous clouds, a jaguar carving that managed to retain a bit of paint.

We opted for the 8:30am departure that got us to the ruins about 10:30. This gave us about an hour before the hordes of tourists arrived from the coast. Entrance is 232 pesos per person (currently about $17US/person). Visitors are a semi-captive audience and hundreds of souvenir hawkers compete for attention all around the temples. If you really need a jaguar call or festive blankets, you can take the opportunity to stock up (it’s cheaper than Cancun, so there’s that).

Beyond the first gauntlet of vendors are the actual ruins. The steeply rising El Castillo pyramid is the largest and best-known. It is hard to give a sense of how imposing it is in photos, or just how narrow the stairs up its sides are. We weren’t there on an equinox, but it was clear that the builders intended the snake symbolism to match with the year’s solar cycle.

Temple of the Warriors and the Observatory

Immediately behind El Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors (with the famous Chac Mool statue awaiting human hearts) and the Group of the Thousand Columns stretching off to the right. Many structures, including the columns, used to have roofs. It’s hard to imagine what the city would have looked like at the peak of its power. Not to mention that much of it would also have been brilliantly painted to awe the viewer. Only a few carvings retain small sections of rich blues and rust reds. Bare stone conveys the immensity but not the more personal human touches.

Crowds in the Great Ball Court, leafcutter ants, stone faces on La Iglesa

Off to the right is one of two cenotes inside the site; vines and ferns climbing the walls make it feel Jurassic-Parklike. Further in this direction is the Observatory, one of my favorite buildings at Chichen Itza. It was probably used to make astronomical observations and is more eclectic in style with several levels of platforms in front of the round tower. in the far corner are buildings named La Iglesa and the Nunnery. Great stone faces peer out from their facades. Hooked noses jutting out from the structures call Pinocchio to mind.

Group of the Thousand Columns, snakes guarding temple stairs, part of the Nunnery, carved scene at the ball court showing a beheaded player

Going the other way from El Castillo, we first stopped at the ball court. The acoustics inside its walls were planned carefully – converse at one end and it can be heard at the other more than a hundred feet away. Probably useful for cheering and calling fouls. This was definitely a serious sport. The small goal hoops are 25 feet off the ground and a relatively heavy rubber ball would have been used. Rules forbid the use of hands but with the addition that losers might also lose their heads. I suppose you learned to play very well, very quickly.

A few images of the necks of beheaded players shooting out snakes are just a small taste when compared to the Platform of the Skulls. This low platform makes no bones (sorry, I had to) about its purpose. Human sacrifices needed to be put somewhere (apparently), and this elevated space was the perfect spot. All sides are carved with skulls and the occasional eagle ripping the heart out of its human victim. Ah, subtlety.

Vendors, the Sacred Cenote, Platform of the Skulls

From here another narrow path between tables laden with t-shirts and stone turtles leads to the Sacred Cenote. There are a few small ruins right at the edge of this cenote, which is the more impressive of the two. It is a vivid, violent green. The sides drop away though white stone in a near-perfect circle. The Maya thought it might be an entrance to the underworld. I could easily imagine the same thing: anything might be under that water, looking up.

Chichen Itza was just about everything I’d hoped. the temples and stonework was far more impressive than guidebooks convey. In many places the remaining carvings and stonework face are gorgeous and clearly the work of vast amounts of artisans’ time. It would be nice if the site had fewer vendors inside. Of course, the local economy depends on visitors’ money and most of the sellers probably barely earn a living despite this. Before the heaviest crowds arrive the site is still relatively peaceful (and the vendors are occupied by setting up) and it is mind-numbing to contemplate the amount of stone moved under the burning sun and all the years of devotion that went into the temples’ planning and construction. During the middle of the day the tour groups and high temperatures make it less pleasant, but many people don’t make it to the far corners so it is still possible to find a spot to yourself, even then.

Casa Colorado and El Castillo