Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chichen Itza: Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan

Chichen Itza: Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan

Americans and Europeans by the thousands descend on the Yucatan Peninsula annually to vacation along the Gulf Coast. The small fishing village of Cancun has grown into a very popular vacation destination, as has its neighbor to the south of the Riviera Maya. Most people fly into Cancun International Airport for sun and fun on the beaches of the Yucatan. Everyone should take the time to investigate some of the historic culture of the peoples who inhabited Mexico before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean and those who followed him to the New World.

What Is Chichen Itza

Visitors to Cancun and other locales on the Yucatan Peninsula have a wide variety of options when it comes to checking out Mayan ruins. Tulum, Xel Ha, and Tikal in Guatemala are just a few of the sites that tourists can investigate. Many hotels in the region have concierge services that visitors can use to book a trip. Tours to many of the sites are available on a daily basis.
Perhaps the most famous of the Mayan archaeological sites in the Yucatan is Chichen Itza, which was a dominant city in Mayan culture between roughly 700-1200 AD. Although the Spanish knew about the site, the excavation and study of the area around Chichen Itza was not carried out until beginning in the latter nineteenth century.
The name Chichen Itza refers to the major sink hole that is located on the premises. The name is translated "at the mouth of the well of the Itzas."

El Castillo

The most famous of the still-standing buildings that are located on the site of Chichen Itza is known as El Castillo, which is a step pyramid that rises 98 feet above the ground level. There are nine steps to the pyramid. Each of the four sides of the pyramid originally had steps that ascended to the top layer.
At the bottom of both sides of each staircase is a serpent head. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun hits the staircases in just such a way as to make it look as though a serpent is descending the staircase. Whether the Mayans intended this is debated, although it seems quite possible.

The Great Ball Court

Another of the most interesting structures on the site is the ball court. The Mesoamerican ball games were quite widespread, and this ball court would have hosted such spectacles. Archaeologists have found no fewer than 13 ball courts, but the Great Ball Court is the best-preserved example in Central America.
The Mayan ball games had the objective of getting a hardened rubber ball through what somewhat resembles a vertical basketball hoop (rather than the horizontal orientation of hoops in basketball). The court itself measures 551 feet by 230 feet and has numerous carvings of feathered serpents and a picture of a decapitated player. It is thought that some of the players were sacrificed after the games (there is some debate as to which side got the treatment).
The Chichen Itza observatory
The Chichen Itza observatory

Other Important Structures at Chichen Itza

There are many structures at Chichen Itza that tour guides point out to visitors. Two more are especially worth mentioning. The first is El Caracol (the snail), which appears to be some sort of ancient observatory with doors and windows aligned for observing astronomical events.
The Temple of the Warriors is also an impressive structure that has a massive number of columns that are oriented around the temple. The pillars have carvings of warriors, hence the name of the structure.
Basically of the major sites that people will visit during a trip to Chichen Itza will have depictions of a feathery snake. This serpent is the Mayan god Kukulcan.

Getting to Chichen Itza

The closest major airport to Chichen Itza that Americans and Europeans would be likely to use is Cancun (CUN). It is best for those not used to driving in Mexico to utilize local buses and taxis, because people do not pay as much attention to the road signs as they might in the US. I found this out on my 2002 visit before I was even off of airport property. A red "Alto" stop sign apparently means go.
Many of the hotels have a concierge that visitors can use to book day trips to Chichen Itza. The tour that I took cost about $60, but that was 10 years ago. It took one of the newest and nicest roads in Mexico to the urban center of Merida, where my tour group had lunch with dancers performing. From there we went to Chichen Itza for a tour. The entire day trip was just that, a day trip. We were basically gone from sunup to sundown. For those who like history and archaeology, it's a great trip.