Entering Chichén Itzá, the visitor is immediately confronted with a pyramid so striking it encapsulates what most of us think of when we think of Mesoamerican ruins. But El Castillo is more than just a perfect pyramid, it is actually a giant representation of the Mayan calendar.
The sprawling site of Chichén Itzá is so large and impressive, it spans two civilizations. It was originally a late Classic Mayan site, but the population declined around the 9th century. Then it was invaded by Toltecs from the north. The architecture of Chichén Itzá reflects both of these cultures; our old friend Chac Mool (the Mayan rain god) sits besides the invading Quetzalcóatl (the plumed-serpent god of the Mexican highlands).
Carved serpents heads decorate the bottom of the staircase of El Castillo. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, shadows on the stairs make the image of a slithering serpent. This affect is re-created every evening at the sound and light show. (You can buy your ticket and attend the show the night before you visit the ruins.)
El Castillo is not the only remarkable structure at Chichén Itzá. An unusually shaped building called El Caracol (Spanish for the snail) is believed to have served as an observatory. The ancient Maya didn’t need a swiveling dome to use with a high-powered telescope, but the shape of El Caracol is oddly reminiscent of modern-day observatories. If you haven’t explored the fascinating subject of archeoastronomy, this might be the time start.
To give you an idea of how immense the site is, Chichén Itzá includes, eight (yes, eight!) ball courts. The Great Ball Court is the largest in Mexico. From what we are told, the game entailed hitting (perhaps with the hips) a hard rubber ball through stone hoops which protrude from the sides of the court. It doesn’t look easy. Various carvings have lead scholars to speculate that the losers (or perhaps the winners depending on who you listen to) of the ball game were later sacrificed. No pressure there!
Surviving Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá’s big. It’s hot and crowded and doesn’t have much to offer in the way of shade (though the museum offers a bit of respite from the relentless sun). My recommendation is to get here early, scour the ruins for a few hours and then (keeping your ticket) leave through the rear exit and walk 3km east to Ik Kil park, where a lovely cenote (lime stone sink hole-turned swim pool) is just waiting to cool you off. After a refreshing dip, you’ll be ready for a few more hours exploring Chichén Itzá.