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).


Frank Kovalchek's photo of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá.

The iconic “El Castillo”. Notice the serpent heads at the bottom of the stairs. Photo by Frank Kovalchek.

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.)

OliBac's photo of Chac Mool at Chichén Itzá.

The Mayan Rain God – Chac Mool, holds a bowl or tray. Is it for receiving sacrificed hearts? Photo by OliBac.

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.

Jim G's photo of the observatory at Chichén Itzá.

“El Caracol” – the observatory at Chichén Itzá. Photo by Jim G.

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!

Brian Snelson's photo of the Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá.

Does the Latino love of fútbol (soccer) date to preColumbian times? Photo by Brian Snelson.

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.

I had done all the tasks I could think of, been to the internet café, caught up on my journal, lingered over dinner and chatted with other travelers while enjoying my two beers.  Exhausted from the day’s sight-seeing, I was ready to relax.  I crossed my fingers and prepared to look at my watch, hoping it would be a semi-respectable hour to go to bed.  Crap! Only seven-thirty!

There’s a lot to be said for being early to bed and early to rise. But if you’re too early to bed, then your body might want to rise at four in the morning, when there’s not a lot to do, nor light to do it in.  A single person, who doesn’t want to drink themselves into oblivion, is often at a loss for nighttime travel activities.  Here are a few strategies for filling the evening hours:

1)    First the obvious nighttime travel activities- reading, writing and ready-ing.  Reading is of course the obvious answer to the question of how to fill the evenings.  Where as in normal life, the problem is so many books so little time, traveling one often finds themselves with an abundance of time and shortage of books.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  In desperation I sometimes read books I wouldn’t typically choose, and discover that I like them.  My criteria goes from “nonfiction or historical fiction” to “written in English.” Lately, I’ve even learned to let that criteria go, realizing that if I bring a book written in Spanish (a language I will spend the rest of my life trying to master) it will last me twice as long.

Evenings provide an excellent opportunity to prepare, repair and share.  Drag out that mini-sewing kit and fix the hole in your shirt.  Get your day-pack ready for the following day. Write some postcards. Catch up on your journal.  Start sorting through those thousands of digital photos.

2)    There are a lot of challenges to maintaining a healthy level of exercise while traveling.  Sometimes you’re on a ten-day trek and you feel like a marathon runner.  But then there are those 30-hour bus rides from which it can be hard to come un-scrunched.  I carry a yoga matt strapped to the side of my pack (can also come in handy for emergency sleep situations).  If my lodging is roomy enough, private enough and the floor not too disgusting, I spread out my mat and go for it.  There is scientific research which indicates that the best time to change your habits is when you’re away from home.  So load that kick-boxing routine onto your i-pod and have at it.

3)    I like to shower in the evening.  It makes more sense. You go to bed clean, and unless you’re doing something exciting in bed (in which case you clearly do not need to be reading this article!), you wake up clean.  It feels good to remove the gunk- sunscreen, bug repellent, dust- that has piled up on my skin throughout the day.  If you’re staying in a hostel you’ll have less competition for the shower and may even increase you’re chances of having hot water.  If you’re in the hot, muggy tropics, a shower can help you cool off so you can sleep.

4)    Need some socializing, but don’t want to drink and dance all night? A simple deck of cards is a great prop.  They are cheap, easy to carry, and there are a million ways to use them.  If you sit at a café and play solitaire on an electronic device, you’ll probably remain on your own.  But if your playing with real cards other bored travelers are bound to join you for a game.

5)    Early in my traveling career a friend advised me that it was a good idea to go to movies.  Luckily for me, many movies are in English. When you get sucked into a movie, it’s like a two-hour vacation from your life.  This can be a good thing sometimes, even if you’re living the fabulous life of international travel. In Latin America, I am often able to find “Cine Clubs”, small, sometimes improvised theaters showing art films.  Once I was watching a movie in one of these theaters when a rooster wandered in!

6)     Take up a portable hobby.  I met a man in a hotel in Honduras who carried a small set of oil paints with him.  Everywhere he would go, he would scrounge a piece of wood and paint a picture on it.  Then he would take a photo of it and leave the painting as a gift to the hotel.  A friend of mine does embroidery on her travels.  When she looks at her work later it brings back the memories of all the places she was when she worked on it.

Shilin Night Market. Photo by LWY.

7)    I’ve been delighted to find that there actually are some nighttime travel activities that interest me as a tourist.  Wandering through night markets in Southeast Asia, is an absolute pleasure.  Visiting archeological sites in Central America, I learned that some will allow you to buy a ticket for the following day after 6:00 PM and enjoy the last few hours the site is open.  This allowed me to enjoy the sound and light show at Chichen Itza and the animals that came to life at twilight at Tikal.  Occasionally, if I can do so in a respectful manner and know that my presences is not displacing someone else- I will attend a local religious ceremony.  This can be quite interesting, and at very least I’ve found going to mass in Latin America to be an excellent opportunity to practice my Spanish comprehension.

Chichen Itza – Sound and Light Show. Photo by ruffin_ready.

All that being said, I still think finding nighttime travel activities can be a challenge and would love to hear other people’s suggestions…