After a fabulous time in Mexico City and in the north on the famous El Chepe rail trip through Copper Canyon, we finished up in sunny Yucatan. We stayed in the Mahekal Beach Resort in Playa del Carmen, part of the Riviera Maya. A lovely resort and a great place to relax, but there was a lot to see in the Yucutan. We started our Mayan holiday with the Chitchen Itza remains about 70 miles away, which were first on our list.
These are the ruins of one of the largest Mayan cities ever built. There were a lot of tourists there, but it’s a huge, two and a half square mile site, so there was plenty of room for everyone. It was also pretty warm so our bottled water was essential. As was our super guide, Alfredo. He knew everything about the place - and everything else come to think of it.
Chichen Itza - the Wall of Skulls and El Castillo pyramid
Mayan buildings and city planning
He explained the history of the site and main pyramid, El Castillo. It was awesome, with a total of 365 steps, matching the days in the year. The steps have been partially restored and he explained how the sun makes a shadow down them at the right times of year which resembles a snake. What was spooky is that there is a snake head statue at the bottom of each corner and the snake-shadows line up with it perfectly, but only on two days a year! We had never seen pyramids before and the sheer monumental size and ingenuity were mind blowing.
Number one on Mayan holidays - Chitzen Itza
The Ball Court at Chitzen Itza was a tough place to play. It is a magnificent arena the size of two or three football pitches, complete with stone grandstands and a VIP balcony. Alfredo wasn’t sure of the rules of this sacred ball game but it was a big deal, with the losers often beheaded, no doubt for a sub-standard performance of deeply religious significance. Which put losing a few points in the local derby in perspective for us...
Life seemed to have been pretty cheap in Mayan society. The remains of sacrifices of children and adults have been found in the Sacred Canote, or Well, which is also on show. Whether they jumped, fell or were thrown in we’ll never know but people were obviously dispensable. The well is 20 feet wide with no way out up sheer sides. We were chilled by the stories and couldn’t help feeling sorry for them and wondering who they were.
The Temple of a 1000 columns?
For me the other most staggering construction at Chitchen Itza, after the pyramid, was the Temple of Warriors or a Thousand Columns. We didn’t actually count them but there are a lot, perfectly aligned and in great condition after centuries. Strolling through amazing structures like these and absorbing the atmosphere is always special and this was no exception. It was like the whole place, a little humbling.
Our trusty guide did his best to explain who built what, where and why in a complicated period involving another major tribe called the Toltec, who also had a hand in the building here. The pre-Spanish history of the southern Mexico is a little complicated, with a succession of tribes and cultures succeeding one another from way back. We had fun with Alfredo sorting out the whole Mesoamerican time line and promised ourselves a simple book on the subject before we went home!
Mexico is a fascinating and historic country and I think that Chitchen Itza is well worth all the hype as one of the top Mayan ruins in Mexico.
Read our Yucatan holidays section for an overview of Mayan holidays in the Yucatan and the ruins in the region. Also see When to go to Mexico for the best times to visit.
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