Visit: 18.104.22.168.11 [Mayan calendar]
27th December 2013 [Gregorian calendar]
El Castillo at Chichen Itza is one of those sites that – even if its name is not as well-known as the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal or Christ the Redeemer – is instantly recognisable from films and photographs to people the world over. I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along with my Dad on a three-day trip to Cancún in Mexico over Christmas, and so we had to take the chance to pop on a bus to Chichen Itza.
Mexico has an astonishing 32 World Heritage Sites, putting it in sixth place globally and giving it the more than any other country in the Americas. Chichen Itza is not the only ancient Mayan city in the country – there are several others that are WHSs, mostly in Yucatán – but it is probably the most visited. It is approximately a 2 hours drive from Cancún, but the day-trip coach operators insist on turning it into a gruelling 13 hour experience by taking you to other places on the way there and back. After spending an hour picking up other tourists from the other hotels on the strip we were taken first to a combined sinkhole, tequila museum and silver trinket shop, where we got lunch too. The sinkhole, at a place called Cenote Zaci, was surprisingly interesting – it is an underground cavern with a hole in the top, half-filled with water.
After the sinkhole we were driven on to Chichen Itza, where we were told to expect 50,000 other tourists. The guide was, I think, deliberately trying to lower our expectations for some reason. In the event, the site had been quite well managed, so that it did not feel particularly busy at all once inside the ancient city.
Chichen Itza is thought to have been constructed and inhabited between roughly AD600 and 1200. The Mayan people who built it were mysticists who had a strong affinity to the sun and the stars, and this shows in some of the astounding facts you learn there about their engineering of the city’s structures.
The largest and most famous structure – El Castillo – features four staircases, each containing 91 steps. Adding those steps together, plus the platform at the top, gives a total of 365 – the number of days in a year.
The pyramid’s base is also a golden rectangle – that is, a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio (about 1:1.618). If you cut out a square portion of the golden rectangle, the remainder is itself a golden rectangle. The flag of Togo was designed to be a golden rectangle, too, but that is much more recent.
During the Spring and Autumn equinoxes the pyramid projects a series of shadows onto its north side that evoke a serpent wriggling down the slope. Because the Mayans had a serpent god known as Kukulkan, the pyramid is sometimes referred to as the Temple of Kukulkan.
The pyramid is also acoustically interesting. If you stand at the foot of the staircases and clap, the sound ‘boomerangs’ back at you as a ‘shriek’. Apparently, too, if you stand at the top you can speak at a normal volume and be heard at the bottom. We weren’t able to test this latter claim, however, as the pyramid has been closed to climbing for several years since a woman fell off it / some teenagers desecrated it (depending whom you believe).
Another structure with great acoustics is the Great Ball Court. This is regarded as the most impressive court in the world for the Mescoamerican ballgame. This game contains elements found today in football, rugby and basketball, but could last as long as test cricket and puts them all to shame in terms of its difficulty. Integral to Mayan ritual, the game was played by the culture’s most promising males, who were trained from an early age and kept celibate. The objective of the game was to hit a 9lb solid rubber ball into a goal, which in some courts – like the one at Chichen Itza – took the form of a stone hoop 10 feet above the ground. The catch? Players were only allowed to use their hips. The courts are huge, as you can see in the picture below. Depending on the city, the prize for scoring the winning goal (first team to score wins) was either death for the scorer, death for his whole team, death for the losing team or death for nobody.
As well as looking at structures on a holistic level, there is plenty of intricacy to examine too. The city is covered in carvings of various ritual scenes, and the fascination with death is striking.
I was a little skeptical about how real all of the stuff is at Chichen Itza. That is not to say that it has been wholly fabricated, but that some of the buildings and carvings look almost new, and I suspect they may have been subject to some ‘interpretive restoration’ (there are parts places with concrete all over them). Our guide may not have been the most reliable, either – after claiming that he had a Masters in Archaeology, he told us that there was a carving of Viking explorer Leif Erikson there, and that the Jade gemstones so beloved of the Mayans had no source in the Americas, but were imported from Mongolia in the time before Columbus.
Still, it is a wonderfully photogenic place, and some of the facts that sounded too good to be true really did turn out to be true! On the way back to Cancún we stopped briefly in the town of Valladolid, where we visited San Cervacio Cathedral.
In Valladolid I bought some churros – a kind of deep fried dough snack you also find in Spain. Quite a tasty snack, which is perhaps more than I can say for the another interesting find in Mexico. Read the can – yes it really is Clamato-flavoured Sol! Actually, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I found it tasted a bit like a Bloody Mary. Probably a good hangover cure. I could have used some yesterday…