“We were very happy when Chichen Itza got selected as one of the Seven Wonders of the World”, tells our Mayan guide Fabio as we walk towards the main entrance of the wondrous site, located in the Yucatan province in south-eastern Mexico. “It was a recognition of our glorious ancestral past”.
In 2007, Chichen Itza joined Great Wall in China, Petra in Jordan, Christ Redeemer statue in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru, Colosseum in Rome and Taj Mahal in India to be grouped as the new Seven Wonders of the World, not just because of unprecedented human ability to create something of an unimaginable engineering scale, but also for demonstrating integration of architectural ingenuity with myth and science, legends and history.
This becomes clear when I wander through the sprawling complex where almost a millennium of heritage is displayed by an assembly of ruined monuments, some awed with art that expresses the lifestyle and traditions of the period.
While doing so, Fabio’s narration links the monuments with interesting episodes from the Mayan and Toltec civilisation, which between 3rd and 13th century spread across the Mesoamerica region, covering slices of today’s Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Chichen Itza civilisation
During its heyday in the 11th century, Chichen Itza, like Petra in Jordan, was a thriving city where over 35000 people lived.
Many of the domain’s structures were built then, most striking is El Castillo, a 30m high stepped pyramid with a temple crowned at the top.
It ranks today at the top of Mexico’s tourism display and draws around two million visitors every year for a close visual assault.
Earlier I had seen countless images of this icon, but nothing can be compared to the thrill of my first sight of the imposing structure dramatically rising out of the plains as if to touch the blue sky above.
I stay hypnotised for a while before rushing into photoshoot and selfie captures.
I learn from Fabio the temple at the top is dedicated to Toltec god-king Kukulkan, Flight of stairs on all four sides are for pilgrims to reach the shrine, which still houses a bright red throne carved as a jaguar and encrusted with green jade.
It’s called ‘chacmool’. The hike to the top is not allowed anymore, so I satisfy myself seeing its photograph which Fabio captured before the closure.
Fabio explains how the design of the pyramid reflects Mayan’s deep knowledge of astronomy. For example, 91 steps on each side facing four cardinal points plus the one at the top platform makes 365, representing total days in a year.
Chichen Itza shadows
One of the most intriguing features of this monument is the optical illusion on two yearly equinoxes when the play of light and shadow on the northern staircase represents the shape of a serpent which descends along the steps to join the serpent head at the base.
According to Mayan legend, this magic represents god Kukulcan returning to earth to commune with his worshipers, provide blessing for a full harvest and good health before entering the sacred water, bathing in it, and continuing through it on his way to the underworld.
Legends aside, Fabio later describes what actually happens on those two days when time span of day and night are equal.
The mathematically astute architecture of the pyramid combines with the earth’s natural rotation to create a somewhat peculiar image of a giant snake crawling down the temple.
For almost five hours this trickery of light and shadow displays seven triangles on the side of the staircase starting at the top and inching its way down until it connects the top platform with the giant stone head of the feathered serpent at the bottom.
Then, for almost an hour this extraordinary shadow stays in its entirety before descending the pyramid.
The wonders of Chichen Itza
Every year thousands arrive to see this phenomenon through their own eyes and to rejoice the way Mayans did a millennium ago.
“A carnival atmosphere fills the area with sounds of drums, traditional music and cheering crowds”, tells Fabio seeding inside me thoughts of another trip.
However I get an idea of the spectacle when watch after sunset a light and sound show that magically recite the story of Mayan and Toltec theology.
El Castillo is not the only monument of significance inside the complex, there are many others to generate fascination, in particular, the Temple of Warriors, Nunnery, Observatory, Sacred Cenote and the Ball Court – a rectangular amphitheatre for a game where players used their body, except hands, to place a ball through a stone ring engraved to the wall.
Like the gladiator fights in ancient Rome, it was more of a ritual than sport. The losers were often surrendered to god, as a human sacrifice to various gods was then a common practice.
Surely the thought generate eerie feelings in me, though Spanish conquistadors banned the practice after establishing a colony in Mexico.
So I decide to leave the complex and spend time at the bar of nearby Mayaland Hotel from where watching the last rays of the descending sun colouring the ruins of a Mayan observatory is simply awe inspiring.
Sandip Hor visited the site as a guest of Yucatan Travel.
Chichen Itza is Mexico’s best World Heritage site but there are plenty of other amazing places to see in Mexico. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico you may want to visit a few destinations. Here are more places to visit in Mexico. Our favourite is Baja. Read this post on things to do in Baja.
How to get to Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is only two-hour drive from Merida, the capital city of Yucatan State. One option is to fly Emirates to Los Angeles and then Aeromexico to Merida via Mexico City.
Where to stay in Chichen Itza
Hyatt Regency in Merida is a luxury option. Alternatively there are some good hotels in Chichen Itza where many stay few nights to explore the site intensely. The Mayaland Hotel is close to the site.
How far is it from Cancun to Chichen Itza?
One option is to visit Chichen Itza as a day trip from Cancun. The distance is 196km. The travel time from Cancun to Chichen Itza is one hour and 20 minutes.
Mexican Peso MXN, 1 USD = 18 MXN