El Castillo by night
I have wanted to see Chichen-Itza ever since I read about the Seven New Wonders of the World (click here to see what they are) - and today that dream came true. We had a little taster the night before with a son-et-lumiere show, the highlight of which was the great pyramid known as El Castillo being illuminated in various colours. I thought red was the most dramatic.
We are staying in the Hacienda Chitchen-Itza and so it was possible to simply walk into sight by the back entrance. We started earlyish to avoid the crowds which are apparently enormous. Our route meant that the first thing we saw was the Group of a Thousand Columns. This seems to be literally true, not just a poetic notion. The columns would once have had wooden beams across the top covered with palm fronds and were part of a large market area.
We followed them round for some distance to reach the Temple of the Warriors.
Just across from this, in a vast open area, was the 25m high El Castillo, seen here from the rear, which gives an impression of what would have all looked like before restoration. It is an imposing and magnificent structure. It is also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, the feathered snake, known as Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs. Inside the pyramid is a second older one which apparently has a red jaguar throne.
Here is the view from the next side, with a more finished look. The other fascinating thing is the pyramid is carefully constructed to replicate the Maya calendar: there are 9 levels divided in two making 18 terraces which reflect the 18 20 day months into which the Mayans divided the year. The four staircases and the top platform have altogether 365 steps, representing of course the days in the year.
Sadly, you can't climb the steps. In view of the number of visitors this is surely a wide decision to protect the fabric from wear and tear - and also for safety reasons, as someone fell to their death in 2006.
Next we passed the Temple of Jaguars and Shields ...
... quickly followed by the Platform of Skulls. This was one used to display the skulls of sacrificial victims and numerous skulls are sculpted on every surface.
Now we headed away from the main site along what is in effect a shopping street where vendors were busy setting up trestle tables to display their wares to tourist groups arriving by coach from Cancun. We passed the double wall which marked the boundary of the city centre ...
... and reached the Sacred Cenote. It looks pretty much like any other cenote, other which there are lots across the Yucuatan. It is 60m in circumference and 35m deep.
Returning to the main site, our next port of call was the astonishing Ball Court. We know by now that all Mayan cities had a ball court. We saw our first one at Uxmal. Sometimes there were apparently as many as six or seven. This one is absolutely huge, longer than a football pitch, although a little narrower, and is the largest in Mexico. It also has wonderful acoustics and echoes.
The ball game was played between teams of between two and seven players and involved trying to score by propelling a hard rubber ball through hoops in the side walls (just visible high up in the middle of the two sides). It is generally held that the captain of the winning team would be sacrificed after the game with a guarantee of entry to the after life.
There are temples at either end of the ball court and a substantial structure towards the left end.
I heard this described as a viewing point for the elite, but if so it is a rather odd position - on the edge of the penalty area at one end of the pitch, to use a football analogy. You would expect it to be where there is the best vantage point - the half-way line.
We now made our way to one of the most astonishing buildings of all: El Caracol (The Observatory), built in 981 AD. The Mayan name means "the snail", a reference to its interior spiral staircase. The windows are aligned with the appearance of the planet Venus and with other solstices, equinoxes etc).
The final building was one of the most obscure, the Akab-Dzib. The central chambers date from the 2nd century, and some archaeologists think it is the most ancient structure at Chichen-Itza.
Conditions: cooler and cloudier than of late.
Rating: 5 stars. Astonishing. Memorable. So glad to have finally seen it.