Chichen Itza, Mexico – a skull platform? an early observatory? the serpent effect?

Everyone knows Chichen Itza. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve seen the pictures.

The apogee of the Mayan Empire.

One of the largest and most powerful cities in Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian times.

Glorified alongside the Roman Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China, as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

And at the centre of it all: The Temple of Kukulkan.

The Temple of Kukulkan, Chichen Itza

Temple of Kukulkan, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Temple of Kukulkan. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

The Temple of Kukulkan, the famous ziggurat (stepped pyramid) of Chichen Itza, is the architectural triumph, and poster-child, of the Mayans. Thousands flock to the temple during the spring and autumn equinox to see the much-touted serpent effect, a trick of the light that makes the carving of Kukulkan, the feathered snake deity that decorates the balustrade of the northwest staircase, come to life.

It’s the angles that do it. The Mayans worked it out perfectly. As the sun sets the shadow cast by the tail of the Kukulkan carving grows and shrinks in a manner that suggests movement (a healthy imagination also helps).

El Caracol, Chichen Itza

El Caracol, Chichen Itza, Mexico

El Caracol. Photo credit: Benjamin White

El Caracol (meaning: the Snail, due to the circular staircase that loops around the inner perimeter of the building) is thought to be an early observatory, devoted, at least partly, to the study of the stars. Mayans were deft astronomers. Their measure of the month and solar year were more accurate than those of the Spanish conquistadors when the two met in the early 16th Century.

The Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza

Sacred Cenote, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Sacred Cenote. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Cenotes, or sinkholes, are common throughout the limestone plains of the Yucatán Peninsula.

The Sacred Cenote, at Chichen Itza, was the home of the rain god, Chaac. The Mayans threw offerings to Chaac, gifts of gold and jade, along with the odd human sacrifice, anything to appease him, anything to end the centuries-long drought.

Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza

Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Great Ball Court. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Chichen Itza is home to no less than thirteen ball courts. The largest of these, known as the Great Ball Court, measuring 168 metres in length, is the largest (known) ball court in the Mayan Empire.

The Skull Platform of Chichen Itza

Skull Platform, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Skull Platform. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

The Skull Platform, located alongside the Great Ball Court, was used to display the skulls of human sacrifices.

The losing team of ball players would also, on occasion, have their heads removed and stacked atop the platform.

La Iglesia, Chichen Itza

La Iglesia, Chichen Itza, Mexico

La Iglesia. Photo credit: Benjamin White

La Iglesia (meaning: the church) is one of the few buildings the Spanish named correctly, for it is thought to have been a temple.

The face captured in the frieze is that of the rain god, Chaac.

Temple of a Thousand Warriors, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Plaza of a Thousand Columns. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Chichen Itza may indeed be the grandest of all Mayan cities. Don’t come here expecting an Indiana Jones adventure though; tourists are here in big numbers. But what do you expect? It’s one of the New7Wonders of the World.

Did I like Chichen Itza? Yes, very much so, but it isn’t my favourite Mayan city. There are too many tourists there for one. I also prefer ruins which remain partly overgrown by jungle, such as those of Copán (Honduras), Tikal (Guatemala), and Palenque (Mexico). There’s nothing like having a few forest giants scattered amongst the ruins, their gnarled roots holding up walls, staircases, statues, and temple roofs, to impart a sense of age and grandeur to the visitor.

Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Temple of the Warriors. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The temples and government buildings of Chichen Itza are also a little too clean and well-restored for my liking. Combine this with the hectares of lawn and overtly manicured parkland that surround these structures, and you might find that Chichen Itza feels more like a sculpture garden, at times, than an archaeological ruin.

Of course Chichen Itza is still worth visiting, especially if you happen to be in town around the autumn or spring equinox. Just be sure to balance things out by taking in one or two of the less-manicured, less-restored, less-popular Mayan ruins while you’re there.

Practical information and how to reach Chichen Itza:

Public buses link Chichen Itza with Merida, Valladolid, and Tulum. More transport info here.

Read more on the Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen Itza in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

More on Mexico:

Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal, Mexico – built overnight by a superhuman dwarf

Cenotes X’keken and Samulá – dark caverns lit by intense sun beam at midday

Campeche – site of the largest pirate attack in history

Valladolid – plenty of colonial charm, but you can’t ignore its violent past

Ek’ Balam and X’ Canche – the perfect Mayan ruins / cenote combo

More on the Mayan Empire:

Copán, Honduras – cashed up Mayan outpost builds Hieroglyphic Stairway

Tikal, Guatemala – Mayan pyramids and… the Millennium Falcon?

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador – preserved beneath metres of ash, just like Pompeii

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