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There are certain ruins that should never be missed on a trip to Central America-one of them is Chichen Itza.

There are certain ruins that should never be missed on a trip to Central America-one of them is Chichen Itza.

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Recently, I decided to feed my curiosity as to humankind’s early ancestry and at the same time respond to a yearning to return to warm and friendly climes. The best way to do both, I deduced, was to make a multi-stop trip to explore some of the best ancient ruins found in Central America.

If you make the same choice one day, there are several countries that should definitely be included on your trip, but Mexico is the best known and most easily reached destination in Central America and its ancient ruins are legendary, so a good place to start. If you delve into the details, you’ll quickly discover there are more sites in Mexico alone than you could possibly visit on a single trip. This means prime examples like Chichen Itza should be high on your heritage hit-list.

Step back in time

No tour of Central America’s ruins would be complete without visiting this stunning site in the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsular. It’s the second most popular tourist location in Mexico, and one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. The ruins are well maintained, with climbers restricted from clambering up steps and walls. This makes it no less impressive to see, just a bit less risky in terms of tumbling down pyramids while trying to capture the money shot, which you can buy as a postcard anyway. Climb or no climb, the crowds continue to descend on this wondrous collection of UNESCO World Heritage ruins, so depending on your mystical bent, you will either want to join or avoid the magnetic appeal of the masses.

Personally, I had always wanted to visit Chichen Itza for two reasons. Firstly because of the name, which roughly translates as “Mouth of the Well of the Itza,” an indication of the powerful source that inspired its early inhabitants. Secondly, because of the darker side to Mayan culture, which was actually discovered underwater at one of this site’s huge Cenotes, or natural sink holes, believed to have been used for human sacrifices. Studies of the human remains lying in Cenote Sagrado (Well of Sacrifice) suggest that sacrificial rituals were a way of honouring and worshiping Chaac, the Mayan god of rain, who was believed to live at the bottom of the deep pool. Several types of valuables have also been recovered, including gold, pottery and jade objects, all found in the murky depths along with the bones.

A serpent spectacle

If you lean towards a more communal appreciation of human kind’s considerable achievements, then visit Chichen Itza with the crows at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (September 21-22 and March 20-21, respectively), when the morning and afternoon sunlight creates a man-made illusion of a snake curling up or down the staircase of the El Castillo (The Castle), the site’s main pyramid. To ancient Mayans, this represented the serpent god’s annual appearance on earth, and thousands of people still congregate twice yearly to see the spectacle. The effect can also be seen about a week before and after the dates, so you have some leeway for a more private viewing. My only sighting, however, was at one of the nightly light and sound recreations of the event, but even that had a bit of a chilling effect on me, albeit gently countered by the coos of the children who made it an altogether fun affair.

Counting the steps

The Mayans are credited with the development of the 365-day calendar and at Chichen Itza, there are 365 steps to the top of El Castillo. Such architectural dynamics were not accidental, but testaments to the advanced skills of the builders’ astronomical and mathematical skills. The Mayan’s were also keen sportsmen, and to get an idea of the sporting talents they possessed, you need only drop by and visit what is the largest known ball court in the Americas, with its high stone walls and a decorated ring in the centre, through which a heavy rubber ball would be thrown for victory in a predecessor to game of basketball. Victory or defeat in this game was apparently a heady experience in more ways than one. Stone panels close to the arena show images of blood flowing as the loser was sacrificed – although some experts claim it was actually the winner who was beheaded.

Ancient style

Several different styles of architecture can be seen around Chichen Itza’s 5 square km (1.9 square mile) site, demonstrating considerable cross-influences between different cultures, or as some believe, a series of conquests by people from different regions of Mexico. The Puuc and Chenes styles of the northern Yucatan region stand unique in what’s called the Old Chichen area, for example, where Puuc styled structures boast wonderfully decorated mosaic features on the upper edges that I needed my telescopic lens to capture.

Back at the main pyramid, I found myself (not alone) clapping at different points to hear the sound rebound. The precise acoustics are most easily heard immediately at the El Castillo staircase, a clap sharply resonates between structures, and is said to resemble the call of the splendidly coloured quetzal birds endemic to the area. As the birds are rarely seen today, this might be the only chance you get to hear that haunting sound, unless you travel deep into the jungle.

For me, the most amazing site was El Caracol, the ancient observatory used for solar and lunar sightings, with its crumbled star gazing windows still visible. Also majestic, with its steep stairs and multi-columned structure is the Temple of the Warriors, but resist local guides’ attempts to steer you towards their personal friends’ gift stalls (there are a few too many of these around for my taste), and request specific sites be visited instead.

According to many archeologists and historians, Chichen Itza  suffered a similar fate to many other great Mayan cities. A combination of drought, top-heavy leadership habits and constant wars drained vital energy and life out of the economy and its people. Ironically, some 1.2 million tourists now pass annually through what remains of this once great city, which means its legend lives on and coffers continue to be filled thanks to its magnificence.

Rather hot in afternoon sun, like many Central American sites, you’ll be buying drinks before ordering food, but the ruins are very cool to see and there’s plenty of shade beyond the main pyramid and central areas of the site. Anyway, a bit of sweat is not a big, shall we say, “sacrifice” to make if you want to experience this awe-inspiring collection of historic ruins in all their glory. Note also that only a few minutes away from Chichen Itza is a refreshing Cenote where you can swim to cool down and refresh. It is in the Eco-Arqueological Park Ik Kil, and you can delight in the invigorating cold waters as water drips from above, surrounded by lush plant life. A perfect ending to an amazing site and far preferable to the Mayan’s use of the pool.

Some Useful Spanish Phrases to Know on the Road

  • Por Do’nde se va a … ?  (Which way is it to … ?)
  • Tengo que hacer trasbordo?  (Do I have to change? – as in, buses, etc.)
  • Cuanto es la tarifa/token (la ficha)?  (How much is the fare/token?)
  • Cuanto cuesta?  (How much does it cost?)
  • Qual es la linea que va a … ?  (Which is the line that goes to … ?)
  • Quisiera un pasaje.  (I would like a ticket.)
  • Aqui es la entrada.  (Here is the entrance.)
  • Donde esta el banyo?  (Where is the toilet?)
  • Estamos perdidos.  (We are lost.)
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