Chitzen-Itza is the best known Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica and is now one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” list. Some say it’s ironic for Chitzen-Itza to have such fame as the symbol of Mayan civilization since there is so much non-Mayan influence in its architecture. The name itself is in three parts- chi is mouth in Mayan, tzen or che’en is pozo or well, and Itza is the name for the people who ruled over this area. A visit to Chitzen-Itza is a must for anyone who comes to the Yucatan but I wasn’t sure whether it would live up to all the hype. I had such a wonderful time in both Uxmal and Mayapan, would the wonders of Chitzen-Itza blow me away? Almost two months into my stay in Merida, the time finally came for me to find out.
I’d waited for so long, mainly for the weather to cool down. Chitzen-Itza is close enough to Cancun (~2 hours by car) and so famous that a lot more people visit, and honestly the heat and the sun scared me. Fortunately (for me) there was a hurricane warning throughout the state of Quintana Roo this past week and many tourists from Cancun and the surrounding islands chose to evacuate. But after all the panic over Rina the hurricane, it turned out to be nothing more than a small tropical storm by the time it came around Cancun. Here was my chance! When we left Merida in the morning we had a few stray showers but I hoped that it would clear up just a little for me to have a perfectly cloudy day. And that’s exactly what we had. Sure, I didn’t get the most beautiful photos but my visit was so much more comfortable with cool breezes and pale gray skies.
One big difference with Chitzen-Itza with all the other Mayan ruins I visited was its scale and the fact that there were vendors all throughout this archaeological site. They weren’t too intrusive but I was more than once distracted by them. I was surprised that the government allowed this in what I consider a sacred and historical place. With that aside, I had a great guide who spoke very clearly and slowly throughout our 3 hour tour of the major sites in Chitzen-Itza that made me really happy that I chose to go with a Spanish group. He explained that the land belonged to a private owner until recently and it was actually the Americans (people from Carnegie Mellon and Tulane) who did a lot of the excavation. What we are able to see how is only 10% of Chitzen-Itza and most of the remaining ruins are still in dense forests. He showed us photos of what some of the ruins looked like before the restoration work and they really were under mounds of dirt and trees, just like the ruins in Cambodia I saw in 2005 where trees were growing on and out of roofs.
We fist stopped to see El Castillo (castle) also known as the Temple of Kukulkan, built around 850 A.D. It’s the famous pyramid in Chitzen-Itza that was constructed according to precise astronomical guidelines. There are nine levels divided by a central staircase, which make for 18 platforms, the number of months in the Mayan alendar. There are 91 steps on each of the 4 sides, and when you add the platform on top, there are 365 steps representing the number of days in a year. There are 52 inset panels for each face, the number of weeks in a year. So on and so forth. And this is where on spring and autumn equinox (March 21 and September 22) thousands of people gather to see the shadow of the serpent cascade down the steps of the pyramid. Truly impressive.
We talked about the Temple of a Thousand Warriors and the columns before moving on to the sacred well, the Cenote Sagrado. My guide said the name Chitzen-Itza probably came from this water source (mouth of the well, chi-tzen) where religious rituals and human sacrifices were made. They found evidence of 80+ humans in this cenote along with jade, ceramics, and other ceremonial items.
We then walked over to the the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, which was closed for additional restoration work. He said that there are 6 known ball courts in Chitzen-Itza but the others are in ruins in the forest. Who knows whether we’ll ever see or understand how powerful and intelligent the Mayans were? The last stop on the tour was the Observatory or El Caracol, for the set of winding steps like a snail that goes up the side of the the round building used for astronomical observations.
Because of the knowledgeable guide I thought my time there was efficiently used and it was quite educational. But because of the crowd, the vendors, and the fact that all of the ruins are off limits to tourists, I have to say I prefer Uxmal and Mayapan where I felt more at ease exploring the ruins at a leisurely pace and in peace. There are so many more places I have to visit and they’re on the list now for my next trip to Mexico. Palenque in Chiapas, Ek’Balam near Valladolid, Tulum and the ruins and cenote by the ocean, are just a few I won’t have the opportunity to see this time. It’s interesting how the more I see of the world, the longer my list of places to visit gets…