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Chichén Itzá

This is one of the most famous Maya ruins, visited by millions of people each year, many come to the Yucatán solely to visit Chichén Itzá. The city was inhabited by a number of different Maya groups who each left their mark creating unique architecture. The name means “the mouth of the well of the Itzás”. The site was originally occupied by the Maya who founded the city during the Preclassic period (AD 432), only to mysteriously abandon it for hundreds of years. The architectural era is commonly known as Puuc.  The Puuc area includes most of the Northern Yucatan and includes other sites in the region such as Uxmal, Labna , Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Oxkintok.  The second architectural influence on Chichen Itza were the  Toltecs (Itza and Putun) who came to the area during the Post Classic period around AD 964 and remained until 1224 when the site was abandoned for good. During that time it became a key city in the League of the Mayapán, one of the last Maya alliances before the fall of their civilization. 

This ceremonial site is divided into two parts, Old Chichén (Puuc) and New Chichén (Toltec). Its most famous building is El Castillo (the castle) or Templo de Kukulcán (Temple of the Feathered-Serpent God). El Castillo is a perfect example of the complex mathematics the Maya practiced. Each side has four staircases; each staircase has 91 steps with a carved serpent’s head at its base and faces one of the four cardinal directions. Combined with the top platform there are 365 steps– one for each day of the solar calendar. During the spring and fall equinox, the setting sun hits the western staircase forming the shadow of a serpent slithering down to earth. This snake represents the great god Kukulcán, one of the principal gods in the Maya religion. Images of Kukulcán appear throughout Chichén in the form of plumed serpents. In 1931, local archaeologists tunneled in the south side of El Castillo and found a smaller, older pyramid. At its top was a small altar with two statues: one of Chacmool (the rain god) and another of a jade encrusted jaguar, an animal representing the god of the Underworld. Both statues are now on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The inner temple can only be viewed in the early morning and late afternoon. 

The Toltec influence at Chichén can be seen at the adjacent Temple of the Warriors; it resembles structures found at Tula, the Toltec’s homeland north of Mexico City. This is a three-tiered platformed structure next to the Group of the Thousand Columns also known as the thousand warriors. In 1926, a sub temple was discovered. The sculpture at the top of the temple—a reclining Chacmool with his head turned to the side and his stomach an indented dish—is probably the most famous symbol of the Maya ruins. Carvings along the top of the building show feathered serpents, eagles and jaguars eating human hearts. Large stone carvings of Maya warriors dressed in their feathered headdresses and war garb can be seen at the nearby Group of a Thousand columns, also called Group of a Thousand Warriors. On the east side is a sweathouse used for cleansing rituals. Further research discovered that the high lords of the Chichén Mayapán councils used this temple for their council meetings. Close by is the gruesome Tzompantli, a platform decorated with skulls staring out with large empty eye sockets alongside an eagle eating a human heart. 

The Great Ball Court is another important structure. It is the largest found in Mesoamerica with a playing field of 135 meters by 65 meters and two slanted parallel walls each 272 feet long with stone rings on each side. The acoustics in the ball court are so good that on a still day two people can stand at opposite ends of the court and hear each other speaking in a normal tone of voice. The Maya ball game resembled soccer — no hands were allowed and players scored points by putting the ball through the stone hoops using their legs, hips, heads and elbows. However, unlike soccer, the ball weighed upwards of 4 kilos making it difficult to score points. It was a game of high stakes; someone died at the end of every game. Carvings on the walls show scenes from the game and the ritual sacrifices that followed. The nearby Temple of the Jaguar has a steep stairway leading to an upper temple where the remains of painted murals can be seen. 

The famous Sacred Cenote or sacred well is located 1 km (1/2 mile) north of El Castillo via a long sacbé (limestone walkway). This sinkhole is 65 yards wide, making it one of the largest cenotes in the area. It was used as a religious ceremonial center where human sacrifices were made to the water god Chacmool. The site was first explored during the early 1900’s by Edward Thompson who dredged up artifacts of gold, jade and other precious materials as well as the remains of at least 50 skeletons, many of them children and women. Legend has it that if you were thrown into the well and survived you were treated as one who talked with the gods and given special privileges. Today you can stand on the platform along the edge of the cenote and look down to where many met their watery death. 

North of El Castillo is El Caracol (the shell) an astronomical observatory named for its spiral staircase inside the building’s center. This is round type of building is rare in the Maya world. At the top are four small windows, aligned to the cardinal directions and the planet Venus, clearly marking this site as a place for observing the heavens. It also functioned as a religious ceremonial center. Just south is La Casa del las Monjas (the nunnery). This exquisite building has long panels carved with flowers, animals, Chaac masks and latticework. The Spanish assumed it was a nunnery because of the many small-interconnected chambers and underground passageway that lead into an open courtyard. Its true nature has not yet been discovered. 

Other notable structures include the Tomb of the High Priest, the Temple of the Bearded Man and the Platform of Venus. Give yourself at least half a day to explore this site. A sound and light show in the evenings explains some of the history and architecture of the magnificent ruin. Open daily 8 AM – 5 PM (10 PM if you attend the light show). Admission. $5, sound and light show $8, use of video cameras an additional $7. Free Sundays and holidays. Located 3 hours west of Cancun on Highway 180. 

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