the Curator's Office:
Visit to Chichen Itza
Castillo (Spanish for "The Castle"and more properly called
the Temple of Kukulcan) is easily the most well-known structure
at Chichen Itza. (Copyright Carolyn Krystek,
(8/16) Probably one of the most famous and most
easily accessible ancient sites in the Western Hemisphere is the
Mayan city of Chichen Itza. A few years ago I listed it as one
of the ten mysterious
locations I wanted to visit during my life. So a few months
back I decided to take the plunge and hopped on a jet for the
Mexican Yucatán Peninsula with the idea of having a little adventure
at this "Wonder of the World."
What makes this site so easy to get to is its whereabouts
it's only a few hours from some of the most famous beaches in
the world along what they like to call the Mayan Riviera. This
includes the resort cities of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Because of the high traffic to these tourist havens, there are
plenty of flights in and out of the Cancun Airport, and a vast
number of available hotel rooms.
base of the Temple of Kukulcan's stairs.(Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2016)
I booked six days and five nights at the Barcelo
Costa Cancun for about $1,000 per person ( Groupon deal) which
included the airfare out of New York. The amenities there included
all food and drinks, so we spent very little after we actually
arrived at our destination. The Barcelo is at the most northern
edge of the "Hotel Zone," which runs north to south along an island
with the Caribbean Ocean to the east and a lagoon along the west.
Getting anywhere along the hotel zone is easy; for 50.5 pesos
($3) you can ride the public buses along the length of the island.
Chichen Itza is about a three-hour drive inland
from the coast. It is possible to rent a car and make the drive
yourself, but I decided since this was my first trip into the
area to utilize an organized tour to see certain Mayan sites in
which I was interested.
Cancun is a popular location with a huge amount
of tour possibilities. While quite a few of them are for the Mayan
ruins in the area, others can get you to ecological entertainment
parks, scuba diving off the coast or other tourist attractions.
We decided to take two of the tours involving major Mayan sites;
one to Chichen Itza and the other to a less well-known location,
Coba. The tour I settled on was entitled "Chichen Itza with a
Private Archeologist." I have some doubts if our guide was actually
a card-carrying archeologist (if there is such a thing) but he
was certainly familiar with the history of the area and the city
and provided an engaging insight to what we were seeing during
temple before any restoration work in 1892.
We know there was a settlement at the location of
Chichen Itza (which means "at the mouth of the well") as early
as 600 AD. Around 900 AD it became an important regional capital.
It was during this period that El Castillo (Spanish for "the castle")
was built. It is more properly called the Temple of Kukulcan and
is easily the most well-known structure at Chichen Itza. Standing
78 feet (24 m) high, with a 19 foot (6 m) tall temple ceremonial
room on top, it's designed as a stepped pyramid with steep staircases
on all four sides. The temple was dedicated to the god Kukulkan,
a feathered serpent. The temple is famous for two oddities: first,
clapping your hands at a certain distance from the temple gives
you an echo that sounds like the call of the Mexican quetzal bird,
a sacred animal in Mayan culture.
The second is a crawling motion that appears along
the serpent-shaped staircases during the spring and fall equinox.
This is caused by the motion of the sun as it hits the stepped
corners of the pyramid and casts shadows on the stair borders.
For the tourist arriving at Chichen Itza, the temple,
rather spectacular in appearance, acts as a centerpiece to the
restored city. As you come from the visitor's center into the
park, you walk down a short jungle path that lets out into the
city and the temple appears before you. The grassy area around
the pyramid has been cleared of jungle and the sides of the temple
facing you have been heavily restored. Most of the newer portion
of the city (constructed after 900 AD) surrounds this central
Temple of the Warriors is surrounded by a sea of columns.
(Copyright Lee Krystek, 2016)
Chichen Itza, selected in 2007 as one of the "New
Seven Wonders of the World," is easily the most popular archeological
site in the Yucatán and on a typical afternoon it will be mobbed
with tourists. In addition, the park allows vendors to set up
along the paths. All this activity can be a problem if you want
to take pictures of the ancient structures without dozens of people
in the way. To avoid this, I selected an early tour that arrived
just after the park opened. The only problem with this was that
we had to be ready to be picked up at the entrance to our hotel
at about 5:30 in the morning, rather than a more typical 10 A.M.
This early tour did have the advantage of getting back to the
hotel in the late afternoon, however, rather than the evening.
This meant we got to spend at least a couple of daylight hours
relaxing around the pool or on the beach each day.
Surrounding the Temple of Kukulcan are a number
of other structures. To the west is the Temple of the Warriors,
a large, stepped pyramid with rows of carved columns depicting
warriors in front and on the sides. It's thought that the columns
would have supported a roof made of wood or other similar materials
at the time the city was occupied. Our guide suggested it might
have been a market place.
smaller temple in the older section of the city. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2016)
Toward the northwest of the Temple of Kukulcan is
the Great Ball Court composed of two massive walls on either side
of a grassy playing area. The exact rules of the game aren't known
and probably varied over time, but it is thought that the players
needed to keep a heavy rubber ball in the air by hitting it with
their hips. Extra points could be gained by managing to put the
ball through stone hoops mounted high on the walls. Human sacrifice
was somehow linked to the game, and a player with his head decapitated
is pictured on stone reliefs at the court.
A short walk down a jungle path to the southwest
leads to the older section of the city. Here there is a smaller
pyramid temple, other structures and a building known as El Caracol
(which translates to "The Snail" ) because of a spiral internal
staircase. El Caracol is thought to be an observatory and it looks
exactly like you would expect: a large, stepped platform with
the remains of what appear to be a dome on top (though it's actually
what's left of a cylindrical tower). Archeologists have discovered
sight lines for at least 20 different astrological events in the
Most tours that I looked at followed a similar schedule
with a bus trip out to the site taking two hours (some had a built-in
shopping stop which made the trip a bit longer) followed by several
hours at the city and then a return to your hotel. Our particular
tour allowed three hours in the archeological park roughly divided
halfway between time with our tour guide and the other half of
the time to walk around the city by yourself. If you go, I would
suggest choosing a tour that gives you at least 3 hours on the
site to look around. Even with that amount of time I felt a bit
love basking on the ancient steps. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2016)
Unlike a national park site in the United States,
vendors selling souvenirs and local art are allowed to set up
along most of the paths, though not in the area directly around
the Temple of Kukulcan. While this seemed to bother some visitors,
I thought that it was perhaps a good way for people local to the
area to get some economic advantages out of having the site in
their province. Interestingly enough, with so many venders selling
similar items, it was probably the cheapest place to pick up some
souvenirs of your trip if you want them. My son asked me to bring
him back an obsidian knife. I also selected a ceramic whistle,
designed to sound like the snarl of a jaguar, for myself. With
a little bargaining, I got the knife for 150 pesos (About $10)
and the whistle for another 90 pesos.
line the paths at Chichen Itza selling souvenirs like this
As amazing as Chichen Itza was, I also wanted to
see an archeological site that was less developed. So the next
day we took another early trip to the city of Coba. Coba, which
is about 70 miles southwest of Chichen Itza, gives you a much
better idea of what these cities looked like when the first explorers
came across them. Very little of the jungle, except directly in
front of the ruins, has been cleared and very little of the ruins
have been reconstructed. The site is much more spread out with
less of it accessible to visitors. In fact, the site is so large
it makes sense to rent a bike to get around the place.
Because many of the ruins are only cleared from
the jungle on only one side, it's often possible to walk around
the other side and see what they looked like originally. Generally,
they appear as simply a hill covered with thick vegetation. You
might not even think you were looking at something man-made, except
theYucatán is so flat almost any large mound suggests an artificial
Unlike Chichen Itza, the few paths at Coba are more
linear in nature and it made sense to move through the park as
a tour group taking a few minutes at each notable ruin. There
are a number of smaller pyramid temples here and several ball
courts (though none anywhere near as large as the one at Chichen
At the end of the trail is perhaps the most intriguing
structure at Coba is the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. At 137 feet (42 meters),
it is the tallest ancient temple in the Yucatán and the last that
is accessible to visitors for climbing (the Temple of Kukulcan
was closed after someone fell off it and was killed in 2006).
The top provides a wonderful view of the surrounding jungle and
standing there on the ancient mound you feel a bit like Indiana
Jones. Undoubtedly, the authorities will eventually move to close
this ruin, also, so I'm glad I got to see it while it was still
Mul at Coba is the only temple in the area that can still
be climbed by visitors. It's also the tallest. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2016)
The Coba trip included the chance to visit a privately
owned cenote just outside the park. The Yucatán has no above-ground
rivers or streams, so access to fresh water through these sinkholes
was extremely important to the ancient Mayans and they were considered
sacred. Cities were built where one or more cenotes existed. While
these can take the form of a small lake with steep banks, the
one we saw just outside Coba was underground with just a small
access hole at the top opening into a circular room over a hundred-feet
wide and filled with water. A wooden, spiral staircase extended
down to a platform that allowed us to swim in the cool underground
lake, a nice relief from the hot midday sun.
There are a large number of cenotes you can visit
in the Yucatán for swimming or snorkeling. While you can drive
to a cenote yourself and pay a visiting fee, they are often included
as a stop on a larger tour of Mayan ruins like Coba or Chichen
Before returning to our hotel, the Coba trip included
lunch at a café just outside of the archeological park. The small
café was a nice change from the larger restaurants at the resort
and featured probably the most authentic Mexican food we got to
sample during our trip.
Nobody is quite sure why the Mayans seem to started
abandoning their cities around the 9th century. Some theories
suggest that a severe drought, made worse by the deforestation
of the area (land without shade is less likely to retrain water)
may have forced the Mayans to seek a more hospitable environment.
Chichen Itza and Coba are far from the only Mayan
ruins in the area. A small one exists right in the hotel zone
at Cancun. There is also a major ruin at Tulum that overlooks
the sea. If you visit the Yucatán you should not miss the opportunity
to explore these sites and the chance to connect yourself with
the fascinating, ancient Mayan world.
"Observatory" is another highly recognized structure
in Chichen Itza. The dome shape is actually part of a ruined
tower. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2016)
2016 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.