Chichén Itzá‘s proximity to the holiday resorts of the Caribbean coast make it the most visited Mayan archeological site going, so we set off bright and early along the Yucatan Peninsula from Mérida to arrive in time for it’s 8am opening in an attempt to avoid some of the crowds.
Chichén Itzá was one of the largest Mayan cities and is thought to have been one of the mythical great cities referred to in Mesoamerican literature. We hired a local guide, keen to ensure we properly understood what we were seeing and didn’t miss anything important.
Even as one of the first groups through the doors it was almost impossible to get a clear view unobstructed by fellow tourists, so our guide was keen to take us in the opposite direction to many of the other groups; and so it was that the first amazing structure we came across was the vast ball-court.
The Mesoamerican ball game is thought to have been played since 1400 BC. The exact rules of the game are not known, but there are many theories; some think they were probably similar to racquetball where the aim is to keep the ball in play, whilst bouncing it against the sloping walls of the court. The stone ball-court ‘goals’ or rings are said to have been a late addition. In the most common theory of the game the players struck a rubber ball with their hips, though some theories allow the use of forearms, rackets, bats or hand-stones. Late in the history of the game some cultures occasionally appear to have combined competitions with religious human sacrifice.
We’d seen examples of these in Monte Alban and Palenque, but this one was nearly 168 metres long and 70 metres wide, so by far the largest we had seen. The acoustics were incredible, designed so that the voice of the dignitaries at one end could carry easily along the subtly angled walls and stoned floor to the other end, and back again without the need for them to raise their voices. The hoops for scoring within the game were suspended high above the court – it is very difficult to imagine how skilled the players must have been to get the ball anywhere near.
Many of the structures were adorned with sacred animals such as snakes, jaguars and eagles – and also hundreds of skulls, an ominous reference to the human sacrifice that is thought to have increasingly taken place as the civilisation suffered and fell under devastating droughts. There is also a large cenote to the north of the site in which many offerings of gold and jewellery were found.
Next came one of the most impressive demonstrations of Mayan engineering. The prominent temple at the centre of the site features large staircases on all four sides (although the Spanish conquistadors plundered whole sections). These steps are now protected so tourists can’t climb them, but their most impressive feature by far was the acoustics. When you stand directly in front of these stairs and clap, the echo that returns from the temple is the call of the Quetzal bird, the sacred bird of the Mayan world. Scientists have analysed this sound to confirm it is the exact same frequency as the bird; it is truly mind-blowing.
The ruins are a spectacular example of Mayan architecture and culture and we were privileged to be able to visit them as our final stop in Mexico with the wonderful group of people we’d so enjoyed traveling through the country with. Though ‘touristy’, we would say no trip to the Yucutan would be complete without a visit to this site.
Our next stop would be Cuba, but we’d be back on Mexican soil after a week or so to start another leg of our adventure with a whole load of new experiences and fellow meanderers.