Chichén Itzá

Everyone knows the name of the Mayan site in the north of Yucatán with the mighty Pyramid El Castillo.

Chichén Itzá popularity stands in stark contrast to the comparatively little knowledge that archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to collect on the site’s history. Presumably founded around 450, the “place at the  fountains of the Itzae” – so the vague translation of the name – reached its heydays only in the 10th century. It is still unclear whether the obvious Toltec influence that the buildings erected at this time show is due to a military conquest, or merely evidence of an intensive cultural contact.
The pyramid of Kukulkán (El Castillo), with its symmetrically arranged stairs leading to the Temple on the upper platform on all four sides, is the imagery of the Mayan Toltec calendar, with the 91 steps of each staircase, together with the last one leading to the temple, corresponding to the 365 days of the solar year. The nine platforms that form the structure of the pyramid correspond to the levels of the sky in the image of the Maya; the staircase divides them into two, so that they are taken together 18, corresponding to the 18 months, each with 20 days that add up the lunar year. The 52 years of the ritual calendar are also found in the decors of the platforms. On the days of the equinoxes (March, 21st and September, 22nd), the shadow of a huge serpent appears to descend the stone steps in the late afternoon. Every year thousands of visitors witness this event .

In the late classical period of Mayan culture the political power on the Yucatán peninsula was divided between the Puuc centers Edzná, Sayil, Labná, Kabáh and Uxmal in the west and the city state of Cobá in the east. In Cobá arises a powerful rival to Chichén Itzá in the 9th century, whose inhabitants controlled the central plains of the peninsula, benefiting from the diminishing influence Cobás and an alliance with sea traders of the northern Gulf Coast. By the end of the ninth century, this alliance had created the most powerful confederation ever known by the Maya. These coastal traders also brought the Toltec cultural and architectural elements to Chichen Itza, including the cult of the Feathered Serpent, in Tula known as Quetzalcoatl, and with the Maya as Kukulkán. While the oldest buildings in Chichén Itzá are built in the Puuc style with its characteristic chaac masks and geometric mural elements, the Kukulkán pyramid and the huge ball playground reflect the Toltec architecture. Finally, in the Temple of the Warriors, both traditions are combined in a fusion only found here. The interior of the Kukulkán temple contains a magnificent Jaguar made of stone, painted red and with eyes made of jade. He once served as the throne of a high priest. Two ritual cenotes, the so-called Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado) in the north and the less spectacular Cenote Xtolok in the south, are located within the complex.

The largest structure of the site, apart from the imposing “Castillo”, is the large ball court, whos dimensions (168 x 80m) are unprecedented in Mesoamerica. Some researchers even argue that a pelota game could have never taken place within these dimensions and that it was more of a ritual place, which was only ascribed with the cosmological meanings of a ball court, without ever  hoasting a real ball game. However, friezes depicting players equipped with rackets suggest that games have been played here. These allowed them to hit the ball accordingly high and far.

Even at other times of the year Chichén-Itzá is anything but a lonely place. To avoid the sweltering heat at midday and hordes of bus tourists who have booked day trips from Cancún or Playa del Carmen, you should either stay at the ruins or in Valladolid, be on time and return after an extended lunch break when the buses have left. The tickets remain valid. The complex includes an extensive, vivid museum and a large visitor center with restaurant and sanitary facilities.