Once touted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá’s pyramids still see over a million visitors each year. It is the second-most visited site in all of Mexico and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This historical destination is just a short drive from Cancun, where travellers visit to party and soak up the sun. You can expect to see several pyramids and other buildings that were used by Mayan royalty and their subjects.
It is unfortunate that you can no longer climb the pyramids as you could in the past, but the dangerous conditions have forced the National Institute of Anthropology and History – the organization that manages the site – to close access to the monuments for the public. We were actually surprised on our own visit when we were allowed to climb the steep steps on both the outside of the main pyramid and the inside as well, which was completely dark and offered no hand rails.
A visit to Chichén Itzá will include a tour of the grounds which will tell you about the structures, the people and everyday life for the Mayans. The Spanish tried for many years to conquer the people of the Yucatan Peninsula, and eventually they were successful in their efforts and ruled the land, including Chichén. It wasn’t until almost 300 years later that explorers started to excavate the site and find artefacts left behind by its former inhabitants.
Chichén Itzá was one of the largest Mayan cities and covered five square kilometres, maybe more. Aside from preservation and restoration, the only thing that has been changed about the site was the levelling of the grounds for excavation camps. One of the most impressive structures uncovered, besides the pyramids themselves, is the Ulama ballcourt where the Mayans “played” the earliest form of racquetball, and the winners were put to death. It was a popular pastime, as everyone was welcome to watch for the amusement of the royals. Each winning captain was decapitated by the losing team’s captain and you will see stone blocks with skulls or faces carved into them that represent each person who was sentenced to such a fate. This was thought to be the ultimate honour to the Mayans.
We were also quite fascinated by the steam baths, where one could have taken a hot bath or a sauna. It was used by heating rocks and pouring water over them while in the small chamber. This would have been a luxury for most Mayans and was probably only used by the wealthy at the time.
When you first walk into the courtyard, you will be struck by the sheer size of the main pyramid, El Castillo. It has steep sides, with steps leading to the top in the middle of each side. If you had visited before its closure to the public, you would have gotten quite a view of the entire site of Chichén Itzá. El Castillo was also built on top of another pyramid and at one time you could go inside with other visitors and climb the small steps to an inner chamber that housed a jaguar throne and statue.
Chichén Itzá is a massive tourist destination and was envisioned as such many years ago. In 1923 Governor Carrillo Puerto opened the first highway to the city by the request of the people, but it took almost 50 years before a significant amount of visitors began to come to the Yucatan specifically to visit Chichén Itzá, despite the building of several hotels nearby. Hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of people visited per year, compared to that same amount visiting daily now.
Even though you can’t climb the monuments any longer, you should still wear some good walking shoes, as there is much to see within Chichén Itzá. You will also want to bring plenty of sunblock, because the sun is very strong, even if it’s overcast. If you’ll be taking a tour to the pyramids, bring a bag with your bathing suit and a spare towel, because you might get a chance to stop for a dip in a Cenote, underground water spring inside a cave, on your way. You will not be disappointed. There is a Cenote a short walk from the pyramids that you can visit, but you can’t swim in it.
There are many Mayan sites that are still in the process of being excavated. Have you visited any ruins either left by the Mayans or other tribes?