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Ancient Sites: Central America & Caribbean

Mayan Jewel: Mexico's Chichen Itza

A Mayan Jewel:

Photo of El Castillo goes here.

(The Temple of Kukulkan, known as El Castillo or "The Castle" in Spanish is a highlight of a cruiser's visit to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.*)

Cruiser's Day Trip to Chichen Itza

By Susan J. Young

If there was a super star ceremonial center of the Mayan World, it was Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan.

Between 500 AD and 1000 AD, the pre-Colombian site was a place of pilgrimage. Today, cruise passengers make their own pilgrimages of exploration to Chichen Itza.

Most arrive as part of a motorcoach tour group from Playa Del Carmen, Calica or Progreso, or, alternatively at times, on a combination ferry/motorcoach journey from Cozumel.

Check with individual lines as to whether Chichen Itza is offered - it varies by line and ship itinerary schedule as it's a long day trip.

Mayan Centerpiece

Photo of Chichen Itza sites goes here.

(Above, cruise visitors walk by a serpent sculpture in Chichen Itza's Great Ball Court. The centerpiece of the Mayan site, El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulcan, is shown in the background.*)

Chichen Itza, when translated from the Mayan language, means “chi” or mouth, “chen” or well, and “Itza” or the Itza tribe.

Photo of detail on temple goes here.It was a storied place where mathematics, physics and astronomy melded to form amazing stone structures built with meticulous calculations.

(An intricate panel is shown at left*)

Encompassing two separate eras of Mayan civilization, the site exhibits both Classic and Post-Classic architectural styles.

What’s the difference?

Typically, Classic style exudes an massive appearance with bold sculptural décor. Inside these buildings, the smallish interiors are cramped.

In contrast, during the Post-Classic styling of Chichen Itza’s later period the buildings had more clean, simplistic lines. Buildings also had sculptures and columns that focused on feathered serpent.

Later buildings also have Toltec influence; the later Aztecs considered the Toltecs, based in and around the Hildalgo region of Mexico, as their cultural predecessors

Let's look at the prime sites cruise passengers are likely to explore at Chichen Itza.

Kulkulcan Temple or El Castillo

Fielding Toltec influence, the Kulkulcan Temple or El Castillo, is a stunning site.

Photo of El Castillo goes here.The step pyramid has stairways up each of its four sides.

The temple itself was located on top. Until a few years ago, visitors could climb the pyramid and enter the small space.

I did so on my first visit to Chichen Itza. The views from the top, though, were breathtaking.

But on a recent trip, I learned climbing was no longer permitted. One woman was killed in a fall from the temple in 2006 and others have been injured on the steep climb.

The temple itself was also under stress given its age and the constant stream of climbers. So it's probably best for its preservation that visitors must now stay at ground level.

Historians and archaeologists believe the temple served as a Mayan calendar. Each of four stairways contains 91 steps.

Photo of Chichen Itza's El Castillo goes here.If you count the top platform as another step, the pyramid (shown at left*) has a total of 365 steps, one for each day of the year.

As with other Mayan ruins, archaeologists have discovered that some of Chichen Itza’s buildings have other temples beneath.

During an excavation in the 1930s, the government discovered a staircase under the pyramid’s north side.

It led to a lower interior temple chamber containing a Chac Mool statue and a red-painted, jaguar-shaped throne; the big cat’s spots are inlaid jade.

Formerly, tourists also could enter the throne room, but it was closed to the public in 2006.

Combining their skills in mathmatics and astronomical observations, the Mayans created monuments that even today, astound us for their precision.

On the dates of the spring and autumn Equinox, visitors flock to this pyramid. As the sun rises and sets, along the west side of the north staircase, it's a magical show of light and shadows.

The shadows reveal seven diamond-shaped triangles that appear as part of the body of a plumed serpent – Kukulkan, also known as Quetzalcoatl.

The serpent appears to be slithering down the pyramid's sides to connect with its head at the temple's base.

The serpent’s body is about 37 yards, or more than 100 feet, a spectacular site for visitors there for the event.

Great Ball Court

Photo of the Great Ball Court goes here.

Located to the northwest of the Castillo is the Great Ball Court (shown in the photo above*), the largest of all Mexico’s Mayan ball courts.

While there were a total of eight ball sites at Chichen Itza, this one is the most impressive.

Photo of the wall and serpent head on the Great Ball Court goes here.Overall dimensions are 545 feet by 223 feet. Open to the sky, the Great Ball Court boasts 39-foot-high walls.

(At right is a scene visitors encounter when entering the ball court area.*)

Each end has a raised "temple" area. In terms of acoustics, a whisper made by one person at one end will be clearly heard by another at the other end.

In 1931, Leopold Stokowski, who was preparing to design a new open-air amphitheater, visited Chichen Itza -- hoping to figure out the superb acoustics. He stayed for four days, but failed to learn the Mayan's design secret.

Atop the center area of the long walls are rings decorated with serpents. Speculation is that the game involved two teams. Contestants could only use their elbows, hips and wrists, not their hands or feet.

Photo of ring atop the Great Ball Court wall goes here.The goal was to get a stone ball through these rings (see photo at right*).

However, the game was far more violent in outcome than one might expect.

If you believe some legends, the winning team’s captain would present his head to the losing captain. And the winner would be decapitated, an extreme honor as it would help the person avoid many of the normal steps needed in the Mayan journey to heaven.

Others say the losing team's captain was decapitated instead. Whatever the case, it wasn't pleasant to watch certainly.

Slanted benches at the base of the walls contain panels depicting the teams; one shows a ball player who has just been decapitated.

On that panel, blood flows in seven streams; six of the streams turn into serpents, the center becomes a winding plant.

The number seven was sacred to the Mayans. There were seven players on a team. The round rings were seven meters high.

Photo of the serpent sculpture on the Great Ball Court goes here.And if you clap your hands or shout in the ball court, the sound will echo seven times.

A Mayan prophecy says that on Dec. 22, 2012, the warrior serpent Kukulkan will rise from beneath the ball court and end the world.

I, for one, am hoping that's not the case!

(Shown above, the serpent Kukulkan is shown along a wall of the Great Ball Court*)

At either end of the Great Ball Court are other structures. The North Temple, also called the Temple of the Bearded Man, is at one end; this small building holds a bas relief carving on its inner walls.

Not surprisingly, the central figure in the carving seems to have facial hair under his chin, thus the temple’s name.

At the south end of the court is larger temple, but it’s primarily a ruin.

Temples of the Jaguar

Photo of temple goes here.Along the East Wall, visitors will discover temples dedicated to the jaguar. The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the sports court.

You’ll notice two large columns with feathered serpent décor at the entrance.

The interior itself originally had a large battle-scene mural, but not much is left at this point.

The Lower Temper of the Jaguar has another jaguar throne, but it’s not in as good condition as the one found in the throne room under El Castillo.

The lower temple’s outer columns and interior walls also feature intricate bas relief scenes.

Located between the Temple of Jaguars and El Castillo, Tzompantli is a Toltec word meaning “Temple of Skulls.” Here is where the heads of those sacrificed in the ball court were displayed.

Cenote Sagrado

Photo of cenote goes here.

After we finished touring the main temple area, our guide gave us free time, encouraging the group to walk along a wide white pathway or Sacbe to the famed Cenote Sagrado (shown above*), which means “sacred well.”

Since the region's rivers run underground, cenotes -- large, natural sinkholes -- assured the population would have fresh water.

The path is 29 feet wide and 885 feet in length. Just keep in mind, that's it's a fair distance and surfaces are uneven in many spots.

As you reach the Cenote area, you’ll see a small visitor center on the left with restrooms. You may also buy bottled waters and drinks here.

Photo of the edge of the cenote goes here.There are two major cenotes at Chichen Itza; the Cenote Sagrado is one that was not just a source of water, but also a “well of sacrifice.”

Reportedly, the Maya made sacrifices to Chaac, a rain god. Sacrificed objects found within the cenote include gold, jade and pottery.

Sadly, they also practiced human sacrifice, as confirmed by a study of remains from the cenote.

With sheer cliffs as sides, this cenote is about 197 feet in diameter. The water is about 88 feet below the rim.

Visitors return the same way they came -- traveling from the cenote back to the Great Ball Court area. It's just a short walk to the Temple of the Warriors.

Thousand Columns Complex

Photo of 1,000 Columns goes here.

In the same area as El Castillo is a complex that includes the Temple of the Warriors and a huge conglomeration of columns.

A massive temple structure, surrounded by hundreds of columns is carved with reliefs.

Photo of Temple of the Warriors goes here.It's one spot at Chichen Itza where it's easy to imagine the magnificence of this ceremonial center.

A large reclining Chac Mool sculpture holding a bowl (presumably awaiting an offering ) here reflects Central American design.

Some columns have scenes about Toltec warriors. Apparently the columns supported a thatched roof. Many archaeologists believe this may have been a marketplace.

I wandered into the rows of columns with the sun just breaking through. It's rather mystical to see the columns continue on into the jungle.

Photo of temple goes here.Most visitors who are on a cruise tour are given commentary and a guided tour around El Castillo, the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Jaguar, and a few other sites in Chichen Itza's central core.

Usually then guests are encouraged to take the pathway to the cenote, return and visit the Temple of Warriors before heading back to the visitor center, handicraft market and motorcoach lot.

But there is another main area of Chichen Itza open to visitors, with some stellar sites including the Carasol, or the astronomy observatory.

On my recent tour of Chichen Itza, our guide strongly discouraged us from going further afoot to this area.

He noted that time after time, visitors venture off on the “free time” given to the tour guests after the main tour is complete – and then get lost and “miss the bus.”

Several people on our tour ignored the advice. They walked briskly, took a map, and returned in plenty of time. They said seeing the observatory was a highlight of their day.

Photo of ruins goes here.If you take a similar approach, print out a map of Chichen Itza from the Web and carry it on tour.

We did not receive a brochure with a map from our guide.

Most importantly, watch your time and leave enough time to get back. It’s true that the bus will not wait; the ship is waiting and, at some point, the bus will leave.

What's so spectacular about the Caracol, which translates into "snail shell"?

This observatory has an impressive curved inner stairway resembling a snail. Its tower was used for astronomy.

New Seven Wonders

In 2007, Chichen Itza was identified as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” based on results of a global survey of consumers organized by the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation.

The survey was an “updated list” designed to rival the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World listing.

Today, only the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt remain from that classical list and were automatically included as an “honorary inductee.”

Photo of a temple goes here.The other seven winners include: Chichen Itza; the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil; the Taj Mahal in India; Petra in Jordan; the Roman Colosseum in Italy; Machu Pichu near Cuzco, Peru; and the Great Wall of China.

Today, the Chichen Itza site is federally operated and maintained by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Interestingly, until March 2010, the land “under” the monuments had been privately owned. Today, that land is owned by the state of Yucatan.

Tips for Your Visit

Photo of the Visitor Center goes here.

A trip to Chichen Itza by motorcoach is rewarding, but it’s also lengthy.

Most shore excursions to the ruins last at least seven hours, some a total of 12 hours or more, given the travel time from various ports to the Yucatan interior.

Cruisers should expect at least a two-hour drive one way from Progreso and four hours or so one way from Playa Del Carmen.

It's even a longer trip overall if you’re getting off in Cozumel and taking the ferry to Playa Del Carmen to board the coach.

Bottom line? I definitely don't recommend Chichen Itza for families traveling with young children. If your kids are interested in history and ruins, that's great, but if not, go without them or select another excursion.

It's also not a trip for die-hard shoppers. And if kids and adults want lots of activity and water fun, this isn't the trip.

People taking this shore trip should be willing to travel a long distance for the opportunity to view ancient sites and enjoy historic, cultural and archaeological commentary along the way.

The motorcoach tours stop at a souvenir-type area for a restroom stop during the road journey to the ancient site. Usually, the stop is about 20-30 minutes.

For lovers of ruins and ancient sites, though, the long trip is worth it.

Photo of sculpture goes here.(You'll delight in viewing ancient sites including the jaguar sculpture at left.*)

Once at Chichen Itza, visitors disembark at a motorcoach lot outside a major shopping area; you'll walk through that en route to the Visitor Center.

Photo of entrance to Chichen Itza goes here.(The area near the visitor center - shown at right -- fields swaying palm trees and enticing signage.*)

If you want to shop, you will be told "not now" but there should be time for most visitors to do so at the end of the formal tour.

The entrance area of the modern Visitor Center at Chichen Itza is shown at right.

It’s a nice facility with a lovely book shop, café, restrooms, tropical plants and, of course, a large map of the site and some exhibits.

The Yucatan can be brutally hot during the mid-day through late afternoon. Definitely be sure you have a bottle of water with you.

The sun is also intense here so apply sunscreen before you enter the site. Remember, most gringos burn easily.

Photo of platform goes here.Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes for your visit to Chichen Itza (one of the Mayan platforms is shown at left*); leave the heels at home.

The entire site spans about five or six miles. While you won't likely walk that far, you will likely walk a good distance.

Shade is very sparse in Chichen Itza, especially when the site is busy with thousands of tour group guests. Bring a hat or cap.

Photo of temple goes here.Alternatively, an umbrella is great for keeping the sun off your entire body, not just your head. The monks in Southeast Asia know this trick.

Bring cash if you’d like to buy souvenirs from vendors or at the “official” tourist market near the motorcoach parking lot. Some shops may take credit cards, but others not.

The authorities try to discourage visitors from buying souvenirs from the vendors who illegally enter the site itself, but that's not always successful.


Photo of serpent heads at Chichen Itza goes here.

While archaeological evidence suggests that Chichen Itza fell from power and the population severely declined starting around 1000 AD, over the years it remained a place of pilgrimage for Mayans.

The Spanish arrived in the 1500s, battled with the locals, won control, lost control and then won it back again.

Eventually, the area around Chichen Itza became a Spanish cattle ranch.

Today, the ancient site welcomes thousands of visitors daily. Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, offers a seven-hour shore excursion from Progreso for $70 for adults and $50 for children. From Calica, Mexico, the day trip on Carnival is $80 for all.

For those who appreciate history and envisioning the workings of a past civilization, Chichen Itza is a magnificent day trip.

*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.

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