Saturday, May 12, 2012

Rediscovering the Lost City of Chichén Itzá

One of the highlights of my Cancún holiday was visiting one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Kukulkan Pyramid, in one of the most ancient sites in the world, the ruins of Chichén Itzá.

The most famous, spectacular, and, consequently, most frequently visited of Mexico’s Mayan sites, the magnificent metropolis of Chichén Itzá was the principal ceremonial center of the Yucatán. - 1,000 Places To See Before You Die

We started our tour early in the morning, with the tour bus picking us up at the W Resort and Spa and made a few more hotel stops along the way picking up other people on the tour, most of them Americans, and a few others from Brazilians and Puerto Ricans. The tour guide was funny and quite entertaining, and the tour came with breakfast on board the bus - sweet rolls with coffee or orange juice, which was a nice way to start the long day of touring.

Our day consisted of visiting Chichén Itzá, lunch at the nearby restaurant, and then visiting the nearby cenotes for a quick dip. The Mayans were the people who introduced the Spanish conquistadors to hot chocolate, and told them it was quite hot, which in their language was, "Choco late", which the Spaniards mistook for the name of the drink. Thank goodness for the Mayans for introducing hot chocolate to the rest of the world!

Chichén Itzá which means “at the mouth of the well of Itza “, is the 2nd most visited archeological site of Mexico today. The Kukulkan Pyramid in  Chichén Itzá , which known as “El Castillo” (the castle), is one of the new seven wonders of the world elected in July 7, 2007. It is exactly 24 meters high, considering the upper platform. Apart from the Kukulkan Pyramid, in Chichén Itzá  there many other archaeological sites to visit, all carrying traces from Mayan Culture in many ways.

We passed by a souvenir market before heading over to the archaeological site. I got a few fridge magnets for myself, as well as a necklace with my name spelled out in Mayan symbols, and one for J as well, since his birthday was coming up. I had really wanted to get a Mexican blanket as well, but their prices were a bit too high for me.

We then got back on the bus, and it was off to the Mayan ruins. To be standing in a place so rich in history and looking at how each pyramid and temple was built was just breathtaking. The pyramids were made of limestone so we couldn't go to the top and take a look around, as the stone was very soft and would quickly erode. Damn.

Possibly the best known construction on  Chichén Itzá is Kukulkan's Pyramid. El Castillo is a square-based, stepped pyramid that is approximately 75 feet tall, built for astronomical purposes and during the vernal equinox (March 20) and the autumnal equinox (September 21) at about 3pm the sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid's main stairway. This causes 7 isosceles triangles to form imitating the body of a serpent roughly 37 yards long that creeps downwards until it joins the huge serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway.

The Mayans were great sportsmen and build huge ballcourts to play all their games. The Great Ballcourt of  Chichén Itzá is 225 feet wide and 545 feet long overall. It has no vault, no discontinuity between the walls and is totally open to the blue sky. Each end has a raised to the temple area. A whisper from end can be heard clearly enough at the other end 500 feet far away and through the length and breath of the court. It is easy to imagine a Mayan King sitting here presiding over the games.

Legends say that the winning Capitan would present his own head to the losing Capitan, who then decapitates him. While this may seem very strange reward, the Mayans believed that this to be the ultimate honor. The winning Capitan getting a direct ticket for heaven instead of going through the 13 high steps that the Mayan's believed they had to go through in order to reach peaceful heaven.

The Platform of Venus, also known as the Venus Platform has 2 different structures with this name at  Chichén Itzá. The first and better known one is located in the Great Plaza (Plaza of the Castle). A second Venus Platform is located near the Grave of High Priest.

The Venus Platform is very similar to the one of the same name in the Plaza of the Castle. In the corner of one of its panels, there is a relief of Serpent Bird Man, which is considered to be the Quetzalcoatl-Kukulkan’s representation as the 'Morning Star'. Towards the stairway, one can observe the matting, which symbolizes power, and in the corners can be seen what has been interpreted as the Knotting of the Years alongside the Venus planet.

Tzompantli is called The Wall of Skulls, which is actually an Aztec name for this kind of structure, because the first one seen by the horrified Spanish was at the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan.
The Tzompantli structure at Chichén Itzá is very interesting Toltec structure, where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed; although it was one of three platforms in the Great Plaza, it was according to Bishop Landa, the only one for this purpose the others were for farces and comedies, showing the Itzá 's were all about fun.

The platform walls of the Tzompantli have carved beautiful reliefs of four different subjects. The primary subject is the skull rack itself; others show a scene with a human sacrifice; eagles eating all human hearts; and skeletonized warriors with arrows and shields.

All columns once supported a frieze and a roof which have since collapsed. The exact nature of the roof is not certainly known. It may have been made of mortar, wood or thatch. It is believed that these were great meeting halls. Remains of the painted frieze indicate that it was decorated with motifs and Chaac masks representing an earlier priestly class who governed the city. And the addition of warriors on the pillars must have made the citizens aware of the military religious aspect of this site.

The Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people. Archaeological investigations support this as thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the Sacred Cenote, including material such as shell, gold, jade, wood, obsidian, cloth, as well as skeletons of men and children.

It was around noon when we finished with the tour. After walking around and discovering the Sacred Cenote on our own, the New Yorker and I headed back to the restaurant where we tucked in to a buffet of Mexican and international fare. I went heavy on the Mexican food, which was mostly soft corn tortillas and carne asada, or grilled meat.

After we had stuffed ourselves silly, it was back into a bus for a 40-minute ride up to the local cenotes, or sinkhole. Since most of the Yucatán peninsula is made out of limestone bedrock, the collapse of the rocks leads to natural cenotes with groundwater underneath.

Walking down the stairs to the cenote proved to be a bit difficult, since the water combined with limestone made it really slippery.

It looks really cool and all, but the water was super cold! We didn't even go it, just sat on the sides and dipped out toes in, marveling at how this place could even exist, a few meters underground. The cenote was huge, enough to build a little stage in the middle yet still have tourists swim to and fro.

After about an hour of hanging out at the cenote, it was back to the bus, and everyone eventually dozed off on the two hour ride back to the hotel.

Paying homage to the ruins of Chichén Itzá is an experience I'll always have with me, as this is definitely a time of mucking around worth repeating.