On the final full day of our Caravan tour, we headed out to another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico, Chichén Itzá. On July 7, 2007 (7/7/07) this site was named one of the 7 man-made wonders of the world. Since 1923 restoration has been taking place at this great ceremonial site and is far from complete.
Chichén Itzá, whose name means “mouth of the well of the Itza (native people)”, was inhabited, it is believed, from 800 – 1200AD. As there were no above-ground rivers in this area, the Mayans relied on the underground lakes and rivers for their survival. Cenotes (sinkholes) within the city, created by the collapsing of the limestone roofs of some of these underground waters, took on great import for the Mayans and historians believe became sacrificial sites as a form of worship to the rain god Chac. The most significant of the cenotes in this area, Cenote Segrado, meaning “Sacred Well” or “Well of Sacrifice”, was dredged by Edward Herbert Thompson from 1904 – 1910. Artifacts of jade, pottery, gold, and human remains were discovered. Studies of the human remains found wounds that were consistent with that of human sacrifice.
The pyramid of El Castillo, also known as the Pyramid of Kukulcan, a Maya snake deity, is the centerpiece of this archaeological site. Standing 98 feet tall and 181 feet across, it was originally discovered in 1523 and was built in 9 platforms, corresponding with the Mayan belief of a 9-stage underworld. 91 steps on each of the four staircases and one additional step to the temple makes for a total of 365 steps, the number of days in a year. This was no accident, as the Maya were astronomers, mathematicians and architects.
The serpent Kukulcan frames each of the staircases.
Each March 20th (Spring Equinox), as the sun strikes the stepped corners of the 9 platforms, a shadow is cast on the sides of the staircases that slope at a 45° angle, from the temple down to the heads of Kukulcan at the bottom. The serpent’s shadow appears to slither its way down the side of the pyramid.
Archaeologists are currently digging around the base of this grand pyramid. The grass surface on which the pyramid sits actually covers another platform that extends from the base of El Castillo.
Archaeologists, digging from the top, found another temple buried below the current one. Inside was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of a jaguar, with inlaid jade and painted red. No one knows the significance of this statue. It now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Another structure of great importance at Chichén Itzá is El Juego de Pelota, the Ball Court. The ball court here is purported to be the largest in Mesoamerica, measuring 120 feet across and 480 feet wide. Historians believe that priests played in these “high stakes” games. The object of the game was to propel a hard, very heavy, rubber ball through a stone ring, located on each of the opposite walls. This game was played somewhat like soccer, in that one could not use their hands. The ball could not be kicked either, but must be moved by way of the forearms, waist, or legs. When the ball was projected through the hoop, it is believed that the priest responsible for this was offered up to the rain god Chac, which was alleged to be quite an honor.
There are many carvings of priests and human offerings on the walls surrounding the ball court. The elite were allowed to view these games and entered the court through the rear of the Temple of the Jaguar.
This is believed to be the throne used by a high priest when viewing games taking place in the Ball Court. It sits in the entryway to the Temple of the Jaguar.
Another chilling platform is that of the Tzompantli (The Wall of Skulls). It is an Aztec name and a Toltec structure where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed. Some believe that those sacrificed at the Ball Court, winners or losers, however one chooses to look at it, found their skulls among those displayed here. This platform was used exclusively for this purpose.
The platform walls illustrate the skull rack, as well as scenes of human sacrifice.
The Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars is a powerful platform that was believed to be used for military purposes by the combination of Maya and Toltec who ruled Chichén Itzá collectively. There was not one single ruler in this city, as there were in many other cities of this time period. Carvings on the platform walls depict jaguars (Maya) and eagles (Toltec) consuming human hearts.
A pair of serpent heads adorn the staircases on each end of this platform, another symbol of the power associated with this structure.
The Templo de Los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) is a complex consisting of a large stepped platform and bordered by rows of columns with illustrations of warriors.
This large complex, like many other structures within Chichén Itzá, glorify warriors and were involved in human sacrifice.
At the top of a grand staircase sits a pair of serpents baring their fangs, portraying Kukulcan, also known as Quezalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. On top of the serpent heads stand Toltec warriors.
On the south end of the Temple of the Warriors is the Court of a Thousand Columns, which was believed to be where the market area once stood. Although there are not a thousand columns, this area does contain several hundred, which made for a substantial market area. Historians believe that merchants from as far away as Tikal in Guatemala came here to sell their wares. The roof system has long ago collapsed.
Columns of both round and square construction are displayed here. Those that are round are believed to be Mayan and those that are square of Toltec design.
Note the Toltec warrior carving in full headdress on this column outside the Temple of the Warriors.
While heading to the south end of the city, we discovered the Ossuary (High Priest’s Grave).
Although not near as grand as El Castillo, it too has 9 levels that correspond to the 9 levels of the Maya underworld. The temple that once resided on the top no longer exists.
This is a photo of the High Priest’s Grave prior to its restoration.
The next structure that we came upon was El Caracol, nicknamed “The Snail” because of its stone spiral staircase inside. Built in 906 AD, historians believe this building was a Mayan observatory, built to study celestial bodies.
Many of the openings in the upper cylindrical portion of this observatory align with the sun, Venus, and other celestial objects. Mayans were great astronomers and studied the stars for both practical purposes (when to plant crops) and mystical reasons.
In the oldest part of the city sits Las Monjas (The Nunnery Complex), named this by the Spaniards as it reminded them of the convents that existed in Spain. The architecture style of this complex is Puuc, signified by the latticework upper section, very popular with the Puuc-style. This complex has undergone 7 construction cycles since its inception.
This structure that is part of the Nunnery Complex was named La Iglesia, the Church. No one knows for certain why the Spaniards named it this, as it was actually a governmental palace. Note the rain god Chac carvings on the upper section cornices, with the trunk-like nose.
This is just a small portion of the structures that have been excavated at Chichén Itzá. We could have spent an entire day or two studying all the structures that were available to us.
After leaving Chichén Itzá we stopped to have lunch at Hacienda Chichen, a stunning old hacienda with beautiful grounds, archways and chapel. Some of the structures were constructed with stone taken from Chichén Itzá.
Many in our group felt that the best part of Hacienda Chichen was the dessert that was served after lunch, homemade coconut ice cream – yum!
This concluded our trip with Caravan Tours. The next day we headed to Cancun to drop some off at hotels and some at the airport. We had an amazing 8 days, visiting 10 of the 31 states in Mexico, traveling 1400 miles, and meeting some very interesting people. We would recommend this tour to anyone wanting to learn more about ancient and present-day Mexico.