Continued from: My Mexico Trip, Part 8; Merida.
Today we will be visiting Chichén Itzá, the crown jewel of our trip. The organizers have wisely kept the best for last. It is a UNESCO heritage site and in 2007 was selected as one of the new, seven wonders of the world. In brief, a place worth seeing.
Chichén Itzá, located in the state of Yucatán, Mexico, was first settled by the Maya around the sixth century AD. The name means “Mouth of the well of the Itzá”. It was later abandoned, and then settled by the Toltecs who came from the central highlands. The site therefore exhibits a mix of the two cultures as depicted in the architectural styles and carvings. This fusion led to the veneration of the Toltec deity Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent, aka Kukulcán in Maya) and Chac-mool (the Maya rain god). Their images were everywhere. Chichén Itzá was at its height from 700 to 900 AD. It was finally abandoned in the fourteenth century. The reason is still a mystery.
Pepe, our tour director led us into the historic site where our guide Miguel, was waiting with a binder of old photographs in his hand. We gathered around and he began his orientation. He showed us a picture of the Pyramid of Kukulcán (El Castillo or The Castle) as it was first discovered with trees and vegetation growing on it, its surface stones falling apart.
The western face has been restored. Archeological work is still ongoing. We found a rope hanging from the entrance at the top, presumably used by workers as an aid in climbing. Visitors are prohibited from climbing the steps now after a tourist fell to her death in 2006. A wise precaution, I thought.
The 25 meter, 82 feet high pyramid is an excellent stone representation of the Maya calendar with an intricate relationship between the number of steps and the number of days in a year.
Two large serpent heads were visible at the foot of the steps.The whole structure is so aligned that during the equinoxes, the play of sunlight on the northern staircase seems to make the great feathered serpent come “alive” as it appears to slowly creep up and down the steps.
Miguel explained these in great detail and showed us pictures of more interesting objects found inside the pyramid. One was the red stone jaguar throne inlaid with jade and the reclining figure of Chac-mool, used as a receptacle for human hearts. Where did the jade come from, I wondered? The Toltecs seemed to have been obsessed with human sacrifices, we found numerous depictions of the gory proceedings in carved panels throughout the site.
I am using pictures of pictures above and below since tourists are not allowed to see and photograph the originals.
But my eyes were drawn to the enormous Castle or Pyramid of Kukulcán and I was itching to get closer. I took a quick walk around. Some of the faces of the pyramid are not restored and depict the toll time has taken on the surfaces. These ancient builders were amazing, all the more since in 2015 it was discovered that the pyramid sits on top of a large, deep well and could collapse any day! But it has not. The entire structure has stood for centuries!
From The Castle, we headed over to the Ball Court. Along the way we stopped at the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars. The large jaguar heads had bared fangs and the eagles, sharp talons, tearing at human hearts with their claws. The Toltecs were obsessed with such gruesome details.
We finally came to the enormous Ball Court with two walls on opposite sides. They had vertical hoops attached.
A rubber ball was bounced off the walls and the goal was to pass it through the hoops. Exactly how it was played, using feet or hands is debated. Perhaps basketball is a modern version of this ancient game.
The Ball Court was fairly large and running all over it with a heavy rubber ball must have been tiring. Only the fittest could do it as evidenced by the carvings at the base of the walls.
The losing team lost their heads, or rather, were sacrificed. We saw a panel on the wall depicting a warrior-priest holding what looks like a knife in one hand and a severed head with blood spurting from it, in the other.
Perhaps it was a ritual sacrifice. But would the priests offer the second best team as an offering to the gods, or the best, the victors? In that case, the prize for victory would be—losing one’s head. Must have been a conundrum for the players, how hard to strive for victory.
We next took a walk down an alley (sacbe in Maya) towards the Sacred Well (Cenote Sagrado). It was hot and I was glad I had brought water with me. The large open well was used for religious rituals and perhaps as a source of water. I hoped the water was cleaner then. Now it is covered with a green film of algae as is evident in the photo. Several artifacts and human bones were found at the bottom. Some have speculated it was used for human sacrifices. The more enterprising among us walked through the tangled vegetation to the other side to get better pictures. After a while we slowly trudged back up the incline to the main site. There were numerous souvenir vendors along the path and a few of us of us took this opportunity to buy some.
We stopped in front of the Temple of Warriors and before it, The Court of a Thousand Columns with its many vertical pillars. I pictured how it might have been centuries ago when the pillars held up the timber and thatch roof of the once bustling market place. The figure of a reclining Chac-mool is up there. But, one cannot climb the steps to see it now.
We spent the last few minutes near the main Pyramid admiring it. I took a few more photographs of the site as we headed back to our bus. What a wondrous place—I pondered on the drive back.
I was really hungry by the time we stopped for lunch at the beautiful Hacienda Chichén Itzá, with its lush, well kept gardens, flowering bougainvilleas and pools.
We had lunch on the covered, cool veranda experiencing a small part of “Hacienda Life” of the well-heeled in colonial times. It was relaxing and good.
Pepe bustled around making sure everything was perfect and everyone was well fed. Both he and our bus driver Aran were superb and we were all very satisfied.
After lunch we strolled along the well kept paths of the garden. Some of us made plans to vacation here in the future.
After lunch we drove to our last stop, Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott near Cancun airport. We stayed in Cancun for the night. We had a few hours of free time to relax before our last dinner as a group. I headed for the swimming pool with my son. The weather was gorgeous and the warm water worked wonders on my sore muscles.
We had our farewell dinner where we said goodbye to the other members of our tour group. We had traveled together for nine days. A camaraderie had naturally developed. An enterprising member passed around a sheet of paper and a pen, and we wrote down our email addresses which he then collated and distributed that night. Kudos to him. I am still in contact with some of my fellow travelers.
The next day we flew out from the busy Cancun airport and were home in a few hours. I understood why Cancun is such a favored get away in winter. It is close by, warm and sunny with a lot to do and see. The ocean and the beaches add to the attractions.
This was a wonderful trip, relaxing and eye-opening. On the return flight I suddenly remembered a few lines from the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, which I transliterate (with some creative license):
Over many days and many lands
At great expense and countless miles
I have traveled
To see high mountains and deep seas
But I never saw, just two steps from my door
The dazzle of a dew drop
On a verdant rice stalk
Unconsciously, I had taken his writing to heart. I had traveled far and wide; Nepal, to see high mountains and the Andaman Islands to see deep seas. But I had never been to Mexico, the country next door, to see the great marvels of ancient civilizations that rival any other on earth. And now, that was done. I felt a sense of achievement.
I understood why Chichén Itzá was voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is captivating, illuminating and awe-inspiring. The title is well deserved. There is a lot to learn from it. How and why did a civilization capable of producing such architectural marvels and militarily strong, suddenly disappear? Can it happen again? To us? It is worth pondering.
I hope Chichén Itzá continues to stand and illuminate mankind’s journey for a long, long time.
Ranjan, Looks like your Mexico trip was very enjoying. Very well narrated with pictures that made it a very interesting reading. Yes, we often miss the beautiful and historic things around us but travel thousands of miles in search of splendid view and things.
Thanks Ajit for your thoughtful comment. I knew you would appreciate the few lines from Rabindranath Tagore. It strikes a chord. We saw a fraction of what is there to see. Need another trip to Mexico.
Very interesting article that combines your travel experience with the history of Chichén Itzá. The jaguar throne is really enigmatic. It seems very little research has been done on it, probably because it is not easily accessible. I found an article that reports chemical analysis of the material with portable XRF. The throne is made of limestone and the red paint is a mixture of hematite (iron oxide) and cinnabar (mercury sulfide). The fangs are made of mollusk shell. The embedded stones are jade composed of jadeite, a mineral that forms at high pressures in continental collision zones. The jade is possibly from the Motagua River Valley in Guatemala, which is a collision zone between the North American and the Caribbean continental blocks (tectonic plates). The geology is somewhat similar to the Jade Mines region of Myanmar where the Indian block/plate collides with the Burma plate (part of the larger Eurasian plate).
Enjoyed your article. Best wishes.
Many thanks Nilanjan for your interest and detailed information on the possible source of the jade. The Maya dominion did extend up to Guatemala, so it is possible the jade came from there. Nowadays, technology is advanced enough that radioisotope composition analysis on a minute sample of the jade (or any other material) could indicated the area, even the mine it came from.