Chichen Itza

Picture of castillo Chichen Itza is one of the most popular Mayan sites in Mexico, and the Castillo (also called the Pyramid of Kukulcan) is the center of Chichen Itza. Remarkably symmetric and surrounded by a large meadow its also the site of the Equinox festivals held at Chichen Itza. On both equinoxes, the sun forms an undulating serpent pattern on the north ramp (right side in this picture). This picture was taken a few days before the equinox and on the wrong side of the ramp. The effect itself, while obviously intentional, is not all that spectacular. On the equinox there are dancers, musicians and a few thousand more visitors than normal.
Picture of ramp_serpent The north ramp is intended to be a path between two serpents. Snakes, particularly rattlesnakes were worshipped at Chichen Itza as symbols of Kukulcan.
Picture of cenote There is no fresh water source in the northern Yucatan. No fresh lakes, and no rivers. There are however sinkholes (subterranean and exposed) which collect rain water. These are called cenotes and the Mayans made sure there were enough around their major cities to provide water. This happens to be a sacred cenote and rather than being a water source, it was a place of sacrifice. Men, women and children were purified in a steam bath and then thrown in from the platform which is now in ruins on the right side of this picture. The remains of sacrifices, their paraphenalia, and assorted other objects have been recovered from this cenote.
Picture of vendors Chichen Itza is unlike any other Mayan site in that it's part theme park. The visitor center and parking area is far larger than other sites (many of which are just a dirt clearing). There are restaurants and shops scattered about the site, and they allow vendors in. They line the major walkways and are selling just about anything for $1 (US). With Cancun only an hour or so away, there are a steady stream of large tour groups arriving. Most of the goods being peddled have absolutely nothing to do with Mayans. For the record, Mayans did not wear sombreros, nor did they sleep in hammocks. We're fairly sure they didn't play chess with carved wood sets designed to look like jaguars and snakes either.
Picture of thousand_columns The thousand columns area of Chichen Itza is a vast section of buildings, walkways and porticos. It stretches back into the jungle on one side of El Castillo, and is relatively unvisited. For the most part, it is also shady.
Picture of us_columns Also back in this quadrant of the city are steam baths and some partially excavated buildings that appear as if they might be impressive once restored.
Picture of kukulcan Kukulcan was the major Chichen god. Quetzacoatl was the major Toltec god and many of his attributes appear to have been adopted into Kukulcan. The raised feathers are a bit hard to see in this picture but there would once have been a colorful and elaborate decoration around this mask.
Picture of near_baths The town of Piste is a few kilometers from Chichen Itza, and visitors can come and go for the duration of a day, so it's tempting to return to Piste for lunch. We ate at the restaurant in the Chichen Itza visitor center (one of them anyway). Against our original inclinations, we're going to go ahead and recommend this for two reasons. First, they sell fruit water. This is, as it sounds, some sort of fresh fruit juice whipped into a froth and added to water. We had a large pitcher of pineapple water, and probably could've drank about 3 each. Second, they serve traditional Yucatecan food (and also non-traditional food) and it's fun to watch other tourists try to figure out how to eat it, particularly tortas and tacos. Karma-wise, we feel it's okay to do this because someone must have derived amusement from watching us try to figure out what to do with Shabu Shabu in other parts of the world.
Picture of market This enclosed area which once had a central roof is called the market. It looks vaguely like a Greek or Roman market. Other than that, there's no particular reason for anyone to believe this was ever used as a market. At least it has a name though, eventually it gets confusing trying to figure out if you're at estructura XII or estructura XVIII.
Picture of skulls This is the Tzompantli. It means the wall of skulls and it surrounds a platform on which the heads of sacrificial victims were displayed. The other decorations are equally gruesome lest we forget that there was definitely a violent element in Mayan civilization.
Picture of jaguar_temple The Jaguar Temple has some basis for its name as well. Jaguar-shaped thrones (associated with city leaders) were found inside and are still on display. Inside the temple, many of the wall decorations still show traces of their original colors. This temple and the structure around it form one wall of Chichen Itza's ball court.
Picture of ball_court This is the truly enormous ball court. The hoops on either side were the 'goals', although it's believed that they are were so unattainable at Chichen that if anyone scored in the hoops, the game immediately ended (quidditch anyone?). The 'game' (it doesn't seem to have a name) involved a ball which could not be touched with the hands or feet. Players wore a form of body armor. The rest is open to interpretation. It appears there was a spiritual form in which players were sacrificed afterwards (it is currently presumed that a member of the winning team was sacrificed). The less spiritual form of the game just involved a lot of betting and injuries.
Picture of sun_house The Mayans were keen astronomers and had worked out, along with their elaborate numbering system, (base 20) a very accurate calendar (which was base 18 instead). They could predict eclipses, the paths of the visible planets, and they commonly built the sun's positions into their buildings. Seen from a particular vantage point, the sun would shine through the central window in the crest of this building at both equinoxes. It would appear through the left and right windows at the solstices.
Picture of observatory The most striking thing about Chichen Itza's observatory is probably how similar it is to a modern observatory. It did not rotate, but there were a series of slits in the roof to allow observations to be made.
Picture of church Back to randomly named buildings, this is 'the church'. It has no religious significance then or now. Spanish explorers called a nearby building the 'nunnery' because it has a large number of small rooms. Once that name stuck, the surrounding buildings started to adopt nunnery-related names. As a result, this is perhaps the only 'church' in the world with a mask of Chaac Mool over the entrace. The niches on either side of the central mask are rather interesting. They contain representations of the four hacab. The hacab are minor deities who hold up the sky and are associated with the four cardinal directions. They are represented by a crab, an armadillo, a turtle and a conch.

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