Chichen Itza

The Mayan civilization originated approximately 3,000 years ago in present-day Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico.  The Maya created a very sophisticated written language,  and also developed a social class system. They carried on trade that went as far south as Panama and as far north as Central Mexico.

Their number system included the concept of zero, an idea unknown to the old Greeks, who were expert mathematicians themselves. Using their mathematical knowledge, along with celestial observations, the Maya created a calendar and monuments which were used to observe and keep track of movements of the moon, the sun, and Venus.  The monuments at Chichen Itza are examples of such monuments, and the area existed mainly as a ceremonial center for the Maya civilization.

The main focal point at Chichen Itza is El Castillo (castle, in Spanish). The acoustics at the top, and around the area of El Castillo are amazing. It is estimated that 60-80,000 people lived in the area, and would gather for ceremonies or to hear a high priest speak. Whomever was atop the pyramid need only speak in normal tone, and the sound would easily be heard by the massive crowd. It was amazing how far and clear just a clap from our tour guide was heard.

The phenomenon that El Castillo is famous for occurs twice a year, at both the spring and fall equinox. As the sun sets, light and shadow create the appearance of a snake, that gradually crawls down the stairway of the pyramid. The diamond-backed snake is made up of seven or so triangular shadows, cast by the steps of the pyramid, that the setting sun gives life to. The rolling shadow makes it way down the stairway, eventually uniting with the large snake head sculptures that are carved into the base of the pyramid. We were told that this attracts a crowd of 40,000+ people!

Each of the four very steep stairways are made up of 91 steps. Combined with the step of the top platform, they make a total of 365, the number of days in a solar year. Ninety-one is also the number of days that separate the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and fall equinox. It is believed that the Maya tracked the seasons and the annual solar events, using El Castillo as a calendar, to plant, harvest and perform ceremonies.
The game of Ulama is the oldest known team sport in the world, and was played on the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. I copied an aerial view:

Courts were the size of a modern day football field, and when seen from above looked like a capital “I”.  A whisper from one end can be heard clearly enough at the other end, 500 feet away, and throughout the court. The game had ritual significance and was often associated with warfare.
Ulama was played by two teams of one to eight players who competed on either side of a central line that was marked one either side by stone rings set into the walls of the field.

Players used a large rubber ball that could weigh from three to eight pounds, and was about the size of a basketball. Each team tried to keep the ball in play by hitting it across the central line. The ball could be shot high in the air, bounced against the walls or rolled along the field. Points were awarded to one team when the other failed to keep the ball in play, like in volleyball. Unlike football, points were not scored if the ball landed in an end zone. Instead, this caused a penalty. The ball could not be hit with hands or feet, players used their hips and forearms. If a player managed to get the ball through one of the rings, the game ended.

As I mentioned in my previous post, you can easily spend a day or more here. Chichen Itza covers four square miles, and there is much to see and learn about. Here is an overview of the area.

Map of Chichen Itza

Even though we’d have liked much more time, Scott was glad to have just seen it. Here are more photos of Chichen Itza.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Our Day-Long Tour To Chichen Itza

Scott has always been interested in the culture and history of the Mayan civilization, so when we found ourselves in Mexico, a trip to Chichen Itza (chit-chen eats-a) was on our radar. It’s located inland by a few hours, in the state of Yucatan, so a car or bus is involved. (We’ve learned that Mexico is officially, The United States of Mexico. Isla Mujeres is in the state of Quintana Roo). Friends who we’ve met here in the anchorage told us about a day-long tour that they took, so we sought out the company’s booth in town to sign up. We were to visit Chichen Itza, a Mayan village (where lunch would be provided) and a cenote.

We started our day before dawn, taking our dingy to shore and catching an early ferry over to Cancun. From there, we were taken by van to a bus. The bus was awesome! Seriously, the holy grail of buses! Gleaming wood floors, large first class airline-type seats with loads of leg room and sparkling clean bathrooms. We settled in, as more people arrived and were loaded on with us. Then a man came on board and asked for anyone speaking English to follow him off the bus. Well, I guess it made sense that they would have the English speaking guests on a bus with an English speaking guide, but maybe they should have loaded us that way to begin with? Not to worry, we were ready to settle into the holy grail bus for English speaking guests.

As we stepped onto the next bus, the smell of mildew hit us in the face. It was immediately clear that we had gone down a few pegs…like to the cargo hold! Gone were the gleaming wood floors and comfy large seats. The leg room was non existent, and we watched a man try his best to jam his normal-sized backpack into the over head compartment that was the size of a bread box. He may as well have been trying to put a square peg in a round hole. We knew better than to try and put ours up there, as it was stuffed full of snacks, bottled water, change of clothes, etc . Instead, Scott straddled it on the floor, and prayed that whomever sat in the seat in front of him would have mercy and not recline.

Soon, all of the English speaking “sardines” were loaded into our “can,” and we were on our way. It didn’t take long to strike up conversation with the couple in front of us, as we were all commiserating about leg room. Dann and Sarah were visiting Cancun from Oregon, where they spend time fishing and cruising the Columbia River on their boat. We chatted all the way to Piste, a small village where we were given lunch and some time to shop.

In the village, Scott and I purchased this Mayan statue, representing health, prosperity and protection. We’re uncertain of the authenticity of this, as Scott got sick a few days after being on the tour, but we think he’s neat.

We shared a table for lunch with Dann and Sarah. The buffet that was offered was delicious, and we helped ourselves to seconds of our favorites. As we ate, some dancers came out to entertain us. Their balancing skills while dancing were pretty impressive, and the man was one heck of a whistler!

Once lunch was over, we headed to Chichen Itza, where we were given a brief, one hour tour and then an hour to walk the area ourselves.

This was no where near enough time, as you can easily spend an entire day here, but we made the most of it. I’ll post more on Chichen Itza separately.

We loaded back into the “can”, and made a stop in the village of Valladolid, for homemade coconut ice cream. It’s a beautiful town, and boasts the lowest crime rate in the country. There is a quaint square in the middle of town, and colonial architecture surrounds it. The many surrounding Hacienda plantations in the area are now colleges, so the shops and restaurants in Valladolid are priced for students…bonus!

Although Scott loves his ice cream, we decided to join Dann and Sarah for a cerveza instead, and crossed the square to stop in at Mexico Magico!

It was just a five minute drive from Valladolid to our final stop at the cenote. Cenotes are sinkholes that are the result of collapsed limestone bedrock which exposes the groundwater underneath, creating a natural swimming hole; there are many all over the Yucatan peninsula. Most cave cenotes are made up of fresh water that has been filtered by the earth, making them clear and pure.  Cenotes were revered, because they were a water source in dry times. The name cenote means “sacred well,” and the Maya settled villages around these spiritual wells, believing that they were a portal to speak with the gods.

We climbed down 94 steep, dimly lit stone steps. At the bottom, a huge area opened up, revealing a large pool of water, and stalactites coming down from above. A small opening overhead allowed daylight to shine down onto the clear water.

Scott brought his suit, but chose to skip the swim. He felt strange swimming in sacred water, and feared that the water would be too cold for him. I didn’t even bring my suit. Wading into deep water in a dimly lit cave did not appeal to me. We both made good choices. As we waded with our bare feet, the water was pretty darned chilly…and there were both catfish and tiny foot-nibbling fish in the water as well! I know there are people who pay good money for pedicures that include tiny fish eating the dead skin from you feet, but it is not my thing..ick!  Scott snapped photos, while I played hopscotch around the foot-nibblers,  trying not to land on the catfish. I’m sure that I entertained the rest of the group.

After our time underground we enjoyed some sun and cervezas on the grounds of the cenote, before boarding the “can” back to Cancun.

Once the rest of the “English-speakers” had been dropped at their hotels, Scott and I were let off at the ferry terminal where we just made the 8:30pm ferry. After grabbing some tacos and homemade churros in town, we launched the dingy and made our way back to Sea Life, collapsing for the night.

It was a long day, but a great way to see some sights of inland Mexico. Here are some more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”