One of the most intriguing travelling experiences you can encounter on the road are ancient ruins. These places are full of legends and stories, each stone and artefact telling history of the people who once inhabited these incredible places. Sometimes it’s hard to picture people once living in these majestic cities, or to imagine their buildings covered in beautiful colours that have now been washed away by the elements. The mystical aura that surrounds these sites is something that has always appealed to me, ever since I was a little girl.
I distinctly remember the first time I visited Teotihuacán, one of México’s most important archaeological sites. A young, ten-year-old bespectacled girl, proudly wearing her “Indiana Jones” hat, with a small knapsack full of her collections and a dream in her mind. She wanted to be an archaeologist, the best there ever was.
Although that dream is past and a new, exciting direction has taken its place, my fascination for ancient ruins has never disappeared. It makes me feel so small to be walking among these manmade marvels and to think of the very first humans to settle in upon the stones.
One of the most incredible sites I’ve visited is the pre-hispanic Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. It was named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in 2007 (and it is also a World Heritage Site) and I have had the chance to visit it three times, and it certainly is a wonder. Its incredible architecture and its repertoire of Mayan culture and legends make it a must on any travellers list.
Some may argue that it has become too much of a tourist magnet, or that it’s overrated. I say to them that they’re wrong. Yes, the place is packed during the holidays with travellers eager to visit the ruins, and it has been invaded by vendors. But it is still the epitome of the ancient Mayan civilization, the biggest city of their time, and one of the most important sites of pre-hispanic Latin America.
While visiting Chichén Itzá for the third time over the holidays, however, there was a constant nagging at the back of my head. Zero out of three times have I had a thorough tour of this place, and I left with a feeling that I was missing on so much that there is to know about this place. I decided to start reading about it, and here are the most interesting facts that I learned about Chichén Itzá:
1. In Chichén Itzá you can view three different styles that show the city’s history: the north group which is distinctly Toltec, the central group that belongs to the early period, and Old Chichén.
2. There are also two distinct architectural styles, Pucc and Chenes, which originated in northern Yucatán.
3. Its name comes from Mayan words: “Chi” (mouth), “Che’en” (well), “Itz” (magician or wizard) and “Há” (water), which means at the edge of the well of the water magicians and refers to a tribe that inhabited the area before.
4. Chichén Itzá is home to the largest and best preserved Mesoamerican ball game in Latin America.
5. It is nearly acoustically perfect. The main pyramid’s returning echo when a person’s claps towards it imitates the cry of a Quetzal. The ball game has a similar effect, where the court is designed for voice to travel its entire length to be heard at either end of the court.
6. Inside the Temple of the Warriors on its highest point, there is a table held by statues of small dwarves or Aluxes where sacrifices were performed for the gods. The table had orifices through which blood flowed all the way to the Sacred Cenote.
7. The Sacred Cenote is a huge sinkhole that was used as a place for human sacrifice and ritual offerings in times of drought for the god Chac.
8. Mayans were devout astronomers, and had a special platform dedicated to Venus and an observatory built according to specific astronomical events.
And to wrap it up with the iconic Kukulkán Pyramid:
9.The pyramid is built over another temple which was built a hundred years earlier.
10. The total number of steps adds up to exactly 365, symbolising solar years. The 52 panels symbolise the Mayan centuries and the number of weeks in a year, representing the Haab’ (the Mayan calendar).
11. Inside of the pyramid there are two jade sculptures of a chacmol and a jaguar, which unfortunately are closed off to the public.
12. The pyramid was built so that on the spring and fall equinox, the movement of the sun creates the illusion of a giant snake descending down the pyramid’s stairs which represented Kukulkán the Plumed Snake.