Whenever I think about the Yucatan peninsula I immediately think of Cancun. But the truth is… the city of Cancun has nothing to do with the reality of the Yucatan peninsula.
In fact, did you know that the city was originally designated, “The Cancun Project?” That’s because in the early 1970s the Mexican government, taking a cue from Las Vegas, developed their own “if we build it, they will come” extravaganza. Hauling in more than 600 acres of top soil, they transformed the 14-mile island sand dunes and malarial swamps into one of the most popular powder-white beach destinations in the world.
But it’s the not sun and sand I’m after, per se. I came here in search of adventure (whale sharks anyone?), and what I found was that and so much more. There are pyramids my friends, great pyramids and an ancient culture still alive, living peacefully throughout the tangled, steamy jungle.
The Mexican pyramid that tops everyone’s list is, of course, Chichen Itza.
Built by the Mayan people on a limestone plateau in the early 10th Century, the magnificent and aptly named El Castillo (the castle) is not only the focal point of Chichen Itza, but looks eerily like the step pyramids of Saqqara, Egypt. And I mean that in the “cue the spooky music” kinda way. While scholars still struggle to decipher the true meaning of Egypt’s pyramids, the Yucatan’s Mayan culture recorded everything in their own language and script leaving no doubt as to what mischief was afoot.
Like most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Chichen Itza is a grandiose complex of multiple structures rather than the one famous pyramid that it is most noted for. There is the Temple of Tables, the Venus Platform and the magnificent Temple of a Thousand Columns (a.k.a. Temple of Warriors).
And then there is the creepy skull platform and the equally macabre Platform of the Eagles & Jaguars, which (artistically) displays each animal consuming a human heart in all of its gore. Let the facts be known: The Mayan people were fierce warriors and darn proud of it. They also believed in human sacrifice to please and appease the Gods, beliefs sustained for more than a 1,000 years burned deep within religious ritual.
Chichen Itza was actually a thriving city in its day, replete with broad causeways and covered promenades all radiating out from its omnipotent religious center. Recent discoveries have also uncovered complex road construction thought to link Chichen Itza to other important religious centers of the time such as Ek Balam and Tulum.
What always blows me away about places like Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu and the pyramids of Egypt (along with a plethora of other sights) is the sheer volume of rock and stone that have been moved through the eons to build these megalithic structures and surrounds. Some are made from a multitude of smaller stones piled high then covered with a smooth façade while others are constructed of multi-ton blocks chiseled to exacting specifications, hard to duplicate even in today’s world. Slaves and prisoners of war were a part of the process…
“Hey, whaja git from the raid on that there village last week?”
“Well, I got me some slaves and I’m gonna have em move a hun’erd million billion rocks so I’s can have me a long driveway to over out yonder”.
(I’m not quite sure why I think they spoke southern redneck, but you get my point.)
As for the grand dame of Chichen Itza, El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulkán) is truly a sight to behold! And these days, that’s all you get to do… behold… the magnitude and the magnificence. You see, up until 2006 you could actually climb El Castillo, she with her impossibly narrow steps, complete lack of hand rails and heart- thumping 45-degree angles. That was until tragedy struck and I ask you, with a staggering 2 million visitors each year, who could have seen that coming!!??
As a History Channel fan I knew all about the illumination of Kukulkan (the snake god) as he descends the great pyramid on the summer and winter solstice. That the pyramid has 91 steps in each of its four stairways, and the total number of steps plus the top-most temple add up to 365, the days of the year. What I didn’t know is that El Castillo harbors other unique treasures held tightly within.
Since the pyramids were a prominent feature in religious ritual, the Mayan capped theirs off with an open sided temple. It was here, in this place, that the holy of holy’s ascended to commune with the gods. Interestingly; clapping your hands while standing off to the side of the pyramid induces a high pitched bird like chirp that seemingly explodes from the temple resonating throughout the land. It makes me wonder, was it used as a call to prayer? Or was it perhaps used to convince faithful (and not so faithful) followers that the high priest was indeed… one with the gods.
As for the pyramid itself, recent excavations have revealed a slightly smaller pyramid contained within. Perhaps one day El Castillo will reveal herself to be the Russian nesting doll of pyramids… those ancient Mayans were a pretty smart bunch.
As is the way with these day tours, we are on our way to lunch followed by a quick dip in one of the ubiquitous cenote (swimming holes) then it’s on to Ek Balam for another exciting adventure
Here are two tidy tips for ya: Since Chichen Itza is a good two hour drive from Cancun, be sure to get an early start and whatever you do, don’t forget your hat, bottled water, mosquito repellant and sunscreen. Also, if you are looking to do a little bit of shopping, the grounds of Chichen Itza are home to hundreds of local venders, so skip the formal gift shops and bargain your way to souvenir bliss.
Also (and you will thank me for this one) the official looking people with clip board in hand accosting you just inside the exit doors of Cancun’s International Airport are there to sell you stuff. You know… tours, vacation rentals, transportation and such. Their quick-talking spiel is designed to make you think that you are required to go over to their counter before leaving the airport. If you didn’t book your tours/transportation on-line before leaving home, you might stop by to see what they have to offer. Otherwise a firm, but nice, “No thank you” as you keep on walking does the trick. Outside the airport (and the ferry terminals) you will find actual government representatives who will indeed help facilitate your journey, such as finding your driver or calling a transport company should your pick up be late.