Mexico'S Chichen Itza
Mexico's most famous archeological site, recovered from the jungle, Chichen Itza is now a popular tourist site as well.
Chichen Itza is an ancient Mayan ruin and probably the best known of all such archeological sites. It's the location of the stunning pyramid so often seen in photos. Called El Castillo de Kukulkan, the name means the Castle of Kukulkan. Visitors, myself included, never forget their first glimpse of this mighty structure.
Kukulkan (pronounced something like: COO-COOL-CAN) is the feathered serpent god whose image is found in many locations at Chichen Itza. Due to the extreme steepness, the pyramid is much harder to climb than it looks. I only made it up about 15 steps before I decided it was just too arduous for me. My biggest concern was for the return trip down. I saw several people descending very, very slowly on their rear ends and holding on for dear life. That was enough to convince me!
Back on solid ground, I joined a small group preparing to go inside the center of the pyramid. This large pyramid was built on top of an older and smaller temple. There's a doorway that leads into an inner chamber where you can see the older temple and go to a small room with two alters. The inner room was muggy and seemed to be filled with stagnant air. We didn't stay there long, just long enough to say we did! It would have been unbearable to a claustrophobic person. Besides the obvious significance, the pyramid is famous around the world for another reason. At the Spring and Fall equinox, March 21 and September 21, light and shadow strike the balustrade in such a way to form a shadow picture representing Kukulkan undulating out of his temple and wriggling down the pyramid to bless the earth. The engineering skill that went into this amazing project boggles the mind. As you might guess, hordes of people, sometimes upwards of 40,000, gather to watch this spectacular twice-yearly event. The solar phenomenon has attracted many in the New Age Movement.
One of the best things about Chichen Itza is that you can go inside almost all of the ruins. Many have the moldy smell of the past, still lingering after over 1000 years. Dark portals await those who dare walk through, along with quite a few fast-moving iguanas. Despite the reconstruction and the bus loads of tourists, you can still feel as if you're an intrepid discoverer stumbling upon hidden treasure.
The Mayans were great sportsmen, building massive ballcourts to play their games. The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide overall and open to the sky. This court is similar to those found at other ancient centers in Mexico, but larger. The game played was on the order of soccer, no hands were used. It was believed to be a team sport and the object was to put a hard rubber ball into a stone hoop. To the Mayans and their neighbors, ballgames apparently had religious significance. A carving at the court shows what appears to be a player being sacrificed by decapitation, blood spurting from his severed neck to fertilize the earth. That's some stiff penalty for losing...or is that the reward for winning?
Other sacrifices took place at the Sacred Well, a cenote, (or deep, water-filled sinkhole) about a half mile from the main ceremonial area. It was once believed virgins were hurled into these waters to appease the rain Gods, but diving archaeologists have since discovered skeletons belonging to individuals of all ages. Artifacts of gold and jade were also found, which were highly prized by the Mayans. Another separate cenote provided water for cooking and drinking. Exactly why this civilization collapsed remains a mystery, but Chichen Itza was abandoned for the last time around the year 1194. You can't help but feel a bit like Indiana Jones when exploring this place, once lost in thick vegetation. I'm glad it's been rescued from the jungle.