Chichen Itza

It’s a wonder.

Chichen Itza is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and once on site it’s easy to see why. The place is awesome. The scale of it; the precision, especially considering they built it over 1000 years ago, without the benefits of the wheel, metal tools, or beasts of burden; the extent of the grounds – it all adds up to something special.

So if I subject you, once again (and I promise this is the last time) to Mayan pyramids, we’re going to go out on a high note.

The main pyramid, El Castillo (“The Castle”), with the temple of Kukulcan at the top rises 98 feet.

Needless to say, El Castillo hasn’t gone through the ages this pristine and well maintained. Here’s a shot from 1892.

El Castillo, circa 1892, by Teoberto Maler, via Wikimedia Commons

Considerable excavation and restoration has brought it back to something of its former glory. (But hopefully not its former gory, including human sacrifice.)

The Temple of Kukulcan

Kukulcan was a feathered serpent god, possibly the most important god in the Mayan pantheon. Later, the Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl, a name they likely got from the Toltecs. The Mayans of Chichen Itza also encountered the Toltecs late in their run; it’s likely they got the habit of human sacrifice rather than animal sacrifice from them.

El Castillo has 91 steps on each side plus one at the top, equalling 365 – the number of days in the solar year. During the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the setting sun casts shadows on the pyramid that give the appearance of a serpent slithering down the north stairway. We were there in late March, midday.

Our guide demonstrated a curious effect: if you clap in front of the steps, the sound climbs the incline, hits the temple at the top, and echos back with the sound of a squawk. This sound is very similar to the call of the Quetzal, the sacred bird of the ancient Mayas and Aztecs. 

For what it’s worth, the other six “new” wonders are the Great Wall of China; Petra in Jordan; Machu Picchu in Peru; the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the Colosseum in Rome; and the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. I’ve seen three of them. Guess there’s still room on the bucket list.

El Castillo is not the only structure at Chichen Itza. Several other pyramids/temples dot the grounds.

Unfortunately, for these lesser pyramids, I can’t remember which was which. And neither will you, three minutes after you close this blog post.

So just enjoy the view, and move on.

Temple of the Warriors

This temple is interesting in that it’s surrounded by columns arranged rank and file, much like an army of warriors. It’s likely that these columns supported a roof of perishable materials.

Chac Mool sculpture atop the Temple of Warriors.

The Chac Mool is a reclining figure with a bowl carved into its stomach area. These were fairly common as sacrificial altars.

Sure, sure, you’re probably thinking sprawled out human getting his heart cut out and dropped in the bowl. But Chac Mool (which sounds to me like a cross between Chuck Norris and Darth Maul) was generally used with more innocent offerings, such as food, incense, or feathers. The bloodier sacrifices were probably on El Castillo, late in Chichen Itza’s run.

Side note: Mnemonic for Chichen Itza, via a local – “Chicken Pizza.”

Chichén Itzá is home to the largest tlachtli (a type of sporting field) aka pok-ta-pok (the Mayan name) in the Americas at 225 x 545 feet.

The game has ancient roots, perhaps going back to the Olmecs. (Remember those guys with the big heads?) The game was ritualistic, and violent, and could have dire consequences for the losers (or the winners, depending on whose story you hear.) The original version was to simply get the ball to the opponent’s end, but by the time it got to Chichen Itza knocking it through that ring on the side wall added an extra challenge. Like today’s soccer, no hands allowed, but unlike today’s soccer when a guy collapsed on the field screaming in agony, he really was in pain.

What’s more, they couldn’t use their feet or head either, only their hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. The ball was solid chicle (similar to rubber) and weighed 6-8 pounds. That’s gotta hurt, even with padding. Imagine playing soccer with a half sized bowling ball.

You think basketball players are good? Try knocking an eight-pound ball through a small hoop 25 feet up the wall using only your hips, elbows, or shoulders. Seems farfetched to me. Maybe they were really just anchor points for tying off something held in the air over center court – an opinion I’ve never heard from the archeologists but makes more sense to me.

Carvings at the base of the ball field wall
Temple of the Bearded Man, at the north end of the ball field.
South Temple (at the south end of the ball field.)

Now, these places are identified as temples, but to my eyes I’m thinking they’re seating for local royalty, high priests, and traveling big shots who came along with the road team. But they’d have to be careful about their gossip, because I understand the acoustics at the field are so good that a conversation at one of the temples could be heard at the other end of the field. (At least if the players aren’t screaming in agony from being whacked in a tender place with an eight-pound ball.)

Maybe the decapitations and skulls depicted in various carvings weren’t from the losing (or winning?) captain, they were really consequences from some overheard conversation.

This road led away from the main plaza, towards the “sacred cenote.”

All the touristy places we stopped at on our trip had many tables of local vendors trying to sell their wares. “Almost free!” Given its status as one of the Seven Wonders, it’s no surprise that this place had the largest collection of vendors; I think I heard it was something on the order of 2000. Of course, being near the end of the trip, we had leftover pesos to spend…

Even the iguanas thought they were a wonder.

This was likely the most colorful bird we saw in Mexico, and knowing nothing of the local avians we hoped it was a Quetzal. But no. Still, a neat bird.

And here’s the sacred cenote. It may be this water source drew people to the location in the first place, back around 400 AD. We know they used it as a place of sacrifice. Archaeological investigations have removed thousands of objects from the bottom of the cenote, including artifacts made from gold, jade, pottery, flint, obsidian, shell, wood, rubber, and cloth, as well as human skeletons.

El Caracol – The Snail. It’s believed to be an observatory.

You may have gotten the idea, over the last few months, that I’ve had Mayan pyramids on the brain. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong…

I have spent little time on Chichen Itza history. It ran from around 400 AD to 1200 AD, becoming a major player after about 600 AD. The major structures would date to later in their run, with some built atop older structures.

So what caused the decline of Chichen Itza, and of the Mayan empire in general? It’s still a mystery.

Politics, overpopulation, ecological degradation, war – they were probably all factors. A leading theory suggests an extended drought was a primary factor.

Scientists have used stalagmite studies in Belize caves to track rainfall patterns over the long term. (Belize is in the SE corner of the Yucatan, next to Guatemala.)

The trends showed that the heart of the Classic Maya period (440-660) was unusually wet. This helped agriculture, which in turn supported a population boom. With the growing population came cities and the hallmarks of Maya civilization – sophisticated politics, monumental architecture, complex religion, astronomy, and calendars.

But the weather worm turned. Between 660-1000 there were several periods of drought, sometimes severe. Agriculture suffered, rulers/priests caught static for not appeasing the gods, battles for resources ensued. Migration picked up as folks looked for wetter country, generally moving from south to north.

Sound bad? Things got even worse.

The stalagmite study showed that between 1020 and 1100 the region suffered its longest dry spell of the last 2,000 years. With it came crop failure, famine, and death.

Is it a coincidence that Chichen Itza was pretty much done by 1200? I think not.

Their neighbors to the west, Mayapan, taking advantage of Chichen Itza’s weakness, helped with their demise. They held sway until the mid 1400s, when their despotic leadership got kicked out. Most of the inland cities were deserted, and people spread out into smaller groupings and more towards the coasts. There are still millions of Mayans in Mesoamerica to this day.

But, that was about it for the Mayans as a dominant civilization. The Toltecs joined a few other tribes up at Lake Texcoco, and eventually the Mexica joined the fun. This was the roots of the Aztecs. Then came Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors.

Some suggest that the Maya planted the seeds of their own destruction. Population had grown into the tens of millions, and they practiced slash and burn agriculture. At the same time, much of the forest was being burned to create quicklime, a coating used to put a sheen on all those pyramids and structures. All this deforestation reduced the measured capture and release of moisture between the ground and the atmosphere over the seasons, interrupting the natural rain cycle, and in turn reducing precipitation.

It makes you wonder if we’ve done something in our current era to cause the droughts and heat we see now. Will our civilizations suffer in similar ways?

This will be the last post from the Maya/Aztec tour. Hopefully, the series was interesting and not yawn inducing. There was a LOT of history.

There will be one more post coming for the Mexico trip, talking about scuba diving cenotes. Then, I’ll need to figure out what to do next. With any luck, it will require MUCH less research (oh, my aching head), and read more like creative non-fiction impressions than a report for school. There is at least one short photography trip in the queue…


32 thoughts on “Chichen Itza

    1. We had a few local guides that still tried to spin the “no human sacrifice” story. While that may have been true in some locations, I don’t think it was true at Chichen Itza, at least in its later years.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That bird! Not only is the color fabulous, those two little feathers hanging down look like something it picked up at Tiffany’s. That, and the first photo of El Castillo are my favorites. I’d love to be able to try out the sound effects in the place, especially the clap that turns into a squawk. As for that game, I half expected to hear about human heads substituting for the game balls, as in those polo rumors. I guess not — even those folks had their limits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That bird was pretty cool, and my impressions of it mirror yours. I’d doubt the heads as balls too, although when I was suggesting the hoops as anchors to string something across center court, it occurred to me that past victims might be displayed. (Could they be that twisted?) More likely it’d be something symbolic glorifying the local war lord/high priest/demigod.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I certainly never yawned when I was reading all your posts from this series. It’s funny how my best friend also refers to Chichen Itza as Chicken Pizza! I remember until a few years ago people could still go up to those temples — I particularly recall close-up shots of Chac Mool. Oh well, as long as these amazing structures are preserved. Thank you for taking us to all those fascinating corners of Mexico. I wish to follow your footsteps sometime in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent album, especially the dramatic B&W shots. I hadn’t thought about the environmental havoc from heating up limestone, wiping out the ecosystem to slap on a whitewash, I guess that kind of self-destructiveness gives us more of feeling of kinship with the Mayans. The sepia shots look straight out of an old-time Nat’l Geographic. I’ve always been interested in archaeology and have enjoyed your Mexican series, Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I went with b/w for a lot of the shots in part because I like b/w, but also to get a different look than what 1000 other bloggers/instagramers are doing for Chichen Itza. Does that make me like the teenager that dyes their hair neon green to stand out?

      I stumbled into the sepia style look as a preset in a toolset called NIK Silver Efex; formally from Google, then free/unsupported for a while, and now owned/maintained by DXO. I replicated the look in my regular editor (On1 Photo RAW) a few years ago when I still had a working copy of the freebie. It seemed appropriate, somehow.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m still trying to imagine playing that game with my elbows and hips! One of the places we visited in northern Bolivia gave a similar over population and then drought explanation to the collapse of one of their civilizations around the same time and compared it to the Mayans. Great, entertaining pot 😊Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PS: I was just noticing you’ve been posting on Bolivia. It looks like you were in the group of bloggers I used to be following, but somehow disappeared off my following list during the year I took off of WordPress. I wasn’t seeing you on the Reader. Hopefully, I’ve gotten that fixed now.


    1. Hey Ann, I was just looking in my SPAM folder for another reason and found this comment there. Glad I could verify to the WordPress gods you’re a valid commenter.

      There is one more post coming from Mexico, but it’s about cave diving. I suspect you may not be trying that? 😉


  5. As I mentioned before, Dave, Peggy and I visited Chichen Itza on our honeymoon 30 years ago and were privileged to stay in what was an inexpensive motel next door, which allowed us to wander the site after all of the tourists had left except for a handful. It’s an incredibly impressive sight and I really enjoyed your photos and history. Thanks for taking us back and bringing it alive. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We stayed nearby as well. Might have even been the same place – you could see the observatory from it, maybe a 1/4 mile away. I bet it wasn’t inexpensive anymore though (included in tour price – I don’t really know.)

      Heck of a place for a honeymoon. Nice pick.


  6. Interesting that Kukulcan was feathered. I first read this as Chicken Itza.

    Once again you’ve shown us an example of amazing human endeavor to create something of such magnitude and impressive architecture. With all our modern technology and advanced equipment most of what we create are mere boxes. I enjoy my vicarious travels through yours. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good grief it ‘s taken me far too long to get around to commenting, but I saved this post until I found some energy and time….
    Have to admit that my favorite was the Turquoise Browed Motmot. What a stunning looking bird.
    So sad to think that we may be creating the same circumstances (or worse) to end our so-called civilization. 🥴

    Liked by 1 person

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