Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan cities, and for good reason. For many hundreds of years after its founding around 600 AD, it was an epicenter of Mayan culture, religion, and power. During its peak period, the city supported an unusually diverse population, which in part accounts for the myriad architectural styles drawn upon to construct the large number of ancient structures still visible within its boundaries. Building this city was truly an enormous undertaking, especially for a pre-modern culture; today, just the task of viewing their creation is so overwhelming that a map and compass are essential tools. This guide will help you get a bead on some of the most visually and historically magnificent buildings at Chichen Itza, so that you can more effectively plan an excursion that will leave you awe-struck and breathless at the skill and creativity of the city’s inhabitants ” and not just because you’ve been walking in circles all day!
The largest and most impressive of the seven tlatchtli ball courts within the city’s perimeter is the Great Ballcourt, found at the northwest corner. Although scientists aren’t sure exactly how this game was played, it’s considered likely that it was similar to the modern-day game of umal, which originates from western Mexico. Tlatchtli was played by a large number of cultures in Central America and evolved over many centuries. In many ways, the 150-meter-long court at Chichen Itza represents the pinnacle of this process; the huge audience stands that flank it, and the ornately carved goal hoops set high above the playing field lead archaeologists to suspect that only the most elite players competed in this arena ” in ceremonial games which at least sometimes resulted in the ritual sacrifice of the losing team.
The Temple of Warriors
The Temple of Warriors is a gigantic stepped pyramid which is named for the many rows of martial statues which stand guard on the front and side of the structure. Called the Templo de los Guerreros in Spanish, it was initially built around an older, smaller temple called the Temple of Chac Mool. A Chac Mool statue is one of the temple’s most prominent features today, sitting atop the pyramid in the typical reclining posture and holding a tray (thought to have been a platform used in ritual sacrifices). Though visitors are currently not permitted to scale the pyramid due to ongoing restoration efforts, you can certainly walk right up to it and stare up in awe and wonder as its massive size and architectural magnificence.
Meaning “The Snail” in Spanish, El Caracol is one of the most unusual structures found at any Mayan site. Constructed on top of a raised, flat platform, El Caracol is a circular building that contains a spiral staircase. These two features are very difficult to construct from the stone materials used at Chichen Itza, and indicate a remarkable degree of proficiency on the part of the architects, not to mention intent. Why would the Mayans build a raised, round structure, which also has a curious sequence of portal-like doors and windows? The answer seems to lie in the stars, as scientists have confirmed that these windows align to specific astronomical phenomena such as the passage of Venus across the night sky. The affinity of the Maya for watching and charting the stars has been well-established, and it appears that El Caracol is one of the first observatories in the western hemisphere, not to mention one of the oldest still in existence.
The Caves of Balanckanche
Not far from the center of Chichen Itza, there is an entrance to an elaborate and ancient network of caverns known as the Caves of Balanckanche. Inside these caves are an astounding number of artifacts that span practically the entire history of the Mayan civilization, from the Pre-Classic era right up through the Spanish colonization of the Yucatan. Most of these finds have been left exactly as they were discovered, so that visitors to the caves can view an archaeological site just as it appears when researchers first stumble upon it. Many examples of pottery, statues, idols, carvings, and other ancient trinkets are fully on display; even more interesting, though, is the shape of the cave system itself. Consisting of a central limestone column and a bifurcating network of branch-like chambers, the caves strongly resemble a tree, which is thought by scientists to be an intentional representation of the World Tree so central to Mayan mythology.
Light Show Extravaganza
Those who visit Chichn Itz during the day are encouraged to return after dark; in fact, the same ticket used for daytime admission can be presented again at night in order to attend the light and sound extravaganza, held every evening at the great pyramid El Castillo. The show lasts for about an hour, and features a heart-pounding soundtrack and amazing light and laser visuals. The public narration is in Spanish, but for those who aren’t fluent, headphones can be obtained which provide the same soundtrack in your language of choice.
The Spring Equinox (occurring in late March) is an especially important time in the calendar of events at Chichen Itza; for three days, the city hosts a variety of music, theater, and dancing. The centerpiece of this experience is the “Descent of Kukulcan” on the pyramid itself; during the late afternoon, triangle-shaped shadows are cast by the northwest corner of the pyramid, creating an effect that looks uncannily like a snake crawling down the side of the temple. Though there is no archaeological data to support the conjecture, many have assumed the intention of the pyramid’s designers was to simulate the great feathered serpent god Kukulcan descending to earth.
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