During the last couple of years, there has been a lot of hype over the supposed upcoming apocalypse coming to a winter solstice near you. If you’ve somehow managed to miss hearing about this dreaded event based on the Mayan calendar, check this out to get caught up to speed.
One of the most famous structures at the UNESCO Heritage Site of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent deity portrayed throughout the 47-hectare site. (There are an additional 15 hectares of property which is not open to the public.) The temple was designed so that during the summer and winter solstices, shadows form along the structure giving the appearance of a serpent’s body slithering down the temple until it connects with the head at the base of the pyramid. This represents the serpent god descending to earth.
As of yet the serpent body has never fully connected. The rattle has been missing. It is believed by some that this transformation will occur during this year’s winter solstice. The body will finally be completely connected, thus symbolizing Kukulkan’s return to the world. The interpretations vary as to the actual significance of his appearance, however. Some say that it symbolizes a rebirth of consciousness, a reconnection of humans with Spirit. Others believe it signifies a great cataclysm that will change life as we know it.
Whatever your thoughts about this prophecy, or the expected impending apocalypse, Chichen Itza is an incredible site that merits a visit. (Incidentally, recent archaeological discoveries have shown the Mayan calendar does not end in 2012.)
This Wonder of the Modern World is part of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and is easily accessed from the charming colonial town of Valladolid but can also be visited from Playa del Carmen or Cancun. ADO, or the 2nd-class Oriente, buses travel both to and away from the site. You can also catch one of the reasonably prices colectivos (small vans and taxis located outside the bus station in Valladolid) to the park. The price varies by how many people are in the colectivo and, of course, whether or not you’re in high or low season. Feel free to haggle.
[notice]Tip: The park opens at about 9 AM. It is HIGHLY recommended you arrive there when it first opens. It is a 3- to 4-hour trip from Valladolid. It’s worth the early morning wake-up, though, because within a few hours the tourist buses arrive, and the park will be swarming with tourists and highly annoying touts. Not to mention it gets quite hot and humid as the day advances. [/notice]
Once you enter the park, visit El Castillo, the other name for the Temple of Kukulkan, first. Why? This is the main attraction for tourists visiting these ruins. If you want a photo of the famous structure, this will be your best, and likely only, chance of getting a photo without other people in it. After about 11 AM, sometimes earlier, you can kiss that chance goodbye.
Aside from the pyramid, there are many other remarkably preserved buildings, including the site referred to as “the nunnery” and the long ball court. This is where the pre-Columbian ōllamaliztli, a game similar to racquetball but presumed to be played without the use of hands, was played. Some tour guides will tell you that the winner of the game was decapitated as a sacrifice, but many archaeologists think this is false. Considering the height of the rings, it’s also doubtful that many plays were successful in achieving that lofty goal.
If the humidity, heat, bugs, and touts are getting to you, you can really avoid walking through the seemingly endless gauntlet of vendors on the way to the Sacred Cenote. It basically looks like a pond that is in a rather deep basin. There are some smaller ruins around there, but nothing near the scale of the other structures at Chichen Itza.
Tips and info:
- While photographing El Castillo, make sure to get lots of different angles, including from nearby smaller ruins. Not only will your pics not appear quite as cliche, but you’ll get some rather interesting shots.
- You are no longer allowed to climb the Temple of Kukulkan, sorry.
- Wear mosquito repellent. These flying pests are jungle hardy and the nice, natural-product wristbands don’t even faze them. In fact, I caught a mosquito trying to bite me right next to the band. I was glad we brought some Off! spray with us, because we sorely needed it.
- If you are fair skinned or have skin cancer concerns, you will want to wear sunscreen. I think it’s way too hot for long sleeves and pants. Even with a tank top and shorts, I felt like I was going to melt. That was in June, and August and September are probably the hottest months. A cap or hat wouldn’t go amiss.
- Admission is just under $14 USD for adults and less than 40 cents for children 12 and under. National sites have a bit of a different way of handling admission. You’ll buy tickets at the main booth. After they take your tickets, you’ll soon find another kiosk/small hut. Here is where you pay for the federal ticket. The admission price listed above is the total price after paying at both sites.
- Sundays are free to all Mexican nationals, therefore I would advise against visiting on a Sunday unless you like really large crowds of people.
- You can buy bus tickets for the return trip to Valladolid and other Yucatan destinations inside the gift shop. This is handy if you arrived via colectivo but don’t feel like waiting around until another one decides to come by. They do not make routine stops (no matter what they tell you) and will only come when they have people to drop off. It’s cheaper and easier to just take the bus back.
- There is an amazing cenote near the park called Dzitnup. If you can at all work this into your itinerary, you don’t want to miss it. It gets crowded in the afternoon, but after spending 2-3 hours walking around the jungle paths at Chichen Itza, you may just want to hit this spot regardless. Alternatively, you can visit it in the morning before you head to the park. Crowds are worse and more annoying at the ruins than they are at the cenote, though. Admission is about $2 so well worth it.
- Bring plenty of water along with you. There is water, food, and other drinks available for purchase in the restaurant near the gift shop, however. When we were there in 2011, you could also buy cold beer.
- There is so much information available about the site online, and in other resources, that I personally didn’t feel it necessary to hire a tour guide. If you’re interested in one, however, you can hire an official guide at the little stand near the main ticket booth. It’s clearly marked, and you’ll probably be asked at least a couple of times if you’d like to hire one. Don’t be afraid to haggle on the price. It’s expected and is part of the culture.