The pyramid at Chichen Itza is what most people visualize when they think of Mayan Ruins. It is truly a majestic complex, covering about 2 square miles. It consists of many structures including the main pyramid (El Castillo/the Temple of Kukulcan), the ancient ball field, the Temple of Warriors, the Skull Platform, the Group of a Thousand Columns, and an Observatory. Chichen Itza was a powerful regional center for the Mayans and one their largest cities. It is now among the most visited sites in Mexico and the Castillo has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The design of the structures is positively amazing. Most famous is the appearance of a shadow along the side of the steps of the Temple of Kukulcan on the spring and fall equinox. It looks like a snake slithering down the pyramid connecting to the stone carving of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent) at the bottom. In addition, when a person at the field in front of the stairs claps, the sound of a bird (coatl) echoes from the pyramid while the sound of a snake’s rattle (quetzal) echoes from the area by the Temple of Warriors. Each of the 4 sides of the pyramid has 91 steps (representing a season) which adds up to 364 plus the top step to equal 365 (representing a year).
Another architectural marvel is the ball court at 551 by 230 feet. Because of the slight curve built into the 26-foot high walls of the court, a whisper from end can be heard clearly at the other end. The number seven was sacred to the Mayans, and it is repeated many times at the site. There were seven players on a team, the hoop “goals” were seven meters high and if you clap your hands or shout in the court, the sound will echo exactly seven times. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed and there are carvings on the stone walls that depict the seven serpents that grew out of his neck. Decapitation sounds like a strange reward, but the Mayans felt it was a true honor and thought they would ascend directly into heaven.
Be sure to visit the Cenote Sagrado (sacred sinkhole) for which Chichen Itza was named. The well is 200 feet in diameter and 90 feet to the water’s surface. Since this area of Mexico is a limestone plain, the cenotes lead to underground rivers. It was not only the Mayan’s main source of fresh water, but also a ceremonial location. In the early 1900’s, dredging was done and many bones of sacrificial victims and treasures were found. Because of the dredging, the flow of water diminished and the cenote is green with algae now.
This huge Mayan site is something you should not miss if you are staying anywhere on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.