A trip to Mexico isn’t complete without a mini excursion to Chichén Itzá. Located in the Yucatán Peninsula, about 200 km from Cancun, Chichén Itzá is considered one of the seven wonders of the world, with El Castillo being the most notable structure.
While I was staying in Cozumel, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through with a 12-hour day going to the mainland and touring the ancient Mayan city. I’m not fully comfortable with solo travel yet and was a bit intimidated to go on my own, especially since it would have been an early day with a 6 am taxi ride to take the ferry, taking multiple buses, and most importantly, I don’t speak a word of Spanish. Oh man the excuses I built up for myself, the big one being the language barrier, which I really hate. However, two of the couples I was scuba diving with had planned on going to the mainland for a Chichén Itzá tour on our one ‘off day’, so I decided to tag along.
We had an early start by meeting in the lobby of Sunscape Sabor to grab a taxi. Once we got to the pier, we each purchased a one-way ferry ticket to the mainland. I was told by multiple people to always purchase a one-way ticket, since the round trip tickets were only useful for one ferry company and that they weren’t interchangeable, especially if we didn’t know what time we were due to return. Despite being prone to seasickness, the ferry ride was much smoother than I had anticipated. We sat outside overlooking the edge out onto the ocean, the cool wind blowing through our hair, still trying to wake up from the early morning. As the sun finally started to rise, we could see the coastline of mainland Mexico.
The ferry docked at Playa del Carmen, about 70 km south of Cancun. It took us a while to find exactly where we were meeting with the rest of the tour group, since the instructions we were given were pretty sketchy and written in chicken scratch on the back of our receipts. We finally found a gaggle of folks by a sports store and a corner shop which specialized in selling Cuban cigars and we joined them when I heard my name being called out as the guide was conducting roll call. We got on the bus and started the hour long drive to our first stop.
The bus ride to Chichén Itzá was another two hours as we traveled through the Yucatán Peninsula. Looking out the window of the bus was fascinating. There were mostly trees and foliage with the occasional small town and many roadside vendors selling papayas, wicker baskets, or mass produced Mayan calendars. It reminded me of some of the back roads we took while I was in Panama. On the bus, we had two guides who were providing us with history of the ruins and what to expect. The main guide, Jazmin, was absolutely fabulous during the duration of the tour. She was incredibly passionate about the history of the Mayans and the culture, especially since she studied archeology in school. It could have been the worst tour, worst location, you name it, and her enthusiasm would have made it all worth it. If you’re interested, the tour I took was through Experiencias Xcaret.
Chichén Itzá was incredible to see. As one of the greatest Mayan centers in the Yucatan Peninsula, it was one of the most powerful cities in Mayan history and excited as a ceremonial center between 550 and 800 AD.
The center attraction is the Kukulcan Pyramid, also known as “El Castillo,” which is one of the seven wonders of the world. Nearly 75 feet tall, El Castillo was built for astronomical purposes, with 91 steps on each side, totaling to 365 if one included the final step to the temple platform. Kukulcan was a Mayan god resembling a feathered serpent, and when the sun hits the northwestern balustrade in the afternoon of the spring and autumn equinoxes, shadows form the body of a feathered serpent about 110 feet long and joining with the serpent head at the bottom of the stairway.
The Great Ball Court is the largest of thirteen courts identified by archeologists in Chichén Itzá, measuring 550 by 230 feet. The 25 foot walls are covered with sculpted panels of the players, to include one panel of a player kneeling and being beheaded. Each of the walls have large rings, high up and adorned with snakes. In the Mesoamerican game called Ollamaliztil, a rubber ball was put into play and points would be scored by getting the ball through the ring and the captain of the winning team was offered a free ride to heaven. Essentially, he was sacrificed and this was one of the highest of honors.
The Great Ball Court also had two raised temple areas at each end. Supposedly, a whisper can be heard clearly at the other end, over 500 feet away, regardless of wind direction or speed, the time of day, etc.
The Observatory is known as El Caracol, because the spiral inner staircase had details similar to that of the inside of a snail. The Maya were known for their advanced astronomy and the observatory may have been used to observe the stars, the moon and planets such as Venus.
The Templo de los Guerreros, or the Temple of Warriors, is an impressive large stepped pyramid with a statue of Chac Mool, or a reclining figure, located at the summit. Behind Chac Mool are two pillars representing Kukulcan. Along the base of the southern side of the Temple are Group of a Thousand Columns. There obviously isn’t a thousand of them, but these columns used to support a roof and were previously vibrantly painted.
The Tzompantli, or Wall of Skulls, showcased the heads of sacrificed victims. The walls showed not just the skull rack itself, but also scenes of human sacrifice.
Before leaving to get back on the bus, I was looking around at some of the hand made wooden carvings that were being sold by many vendors. It was a little bit tricky since most of the carved masks and Mayan calendars looked very similar and when they were painted, they looked ceramic and mass produced, as opposed to hand carved and unique. The local venders would even sit by their booths, carving large pieces of wood to show off their craftsmanship. As I perused the masks and calendars, a man offered to give me a small, hand-carved mask if I traded him my LA Dodgers cap. At first I declined and after some thought, decided to follow through with the trade. If anything, it would have made a great story. I think the best part was that I wear a children’s size ball cap, so it didn’t really fit him too well. I additionally tried to haggle with a vendor in order to get a beautiful wooden hand carved Mayan calendar with a jaguar on it but he wasn’t budging. I only had a twenty in my pocket and it wasn’t enough. I had gotten used to haggling in the Middle East when I would visit the bazaars in Kandahar, but I guess it’s different in this part of the world. Maybe next time!
After our visit to Chichén Itzá, we enjoyed a quick twenty minute trip to Cenote Zaci.
The Yucatán peninsula has a number of geological features called cenotes, which are sinkholes filled with water from underground. Cenotes are formed when the limestone bedrock collapses and clear turquoise water fills the hole. Some are larger than others and some present a more claustrophobic feel. The word “cenote” is translated to mean “sacred well” and the Mayans often used them for sacrificial purposes. They are now used as swimming holes, especially because they are relatively isolated and the water is clear and crisp. Individuals can also go cave diving, which is highly discouraged unless you have an experienced guide because divers had been known to get lost and drown in the complex cave systems.
Cenote Zací is within the vicinity of the town of Valladolid. It’s probably the only one located in an urban surrounding. It’s semi-open, so less claustrophobic than other cenotes, and is 150 feet wide and a whopping 260 feet deep. On our visit, we didn’t stay long enough to swim in the water, which is filled with eyeless black lub, a rare species of fish, though there were some locals cliff diving and enjoying the water.
We headed back to downtown Valladolid for a buffet style dinner at La Casona de Valladolid, a local restaurant. The restaurant was originally an 18th century colonial hacienda, which was restored, therefore preserving most of its original architecture. I’ll be honest, the way the food was prepared and the restaurant itself wasn’t my cup of tea. However, there were some notable dishes that are worth having while in the Yucatán. The lime soup was my absolute favorite and I made sure to get a bowl of it whenever it was available. A very simple soup, made with chicken broth and lime juice with tortilla strips and pieces of chicken, it really hits the spot every time.
Once we were done eating, we walked around the main square of the town. I had snuck some food out of the restaurant to feed some of the homeless dogs that were just so sweet and friendly. The streets were bustling with people…as the Yucatan Peninsula’s third largest city, Valladolid was established atop the Mayan city of Zaci in 1545. It is known as the “Heroic City” and the “Capital of Eastern Maya” and is full of traditions and customs from its pre-Hispanic past and the more recent lifestyles of the colonial period and modern lifestyle. The people are friendly and English speaking visitors can easily get around. Valladolid is especially close to a number of Mayan landmarks which makes it a great hub for those exploring the ancient ruins.
Eventually we boarded the bus once more to head back to the pier. It took us about three hours to get back, and then about another hour back to Cozumel. At the end of the day, it was well worth the 12-hour excursion.