An ancient civilization of power, precise calculations, ceremonial architectures, and culture of gods and sacrifices – that’s what the Mayans were known for and that’s what you will see at the famous Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá.
The name Chichen means “from the mouth of the well” referring to the cenote found in the city and Itza was the name of the tribe that ruled over the place.
The Chichen Itza Mayan ruins were believed to be built between the 5th to the 12th century and are still famous today for their structures, the phenomena that show the “descent of the Mayan god Kukulcan”, its relationship to the Mayan calendar, and for reliefs that explicitly showcases the culture of human sacrifices they once practiced.
But more than legends this Mayan empire also had a history where they were once an important commercial center that traded goods, including gold and other treasures with cities across the Americas.
With a vast area and several Mayan monuments in one place, there are plenty of things to do at Chichen Itza that archeology lovers, history buffs, Mayan-curious folks, and fans of the 2000 movie “The Road to Eldorado” will love and find thrilling.
But if you want to see less of the blood offering culture and more of the scientific side of the Mayans with their genius astronomy skills then head on to Uxmal, where visitors can still climb the pyramids, explore the ruins with fewer crowds and go inside the buildings.
The Magical Chichen Itza Pyramid
Known as El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulkan, the pyramid at Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is believed to be built either during the early 400 A.D or somewhere in the middle part of the 5th century.
This famous Mayan temple was only allowed for priests that performed sacred rituals for their gods. These rituals were believed to be human sacrifices where they cut out hearts and watched their god, “Kukulcan”, descend down the pyramid.
But other than its religious aspect, the temple is also known for its fascinating architecture and mathematical brilliance. The pyramid has four sides with a steep staircase of 91 steps. The total number of steps plus adding the temple structure that sits on top of the pyramid equals 365—the number of days in a year, showing how the Mayans were brilliant engineers and scientists way before the era of science took over the world.
Another aspect of the pyramid that invites around 2 million visitors a year is its phenomenon dubbed as the “Descent of Kukulkan”. A phenomenon that uses mathematical precision to combine the natural rotation of the Earth and create an amazing illusion of a giant shadow snake crawling down the temple.
This shadow is known as the Chichen Itza Equinox Snake for regular people and was the god “Kukulkan” for the Mayans. With the help of the setting sun and the angle the pyramid steps are built-in, shadows created by the step look like it’s come alive in the form of a crawling snake and slowly fade as the sunlight goes out.
But it’s not just Chichen Itza’s serpent that astonishes visitors and scientists. The temple built atop El Castillo creates an unusual chirping echo if someone simply claps while standing at the bottom of the pyramid. This sound is similar to the chirp of a quetzal bird. The reason why the Mayans built such an intricate design is still unknown and remains a complete mystery.
The Red House of Past Mayan Rulers
The Red House or Casa Colorado is said to be the best-preserved structure in Chichen Itza. The name “Red House” came from its interiors which contained the Mayan red color pigments when it was found.
One of the chambers has hieroglyphics etched onto the walls indicating the names of halach uinics (Mayan rulers). Some archeologists believe that this may have been the residence of the great lords of social elites that lived and held authority in Chichen Itza. The interiors of the Red House are closed to the public and cannot be explored.
The Great Ball Court
The Mayan Ball Court or also known as a pok a tok court in this popular site of Mayan ruins is one of the largest ever found. Ball courts were a place of sports and entertainment for the Mayans. The ball court would be a large playing field with two tall walls on either side. One hoop ring would be placed high on each wall.
Two teams of players would try to knock a hard rubber ball through one of the rings using their elbows, knees, and hips like their lives were on the line. Because it literally was. Researchers believe that the losing team would be sacrificed to the gods. But others believed that it was the winning team that was sacrificed since only the strongest was picked as offerings.
What makes the Chichen Itza ball court different from any other found is its size and structure. While other ball courts are smaller with sloping walls, this ball court is the largest found with straight towering walls that go up to 86 meters (26 feet).
The walls also have carvings that depict Mayan figures dressed as players with protective padding. A headless player is also seen kneeling with blood shooting from his neck while another player holding the head has his life spared.
Visitors today can run across the field like how the Mayans once did or see how the games were played from the audience’s point of view.
Tzompantli: The Wall of Skulls
If the stories of human sacrifices don’t seem brutal enough then the sight of it would most definitely be. A large square platform called Tzompantli or the Wall of Skulls is a rather gruesome showpiece. The site was used as a base where stakes with decapitated heads of human sacrifices were impaled.
Some archeologists believe that the rulers used this method to indirectly scare the public into making them obey the authority and their laws. The relief also has a wall with rows of skulls decorated on the sides, cementing the fact that the Mayans truly did use human sacrifices in their rituals.
A cenote, which is a natural pit or sinkhole containing freshwater, was very significant to the Mayan people. Cenotes were not only their main water source but they were also considered to be the entrance to Xibalba (the underworld). It was also believed to be the place where Chaac, the god of rain, lightning and thunder, would visit.
The Chichen Itza cenote is 82 meters deep and was a place of pilgrimage, with the sweat bath at the water’s edge used as a ritual function. Whenever drought would threaten the lands, gold, precious items, and even humans were thrown into the center as offerings to Chaac.
When exploratory dives were done between 1904 and 1907, a whole lot of gold, copper, jade, and precious stones as well as 50 human skeletons of men and children were found.
Temple of the Warriors
Decorated with 200 standing pillars, The Temple of the Warriors is one of the most important structures at Chichen Itza. It’s thought to be the only known Mayan place that was used for summoning large gatherings and showcasing the city’s large military power.
The temple consists of four platforms flanked with large round and square columns. The central temple also has wall-mounted sculptures of warriors, eagles, as well as representations of the god Tlalchitonatiuh.