When I looked at my Cancun conference schedule, I saw two openings, and knew immediately I would have to find my way to Chichen Itza during one of them. It didn’t matter if I was going alone! Luckily I was not the only one who felt that missing the Mayan ruins in 2012 was not an option when we were so close, and once our sessions wrapped up at midday, I was meeting our taxi driver with Joe Valley and the amazing Kimberly Garner.
We had booked the taxi through the lovely gentlemen at our hotel’s concierge desk, so the fare was negotiated ahead of time, and all we had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was. Let’s just say it was lively. There was no mistaking — from the moment we set foot in that taxi, we were on an adventure.
Chichen Itza is about a two hour drive from the Cancun hotel zone, and most tours of the site are full day excursions. But we didn’t have a full day, and we weren’t about to let that deter us! Our timeline gave us just less than two hours at the site before it closed, and apparently our driver was in a hurry to get us there. (Ha!)
When we arrived to purchase our tickets, we were very glad we had brought someone along who spoke Spanish — thank you SO much Kimmie! It made the entire situation so much more comfortable. We made the decision to hire a guide, knowing this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he would tell us so much more than we would learn for ourselves. Kimmie negotiated with him, we paid for our admission (two different amounts at two different gates and you have to pay both, so don’t be caught off guard by that), and the four of us were off.
The moment we stepped onto the grounds, we were greeted by rows of vendors with colorful wares — beautiful table after table filled with trinkets, clothing, masks, art, bowls, musical instruments, and so much more. Most of them were families, complete with multiple generations, parents, grandparents and children working the stand. Being inside the hotel zone hadn’t afforded us much of a look at this side of the culture, and part of me wanted to stop and look at each booth.
But time was growing short, and I knew they would be there on the way back, so we pressed on. A few short steps later we got our first view of the site — El Castillo (The Kukulkan Pyramind) loomed in front of us, rising from the ground with the magnificence that has commanded its place on the list of the Wonders of the World.
Our first stop was the ball fields, and as we stepped into it, this amazing feeling came over us. It almost took my breath. For one, it was straight off the cover of one of my junior high social studies books. Secondly, you could just feel the history there. I could have sat there all day, quietly taking it all in and trying to process the centuries. Who knows, I could still be sitting there.
The Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza is 225 feet wide and 545 feet long overall. It is totally open to the blue sky, and has a feeling of being just so immense. A whisper from end can be heard clearly at the other end of the court. Archaeologists engaged in the reconstruction noted that the sound transmission became more and more strong and clear as they proceeded. And the reason is a total secret, despite the best efforts of researchers throughout history. How amazing is that?
We all knew the stories of the gory things that happened in this area, but somehow, standing there in that court, you could feel in your soul the reason people would make that sacrifice. Words don’t do the feeling justice, it is just this sense in your being that has to be experienced in person.
Next we saw Tzompantli — The Wall of Skulls. The walls are carved with interesting skulls, and reliefs of subjects including a scene of human sacrifice, and skeleton warriors with arrows and shields.
Then our attention was turned to the best known construction of the site — El Castillo. It is a steep-sided pyramid approximately 75 feet tall, built for astronomical purposes. It is also thought to have been used for agricultural rituals. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes at mid-afternoon, sunlight bathes the pyramid’s main stairway and forms the body of a serpent creeping downward to join the carving of a serpent’s head at the bottom of the stairway.
From there the rest of the ruins were a beautiful blur, with walls and paths and buildings like the observatory and well serving as backdrops for photos and the guide filling us with more history and information than any of us could retain.
Closing time was announced by people with whistles, and just like that, the fun was over. The overall experience was nothing short of intense, and while it was difficult to see it end, we were so glad to have come! We made our way back past the vendors toward the exit, ushered by the park officials.
I want to note here that in a lot of the reviews I read, people were complaining that there were “too many” vendors. Wow, I could not agree more! The vendors added local color, gave a real sense of the culture, and they were just trying to feed their families, and I was honored to be able to help them where I could. They were very respectful (especially compared to other places I have been), and clearly the rules did not allow them to follow you, because they all kept to their own space. I really enjoyed having them there.
The gates were closing and we wanted time to browse the wares, so we shopped with the vendors outside the gates. We took all the time we pleased, and had a great time bartering for the items we chose. We were downright giddy when we returned to the taxi!
Tips? It’s hot. And I mean HOT. Bring water and sunscreen, and wear a hat. Get a guide. It is well worth the cost. And while I’m sure the tour is great, don’t let anyone tell you it is the ONLY option!
2012 or not, I would definitely call this one a must see. If the world ends in December, I suppose at least I got the opportunity to cross this one off my bucket list.
Dinner in Piste
On our way back from Chichen Itza, we realized we were famished from a long day in the hot July sun, and asked our cab driver to stop for food. He brought us to Piste, a tiny village near the ruins, and stopped in front of an open-air cafe filled with Mexican families enjoying an evening meal.
In large part, that meal was the first time we felt as though we had been in Mexico. Far from the hotel zone, we ordered from laminated menu cards featuring photos of each dish, with prices that were pennies on the dollar compared to what we had been seeing in Cancun.
We were introduced to this beautiful drink called horchata, made from rice milk and cinnamon. Light and delicious, the sweet horchata sliced straight through the heat of the day. It was easy to imagine an afternoon spent on that patio, people watching and sipping away. Creamy and white, it came to our table it in a plastic pitcher with a stack of plastic cups, which we filled and refilled gleefully.
Dinner itself was a variety of tastes and textures that can only come from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where the locals eat. We shared three dishes, including a lovely light soup, sopas, and delicious pork tacos. Everything was warm and flavorful, with just the right balance of spicy kick.
While we ate, we had the pleasure of looking at more beautiful ruins – a church across the street intrigued us so much we had to go take a look.
The stop was a beautiful cherry on top of our day, and we were so glad we had decided not to wait and eat at the hotel.