“I am sugar-free,” our local guide at Chichen Itza explains as he introduces himself.
“As you know, history is written by the winners. It’s called history because his story may not be my story,” he says.
All of this is Felipe’s way of explaining that he’s going to give us an interpretation of the Ancient Mayan civilisation that may be a bit different from some of the more popular stories. It’s not all prophecies and human sacrifice.
And that’s because the Mayan world that we’ve come to know in popular culture is not really an accurate representation of how things were.
As Felipe explains, that’s partly because it helps to sell books and movies if they play up the Mayan prophecies that predicted the end of the world.
But it’s also because when the Catholic Spanish colonised this land, it was in their interest to portray the indigenous people as bloodthirsty heathens, and so they exaggerated stories of human sacrifice.
Here at Chichen Itza in Mexico, it seems like the perfect time to learn a bit more about the Mayan culture, one of the world’s great civilisations.
This is the first stop on my G Adventures tour through Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, during which I’ll be exploring a lot of Mayan history.
I’ve already written about the overall tour and, if you would like to find my overall thoughts about the Mayan civilisation, I would recommend having a read of that story.
But it’s Chichen Itza that gives me my first taste. Already I’ve had to throw out a lot of what I thought I knew. Felipe is certainly not sugarcoating anything… but luckily it’s still sweet.
What is Chichen Itza?
Chichen Itza is one of the most famous of the Ancient Mayan cities. That’s partly because it’s one of the most easily accessible – with plenty of tourists going on day tours from nearby resort cities.
Going from Cancun to Chichen Itza or from Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza is simple and lets people who have come to Mexico for a week of sun and drinking feel like they’ve also had a cultural experience.
But Chichen Itza was very significant and, just because it’s full of tourists, we can’t dismiss it as simply a Mayan Disneyland (even if it can feel like that at times).
The city was one of the later ones to be built, with its core developing from about the 7th century AD and reaching its peak of power around the 10th century.
It rose to prominence at around the same time that some of the Mayan jungle metropolises further south like Tikal, Palenque, and Calakmul were being abandoned. Although the relation between these two things is a matter of theory, it stands to reason that there was some kind of connection.
It’s estimated that up to 50,000 people could have lived in Chichen Itza at its peak, and the layout of the city shows urban centre would have been quite dense.
To see beyond the myths and legends of the Maya, you need to look at the civilisation as a political system.
It’s believed that Chichen Itza would have been the capital of the region, ruling over smaller settlements in surrounding states. So, it’s no surprise when I visit that I find an impressive collection of grand public buildings.
Our local guide, Felipe, takes us around and shows us the most important ones. Remember, he’s promised not to sugarcoat anything… but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some incredible stories about these buildings and their ancient residents.
What can you see at Chichen Itza?
A lot of the site at Chichen Itza has been well-restored so there are quite a few things to see, representing a range of architectural styles. Here are the ones I think are the highlights.
Pyramid of Chichen Itza
The Pyramid of Chichen Itza is probably the most recognisable structure in the city. It’s usually referred to as ‘El Castillo’, which translates as ‘The Castle’, and is also known as the ‘Temple of Kukulkan’.
The stone pyramid is 30 metres high and is built with nine square terraces. At the top you can see carvings of images that represent the indigenous gods.
Nothing about the architectural design of El Castillo is accidental. The Ancient Maya were advanced mathematicians and the number of different design elements, the angles of construction, and sizes of various sections all have a meaning.
But the most awe-inspiring part of the design can only be seen twice a year – on the spring and autumn equinox. On these days, the sun falls on one set of stairs to create an effect that looks like a snake sliding down the pyramid, representing the serpent god Kukulcan!
Great Ball Court
The Ancient Maya played a special type of sport that involved two teams hitting a large ball back and forth.
Historians believe the exact rules were different in various regions and also changed over time, but here at Chichen Itza we can see an enormous ballcourt that would’ve been used for one of the later formal versions of the Mesoamerican ballgame.
The Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza is the largest of the Mayan Empire and is about 150 metres long. It would have been used for the most important matches – ones where usually someone would be sacrificed at the end.
We know a fair bit about the game because their are depictions of it carved into the side of the court. But we don’t know everything for sure.
Some guides will tell you that it was the losers of the games who were put to death because the matches were used to settle disputes and determine dominance.
Felipe tells it differently. He believes that it was the winners who were sacrificed because the Maya wanted to offer their best people to the gods. The ballgame was a way to determine who the perfect sacrifice would be and the players were conditioned to see that as a great honour!
Speaking of sacrifice, another important part of the Chichen Itza site is the Sacred Cenote, where ceremonies for human offerings were done. A cenote is a natural pool that’s formed when the ground collapses to reveal an underground water supply. They had a special status in the Mayan world.
The Sacred Cenote was probably the most significant one at Chichen Itza and archaeologists have searched the water and found a large amount of jewellery, pottery, and skeletons here.
Temple of the Warriors
Although it’s not as tall as El Castillo, the Temple of the Warriors is another impressive pyramid that has a prime position at the centre of the ancient city.
What makes it special – and the reason it got its name – are the rows of carved columns at the front and along one side.
Most of the columns are carved to depict warriors, standing in lines, prepared for battle. The other ones represent females bearing gifts.
These columns would once have supported a roof that would have created a court next the the pyramid, which has three main levels. At the top of the pyramid are images of the gods and a throne room.
Just a few minutes walk from the centre of the Chichen Itza site, along a path through some forest, is another collection of structures from a slightly earlier period of time.
One of the most significant buildings here is called El Caracol, which translates as ‘The Snail’. It got the name because the dome at the top with a circular staircase once reminded people of a snail shell. But in the modern world today we might think the shape looks more like an observatory – which is interesting, because that’s exactly what it was!
The Ancient Maya were keen astronomers and much of their architecture and ritual was based on the movement of the stars. It was from this building that the priests would have monitored things like the position of Venus in the night sky.
Not far from El Caracol is another notable building called The Nunnery. The name has no direct relation to its function but it was called this by the Spanish because the latticed windows reminded them of the design style of nunneries from home.
The Nunnery was actually most likely a government palace but what makes it so significant is the artwork that’s been carved into the rock.
The elaborate masks here offer an insight into cultural and religious aspects of the time. There are also good examples here of the written language of the Maya, with the beautifully-detailed hieroglyphics.
Chichen Itza Tour
I don’t think that I would have seen Chichen Itza in quite the same way if it had not been for Felipe.
Not only does he take us to the most important buildings and point out the interesting details, but he gives an interpretation that is helping me take the Maya out of myth and into reality.
(And I’m going to forgive him for his joke where he calls the site “chicken pizza”.)
I’ve mentioned human sacrifice a few times – particularly in connection with the Great Ball Court and the Sacred Cenote. And I’ve talked about the priests and their obsession with things like mathematics and astronomy.
These are the dramatic parts of the Ancient Mayan culture that are easy to focus on when you want to make a movie or sell a book. And, to be fair, they also make for good stories on a tour of Chichen Itza.
But I told you Felipe wasn’t going to add sugar to his tour and he is true to his word.
He is quick to point out that sacrifices were quite rare. They didn’t happen every day or even every week (and maybe they would go years without doing any). They were also not done to satisfy some kind of blood lust.
They were done in extreme circumstances when, for instance, the city was in prolonged drought and they needed to beg the gods for rain. Look at any religion – past or present – and you’ll find examples of extreme behaviour in the name of a deity. The Maya were no different.
The Mayan Discovery continues
As we travel around on this G Adventures tour, we have a guide looking after us the whole time. But at the important sites we visit like Chichen Itza, it’s a local guide like Felipe who shows us around.
This is partly because you get a lot more from someone who is an expert on just one particular site. But it’s also one of the ways the G Adventures gives back to the local community.
Regardless of how you visit, I would recommend a Chichen Itza tour.
With so much legend in popular culture about the Maya, it would be too easy to see these buildings and just transpose what you think you know over the top. It’s much more rewarding to hear from an expert to give it all some context.
The history here has so many more layers than I first realised… and as I will continue to learn as our trip takes us deeper into the Mayan civilisation.
I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.