The Magic of the Mayans in Chichen Itza, Mexico
Like a ghostly apparition, the Pyramid of Kukulkan stretches into a Milky Way washed sky. A handful of intrepid travelers chat quietly, taking seats in folding chairs on the lawn between this new Wonder of the World and its sister ruin, the Great Ball Court. They are waiting for the show to begin.
You take a seat and listen. Italian, French, Spanish, and something that sounds like German mingle in the night air. These people traveled here from all over the world.
They braved the 3 ½ hour drive through tiny Mexican villages where poured concrete houses live next door to palapa covered huts and whole families ride on a bicycle—together. They watched iridescent blue-morpho butterflies flit across the road where it leaves civilization and wanders into the jungle. And they plan to spend the night near this sacred ground.
Hosts set up a pair of small speakers under the too-bright glare from several modern lamp stands. Fiddling with chords, they do a quick sound check and douse the lights. Silence hovers, palpable. Kukulkan’s Pyramid fairly glows in the starlight. Then the story-teller speaks. In lilting Spanish her voice floats above your head as she beings to weave the tale of Chichen Itzaaaa…she draws the name out like a magic spell.
Suddenly, the limestone edifice springs to life. It’s as if by simply speaking, the story-teller resurrected the ancient city. Haunting blue and orange lights illuminate the great stair-stepped temple and you sit spell bound as the history of Chichen Itza unfolds.
Across the recently unearthed plain lights dance, following the epic from the Great Ball Court where Pok-ta-Pok (sometimes called Pokatok) was once played to distant stands of towering tamarind trees where marauding armies swept in, pillaging the great city and driving its inhabitants into the jungle. No simple game, depending on the source of information, either the victor or the loser was decapitated.
Visiting Chichen ItzaThe Mayan city of Chichen Itza was first established a thousand years ago. Once a bustling metropolis and possibly the foremost religious center of México’s Yucatan peninsula, it now shelters grandfather clock-tailed toh birds, spider monkeys, and elusive black panthers. Though scholars theorize war, disease, and drought could be reasons for the city’s demise, no-one knows for sure. Like so much about the Mayans, it remains a mystery.
If you decide to take in the Light and Sound Show, it starts at 7pm in the winter and 8pm in the summer. The price is included with your Chichen Itza day pass which runs about $11 USD. The show is in Spanish and translation headsets are available for about $2USD.
LodgingUnless you are traveling from nearby Valladolid, you’ll want to spend the night. Hacienda Chichen is an eco-spa jungle resort within the grounds of Chichen Itza. It boasts the distinction of once housing Sylvanus Griswold Morley, Chichen Itza’s first archeologist and the rumored inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Indian Jones movies. An evening there will have you rubbing shoulders with the archeologists it still caters to today.
If you want to avoid tour groups, The Lodge at Chichen Itza actually has a “no tour group policy.” Situated on 100 acres of landscaped gardens in the heart of the archeological park, it enjoys its own entrance to the Mayan ruins.
While at first glance, you may think this round pool is manmade—its rim is tiled and a fountain sprouts from one end—on closer inspection you’ll discover the bottom looks more like a coral reef filled with tiny crevices and caves. Inside the hotel office an unobtrusive sign states, This hotel is at the exact location where cosmic energy enters Chichen Itza making this place a wonderful spot for meditation and charging energy as many Gnostic people experience. The hotel has two swimming pools; one is circular like the sun and the moon and the other is an ecological marvel, a unique natural reef pool, made of limestone rock and sea shells by Mother Nature millions of years ago. And once covered by the ocean. Its crystal clear water where bacteria and algae hardly grow is believed to be medical therapy. If you swim there you will feel like you’re in the fountain of youth and you will never be the same.
After a good night sleep, you’ll want to rise early, breakfast on Mexican style eggs with black beans, homemade toast and fresh fruit, and head back to the archeological site. It opens at 8:00am and by arriving when the gates open, you’ll be sure to beat the crowds.
The Sights and Sites of Chichen Itza During the DayIn the revealing light of day, the vast scope of the site comes fully into view. The Pyramid of Kukulkan not only dominates the landscape, but hides the Temple of the Jaguar within its limestone walls. Stand at one end of the massive Great Ball Court and whisper. You’ll be easily heard at the other end, 545 feet away.
Further into the site you’ll discover older, softer-styled buildings including the observatory, El Caracol. Famous for their unbelievably accurate calendar which ends on December 21, 2012, the Mayans pin-pointed the times and dates of solar eclipses and cycles of the transit of Venus—the rare occurrence when Venus eclipses the sun. Like the inside of a snail shell, El Caracol’s staircase spirals up 48 feet to windows aligned with the movements of Venus.
You’ll also want to stand on the precipice above El Sagrado, or The Sacred Cenote. Its limestone walls plunge 120 feet into waters that once received obsidian knives, jade carvings, and human remains.
Around 10:00am tour buses begin to arrive and, as the morning heats up under a bright Mexican sun, activity intensifies.
Street VendorsThrongs of visitors spread through the ancient streets collecting photos and fending off vendors offering marble masks, silver jewelry, and papier-mâché butterflies. Booths are provided outside the park gates for indigenous people to sell their wares, but there are far more craftsmen than there are booths available resulting in the overflow of merchants into the city.
Most of these friendly, coffee skinned people are Mayan, living descendants of the long “lost” civilization. It’s an odd sight; the streets of a deserted Mayan city function as a marketplace for modern Mayan craftsmen.
A Special Treat - the Cenote at Ik-KilIf you arrived early, you will probably finish exploring the ruins by noon, but your trip isn’t over yet. Just down the road, across from Dolores Alba, you’ll find Ik-Kil, a pristine cenote where vines cling to the 80 foot high cave walls and gentle waterfalls create ever present rainbows.
Bring your bathing suit because the carved, lighted staircase provides easy access to this subterranean pool. You can relax in its silky waters provided you don’t dwell on the fact that it’s connected to a vast underground cave system, most of which has never been explored, or the Mayan belief that cenotes are entrances to Xibalba (shi-BAL-ba), the Mayan underworld…
The Magic of the Show EndsThe show ends, extinguishing the lights on what appears to be an extinguished people. Kukulkan’s Pyramid is once again bathed only in starlight as Orion rises over her shoulder. You stand up and stretch your legs knowing full well the show isn’t over.
While a people may have been driven from their homes, while they may have abandoned their great pyramids and colonnaded government buildings, while they may even have forfeited knowledge of their history, their story continues. You find it in handcrafted papier-mâché butterflies and family-bearing bicycles; you unearth it in next door palapa houses and hotel gardens rife with heavily laden mango and kiwi trees; you uncover it in the faces of a generation of story tellers who know how to manage light shows and microphones and vendors who make a living in deserted, ancient city streets. Because in this jungle, in this densely forested, jaguar hiding, ruin sheltering jungle, the Mayan people still exist and you are inextricably aware that the show must go on.
Laura LaBrie fell in love with exploring new places at the age of six when her father took her to Dunk Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Since then, she has nurtured an insatiable curiosity to see what's just around the bend. A member of ITWPA and editor of Det Life, a magazine for military families, Laura writes with a passion to share her experience with others. She has three grown children and two grandchildren and lives with her husband on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
Photos by Darryl LaBrie