Yesterday, we had an all day tour of Chichén Itzá. I saw the pyramids at Teotihuacán on my first visit to Mexico years ago, and I really wanted to see this site, too. I got to climb the sun pyramid at Teotihuacán, and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to climb any pyramids this time around because my knee isn’t up to the job. No climbing allowed, however. Tourists used to be allowed up Kukulcán, but now the stairs are off limits because too many people have fallen, including a woman who died last year after a fall down the stairs.
The trip out to Chichén Itzá is L-O-N-G (almost as long as this post is going to be!). We were hours and hours in our little van. Not fun, exactly, but it’s actually a lovely drive through the jungle. At certain places the jungle is so close on both sides of the road, it’s obvious that only sheer force of will keeps nature from reclaiming its space. Keeping it at bay must be such a job. The least hint of negligence on the part of the road maintenance crews would surely be all it would need to cover the pavement.
Our guide, Tomás, was very thorough, and very serious about his subject. He is Mayan, and making sure that we had a real understanding of Mayan history and culture was absolutely important to him. One thing I am certain he would want me to say is that the Maya were not into human sacrifice. The practice of sacrificing humans was introduced by the Toltecs. The Maya were scientists, mathematicians, astrologers, astronomers … they made sacrifices, but not ones that took lives. For example, a woman might pierce her ear at the birth of a child because blood is a sacred gift worthy of the gods. But even the sacrifices introduced by the Toltecs weren’t about general mayhem with lots of people sacrificed at once. That idea I know so well — that after a game of pelotes the entire winning team was sacrificed — seems to be an error. Apparently only the captain of the winning team was offered to the gods.
So the Maya weren’t as interested in might as in mind. And that’s very lofty and impressive, but it also meant that the Toltecs didn’t have a hard time imposing themselves and their culture. One result of the arrival of the Toltecs is that Chichén Itzá is a mix of Mayan and Toltec architecture and symbolism. Chac-mool, the jaguar and symbol of the Maya is everywhere … but so is the Toltec eagle. And the Toltec work is lovely, but it’s unfortunate to see that the life of the mind didn’t trump force.
Here is Kukulcán’s temple. You man know Kukulcán better by his Aztec name, Quetzacóatl, the feathered serpent god.
There are enormous snake heads at the base of each staircase, but I kept them out of the frame so I could get a shot without people in it. Kukulcán is built so that on the equinoxes when the sun hits the top of the temple it sends light cascading down the sides of the stairs making it appear as though Kukulcán is descending or ascending the temple. I’ve seen photos of the light show, and it’s way cool. One day I’d like to try to be here in March or September and squeeze myself in with the crowds to see it live.
And then there’s this guy:
How famous is he? I’ve been seeing this figure seemingly my whole life. How great did it feel to walk out of the trees past the 1,000 columns and turn to see this just sitting right there in front of me? I think seeing this might just be the thing that makes my trip.
But here’s a thing we learned from Tomás: this guy is called Chac-mool. That’s his name in my tour guide and in every other tour book I’ve ever bought about Mexico. But apparently that isn’t his name. Tomás said that when the Spaniards came, they wanted to know who he was, and the people kept saying Chac-mool, so the conquistadors figured that was his name. Chac-mool, however, is the jaguar, the sacred animal of the Maya. This guy, who sits atop the warriors temple was a Toltec figure, not Maya. And he probably has a name … it just isn’t Chac-mool. Here’s a wonderful souvenir of Chac-mool:
There are jaguar heads — and whole jaguars — all over the place. Not all as detailed as this one, but all gorgeous. This one’s the size of an end table. Not exactly something that would fit in my carry-on.
Is it clear that I really enjoyed the trip? I had the same feelings I had Saturday at Tulum: wanting quiet, wanting people to go away and let me take it all in on my own. Somehow, even though there were about ten times more people on-site Sunday, I didn’t feel as annoyed by them, didn’t feel as intruded upon. So that was good. I think part of that was the size of the site. Chichén Itzá is huge, much, much bigger than Tulum, so you can have a lot of people there and still not feel overloaded by them. CJ also tells me that the entrance we used (the one by the Mayaland Hotel, if you’re making plans) is a much better entrance. It’s more intimate and gives you a better build up to the temples. The main entrance is apparently crazy-crowded and just throws you into the main space with Kukulcán immediately. I think the preamble is definitely necessary.
So I’ve done my two big touristy things for this trip. I’m so glad I had the chance to see both sites. There are so many more to see, however — Uxmal and Coba are maybe next up on my list — so I guess I have no choice but to come back, right?