The Incredible, Horrible Chichén Itzá
On a visit to Chichén Itzá, you’re going to oscillate violently between love and hate for your fellow man. The mathematics, artistry and astrology involved in constructing these ancient buildings… people did this? People are awesome! But still, there’s no way around it: people are terrible. Today, the site is overrun with money-grubbing locals, megaphone-wielding guides and sheep-herd tour groups. On leaving, I said to Jürgen, “The ingenuity and ambition of humanity is truly inspiring.” And then: “I wish everyone was dead.”
We knew in advance that Chichén Itzá was going to be crowded and annoying, so we had a game plan: oblivious enjoyment. Just put the other people out of our minds, ignore the pushy guys hawking cigars, and concentrate on the wonders. There’s so much to love, we reasoned, let’s stash the hate.
That noble mindset lasted about fifteen minutes. It’s hard, though. It really is. You’re standing there admiring something like the Tzompantli, a massive pedestal decorated with hundreds of carved skulls, reflecting on how it must have looked when it was used to actually display the severed heads of enemies, and behind you this guy just will not stop selling you a jaguar whistle. ROWARR! Over and over again, blowing this whistle into your ear, ROWARR, regardless of how many times you turn to him and say, “No gracias”. ROWARR! “No, señor, mil disculpas pero no tengo ningún interés”. ROWARR! “¡Que te vayas, malidita p***!”
Nice one, Zen Boy. Way to rise above.
Now shake it off and get back into the zone. Jaguar Whistle defeated you, but over there: the Holy Cenote. Just have to get past… shove by… shoulder-check our way through these bikini-clad girls making pouty faces for their selfies. Look, girls, I get it. Seriously, I understand. Taking pictures of yourself is fun and easy, and smartphones and Instagram and youth, I get it. I can even understand why you might think your pouty-face is sexy, although I do not concur. But why do you have to do this here? Why not, say, at home in your room, on a bed with fresh white sheets and pillows of feathery down? That is the place for pouty-face selfies. Not in front of Chichén Itzá’s Holy Cenote. Seriously!
“Stop it”, I say to myself. “These girls are just enjoying themselves. Step down off the ‘Perfect Tourist’ pedestal and start concentrating on your own experience instead of theirs. Just look at this gorgeous, almost perfectly circular sinkhole, surrounded by the jungle.” I pick up my guide book and read about how the ancient Maya would throw trinkets and valuables into this cenote as sacrifices to the gods. And I read how, in the later years of Chichén Itzá, it was also used for human sacrifices. Ever so briefly, my eyes flit over to the pouty-face-selfie-girls. Just one little shove… Ah Puch would be so pleased!
Moving on. There’s the fascinating Ball Court, still in fabulous condition. The Platform of Eagles and Jaguars, decorated with the animals feasting on human hearts. The Temple of Warriors, with its famous chac mool: a reclined figure on whose stomach the hearts of sacrificial victims were thought to be placed. The Plaza of 1000 Columns. The Ossuary. The massive group of sweating, safari-hat zombies whose guide is shouting at the top of his lungs so that everyone on Planet Earth can hear him.
The wealth of treasures at Chichén Itzá is mind-blowing. It’s unreal. Just being able to see El Caracol, an ancient astrological observatory aligned with the cycles of Venus, was worth the price of entrance. Everywhere you turn, there’s another incredible ruin.
The Castillo! I almost didn’t mention El Castillo, the most famous Maya construction of all. This giant pyramid is the ancient world’s most incredible calendar. Four monumental staircases ascend its four sides, each of which has 91 stairs. Together with the large step which makes up the top platform, these represent the 365 days of the year. (It’s the same math which led us to the concept of For 91 Days).
And on the spring and autumn solstices, something remarkable happens. The shadows cast along the sides of the principal staircases undulate from the top of the pyramid to the bottom, attaching to giant snake heads on the ground. And Kulkulcan, the serpent god, comes to life. The level of knowledge required to devise such a building, and the will and strength to pull it off, it’s hard to conceive that an ancient people who lived in the jungle were capable of it.
Despite the number of visitors and the awfulness of the people selling junky trinkets, we loved Chichén Itzá. It’s absolutely understandable why the place is so popular. And even if it degrades the experience, ultimately it’s a good thing that so many people get to see it.