Chichén-Itzá was our first choice, since it is certainly one of the most impressive of those ancient cities, and as Viator Ambassadors we were able to join their Early Access to Chichén-Itzá with a Private Archaeologist tour from Cancun.
By heading out at dawn we were able to beat most of the crowds and heat.
Our archaeologist guide, Frank, used the travel time to explain the history of the site, the Maya people, and what we were about to see.
A huge part of that history is held within the architecture.
By studying the engraved writings and precise alignments of the buildings archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of information about the people who built them.
As Frank described things, he promised blown minds, which we took as a challenge… go ahead, Frank, make our day.
He showed us examples of the Mayan written language, the only one in the Americas at that time, and their advanced numeric system based on twenty.
Their mathematical theory, one of only two in the world that incorporated the concept of zero, was as precise as any on the planet, as was their famous calendar.
All very impressive stuff, the kind that gets people talking about aliens helping out and the like.
But we would need to see more if our heads were going to explode.
Arriving at the site, what we saw of Chichén-Itzá was only the central area, the downtown if you will, of what was once a thriving city of over fifty-thousand people.
The focal point was the pyramid temple of the feathered serpent Kukulkan, built to honor one of the Mayans’ most important gods.
The pyramid that the Spaniards mistakenly called El Castillo was already some five centuries old when they arrived in 1532, and the city had been mostly abandoned.
We now know it was a temple, not a castle, and it holds a few surprising secrets. The four sides are perfectly aligned with the directions, and Frank explained how the entire structure served as a calendar.
There are ninety-one steps on each side, for a total of 364.
Adding the one at the top makes it 365, as in the days in a year.
The stairs are also designed so that on the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun casts a shadow that forms a serpent descending to connect with the carved stone heads of Kukulkan at the base.
Standing in front of the staircase Frank demonstrated another remarkable feature of the pyramid, some amazing acoustics were incorporated.
First he played us a recording of the call of a quetzal, the bird whose feathers adorn the serpent, then sharply clapped his hands. The sound that echoed back to us was identical.
Watch: David demonstrates this phenomenon
As we stood in awe he said, “That may be a coincidence, but I doubt it.” We spent a few moments trying to wrap our minds around that, but our craniums remained intact.
At the base of the giant structure excavations reveal an incredible feat of engineering.
The foundations for the pyramid extend hundreds of feet out from the base, and even more impressive, the entire central area was built up and leveled out into an artificial plateau to create an acceptable building location for the massive temples and ball court.
Extraordinary stone work to be sure, but not as mind boggling as the work of the Incas, so our brains endured.
The Great Ball Court is the largest, and best preserved, to be found throughout Mesoamerica.
The game, or something similar, was played all across the region in highly ceremonial situations.
Two teams of four players vied to put a nine pound solid rubber ball through a stone ring about twenty feet high, without using their hands or feet.
It sounds difficult, because it was.
Massive bruises, injuries, and even deaths were a common occurrence, but often that was only expediting the inevitable, because the winners were sacrificed anyway.
Yes, the winners, which probably blew their minds, but the rulers just couldn’t go around offering up losers to the gods.
This was not a spectator sport for the masses, which is why the court lacks any grandstand style seating.
The opposing rulers would sit on opposite ends of the stadium, which is nearly the size of two football fields, with a small group of dignitaries.
The court also gave Frank a chance to further prove the Mayan understanding of acoustics.
There should have been no way for the rulers to communicate across that distance, yet the court’s designers solved the problem.
When Frank spoke into the seating area on one end, we could hear the echo bouncing back all the way from the other. The shape of the royal boxes made it possible for the leaders to easily converse.
Very impressive, but still our minds remained whole.
After checking out several other incredible structures in the central area, such as The Platform of Venus (named for the planet, not the Roman goddess), The Tzompantli (Skull Platform), The Temple of the Warriors, and the Group of a Thousand Columns, we made our way down a sacbe to The Cenote Sagrado.
A sacbe is a raised road, paved with crushed rock, and the Mayans built hundreds of miles of them all across the peninsula.
The design was so durable that they are still easily recognizable today, in fact, many are still in use, incorporated into the right of ways of modern highways and railways.
Very sturdy, just like our minds.
These holes are very common in the Yucatán because the ground is solid limestone, which dissolves away leaving caves and holes that fill with rain water.
The city took its name, Chichén, in reference to the two cenotes, or wells, that the city was built around. Itzá, refers to the people who lived there.
But as precious as water was, the Sacred Cenote was not used as a water supply. It was a hallowed place of sacrifices to the rain god Chaac, who was believed to live at the bottom.
This was proven by the discovery of many bones and offerings when divers explored its depths.
We moved on for a look at another group of slightly older ruins just off from the main area.
These feature the Nunnery and the Church, also misnamed by the Spanish because of their appearances. Las Monjas, the Nunnery, actually served as a governmental palace, La Iglesia, the Church, was a more nearly correct name since it was a small temple.
Nearby, El Caracol, towers above the other ruins.
The name means the snail, and stems from the shell-like spiral staircase inside, but research revealed that the structure was actually a sophisticated astronomical observatory.
Remarkable calculations, mostly based on the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus, were involved in designing the windows along the stairs so that they line up perfectly with over two dozen cosmic events such as eclipses, equinoxes, and solstices.
The theories and mathematics involved have been compared to those of Newton or Einstein.
Okay… minds blown.
(To tell the truth, they really were blown from the moment we spotted the pyramid)
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com