So, this whole end of the world on December 21st 2012 had me curious. Enough to plan my footsteps across the globe to Mexico, given that the sun rose and set on that day like any other! Mind filled with curiosity, I was convinced I needed to see this place where a calendar of an ancient people supposedly based on a certain pyramid had caused so much hype and created ripples across the world! I was convinced that the Mayans had just run out of space on this structure and decided that since they could not add on any more dates, they would just indicate that the world would end. Boy was I mistaken!!! Bring on the adventures in Chichen Itza…
Staying at the Hacienda Yaxkin Resort and Spa was a fantastic decision. Up bright and early, we decided to try the Huevos Moutolenos (the Yucatan version of Huevos Rancheros with peas, ham and cheese being the twist on the classic tortilla, egg and ranchero sauce dish) and walked the 300 metres from our hotel to one of the smaller entrances of the ruins in time for their opening at 8 am and well before the hoardes of tourist buses arriving at 11 am from Cancun and other places.
Entry fee of 204 pesos paid up (per person, being split between entry and state tax – and note for those with video cameras- there is an additional fee of $45 per video camera), and a few metres after the entry point and a corner turned, El Castillo, the pyramid of KulKucan, the structure that caused all the 2012 hype, was right before our eyes!
Wow. This pyramid is majestic in its own right. Just don’t go comparing it to the Pyramids in Giza though. My curiosity on the whole calendar thing still to be satisfied, I walked up to the base thinking I may see some bas reliefs of numbers and zodiac signs, but clearly given that the Mayan calendar was nothing like the Gregorian one so of course. there was no such thing! Thank goodness for the info in my Lonely Planet guidebook educating me somewhat on the nature of this pyramid, and – knowing my chatterbox tendencies, I had chewed off the ears of our various drivers and tour guides who very kindly shed some light on this interesting phenomenon. Or just wanted me to shut up! Whichever it was, I am pleased to give you folks the version from the horse’s mouth itself…
So, the Pyramid is a calendar based on what the Mayans refer to as “baktuns”, or for us folk – a cycle. The baktun ending on December 21st 2012 was the end of one baktun and the starting of a new one, the dawn of a new era so to speak. The pyramid has four faces, with a series of 91 steps on each side, and four levels plus the platform at the top making five levels. This adds up to 365, the number of calendar days in a Gregorian year. The Mayans were smart, no doubt about that, but given that they had no mathematical prowess at that time, the accuracy is fascinating. Secondly, the date was important to the Mayans, because it meant the dawn of a new era and so there was a huge festival at Chichen Itza and various other Mayan sites on the prophesied doomsday, where people came to meditate and give offerings, and the air was apparently charged with an electric positive energy.
The stories that the guides and drivers have to tell about this day are fascinating, but I need a whole other post to tell you these. I am glad to tell you though, that the Mayans did not just disappear into thin air and neither are they two headed creatures or aliens, they are normal humans with the same number of joints as any other human, alive and well, and living life as normal. Their cities were destroyed by natural phenomena like hurricanes, but they moved on and evolved like every race does, and live all over the Yucatan peninsula, a large number living in Valladolid preserving their heritage. Phew.
Being curious about this myth that the Mayans just disappeared and the world was meant to end, I am sure there are others like me wondering what the palaver is all about and there you have it!
The best thing about being at Chichen Itza this early was having the entire complex to ourselves, sharing it with a handful of people, being able to soak in every angle of this structure, which is so incredibly intact. Sadly the ruins at Chichen Itza are cordoned off so you can only admire these from a distance and not climb them like Ek Balam, making me glad to have climbed that ruined pyramid. You cannot even go inside El Castillo like you could have just three years ago. Apparently there is a narrow corridor leading to a chamber that has a statue of a jaguar encrusted with jade which would have been fascinating to see. But, preservation is important too, so the decision to seal off this from the public is understandable…
I cannot put into words how surreal it was to be standing at this site, but I was a little disappointed that I could not feel this ‘energy’ that I had heard and read so much about. Nonetheless I was content to sit in front of this pyramid in solitude and just soak it all in…
The rest of the ruins at Chichen Itza pale in comparison to the pyramid, but play an important role in the structure of the city. One of the largest and best preserved Ball Courts of the Mayan era is at this site, with some pretty gruesome bas reliefs of players having their heads blown off with what look like baseball bats, in a game that is said to be an ancient version of a combo baseball and basketball. The acoustics of this court are amazing…a clap resonates throughout the court, and a conversation on one end can be heard clearly on the opposite end…and you don’t have to be shouting!! A group of young boys made us all keel over with laughter as they chatted up the girls on the other end…all in good humour!
Coming out of the ball court we round a corner and run smack into the wall with skulls carved into it. These skulls are so crudely carved into the walls, they almost look comical, akin to the skulls found on some scarves these days.
Following the sequence of our Lonely Planet, we walk down to Cenote Sagrado, the naturally formed sacrificial well where, gulp, children used to be sacrificed. The walk down is pleasant, about 300 m or so, lined with vendors setting up their wares. You can get all your souvenirs here, from magnets to beautiful colored ceramic plates, shot glasses, Mayan handicrafts etc etc and you see a tonne of these little guys all over, the classic perception of what the country’s favorite pastime (other than drinking tequila) is!!
The chants of the tagline….’almost free!!!’ accompanies the vendors sales pitch to you…. ‘ola amigo, just a hundred pesos, come i sell to you…almost free!’….haha….these guys are great! No hassling like some of the other countries we have been to, bargaining is welcome, if you don’t think something is worth the price quoted, just walk on, and there will be a dozen or so other stalls selling exactly the same items. Don’t let the tagline ‘only one piece, I made it myself and there is no other like this ‘ fool you….the vendor three stalls from mister one piece will have the exact same one, if not something better!
The site at Chichen Itza is huge. There is so much to see and the history behind it all can be a bit overwhelming, so the one thing I will definitely say is do yourself a favour, spend the night before in Chichen Itza and get into the site early because you need the time to soak it all in without being rushed at peak time. And it gets really, really hot so you need the calm and cool early morning to truly appreciate the beauty and grandeur that this ancient site has to offer.
Walking back up towards the main pyramid, we continue our sojourn into ancient Mayan life and see the Plaza de las Mil Columnas (the forest of a thousand pillars), El Osario (the bone house, the name sends shivers up my spine) and El Caracol, a pretty cool structure like a tower with a snail shaped dome at the top – actually giving it the nickname ‘the snail’. This side of the site has so many vendors you can get all your souvenir shopping done – if you can muster the patience in the punishing heat, that is!
What better way to cool off and wind down an exciting morning than a dip in a natural cenote? Let’s place our footsteps in Ik Kil!
Ik Kil is a 5 minute cab ride away from Chichen Itza, and is worth the $6 entry fee just to see the stunning naturally occurring well with its hues of cerulean colored water and the sunlight streaming in through the vines and vegetation hanging off the sides of the rocky walls, making this a truly surreal experience.
Cenotes are naturally occurring sinkholes that hold some religious significance for the Mayans, but in the case of Ik Kil, provide refreshing entertainment for the rest of the world! The water is 120m deep and there are no shallow parts, and you share the sinkhole with a myriad of catfish and tourists if you go after 2:00 pm – another reason not to day trip in this area!
You can rent a locker and a life jacket, but if you’re not into that whole swimming in a well thing like me, you can enjoy watching others jump in and swim about while enjoying some tequila, margaritas and botanas at the cafe on site. There is a buffet too, but buffets being my pet peeve, you know I did not even venture in that direction! This wanderluster, though traveling in style still prefers to dine a la carte or eat street food – the only way I believe, to truly get to know the food of the land my footsteps are traversing.
The best bit about exploring Chichen Itza and Ik Kil early? Once we did manage to get a cab back to the Hacienda, we spent some time exploring the grounds of our hotel, catching a siesta like the locals albeit by a pool and just chilling out!
So, here are some Harpreet’s Wanderlust travel notes and pearls of wisdom:
- Spend at least 2 nights at Chichen Itza to truly get a feel for the place, and to get into the main site by 8am so you get at least 2 1/2 hours of crowd free perambulation around El Castillo and the other amazing structures.
- Carry a hat, sunblock and water, although you can buy get some some water from the vendors or in the shop by Cenote Sagrado.
- Don’t buy your souvenirs from the first guy you see and don’t believe that it’s the only piece – walk a little further and you’ll find loads more! Plus if you really like it, you can always walk back up and get it!
- Soak in the experience. If you don’t have the patience for a guide, then invest in the Lonely Planet guidebook that has all the info you need. A little history makes the experience all the richer.
- If you take a cab to Ik Kil consider tipping your driver extra to wait for you. Transport back to Chichen Itza is hard to find as most people come in hired cars or tour buses.
- Finally -enjoy every moment of being here and have a shot of tequila in celebration for setting yet another footstep across this stunning globe!!