Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza Attractions | Things to do in Chichen Itza
The impressive buildings of Chichen Itza have architectural and iconographic features that blend classic Mayan design with elements from the cultures of the Central Highlands, an area that extends all the way from Mexico City to Chihuahua. For this reason, many of its structures are unique to the Mayan region.
The mysteries surrounding the remains of this great city have been studied by archeologists for decades. Many of these puzzles remain unsolved, however the findings to date reveal a great deal about this interesting culture, their astronomical precision, and their controversial religious practices.
One of the New 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is an archeological site that should be thoroughly explored. Getting to know this fascinating Mayan city is a unique way to learn about the universe.
Temple of Kukulkan
The Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, is the most iconic structure at the Chichen Itza archeological site. This pyramid was built between 300 and 450 A.D. It has seven tiers and four staircases, each with 91 steps, which add up to 364. In the center there is one additional step, for a total of 365, the same as the number of days in a year.
The Temple of Kukulkan was built with astronomical precision that to this day continues to amaze scientists. In the center of the second chamber of the temple is a throne in the shape of a jaguar carved in stone. It is painted red and encrusted with jade to represent the spots of the animal, which is believed to be sacred to the Maya. It is designed to be facing forward so as to keep the king’s audience at a distance while he was presiding over public meetings and ceremonies.
Kukulkan’s Descent (The Equinox)
Twice a year, on March 21st and September 23rd, you can witness Kukulkan’s descent at the pyramid that bears his name. This spectacular show takes place during the spring and fall equinoxes, when the days and nights last exactly 12 hours each.
In the evening on both days you can observe a shadow effect on the north stairs of the Castillo. Seven triangles of light and shadow resembling a serpent descend slowly from the top of the stairs to the head of Kukulkan (the Feathered Serpent) located at the base.
The solstices are another natural phenomenon that the Maya noted in their astronomical studies. The summer solstice on June 22nd is the longest day of the year and at noon the sun reaches the highest point in the sky, whereas the winter solstice on December 21st is the shortest day of the year and at noon the sun reaches the lowest point in the sky.
The Temple of Kukulkan signals the precise moment when the summer solstice occurs, as the north and east sides are fully illuminated and the south and west sides are covered in shade. From the sky, it would appear as if the pyramid were diagonally split in two.
The Ball Court
The ball court measures 551 by 230 feet in a flattened H-shape. It is bordered by 26-foot-high walls, the tops of which serve as an area for spectators. The eastern part houses the Temples of the Jaguar, and at the opposite end you’ll find the Temples of the Tiger, which serves as the limit of the course. At the end of this temple there are vaulted areas that may have served as seating for high ranking political and religious officials who attended the games.
Sticking out perpendicularly from the middle of each wall is a stone ring positioned 20 feet above the ground. This served as the “goal” for the players to hit the rubber ball through. The rings are decorated with reliefs depicting two entwined snakes fighting one another.
Another interesting feature of its construction is that if you stand on the Temples of the Jaguar and speak in a slightly higher pitch than normal (no need to shout), people at the Temples of the Tiger –525 feet away– can hear exactly what you’re saying.
Observatory or El Caracol
This fascinating building is named El Caracol (the Snail) because of the concentric circles and spirals that form its internal structure. Although most of the astronomic observation chamber has collapsed, the building was so well constructed that its role was easily identifiable by archeologists.
The Observatory is one of the most important buildings of Mayan civilization. From the inside you can determine with great precision the position of the moon on March 21st, the sunset on each of the equinoxes and the sunset on the summer solstice. This information was used as the basis for other stellar observations of Mayan civilization. It is surprisingly accurate and serves as a guide for planting crops and conducting religious ceremonies.
Sacred Cenote or Sinkhole
The word “cenote” is derived from the Mayan word “dzonot,” which means sinkhole or well. Cenotes are fresh water sinkholes made of limestone bedrock with vertical walls. They may also be located in fully or partially collapsed caves. One of the most famous cenotes in the world is the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, which measures 213 feet in diameter and 115 feet deep.
The Sacred Cenote was the heart of religious activity of the Maya. Here they worshipped the water god Chaac. As part of the rituals they threw valuable offerings into the cenote, including jade, textiles, straw, and copper.
For decades archeologists have conducted research to determine if human sacrifices took place in the cenote. They determined it was likely that some people (mostly children) may have accidentally drowned there. However, human remains found between 1904 and 1907 show clear evidence of violence, which has led them to believe that bodies were thrown into the cenote after religious rituals.
Chichen Itza has many other interesting structures to explore, such as the Temple of Venus, the Nunnery, and the Group of a Thousand Columns. Come and immerse yourself in the magic that lurks in every corner of this incredible archeological site, which was once the most important ceremonial center in the Mayan World.
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