Maya // Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá. Even those with a passing interest in pre-Columbian history know the name. It is the most famous Mayan archaeology site on the Yucatán, if not throughout the ancient Maya dynastic region. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. North America’s very own grand pyramids. A ceremonial centre with strong ties to astro-archaeology, celestial events and the natural world. A place to gather on the equinoxes to watch the plumed serpent shadow crawl down the side of the glorious pyramid – El Castillo – as it has for more than 1500 years. In short, it’s astounding.
As a student of archaeology, particularly Meso-America & Mayan (before the photography bug caught up with me that is), my first real world look at a Mayan ruin was here, at Chichén Itzá, and it blew my mind. We were on a family holiday on the ‘riviera’ and a short day trip from the Playa del Carmen region took us right to the gates. The gates beyond the parking lot filled with tour buses, private automobiles and hawkers, hawkers, hawkers. It was a whirlwind of everything all at once. Once inside, the temptation to buy from any of the 100s of vendors lining the paths was only tempered once you realize it’s mostly all the same stuff. Masks, cloth, pyramid trinkets, cold water. Ok, cold water please! It was damn hot that day, even the breeze was a hot blow dryer of air.
The first big sight is El Castillo, now properly restored people are no longer allowed to climb this structure. From the earth, it is impressive. Waiting for a spell to find a shot without throngs of people was an exercise in patience. It’s ok — this place begs for meditation and reflection. You are amongst giants in the ancient world. A place so in tune with the surroundings and the sky, planets, sun, stars. You can feel the energy here, and this was just a regular day, far from the craziness of solstice or equinox. Other areas of the site are equally intense — the Caracol observatory, the massive ball court, the huge cenote (“sacred water, underground river”), the effigies of deities, the wooden beams still built into the walls. Iguana everywhere.
Stay long enough and the tour buses will depart, the hawkers will begin to thin and the late afternoon tropical light starts to play off the structures, inscriptions and glyphs. You get a sense of what the serpent might look like on equinox and plan to return for that celestial spectacle, even in your mind’s eye alone. The empty ballcourt beckons for one last shot as the light fades. Masks are selling for just a couple pesos now, the water is no longer cold and it’s time for tacos and cerveza in the neighbouring town, before the short drive back to the coast.
Stay tuned for more from this series, including the gem of this coast – Tulum – coming up next.
Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, México, 2008.