We are standing at the foot at El Castillo, near the bottom of the staircase famous for producing a snake-like shadow on the equinox, and taking turns clapping, looking satisfied at one another, and inviting the next person to take a turn. Through some ancient Mayan design of precision, when the sound waves from the claps travel up the stairs into a little chamber room at the top, the echo comes back chirpy. Our guide tells us that scientists have tested it, and the reply matches the call of the quetzal, a real but nearly mythical bird beloved in Central America, exactly.
For me, that’s what’s so cool about Chichen Itza. Of course, it’s amazing to see the famous ancient pyramid, the ruins of the old city spreading through the jungle, but I particularly love that around every corner awaits some riddle-like feature to discover. It’s as if the Maya civilization knew cargo-shorts-clad backpackers would one day need more than just ruins to entertain themselves. After the guide concludes our tour and the group disperses, I linger at the base of the pyramid for one more clap.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Chichen Itza is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but also is a card-carrying member of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
- Again, there is El Castillo, probably the most famous building in Mexico, as well as a pretty impressive collection of ruins, and there are the super unique aspects like clapping for quetzals, serpent shadows, and sacrificial cenotes.
- Great for the historically enthused, families looking for the more cultural side of the Yucatan, backpackers seeking out the great sites of the world, and spring-breakers nursing hangovers.
The Expected Features of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is actually an entire city though it is often mistaken for El Castillo, the large pyramid standing at the center. In actuality, El Castillo (translated from Spanish as “the Castle”) can more authentically be described as The Temple of Kukulkan, a Mayan god mixing serpent and feathered features. Clearing the dirt corridor covered with jungle canopy and lined with souvenir hawkers, the iconic pyramid stands lonely and grand in the middle of a vast field. It was something I’d been waiting nearly six years to see.
I had last visited Mexico in 2008. My wife Emma and I spent five weeks backpacking through the southern regions of the country, but somehow, in the midst of getting as much in as possible, we managed to cut Chichen Itza out of our itinerary. It has a reputation of being overcrowded, overpriced, and overhyped. For the next half decade, I regretted missing it. Point being, when a world wonder and national icon is within a couple of hours, regardless of the other tourists or added expense, it’s probably worth doing. By 2013, we’d seen every major Mayan ruin except Chichen Itza, so what choice did we have but to return, stand in line, and pay the prices anyway.
Truth be told, much of the site is pretty familiar if you’ve visited Mayan ruins before: There is a ball court for an ancient Mesoamerican version of handless basketball, there are carvings and statues, and there are gigantic step pyramids to provide the wow factor. Modern-day Maya line the walkways with knock-off wares, knives of “obsidian” and replica statues produced in China. In that way, it’s easy to forget what’s in front of you: a glimpse into the height of one of the Americas’s most successful civilizations.
Our guide was full of fun information. I stood in the shade of a tree, leaning on a wooden fence, as he directed us to look at the stairs leading up El Castillo: Ninety-one on each side, and one up to the platform atop the pyramid, equaling 365 steps in total. “The days of the year,” he explained. Behind me, iguanas were ruffling through the leaves on the jungle floor. He went on to tell us about how the positioning of the pyramid was perfectly in line with the equinoxes and solstices, which is how the shadowy snake is produced every year.
At the Great Ball Court, tour guides clap in all directions, showing off the echo ability, demonstrating the architectural ingenuity. Kings and queens could sit at their high perches at the far ends of the court, speak in normal voices, and be heard by all. At the Sacred Cenote, searches have revealed gold, obsidian, and human sacrifices. At the Temple of the Warriors, Chac Mool, a recurring figure in Mayan and Toltec sites, is lined up in such a way that once a year the sun sets perfectly above it for photo opportunities. Everywhere, something is going on, some sound effect, some numerical reference, and it’s fun to be clued in.
For me, the call of the quetzal was especially exciting. I’ve lived in Guatemala for several years. The money there is called quetzals, the national bird is the quetzal, and the second largest city is named Quetzaltenango (“Land of Quetzals”). However, the bird itself has all but disappeared. In fact, southern Costa Rica is cited as the best place to get a lucky glimpse. Even there, a sighting is something to be celebrated. At least with the hidden wonders of Chichen Itza, I know what one sounds like.
- There are hotels near Chichen Itza; however, the easiest way to visit is taking a day tour from one of the nearby spots on the coast: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum.
- If you book a tour, don’t go through a hotel. I used a little spot under the Playa del Carmen supermarket, Mega, and paid less than half of what some of my fellow day-trippers did.
- Be aware of what’s happening with the sun as big annual events can make visiting the ruins much more difficult, expensive and crowded.