Chichen Itza Maya Ruins

On Saturday, June 14, 2008, I visited the spectacular Maya ruins, Chichen Itza, with my Mexican friend, Elizabeth Flores, and her five year-old son, Francisco.  Elizabeth is engaged to be married soon to Tom Boylan, the manager of Marina Paraiso where our boat is docked in Isla Mujeres.  We had a beautiful (and  hot!) day exploring the two square miles of this architectural wonder.  Chichen Itza is probably the most visited site on the Yucatan Peninsula.  Although LA and I had visited here twenty years ago, I did not remember many details of what I had seen or read much about its history.  After I returned from my visit, I read about the saga that led to the excavation of this magical site.  I found it fascinating and maybe you will, too.


The name "Chichen Itza" means "at the mouth of the well at Itza".   The name is believed to have been derived from Maya words meaning "magic water" or possibly "wizard".  The Itzas, credited with being wizards, flourished during the classic period from 300 AD to 900 AD.  The site is believed to have been abandoned , then reinhabited around 1000 AD under Toltec domination.   Toltec and Maya symbols are evident.  Quetzalcaotl, the feathered serpent deity, was revered by both and representations are seen throughout the various monuments.  The Mexican eagle and Maya jaguar are also seen on wall carvings.  Chichen Itza was abandoned once again in 1250 AD, 300 years before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500's.

Excavations have been going on for more than 100 years, yet archaeologists still only speculate about what happened here.  The cleared and restored portion of the city is only two miles square, but it may only represent five percent of the total.  There are two natural sink holes, called cenotes, that must have provided water, which made it attractive for settlement.  Of the two cenotes, the "Cenote Sagrado" (Sacred Cenote) is the more famous.  Pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac.

In 1885, American Consul to Yucatan and Campeche, Edward Herbert Thompson, the youngest consul in US history, set off with his wife and baby daughter to explore Yucatan.   It was an adventure that would occupy the next forty years of his life.   In 1890, he purchased the ruins of Chichen Itza.  He acquired 100 square miles of land which included a Spanish plantation house dating from the 1700's and untold acres of ruins.  Thompson settled in and turned his attention to the legendary cenote.   This was and is an oval shaped opening in the rocky earth with a diameter of 180 feet and craggy sides which fall abruptly 60 feet to the rim of the water.  Far below the dark green surface is a layer of mud.  Thompson had heard Maya legends about treasure being thrown into the sacred well along with sacrificial maidens. Thompson was lowered to the cenote surface on a pontoon from which he dove into the depth and groped his way through the ooze.  Load after load of mud was brought up and examined.    Finally, after five years of work from 1905-1910, he raised the skeletons of three women.  Soon after, artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, incense, and precious ornaments were found.  These were believed to the first ever examples of pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons.  Hundreds of these priceless artifacts were discreetly smuggled out of the country to his Boston sponsors.

Photo Credit:  L.C. Swanson

Unfortunately for Thompson, success was followed by disaster.  Anna Reed, a New York Times reporter, persuaded Thompson to reveal his forty year secret.  Her article revealing that more than 2 million dollars worth of treasure had been smuggled out of the country in a diplomatic pouch and were now being held by the Peabody Museum in Boston did not sit well with the Mexican authorities.  The Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado.  A fifty peso lien was slapped onto Thompson's Chichen Itza property.  In the midst of the ensuing litigation, a local revolution erupted, and his hacienda was burned by rebels, the crops destroyed and cattle driven off.  His most tragic loss was his priceless library of lifelong studies.  In an effort to recoup some of his losses, he rebuilt the hacienda, hoping to turn it into a hotel.  His legal and financial difficulties made it impossible. Eventually, a deal was struck whereby the Carnegie Institution took over the hacienda and continued his work under the direction of Sylvanus Morley.  Beginning work in 1924, the Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol.  At the same time, the Mexican government excavated El Castillo and the Great Ball court.

Disheartened, Thompson left his beloved ruins and returned to the United States.  He never returned to the Yucatan.  He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932.  He died in New Jersey in 1935.  In 1944, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichen Itza to his heirs.  The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon and his heirs own the property today.  The ruins of Chichen Itza are now a federal property of Mexico, and the site is maintained by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.   Over the past several years, the National Institute of Anthropology and History has been closing monuments to public access.  Visitors can walk around them, but can no longer climb them or go inside their chambers.  The most recent monument to close was El Castillo, closed in 2006 after a San Diego, CA woman fell to her death.  LA and I visited Chichen Itza twenty years ago, and he was able to climb to the top and look out over the landscape.

More recent dives with modern equipment have netted many artifacts, some of which are displayed at the Regional Museum of Archaeology in Mérida. However, the cultural chronology of the site has yet to be established and various structures have not yet been dated precisely.

The Site

map of central portion of Chichen Itza

El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulkan

The most impressive and intriguing structure in Chichen Itza, the Temple of Kukulkan, is in the center of the great plaza in the northern part of the site. It is also referred to as El Castillo (the Castle) because the Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Montejo set up his headquarters there.  It consists of two superposed temple-pyramids.  The first pyramid, consisting of nine sloping terraces and a single staircase, was surmounted by a two-roomed temple with vertical walls and a single entrance to the north.  The second pyramid also has nine sloping terraces with reliefs- whose height diminishes towards the top to emphasize the impressive structure and four staircases, each with 91 steps, with handrails in the forms of serpents.

It took Frank Lloyd Wright, whose revolutionary use of geometric form in architectural design was generations ahead of his time, to point out the perspective of each of the staircases. The 364 steps plus the step of the temple symbolize the 365 days of the solar year. The 52 panels on each side represent the 52-year cycle of the Maya calendar with nine terraces (nine regions of the Maya underworld) on each side of the stairways- a total of 18 terraces to represent the 18-month Maya ceremonial calendar.  The Maya were fatalists.   The movements of heavenly bodies were thought of as events that repeated themselves in a given pattern as time itself was repeating.  Maya people rigidly governed by calendars and were a means of divination and religious ritual.  When the Maya recorded their history they also foretold the future in terms of the past.   In putting together astronomical calculations and ritual cycles, they developed the most sophisticated calendar in history.  Equally intriguing is the shadow of a giant snake which descends from the Temple of Kukulkan twice a year-always at the spring and fall equinoxes.  On the 21st of March and again on the 21st of September, the shadowy reptile slithers its way along the balustrade disappearing in the direction of the sacred cenote just as the sun sets.   For 34 minutes, the "snake" created by a play of light and shadow moves from the top of the pyramid to its base.  For the ancients it must have been the ultimate fertility symbol.  The golden sun god had penetrated the earth.  Therefore, it was time to plant.

Clap your hands in front of the pyramid and an odd echo replies.  It is a quick, descending tone that some experts say is the re-creation of the cry of the quetzal bird.  One theory is that the ancient Maya knowingly planned the building to echo with a quetzal chirp as a way of paying homage to the revered bird.  Acoustics specialists agree that a cascade of reflections from the temple's 92 steps generates the echo's sliding pitch and believe this was intentional.

El Caracol, the Observatory

The Spanish name, El Caracol, (the "snail") comes from the twisting interior staircase.  The building is the only observatory known in Maya land.   It is the oldest Toltec building on the site and the greatest achievement.  The circular superstructure consists of a lower story with radial shafts emerging from its center.  The platforms, doorways and shafts were aligned in accordance with the cycles of the sun, the stars and the planet Venus.  It was no simple matter to make accurate observations of sunrises and sunsets, eclipses, and planetary transits in a country of frequent tropical rainfalls, yet that is exactly what was going on in this extraordinary building.  Night after night Maya priests using only their eyes marked the heavens with remarkable sophistication.  Placed around the edge are large rock cups that they filled with water to watch the reflection of the stars in the water.  They were particularly fascinated with the planet Venus.  Limited by what they could see, the Maya had no idea of the solar system's planets revolving around the sun, but they knew that Venus appeared and disappeared on the western and eastern horizons at different times of the year and that it took 584 days to complete the cycle.  They also knew that five of these Venus cycles equaled eight solar years.  Venus, then, appeared at northerly and southerly extremes every eight years.  Several aspects of El Carcol's alignments point to these extremes.  This planet had a role in all aspects of Maya life.  The rich ceremonial life centered around the calendar and their observations, so just imagine the effect upon the people when the priests predicted an eclipse and that eclipse occurred on schedule.  Imagine the power of one who contained all the secrets of the universe in his calculations.  I am really impressed with this as right now I wear no watch and look at no calendar- consequently I never know what time it is, what day it is, or what the day of the month it is.  It's nice, though!

Temple of the Warriors, the Temple of the Thousand Columns

Nothing comparable to the magnificent Temple of the Warriors has ever been found in the Americas.  When the Carnegie Institute archaeologists happened on it in 1924, there was only a great mound thickly covered with thorn bushes.  Tops of the columns showed above the tangle, many more lay in the thick brambles.  The archaeologists began to count them--800. 900; then just before rounding back to the starting place, the grand total is 1000.  It took them four years of excavation to lay bare the vast buildings piled upon buildings, pyramids within pyramids, hidden paintings, grotesque sculpture, buried sacrificial treasure and tunneled passages.  In the midst of a series of major and minor revolutions, using admitted banditos for workmen, the archaeology team proceeded to uncover and restore one of the most impressive and beautiful structures in the world.

The approach through impressive files of square columns is like a huge foyer.  Each colonnade is decorated on all four faces with reliefs of Toltec officers.   Inside is a pyramid with four terraces rising to a height of 37 feet.  Two statues of standard bearers guard the top of the stairs leading to the last terrace where Chac-Mool gazes out on the main plaza.  The Chac-Mool depicts a human figure in a position of reclining with the head up and turned to one side, holding a tray over the stomach.  This is a stony reminder that countless numbers of sacrificial victims died on a nearby altar.  Elizabeth and I did our own reenactment!  We did leave out the part where the priest slices open the chest of the victim, tearing loose the beating heart.  It was thought that the heart donor lived long enough to see the beating heart held aloft by the priest , then placed in Chac-Mool's sacred basin.  We were glad to find out, though, that sacrificial victims lived out their lives in a very special paradise.  They would definitely have to give me some sort of special motivation to offer myself up to the hereafter!

                                                  Elizabeth, our sacrificial "virgin"                                                Susan and Francisco atop the wall... yep, we climbed about 50 feet!

The Sacred Ball Court

Most Maya ceremonial centers had ball courts, but the Great Ball Court is by far the most impressive.  It is the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica.  It measures 545 by 232 feet.   The playing field proper is 309 feet long and 114 feet wide.  Two walls 26 feet high flank its entire length.  At the field's center two large stone hoops are positioned near the top of each wall-23 feet above ground.   Spectators sat on two long terraces that run along the base of the walls.  This was a savage, ritualistic game played with knees, hips and elbows.  The use of hands and feet were against the rules.  The idea was to get the rubber ball through the stone hoops, obviously a rare occurrence. At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players.  Seven players of each team are shown gathered around a ball decorated with a human skull.  In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated and from the wound emits seven streams of blood; six become wriggling serpents and the center becomes a winding plant.    Here we have seven players, seven serpents.  The number seven symbolized maize- life itself to the Maya.  In some way this, too, must have been a fertility sacrifice.  Whatever the rationale, the heads of the losers adorned the rack of the adjoining skull platform, or Tzompantli. Playing for keeps had a whole new meaning to these folks.  The night before the games players asked the gods for blessings for themselves and their equipment (helmets, kneepads, shoulder pads, mallets).  No question about it, they needed all the help they could get!


The Platform of Skulls, Tzompantli


The Platform of Skulls, Tzompantli, a T-shaped stone structure 90 feet long and 36 feet wide, was dedicated to the glory of military conquest and ritual sacrifice.  It was here that prisoners heads as well as those of other sacrificial victims were displayed for all inhabitants to view.  The central panel of the platform is carved with three horizontal rolls of skulls.  There are also representations of eagles and warriors carrying human heads in their hands, serving as a terrifying warning to anyone who might attack the city.  It got my attention, too, and I made no immediate plans for attack.

Temple of the Jaguars


Located next to the ball court, the temple owes its name to a procession of jaguars carved on the front of the upper structure.  The doorway to the upper temple is marked by two large serpentine columns and opens to a series of chambers.  These are now closed to the public to protect the colored paintings which cover the walls.  the lower building, or annex, is a small enclosure which is entered through a doorway of carved columns.  The columns are decorated with military chiefs who carry lances and dart throwers plus several carvings of the god Kukulkan.  The statue of the jaguar at the entrance is believed to be a ceremonial throne, a seat of honor for the lord of Chichen Itza.  Many believe that the governor seated on this throne presided over public and religious ceremonies and met with diplomatic couriers from other parts of the Yucatan.  At its height Chichen Itza was a powerful commercial and political force in the region.

Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars


The stone platform was probably a military structure on which homage was paid to the orders of the "Knights of the Eagles and Jaguars" who are believed to be an elite fighting force who attacked rival cities.  The pedestals that top the platform are crowned with serpent heads, over which it is believed there had been standard bearers in the form of jaguars.  The figures of eagles and jaguars devouring hearts are said to represent the warriors who were responsible for obtaining victims for sacrifice to the gods.  The "Eagle Knights"  were archers who attacked the enemy before other soldiers fought hand to hand.  They wore clothing of feathers from the bird for which they were named.  the "Jaguar Knights" were believed to be the fiercest members of the army who fought hand to hand with wooden clubs tipped with knives of obsidian.  They covered themselves with armor made of jaguar skins and helmets of jaguar heads.

                                                                                                         Francisco, our little Jaguar

The Ossuary

On the road leading south toward the older part of Chichen Itza stands a pyramid of nine levels similar to El Castillo, but of smaller size.  This pyramid, called the Ossuary, is believed to be the tomb of a high priest due to the precious stones and copper which were found in the tombs inside its shaft.   Atop the pyramid is a high temple decorated with Chaac masks on the walls.  There are pillars with masks of the rain god found at the base of the pyramid.  This structure covers a deep cavern which leads to another urban center outside of Chichen Itza.  There is a shaft cut in the center of the pyramid which archeologists say represents the entrance to the World of the Dead- where both Maya paradise as well as its inferno were represented.

Commerce at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was not only a ceremonial center but a commercial one.  It is easy to forget that this monument of cold stone and lost memories was once thronged with vendors hawking vegetables, jewels and slaves.  There would also have been areas set aside for feather merchants, goldsmiths, healers, scribes, and story tellers.  Too bad there is no one around to tell us the secrets of what really happened here.  Why was it abandoned, and why so suddenly?  The mystery still remains to this day.

Today, some people resent what they view as the "commercialism" of Chichen Itza.  Years ago when LA and I visited, there were very few vendors there.  Today, vendors line the walkways from the Guest Center all the way to the central site of El Castillo and around every monument.  Did I buy anything?  You bet!  I bought a hand-sewn blouse with blue embroidery as a reminder of my trip.  Elizabeth purchased a small drum and a hand-made musical instrument for Francisco (no, she didn't buy the Jaguar head!), and we ended our trip with a lunch in the local, air-conditioned cantina (complete with dancers, chips and hot sauce, and, of course, frozen margaritas!).


All photographs by Susan Wyatt, with the exception of the "Cenote at Chichen Itza" by L.C. Swanson.  

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia internet web site; Internet-at-Work website based on the work of Javier Como's books Let's Learn about Chichen Itza and The Mayas on the RocksThe Yucatan- A Guide to the Land of Maya Mysteries (May, Antoinette); Mexico Knoff Guide (Antochiw, Michel,, Artwork: L.C. Swanson, 2000.

Back to Travel Log