Chichén Itzá and the Limestone Cenotes

Latitude 20.68306°N Longitude 88.56871°W

Thursday, September 19, 2002

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Diary:

Up at 7am and checked out of hotel to get into Chichén Itzá right at the opening time of 8am.

When the ruins opened we were one of the first inside, and, immediately scaling the awe inspiring pyramid "El Castillo", we found ourselves in total solitude high up above the remains of the ancient city, enshrouded in the hot and humid morning mist.

The rest of the ruins were equally interesting, and especially when we had the chance to go inside the main pyramid to see how it completely encased a previously built, smaller pyramid with slightly smaller dimensions. The inner pyramid's temple at the top was accessable and contained the original red jaguar throne used for sacrifices.

As the day progressed the heat climbed past 40°C and the crowds grew. Part of the reason was that, by chance, we happened to be visiting Chichén Itzá close to one of its two most significant days of the year: the equinoxes. The great pyramid was designed so that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, shadows from the sides of the pyramid would fall on the main staircase producing the illusion of a tail for the great plumed serpent carved into the stone. The autumnal equinox was in two day's time and the shadow effect could already be partially seen in the late afternoon.

Chichén Itzá is one of the greatest and best preserved ancient Mayan cities remaining today. Looking at the ruins revealed how advanced they were in many areas, especially the sciences such as astronomy and time keeping. However, like many of the other ancient Middle American peoples, the Maya were also pretty savage. Still visible is a stone platform that was reserved for displaying hundreds of human skulls. They skewered the heads of their enemies vertically on long poles and displayed them on this platform in the main plaza. Tearing out the hearts of victims while they were still alive was also a popular and common Mayan sacrificial practice. Imagine someone ripping out your still-beating heart and offering it to some God, right in front of your face. No thanks.

The Aztecs had equally "scientific" practices. My guidebook quotes from the book The Course Of Mexican History by Meyer and Sherman on an Aztec event that took place in 1487 in the city of Tenochtitlán:

In a ceremony lasting four days sacrified victims taken during campaigns were formed in four columns, each stretching three miles. At least twenty thousand human hearts were torn out to please the god... In the frenzy of this ghastly pageant, the priests were finally overcome by exhaustion.

Good to see that civilization has improved (somewhat marginally) since those days.

Around noon we were almost at the point of heat exhaustion so we decided to finish up. We grabbed a quick bite at the cafeteria then hit the road again, heading towards Cancún.

Along the way we stopped for a swim at the Ik Kil cenote, which was quite unlike anything I've ever seen. A cenote is formed when the roof of an underground limestone cave wears thin over a long period of time and finally caves in. The result is a deep pool of crystal clear water in an almost perfectly circular shape. The Ik Kil cenote was huge - almost 50m across and the surface of the water was almost 100m beneath ground level. After descending a very long flight of stairs you emerge in a clearing at the bottom and dive into the cool water. Swimming to the middle slowly on your back while looking straight up is an amazing experience. You can see all the trees and vines with roots descending all the way down to the water, and beyond that sun and blue sky. We were lucky enough to visit in between tour busses and had the swimming hole to ourselves. A little further along the road to Cancún, at Valladolid, we came across another cenote and stopped for another swim. Cenote X-Kekén is a completely underground cave without any view of the sky. It is artifically lit and the water is quite deep. Huge limestone stalactites descend from the roof until a few feet above the water, and you can swim out to the formations and gaze up at them from below. Being underground, this cenote was quite creepy. Even though the water was clean and crystal clear, it was ominously dark underneath you due to the great depth and lack of sunlight in the cave.

Totally cooled and refreshed from the cenotes, we made good time to Cancún and arrived in the early evening. We found a suitable hotel (Hotel Novatel) in Ciudad Cancún, checked in, and got cleaned up for dinner. Dinner was had at a very mediocre restaurant called Rosa Mexicano just around the corner from our hotel. We should have guessed its mediocrity from the total lack of other people there before, during and after our meal.


Photos: (click on images to see full size)

The perfect dimensions of El Castillo at Chichén ItzáClimbing the steep sides to the top is not for the faint-hearted!Jaguar motifs carved in the base of a sacraficial altarAscending the hot, claustrophobic staircase inside El CastilloThe original Red Jaguar throne atop the
internal pyramid of El CastilloThe ruins of the ancient Mayan Observatory
View from the top of El CastilloThe Ik Kil cenoteThe Ik Kil cenoteThe Ik Kil cenote


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