The Odyssey
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Latin America Jamila Dispatch

Chichén Itzá: The Jewel of the Yucatán

El Castillo
Caption
Approaching the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá was like entering the parking lot at Disneyland! Cars and tour buses unloaded tourists by the dozens, all dressed in their sun visors and bermuda shorts, and, of course, cameras strapped around their necks. The hectic scene here was definitely a far cry from the tranquil "ambiente" of Palenque.

Chichén Itzá (Mayan for "near the well of the itza") is the most well-known and largest of the Mayan ruins in the north. Located east of the Yucatán's capital, Mérida , this archeological zone covers more than three square miles of land. (See the Odyssey Maps for a picture to help you see this!) "Chichén", as it is called by the locals, was settled in around 450 AD by the Maya who migrated from southern Mexico. For reasons unknown, Chichén Itzá was abandoned in 900AD.

Temple
Caption
Thanks to the Toltecs of the central highlands of Mexico City, Chichén Itzá did not stay abandoned for very long. Around 1000 AD the powerful Toltecs invaded Chichén and established it as their territory. They were led by the Toltec ruler, Quetzalcoatl (Kukulkan in Mayan), who was astonishingly exiled from the central highlands for being "too peaceful" a leader. Can you imagine?

Previously, the architecture of the temples and pyramids had been dominated by Mayan design. Now with the presence of the Toltecs, the two cultures fused together, resulting in a unique renaissance of Toltec-Mayan design and architecture. Walking through the site, I noticed many of the buildings that displayed this combination of Toltec and Mayan influences. Numerous images of both Quezatlcoatl and Chac, the Mayan rain god, are inscribed on the temples. These were two extremely important figures to the ancient Maya. Finally, in around 1450 AD, Chichén Itzá was permanently abandoned. No one knows exactly why it was abandoned--it's a mystery!

Chichen Itza
Caption
With my fears lessened from my previous experience climbing the Temple of Inscriptions, Klaus and I were ready to take on the challenge of El Castillo (also known as the Pyramid of Kukulkan). This is Chichén Itzá's tallest pyramid, at a towering 98 feet! This amazing structure was built using precise astronomical and astrological calculations. The Mayans definitely knew what they were doing when they built this guy! This particular pyramid has nine levels, one for each of the nine heavens. There are also four sides to the structure, representing the four points of the compass (north, south, east and west). On each side of El Castillo there is a staircase with 91 steps. Multiply this number by the number of sides (four) and you get a total of 364. Now, add the top platform of the pyramid as the final step and you have a grand total of 365 steps. This amazing calculation is the exact number of days in the Mayan Calendar! Pretty clever, huh?

I'm telling you, the Mayans were geniuses! I was told the best time to visit Pyramid Kukulkan is during the Fall and Spring equinox (September 21/22 and March 21). On these dates the pyramid becomes a phenomenal shadow show. During the afternoon, the sun casts shadows on the wall of the pyramid, making it look like a serpent is creeping down the pyramid from top to bottom!

charms
Caption
Climbing up the pyramid wasn't too bad. There was even a chain attached to this one for those who needed to cling on for dear life. One wrong move and you're dead as a doornail! Kaplunk! Once again, the gray clouds starting rolling in and Chac, the Mayan rain god wielded his power....RAINSTORM! This was the second time I've climbed to the top of a pyramid and a storm has come. I need better luck! This time I really began to worry. We were stuck. At least at Palenque there was a back way down. We stood at the top waiting for the rain to stop but it seemed only to get worse. Finally, after a long 10 minutes and a couple of prayers it stopped. The descent was scary. There were people terrified to death to climb down. I wondered if anyone had gotten stuck at the top, and if so, how they got down. Being airlifted down by a helicopter didn't seem to be an option.

Once we were safe on the ground, we decided to look around at some of the other buildings on the site. One building--Tzompantli (Temple of Skulls)--gave me the creeps! Back in the day, this was where the heads of sacrificial victims were displayed. I was thankful that I had the freedom to walk down El Castillo with my life because if I were visiting the sacred pyramid of Kukulkan in 1100 AD, I would probably be on my way to being sacrificed--I would literally be dead meat. I cringed at the thought of my head being displayed on that wall. Thank God it's 1999 - for me anyway!

Jamila - On Top of the World in Palenque
Klaus - Dealing in Facts
Jamila - Can I Stay for Carnival?
Team - When and Where the Maya Thrived
Two Vegetarians in a Meat Market
Monica - Posing and Shopping in Guatemala


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