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15 May 2015

Chichén Itzá: Culture, History, Crowds and Heat

Rather than taking a direct bus from Mérida to Cancún and then Isla Mujeres, I decided to stop at Chichén Itzá, one of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites — a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Initially, I thought I would go it alone: there are a few second-class ADO bus services from Mérida to Chichén (leaving at 6.30, 8.30 and 9.15 in the morning), which take about 1h45. There's a luggage store inside Chichén Itzá, and onward buses to Cancún. I wanted to go early, but then you have to wait until 4.30 pm for the only first-class bus to Cancún, and the hourly second-class route takes four hours.


Once I got to Mérida and began to understand the extreme heat of the Yucatán, I decided to take an organised excursion, which would take me to Chichén, give me a guided tour of the site, take me to a cenote (natural limestone sinkhole) for swimming, provide lunch and drop me off in Cancún. The price was 800 pesos (about £34) — around the same price as the two ADO journeys — plus admission charges. I would arrive in Cancún a bit later than I had hoped, but wouldn't need to get up super-early and wouldn't need to haul my small but increasingly heavy suitcase all over the Yucatán. Several companies offer essentially the same tour, but I went with Turitransmerida, who have an office in central Mérida.

I was pleased to find out that our group was quite small: I think there were 13 of us in total. It took about two hours to get to Chichén Itzá, and we stopped a few miles outside the nearest town, Piste, to stock up on cheap water and snacks. The Chichén Itzá folks obviously didn't get the 64 pesos memo, as the entrance fee is 220 pesos (about £10) for foreign visitors — still very reasonable. We arrived around 11.30 and the site seemed pretty busy to me, but by the time we left, some three hours later it was really heaving and there was a big queue, so seriously: go early!

Our group split into two — those who wanted the tour in Spanish and those who wanted it in English. I didn't realise until I had requested the English tour that it would just be one of the guides and me, but although my Spanish has improved a lot on this trip, I definitely got a lot more out of the English version — not least because it's pretty hard to concentrate when you're standing in the 36-degree midday sunshine. It also meant that I got to ask questions about things that interested me, such as the Mayan language, and the Mayans' mathematical, architectural and astronomical skills.


When you enter the site, after running the gauntlet of the, ah hem, tradition Mayan marketplace (i.e. stalls selling more souvenirs than you could ever, ever want), the first building you see is the Temple of Kukulkán, a 30-metre pyramid dedicated to the Maya serpent god Kukulkán. Indiana Jones might not like Chichén Itzá because there are serpent likenesses everywhere. The Temple is stunning to look at, but when you start to understand the geometry and the perfect numerological significances in, say, the number of steps or the number of platforms, it is even more impressive.



We stopped to look at a very of the engravings in more detail, including some jaguars (a power symbol for the Mayans), skulls and soldiers — even some female soldiers. Then we went into the court for the juego de pelota (the ball game), which is thought to be the biggest of its kind in Mesoamerica. The rules, of course, remain uncertain, but there are surprisingly small hoops and engravings of the ball on the walls. It is even unclear whether the winners or the losers had the honour of being sacrificed to the gods.




The next stop was to the Cenote Sagrado (sacred sinkhole), whose Mayan name gave Chichén Itzá its name (chi (mouth), chen (well), Itzá (the name of the Mayan tribe that settled there)). Although rather green, as a result of the limestone, the water is clear and clean, but the sacrificees were still given a thorough purification in the neighbouring cleansing room before meeting their destiny in the water below.


By this point, I was really, really hot and was seeking any scrap of shade that I could. So too were the big lizards that hang out at the site. My guide showed me an example of perfectly constructed arches that don't need a keystone, showing a sophisticated mathematical understanding and the concept of zero, which was very rare for this time. I had a bit of free time before meeting my group so I walked down to the observatory.






After leaving Chichén Itzá, we stopped to cool off at Cenote Ik Kil; it's only a couple of miles from Chichén and seems to be on a major tour route, so I wouldn't exactly say that it's a hidden gem, but I was grateful for the chance to swim and cliff jump. And even though it was fairly busy (as evidenced by the photo-bombing of my underwater selfie), Ik Kil is still very beautiful. I couldn't resist the chance to leap from the top of the steps into the clear, green water below.



I asked one of the staff to take a photo of my leaps, but this was the best one he got. He did take a video, which was quite cool, but the slow, Isla Mujeres internet connection won't be able to cope with the upload. Entrance to Ik Kil is 70 pesos (about £3). After a serviceable lunch nearby (another buffet, although the food was included this time), we switched to a smaller minibus for the onward journey to Cancún.


We went via the non-toll road so it took just over three hours — mainly because there are a lot of speed bumps along this route — and although the driver did drop me off at the ferry terminal for Isla Mujeres rather than at the bus station, I had to wait 40 minutes or so for him to drive halfway around the extensive Cancún hotel zone. By the time I got to my hotel, it was 9 pm, making it twelve hours door-to-door. A long day and a hot one, but compared to public transport, a) it was more convenient, b) I learnt a lot more about Chichén thanks to the guided tour and c) I got to visit a cenote. I would recommend Turitransmerida: the guides were fun and interesting and it was a good day. And don't let the heat and the crowds put you off Chichén Itzá — it's a beautiful and fascinating place and is well worth the detour.

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