Chichen Itza

The most famous and the most completely restored of all the archaeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza still continues to draw visitors in their thousands. Despite being built by the Ancient Mayans, somewhere between the 9th and 12th centuries, this four-square-mile remnant of Mexico’s rich past is still impressive enough to wow even the most cynical of sightseers. Chichen Itza once acted as the capital of the Mayan empire, comprising of temples, columns, and iconic stepped pyramids. At its centre, you’ll find the Pyramid of Kukulcan, which stands around 30 metres high and dominates the ancient Mayan skyline.

Remains of an Advanced Civilisation

The Ancient Mayans were keen stargazers, so they built the temples at Chichen Itza to correspond with the positions of certain stars. Once you see these ‘time temples’, it’s easy to appreciate just how advanced the civilisation was and how their influence is still felt today. They were also expert architects, as can be seen during the vernal equinox in March and on the autumn equinox in September. On certain dates in these months, the sun creates the shadowy illusion of a gigantic snake climbing or descending the staircase walls of the Pyramid off Kukulcan.

However, if you can’t wait for those dates, don’t worry; this fantastic piece of optical trickery is recreated through the exciting light and sound display that takes place each night. The natural version is breathtaking, and it’s well worth thinking about booking your holiday around these times just to catch Mother Nature at her most incredible and mysterious.

Losing your Head over a Game?

Some parts of the complex still cause debate, even among the experts. Chichen Itza is home to the largest ball-court in the Americas, measuring over 160 metres in length and 70 metres wide. It’s believed that Mayans played a ball game known as ‘Pok Ta Pok’ in this space; a cross between tennis and basketball, in which players had to get a ball to their team captain without using their hands. The captain would then attempt to score a point by hitting the ball through a wall-mounted hoop, using a racquet. However, the team captain who scored the first point then had his head cut off as a sacrifice to the gods. This was considered a great honour and a way to secure safe passage to the afterlife!

Cenote Sagrado

Chichen Itza’s location is believed to have been chosen because of the two large lagoons nearby, which supplied the city with water. However, they also served another purpose: Cenote Sagrado, the larger of the two, doubled as a site of sacrifice. Young women, offered up to the Mayan rain-god, Chaac, were thrown into the waters and drowned. The cenote still offers up evidence of its grisly past in the form of jewellery, rings and the bones of the sacrificed. Despite its grim associations, Cenote Sagrado is a very popular attraction, particularly when the heat of the midday sun makes standing out in the open a chore.

In all its ragged grandeur, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s must-see attractions. While you may not be able to climb the 365 steps on the Pyramid of Kukulcan, there are plenty of passages and buildings to explore, such as the Temple of the Skulls, the ancient, spiralling observatory, known as ‘The Snail’, and the Great Market. Fascinating for visitors of all ages.