Chichen Itza, the “City of the Water Wizards”, is probably the best-preserved of the ancient Mayan sites in all of Mexico. Archaeologists think the city may have been home to 35,000 people at its zenith, from about 800 to 1100 AD. Walking into the site is awe-inspiring because of its scale.
The most impressive ruin is El Castillo, a huge pyramid dedicated to the Mayan god, Kukulcan, the local equivalent to Quetzlcoatl of the Aztecs. The pyramid is 24 meters (about 75 feet) tall. Its four sides are stairways, each with 91 steps, making a total of 365 steps in all, the number of days in the Mayan year (the Mayan culture was obsessed with time and there are many examples of time related symbols on the site). The stairways rise at a 45o angle and, until recently, could be climbed by the fit and courageous. This practice was ceased in late 2006. Authorities cited numerous accidents, damage to the structure and graffiti for their change of heart.
Another structure on the premises is the Observatory (El Caracol) which was obviously used for astronomical purposes. The slits in the walls are associated with the positions of key stars on certain, important dates of the year.
The Ball Court is the largest in all of Mesoamerica with a length of about 170 meters (550 feet). The games that were played were more ceremonial and much more serious than sport, and there is evidence that the losers were decapitated.
The Temple of the Warriors is perched on a small pyramid and is noteworthy for its snake-like columns and sculptures of Chac, the Mayan god of rain and lightening, and Kukulcan.
North of the Platform of Venus is a path which leads to the Sacred Cenote (Cenote means “well”). This well, however, was not used as a source of water, but had a more sinister purpose. Human sacrifices occurred here. Chosen individuals were thrown into the well to drown.
One of the best places to stay in the region is Cancun, a beach resort on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. What was originally a sleepy fishing village has been transformed into a mega-resort complex with all the associated services. The beaches themselves are beautiful, white and sandy and the weather is almost always excellent. The majority of hotels and resorts are found along the spit of land called Isla Cancun or Zona Hotelera. Much of the shopping, another activity for which Cancun is famous, is found downtown.
In addition, there are myriad aquatic activities available as well as tours or transportation to various other attractions in the area. After all, this is the Mayan Riviera, the most important travel destination in all of Mexico.
Cancun is approximately 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Chichen Itza.
There are several other Mayan sites in the Yucatan which can also be conveniently visited from Cancun. Tulum, for instance, is only 81 miles (130 kilometers) away. Tulum is a late-Mayan city, dating to approximately 1200 to 1500 AD and is unusual in that it is the only Mayan site directly on the coast. As such, it has a special fascination because of its great views over the Caribbean.
Tulum is basically a walled fortress and some of its structures were, no doubt, lookout posts. The site is dominated by El Castillo, a temple on top of a pyramid. Also of note is the Temple of the Frescoes, which was probably an astronomical observatory.
Much further away, and probably requiring an overnight stop is another incredible Mayan archaeological site, Uxmal. Most of the buildings here probably were constructed between the 7th and 10th centuries. The architecture here and at other Mayan sites in this region is referred to as Puuc, named for the mountain range in the western part of the Yucatan.
Notable structures of this civilization include the Nunnery Quadrangle, a large rectangular building with 74 rooms surrounding a central courtyard. The decorative stonework is actually made up of small carved stones placed together, in other words, a mosaic.
The Magician’s Pyramid is the most imposing structure in the complex and also the tallest at 35 meters (115 feet). Stairs of the pyramid are extremely steep. It is unusual in that it has an elliptical base and contains five (5) temples.
The Governor’s Palace is actually three buildings connected by Mayan arches and also contains mosaic decorative panels depicting Chac, the Mayan god of rain.
Another interesting and unique building is known as the Dovecote because of its unusual roof façade. It was probably a palace.