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Magnificent Maya ruins in Mexico

Marvin West

El Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza
Author Marvin West atop El Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza, Yucatan
© Sarah West

Going up was exciting and easy does it, steady now, high, narrow steps, 91 or 92, definitely one at a time. Coming down looked and felt like a disaster waiting to happen.


What am I doing up here? Oh, for a handrail or safety rope or a parachute. On our first serious visit to Mexico, back in the old days, the touristy thing to do, after Cancun, was to catch a bus, take a tour, or rent a Volkswagen bug, drive to Chichen Itza (chee-chen eet-zah) and scale the magnificent pyramid, El Castillo, featured attraction at the most famous Maya ruins in the Yucatan.

I remember the adventure, quibbling about the cost of auto insurance, going early to beat the crowd, highway 180, the parking lot, vendors selling "authentic" souvenirs.

We did not arrive early enough. It was already hot.

Back then, climbing the pyramid was permitted and it was an awesome experience, what a view, pausing here and there to marvel at this reclaimed ancient city, to study the surrounding dense jungle, to wonder who did what and how things were a thousand or many more years ago.

There had to be more to this stunning stack of rocks than the worship of Kukulkan, a Maya deity, the feathered serpent known some places as Quetzalcoatl. This was undoubtedly more than just a ceremonial center or a shrine to some bright idea or a tomb for rulers past, present and future.

What are the secrets? What was the grand scheme? And who was the genius architect who drew the plan? How did engineers and craftsmen do it, cut and haul and fit those blocks of limestone with such absolute precision?

Maybe you have heard that at spring and fall equinoxes, with the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a snake along the side of a staircase. I didn't see it but I've been told that it is amazing how that shadow slithers along. How does that happen? Was it an absolute accident or was there a Maya astronomer with an incredible calculator?

Descending the pyramid at Chichen Itza
A chain helps climbers
© Sarah West

There are so many interesting questions with answers left mostly to the imagination. When was the peak period? Were Toltecs the originators or second owners? Why did they abandon the site — did they die or flee or just move away? Why did the Itzá people come in for a while, build a few things, and then move out?

Agriculture appears easy enough. There is water. The cenotes looks like forever, now as then.

Chichen Itza is big. Much of it is logical. The Court of a Thousand Columns raises a few eyebrows.

Achievements of the Maya, considering natural limitations, are astounding. These people had an advanced civilization, surely among the most enlightened in the world. Nothing comparable existed in what became upper America. The Maya had a complex calendar. They had a writing system. They were advanced in math. Smart, very smart.

Alas, Chichen Itza was not all sweetness and light, pretty flowers and ripe mangoes. Gladiators are depicted along the stone walls at the Temple of the Warriors. We are told that high priests sacrificed other humans — you go today, you tomorrow. Beating hearts were cut out and offered to strange gods. Stone carvings show heads, prizes or warnings, displayed on tall poles. The main ball court has hoops and sport carvings that resemble lacrosse or jai alai. There is also the haunting image of a headless player, blood flowing from the neck. Another player holds the displaced head, perhaps a trophy of triumph, winner takes all.

At the Temple of Jaguars, a mural tells the story of battle. At the church are masks and animals, perhaps pagan symbols, a snail, a crab, an armadillo, a tortoise. There is one rare building by Maya standards, a round tower called El Caracol, no doubt an astronomical observatory.

Our visit did it no harm. Much later it was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

The genuine mystery of Chichén Itzá is how the story of the Maya prophecy got out of control. It was said that on Dec. 21, 2012, the great flying serpent, Kukulkán, would surge up from under the ball field, ripping and snorting, and bring down the world, smack! Just like that.

We were on that very ball count, taking photographs, and didn't see or hear or feel a thing.

As you know, the calendar that suggested the end was only measuring a segment of time. More and maybe better days are to come. Use a few to celebrate and see the magnificent Maya ruins in Mexico Palenque, Tulum, Coba, Uxmall, Becan, Bonampak, Xel-Ha, El Balam, many others.

Maybe, sometime, we'll tell you about those we have seen but did not climb.

Published or Updated on: August 10, 2012 by Marvin West © 2012
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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