Chichen Itza – my review for Viva Travel Guides

This is my longest entry so far – over 3,000 words – for Viva Travel Guides new book on Mexico, just submitted to the editor today for review. Lots of people have written about the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, so I really wanted to get it right! We’ll see if I did!

Oh, and this hasnt been cleaned up yet in terms of consistency of presentation between sections. That’s the next task. But I wanted to give you an idea of the kind of writing I’m doing for the guide book.

The Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza. Credit: discoverchichenitza.com

The Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, also known as El Castillo.

 

Chichén Itzá

Overview  On a crowded afternoon at Chichen Itza it may feel as if Cancun’s three million annual visitors stepped off the tour bus at the same time you did, but really, they did not. Located just a three-hour air-conditioned bus ride from the resort’s beaches, the reconstructed Mayan city of Chichen Itza is the Yucatan Peninsula’s top travel destination after Cancun. And despite the buses, the crowds and the trinket sellers, there’s a reason tourists and Mayan purists continue to make the trek to Chichen Itza: it is simply spectacular, like no other place in Mexico, or for that matter, in the world.

That rare beast, Chichen Itza is a critical and popular hit. The Mayan city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988, possessing a  “cultural and natural heritage having outstanding universal value.” In 2007, after 7 years of furious campaigning and 100 million internet votes, Chichen Itza was selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. As New7Wonders Foundation President Bernard Weber put it, “The people have spoken, history was made.”

And, so, the people continue to come – school children, couples, backpackers and retirees, Mexican grandmothers with tiny ones clutching their hands, day trippers clad in unnecessary jungle cargo pants. For most, this may be the one time in their lives they encounter an ancient civilization, and they are changed by the experience.

Climbing El Castillo was halted in 2006 after an 80-year old woman fell to her death, ending a decades-long rite of passage for visitors. For those lucky enough to have done it before the ban, few will ever forget the thrill of reaching the top, gazing out across the Great Plaza to the Temple of the Warriors as only select ancient priests (and sacrificial victims) were ever allowed to do.

Tel Code: 985

Altitude 29m, 98 feet

Pop: 4,000 (Piste)

Entrance Fee: MX$111 (includes Sound and Light show)

When to go (climate, holidays, festivals) Climate: Chichen Itza has a humid subtropical climate with two distinct seasons: wet and dry. Temperatures range year-round from 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit. The dry season runs from November to May. The rainy season runs June through October and features daily afternoon downpours. The rainy season combination of extreme heat and high humidity can be overwhelming. Holidays/festivals: Tens of thousands of travelers crowd Chichen Itza on the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, March 21 and September 21 for the shadowy appearance of Kukulkan.

Getting to and away (regional transportation)  By Car: Chichen Itza is located about halfway between Cancun and Merida near the town of Piste and is served by both a free Highway 180 and the toll road (Carretera de Cuota) Highway 180D.

From Cancun: The highway meanders 240 km on its way through many small towns and their many speed bumps. It will take about 4 hours to drive from Cancun to Chichen Itza. Using the cuota from Cancun will cost about MX$225 and take between 2 ½ and 3 hours. After you pass Valladolid begin looking for the exit

From Merida: The same toll road to Cancun also leads to Chichen Itza. Drive 120km and take the Chichen Itza/Piste. You will arrive in about 1 ½ hour.

Once you get off the toll road in Piste drive into the town until you reach the T-intersection, where you will see the old church on your right. Turn left and you will reach Chichen Itza in less than 5 minutes.

From Valladolid: Take the free Highway 180 for the approximately ½ hour ride to Chichen Itza. Be careful on this road – it’s narrow, with vehicles making frequent stops and covered with axle-breaking speed bumps.

By Bus: Chichen Itza is served by ADO, Oriente, ATS with arrivals and departures for the cities of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Valladolid and Merida. These buses all use the Chichen Itza visitors center. Tickets can be purchased from the booth inside the Libreria Dante. (More 2nd class buses serving the same cities depart from the Piste stations, so make sure you ask which station to use. Westbound buses stop at the west end of town and eastbound buses stop near the Hotel Piramide Inn.)

Valladolid: 18 departures daily, 5:54am to 5:35pm, 40 minutes, 1st class/MX$44, 2nd class/MX$20

Cancun: 13 departures daily, 5:54am to 5:35pm, 3 hrs 55 min, 1st class/MX$162, 2nd class/MX$108

Merida: 2 departures daily, 2:20pm and 5:00pm 1 hr, 40 min. 1st class/MX$94. Or take any bus to Valladolid for connections to Merida.

Playa del Carmen: 3 departures daily. 2nd class, 7:35am, 3 hrs 57 min, MX$112. 1st class,  – 1435 and 4:30pm, 3 hrs, 30 min, MX$218.

Tulum: 4 departures daily. 2nd class, 7:35am, 2 hrs 51 min, MX$78.00. 1st class: 8:25am, 2:35pm, 4:30pm, 2 hrs 20 min, MX$118

Airport: The nearest airports to Chichen Itza are in Cancun and Merida. The local Chichen Itza International Airport services private and charter flights only.

Getting around  It’s an easy flat 1 ½ mile walk from Piste to Chichen Itza but avoid the midday sun which can be overwhelming during the summer. Taxis from Piste to the Chichen Itza site cost MX$30 and to the Zona Hotelera, $70. The taxi stand is on the main square on the Calle 15 side. A responsible and honest driver is Edgar Chable. Cell: 52 985 200 6459. No collectivos to the ruins.

Safety   Travelers do not need to fear for their personal safety at Chichen Itza or in the town of Piste. Use the lockers in the visitors center to safeguard your belongings. If you walk into the woodsy areas surrounding the site, watch out for the usual jungle creatures, like snakes, scorpions and mosquitos. If you run into a jaguar, alert the media because you will be the first person to see one here in centuries.

Services The visitors center at the entrance to Chichen Itza contains all the services a travel would expect: money exchange, ATM, tourist information desk, bathrooms, lockers, post office, phone and internet. The center also contains a branch of Merida’s Libreria Dante where you can buy fine books about Chichen Itza. A convenient feature is the transportation desk where you can purchase bus tickets for ADO and Oriente buses, which leave hourly for Cancun, Merida, Valladolid, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. The closest hospital is in Valladolid.

Things to See and Do Summary  The highlights of Chichen Itza can easily be seen in one day, and all visits should include El Castillo, Ball Court, Sacred Cenote, Temple of the Warriors, Observatory, and Nunnery. Tickets to the site automatically include admission to the evening sound and light show and if you’re staying overnight, attend this tacky but entertaining spectacle. After visiting Chichen Itza itself, spend a second day nearby, hiking through Balancanche Cave and then heading to Cenote Ik Kil for swimming and lunch.

Chichén Itzá Ruins  Chichen Itza fascinates historians and archeologists as a city with a long, complicated development, displaying in its construction elements of Maya and Toltec style. This fusion has led to competing theories of origin and growth but one fact remains paramount: Chichen Itza was long a cosmopolitan Meso-American center, influencing and influenced by a wide geographic area.

Urbanized first in the 5th century AD, the city was likely settled because of two deep sources of water, including the Sacred Cenote. In the 6th century the area known now as Chichen Viejo emerged. Its buildings indicate the influence of the southern Yucatan region, with aspects of the Puuc and Chenes styles prominently featured in the architecture.

Major Chichen Itza buildings date from the early 10th century, during which the city reached its peak. Ongoing controversy surrounds the reason for strong Toltec, or Central Mexico, influence in Chichen Itza’s appearance. It was during this time that the city found its distinctive visual style: the gentler, detailed lyricism of Mayan esthetics emboldened by the aggressiveness and weight of the Toltec.

Around 1,000 AD, the Itzás inhabited and renamed the city. Some archeologists surmise that neighboring Mayapan overwhelmed the city in 1220 AD. Current theory holds that Chichen Itza did not collapse and was never fully abandoned. It remained a viable military force when, in 1533, Mayan warriors repelled the Spanish soldiers led by Francisco de Montejo the Younger. By 1588 Chichen Itza, however, had become a cattle-raising Spanish hacienda.

Contemporary fascination with Chichen Itza began in 1843 with the publication of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. In 1894 Edward Thompson began his exploration of the site and was succeeded by Sylvanus Morley in 1924. Working alongside these foreign explorers have been countless native Mexican archeologists and laborers; the site and its excavation is supervised by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

Discoveries continue unabated at Chichen Itza. In 2009 archeologist Rafael Cobos uncovered the base of a building that dates possibly from the year 800 AD, located between El Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors. As time, money, scholarship and luck permit, revealing Chichen Itza’s hidden mysteries will take centuries.

El Castillo: The Temple of Kukulkan, nicknamed El Castillo or The Castle, is instantly recognized around the world and has become the unofficial image of the Yucatan and Mayan Mexico. Dedicated to the supreme deity at Chichen Itza, Kukulkan, or the feathered serpent, was also known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl.

Dating to the 10th century, El Castillo was reconstructed by the Mexican government in the 1920s and 1930s. The north staircase is dominated by handrails shaped like snakes, with snarling mouths at the base. On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes (March 21 and September 21) the sun’s rays hit the pyramid and cast the shadow of an undulating snake, symbolizing the return of Kukulkan to Chichen Itza.

The construction of El Castillo itself symbolizes the advanced Mayan understanding of astronomy: the number of steps on the building equal the 365 days of the solar year. 18 terraces on each side of the pyramid equal the months of the Haab calendar and the 52 terrace panels represent the number of years in the round calendar.

Ball Court: The Chichen Iza ball court, at 6.5 meters long by 30 meters wide, is the largest of more than 1,300 Mesoamerican ball courts in which teams gained points by propelling a rubber ball through a ring. The bloody practice of beheading the winner (or the loser) is displayed here on carved medallions.

Tzompantli (Wall of Skulls), Temple of the Jaguars, Platform of the Eagles, Temple of Venus: In the Great Plaza are found four unique structures, each with its own purpose: The Temple of Venus was likely the podium for rites, ceremonies or dances.  Tribute was paid to fierce warriors in the Temple of the Jaguars and Platform of the Eagles. Freshly decapitated human heads were displayed on the Tzompantli.

Sacred Cenote: Chichen Itza was named the “mouth of the well of the Itzaes” after the Sacred Cenote, the home of the rain god Chac and an entrance into the underworld. It is 60 meters across and 37 meters from rim to bottom, and contained over 4,000 ritual offerings, including jade, amber, gold ceramics and human skeletons.

Temple of the Warriors: With individualistic portraits of warriors carved on its 200 columns, this temple represents the peak of Maya-Toltec style. At the top of the staircase is found Chichen Itza’s iconic image, the reclining statue of Chac Mool, staring out, ready to receive a sacrifice on his flat belly.

Temple of the Thousand Columns: In contrast to the typical small rooms formed by the Mayan arch, the Temple of the Thousand Columns was a vast, covered space. Whether a market or meeting hall, the quadrangle would have been a teeming intersection of life at Chichen Itza, the gathering place of priests, warriors, merchants and governors.

The Observatory or El Caracol: El Caracol is a large platform surmounted by a round tower, remarkably similar to today’s observatories. It received its nickname because the building’s interior resembles the chambered shell of a snail. First built around 800 AD, and added to substantially over the years, the Observatory is tall enough so that ancient astronomers could sit above Yucatan’s tree canopy and observe the movements of the stars. Astronomical, mathematical and architectural geniuses, they aligned the three remaining window slots on the highest level with important celestial events: the equinox and solstice positions of the moon and sun and the path of Venus through the heavens.

Las Monjas: No, nuns did not live in this building – it received that name because the Spanish thought it looked like a convent. Probably a residential palace, the impressive building dates from 880 AD. On the adjacent La Iglesia (The Church), a crab, an armadillo, a snail and a tortoise can be found.

Ik Kil Parque Ecoarqueológico Open daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day, the restaurant, park and cenote of Ik Kil provide a verdant escape from the direct sun of Chichen Itza, but not from the busloads of tourists. To escape them and have the inviting cenote to yourself, stay overnight in one of Ik Kil’s bungalows, which feature air conditioning, private terrace and Jacuzzi. Swimmers enter the tranquil blue waters of the cenote via a wide staircase, walking past trailing vines a hundred feet long. Ik Kil is located on Highway 180 3km east of Chichen Itza, across from the Hotel Dolores Alba. Entrance fee is MX$75. Website: http://www.cenoteikil.com/. email:
cenoteikil2000@yahoo.com.mx

Grutas de Balankanché  In 1959, guide Jose Humberto Gomez discovered a new passage into and through one of Yucatan’s largest cave systems, Balankanche, which means “hidden throne.” Carefully placed among the cavern’s passageways were hundreds of Mayan offerings – ceramic vases, jars, and incense burners – still on display today. Cave entrance requires following the hokey recorded sound and light tour. Even this show cannot diminish the wonder of seeing stalagmites and stalagtites growing together to form the sacred Maya ceiba tree.  Balankanche is located five kilometers east of Chichen Itza on the road to Valladolid. 9am-5pm, MX$67. Sound and Light tours: Spanish: 9am/12, 2, 4 pm; French: 10am; English: 11am/3, 5pm

Tour Operators Many operators offer guided tours from Merida and Cancun. Packages typically include hotel pickup and dropoff, transportation in air conditioned bus or van, service of a licensed guide in the language of your choice at the archeological zone and buffet lunch. From Cancun, Gay Vacations provides first-class service and it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight. From Merida, Mayan Ecotours offers round trip tours or can arrange continuing on to Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

Gay Vacations: Price: US$70 per person. Contact Francesca Monarca, , Retorno Galeana Lt 58, Mz 22, Smz 50, Col. San Angel, C.P. 77533  CANCUN, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Tel/Fax: + 52 998 251 0415, USA: 760 946 7166, email: fm@gayvacations.com.mx, Website: www.gayvacations.com.mx

Mayan Ecotours: Prices: Adults and children above 11 years old: MX$375. Children 5-10 years old: MX$300. No charge for children under age four. Contact Mayan Ecotours:
 Calle 80 No. 561 x 13-1, Col. Residencial Pensiones 6a. Etapa C.P. 97217, Mérida, Yucatán, México, Tel: 52 999 987 3710
 Cell: 52 044 999 243 1489 
Email: info@mayanecotours.com Website: www.mayanecotours.com

Accommodation Summary  Accommodations in Chichen Itza are varied, and of varying quality and price, as you would expect in a heavily-touristed area. Hotels are clustered in two groups, with the expensive resorts set in the Zona Hotelera surrounding Chichen Itza, and the cheaper hotels lining the road between the archeological zone and the town of Piste. Wherever you reside, what an overnight stay offers is the ease of arriving early at the ruins, avoiding the hordes of buses that arrive later.

Hacienda Chichen & Yaxkin Spa, US$120-165.  The elegant, spacious grounds of an original Spanish home form the core of Hacienda Chichen & Yaxkin Spa, which pampers guests with its unique combination of traditional Mayan ways and contemporary customer service. Choose the Dr. Merle Greene Robertson cottage for your stay, the home of the Mayanist and artist during her annual fieldtrips. The Hacienda Chichen also receives high marks for its Fundacion Maya in Laakeech, which is dedicated to helping the local Mayan communities of its employees. Address: Km 120 Carretera Merida- Puerto Juarez | Zona Hotelera, Chichen Itza 97752, Mexico, Website: http://www.haciendachichen.com/index.htm, Email: info@haciendachichen.com, Tel: Local Phone: +52-999-920-8407, 8408, USA & Canada Toll Free: 1-877-631-4005, Fax: +52-999-925-3952, 28 rooms. Low Season: US$120-185, High US$160-270.


Hotel and Bungalows Mayaland, US$98-144  Mayaland is the original Chichen Itza hacienda designed in the 1920s by explorer Sylvanus Moreley and receives the site’s largest groups of daytrippers and package tours.  But, it still sets the highest standard for accommodations, service and physical beauty. It’s the only hotel in Chichen Itza with a view of the ruins – the Observatory is just a few hundred meters away! Travelers wishing a full-service hotel experience and easy access to the ruins will find what they are looking for at Mayaland. 60 rooms. Address: Km 120 carretera Merida-Puerto Juarez, Chichen Itza 97751, Mexico, Website: mayaland.com, Email: info@mayaland.com, Tel: USA 800 235 4079, Mex 800 719 5465, Int 52 998 887 2495, Fax 52 998 884 4510


Hotel Posada Chichen, MX$780-1200

Part of the Mayaland hotel group, Hotel Posada Chichen (also known as Hotel Chichen Itza) is found right on the main road from Piste to Chichen, within walking distance of the center of town, bus station and the 24-hour Oxxo mini-mart. Its low-slung, two-wing building makes it more of an American-style motel, and a welcoming swimming pool lies at its center. Manuel Carrillo is the helpful manager. With the convenient location comes street noise, so if that bothers you ask for a room in the rear wing. 44 rooms, Web: www.mayaland.com.mx, Email: Recepcionchichen@mayaland.com, Tel: 52 985 851 0022, Fax: 52 985 851 0023

Hotel Piramide Inn, MX$450  Located in the town of Piste just 1km from the Chichen Itza main entrance, Piramide Inn offers a good value for the price. With room prices ranging from MX$450, the garden hotel also offers Chichen’s least expensive overnight option: camp or rent a hammack for just MX$50 per person per night. Piramide Inn is conveniently placed next door to the bus terminal, and contains a restaurant, photo gallery, swimming pool and even its own unexcavated Mayan ruin! 45 rooms, Address: Calle 15-A No. 30, between 30 and 20, Piste, Yucatan 97751, Mexico (Km. 117 Carrer. Merida-Puerto Juarez), Web: www.chichen.com, Email: piramideinn@yahoo.com, Tel: 52-(985) 851-0115, Fax: 52-(985) 851-0114

Hotel Felix Inn, (MX$650-750)  A less expensive alternative to the better-known Chichen Itza hotels, Hotel Felix Inn supplies the visitor with some much-desired amenities. After exploring Chichen Itza hang out at the inviting bar or enjoy a meal in sky-lighted dining room. Escape the sun by lounging poolside or under the wide eaves covering the outside passageways. The Hotel Felix Inn is a convenient walk to the Piste town center, with its tiny church, market stalls, restaurants and shops. 7 rooms, Address: Calle 15, 57 Piste, Chichen Itza, Mexico, email: hotelfelix@hotelfelixinn.com.mx, Tel: 851 0033, Website: http://felixinn.iespana.es/


Hotel Posada Chac Mool, MX$220-740.  Clean and well-tended, Hotel Posada Chac Mool is an inexpensive family-owned and operated 10 room hotel. Windows have screens and the rooms are priced according to whether they have ceiling fans or AC, and may contain a combination of single and/or double beds. A particular bargain is the upstairs suite that sleeps 7 people, priced at only MX$750 per night. The friendly owner, Estela Yam Pat, makes the kitchen and laundry and laundry available to guests. She’s a sweetheart! 10 rooms, Address: Calle 15, No. 15G, between 2 and 2B (next to Restaurant Las Mestizas), Tel: 52 985 701 0270.

Restaurant Summary: The Chichen Itza dining experience is largely determined by the length of your stay: day-trippers from Cancun likely eat at restaurant catering to tour buses or at the zone’s onsite restaurant; those staying in the Zona Hotelera, eat in the hotel’s restaurants out of convenience; and, those overnighting in Piste drift toward the homey restaurants the locals eat at. Wherever you find yourself, try some of the region’s specialties, something with Mayan roots, to immerse your tastebuds in the ancient culture.

Hacienda Xaybe’h d’Camara  Popular with tour groups, Xaybe’h is frequently crowded but still maintains a good level of service and food quality. For a fixed price of MX$120 you receive a full meal of salad, meats and side dishes, and dessert. Beverages not included. A perennial favorite is the Yucatan specialty cochinilla pibil – pit roasted pork – the English menu gives a full description. After lunch, take a dip in the large swimming pool which is the centerpiece of the restaurant’s lush gardens. Address: Calle 15-A, No. 42, Piste (opposite Hotel Posada Chichen), Tel: 52 985 851 0039, Fax: 52 985 851 0000, Email: xaybeh@prodigy.net.mx

Restaurant Las Mestizas  Las Mestizas is considered the best restaurant in Piste. It gets frequent high marks from both travelers and guidebooks, all of which are well deserved. Specializing in Yucatecan “comida regional” Mestizas takes pride in its authentic preparation of such dishes as the Tzic de Res (beef marinated in sour orange) and Pavo en Relleno Negro (stuffed turkey in blackened chile sauce). Other favorites include Valladolid’s famous longaniza sausage and the Pierna Asado  (pork leg served with habanero chile sauce). Address: Calle 15, No. 15-J, Piste, Tinum, Yucatan, Tel: 52 985 851 0069, 7:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m

El Zocalo This is a nice, little restaurant where Piste locals come to eat simple Yucatec food. If you want to get away from the larger restaurants in town and at the ruins that cater to busloads of tourists, come to El Zocalo for comida economica and comida rapida: both names for the good, cheap food available at Mexico’s unpretentious eateries. A favorite with local taxi drivers, you will find El Zocalo opposite the taxi stand on the main square. MX$10-50, Calle 15. (Highway 180-the Kantunil-Valladolid Highway)

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