Discover Chichen Itza, ancient capital of the Itzae Maya and a sacred center where rulers and astronomers once watched the heavens for messages from the gods. A masterpiece of architecture and art, the city still has an air of mystery.
Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery in Chichen Itza proving that there was a settlement at the site as far back as 300 B.C., although it wasn’t until the Late Classic period of Mayan history A.D. 750 -900 that the city began to grow.
At some point during the 10th century, Chichén was invaded and colonized by the Itzae, a Chontal or Putun Maya tribe from the Gulf coast of Campeche and Tabasco. They brought architectural and artistic influences from central Mexico and it was under their rule that the city became a major power.
At the height of its glory (A.D. 800 – 1150), Chichen Itza controlled the Yucatán politically, commercially and militarily. The city extended for 30 square kilometers and had a network of 70 sacbes or roads, which linked different temple complexes, markets, residential areas and surrounding satellite settlements. The city went into decline around 1150 and was abandoned by 1250.
The principal buildings in the central plaza are the Pyramid of Kukulcan (El Castillo), Temple of the Warriors, Ball Court, Temple of the Jaguars and Tzompantli and the Temple of a 1000 Columns. A short walk through the forest from the central plaza is the Sacred Well, a huge cenote, which was the site of sacrifices in honor of the rain god Chaac. Another path links the central plaza with the Ossuary, Observatory or El Caracol and Las Monjas complex, including several small temples with impressive carvings depicting masks symbolizing Chaac, the rain god. To the south of Las Monjas other temples lie deep in the forest in an area known as Chichen Viejo (Old Chichen).
The Pyramid of Kukulcan is a solar clock. It is so precisely aligned that during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the north face of the pyramid catches the rays of the setting sun and triangles of light and shadow form along the staircase, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent, Kukulcan (the feathered serpent god) returning to earth to rejoin his followers.
The magnificent buildings you’ll see as you explore the site have earned Chichen Itza a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. In 2007 it was also voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a global poll.
After your visit to Chichen Itza why not have a late lunch in one of the nearby hotels and stay on for the impressive evening light and sound video mapping show in the central plaza (separate admission fee).
An hour’s drive from Merida, Uxmal is one of the loveliest ancient cities in the Maya World. During the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), it was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities referred to as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná.
Apart from location, these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.
Highlights at Uxmal are the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nuns’ Quadrangle, a gracious courtyard surrounded by four palace-like buildings with magnificent friezes, the Temple of the Birds, Palace of the Governor and the adjoining Great Pyramid, The House of the Turtles and El Palomar.
The Puuc Route
A 30-minute drive from Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest Puuc site and is famous for the Codz Pop, a temple with an impressive frieze featuring 250 chaac masks. Sayil is next with its three-tiered Palace, and the smallest site, Xlapak, lies nearby. The highlight at Labná is the magnificent freestanding carved korbel arch.
Just north of Mérida en route to the port of Progreso, this site was continuously inhabited from 1000 B.C. up to the Spanish Conquest. Highlights include the Temple of the Seven Dolls, Xlaca’ Cenote, a colonial chapel and the Museum of Mayan People.
A 30-minute drive from Valladolid is the ancient city of Ek Balam, “black jaguar or star jaguar” in Maya. The city flourished between A.D. 250-1200 and its crowning glory is the façade on the upper level of the Acropolis, the principal building, which features the magnificent stucco figure of an ancient lord thought to be the first ruler of the city and founder of a powerful dynasty. The figure is known locally as “en angel” because it appears to have wings. Archaeologists believe that it is actually an impressive feathered headdress and cape.
Mayapan was the last capital of the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. It was founded around A.D. 1250 during the post-Classic period of Mayan civilization and abandoned in 1450. Mayapan’s two most important buildings are smaller copies of El Castillo and the Observatory at Chichen Itza and archaeologists believe that it was settled by Maya fleeing the fall of Chichen.