Chichén Itzá, Mexico
Have you seen Mel Gibsons ‘Apocolypto’? It’s a horribly depressing film. Brutally violent and knowing Mel Gibson, probably anti-Semitic in some parts as well. But it does present a detailed account of aspects of Mayan civilisation and our next destination features prominently in it. Mainly as a great platform from which to hurl sacrificial severed heads.
Chichen Itza was recently named one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’, and now along with Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, would be the second of the wonders we’d seen so far on this epic trip. Given that we were on a Caribbean Island and the temple is located in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula; we had an early start in the darkness of pre-dawn to trudge the streets against the clock, to get the ferry port on the other side of town. We made the ferry with about 10 minutes to spare and sat there with typically sleepy Mexicans bobbing around like a cork on the water until it rang 6am and the boat could depart. And as we did, the sun glowed it’s first orange rays from behind the town of Cozumel, beautifully illuminating the inky blue ocean. We sat in tired silence for 40 minutes or so and departed into the hands of taxi drivers who would be disappointed that our destination, the bus station, was simply a 2 minute walk from the dock.
We managed to get some early morning breakfast crepes and some oversized coffees down the hatch before boarding the bus inland to Chichen Itza. When traveling by bus it is critically important to take a toilet stop as immediately before departure as possible, and also at any other possible moment; even if you don’t need to go. Though the buses have toilets; they’re bus toilets. And as it turned out, someone had taken a **** in ours. A big no-no. The toilets at Playa Del Carmen were stationed by some gossiping women but they told me it was closed and I would need to find one outside.
‘When’s it going to be open? I’m leaving now.’ I asked in Spanish to contemptuous shrugs.
Fine. I’ll go at our next stop. The bus took this weird path back south to Tulum, we were certain it was to go through Cancun. But as it turned out, the same rubbish with the bathrooms was happening in Tulum as well.. ‘Find a toilet outside’ the toilet said in Spanish. The attendant agreed. But I was concerned I wouldn’t have time and resolved to using the bus toilet instead. Hence how I know about the filthy deposit. Anyway.
The bus actually dropped us off at ‘The Wonder’. Forgive me if I lapse into such plain labels but I’m tuning Carl Pilkington’s ‘An Idiot Abroad’ series when he happened to visit the place as well. A great series, you should check it out.
It was about 12pm I suppose when we arrived. It occurred to me that were we not overly fussed about braving crowds and just ‘whipping around’ we could have seen The Wonder, boarded the Cancun bus at 4:30pm and been done with it. But we’d booked a hotel, with the anticipation of seeing tonights ‘light and sound’ show and getting an early morning start on the crowds, and hopefully catch a sunrise.
‘There is no light and sound show; the park opens at 8am’ the lady at check-in informs us robotically like she’s said it 20 times a day for the past 5 years. Probably has actually. Okay well great, a sleep in and a night on the **** then.
The hotel was really bloody nice. We paid something stupid like 20 bucks a head per night for a room with all those little bottles of shampoo and moisturizer and too many towels and thematically dressed staff. There was a swimming pool with poorly imitated Mayan sculptures around it and a handful of coconuts floating in it. But it was completely vacant. Likely story was that everyone was on ‘expedition at The Wonder’ but entirely possible it was like Stanley Kubriks ‘The Shining’ as well. We all sat together in the empty restaurant with one bored waiter and ordered lunch; consisting perhaps of other guests. But thankfully some 20 minutes later, some Germans walked through; back from their day at The Wonder.
More and more people arrived, hot and sweaty.. and.. making use of the generous 1pm check-out time, snuck in a dirty swim in the pool before packing up and leaving. Those that stayed were treated to a delightfully touristy performance that night at dinner consisting of a Mexican couple dancing (and by dancing I mean skipping on the spot and clicking their fingers at each other) with beer bottles on their heads. We skipped out just before they came around with the tip hat. We’re backpacking after all and that’s what backpackers do. Exploit and leave without paying.
We actually got up a bit late, had breakfast after all the tour groups in the hotel and wandered 10 minutes up the road to the site’s back entrance. We paid our entrance fee and federal park trust taxes and walked the tree lined path to the main ruin. There was a handful of people around I suppose but not many. And the weather had turned cold and a bit wet. The central pyramid of Chicen Itza ..‘El Castillo’, stood prominently in an open field of weathered short grass. It’s seemingly perfect form knife-like in precision, almost cutting the air around it, projecting it up and off the page. It’s representative of the Mayan Calendar and prominently features a serpentine carving on it’s staircase, which becomes an illusionary phenomenon at the spring and autumn equinoxes. At the top is a colonnade surrounded room from which the sacrificial heads were hurtled down the staircases on each of the four sides. It’s a formidable structure and the restoration work on one of the sides helps form a fantastic imaginative picture. One or two of the crowd had started clapping periodically and loudly at the structure. And the structure returns a kind of chirping sound which the locals state is a deliberate representation of the Quetzel, a typical bird of the area. We got the same story at Tikal as well. Pretty crafty stuff if was indeed deliberate. I reckon they just chanced it and one day a little Mayan thought.. hey.. it sounds like a Quetzel.. and the legend was born.
The Mayans liked sports. Did you know that? There’s a Great Ball Court to which players had the impossible task of hurling a ball through a horizontal stone hoop attached to the wall about 8 meters up. The winners.. yes winners were sacrificed.
Their heads could have ended up on the nearby table of heads though it’s been noted that most often the heads of enemies lined the fence as warning to visitors that the Mayans meant serious business. There’s all these skeletal carvings along the wall, making for a very ominous presence.. if you could get past the continual clapping occurring in the center around the Castillo.
You can visit a large sinkhole or cenote in the north of site. It’s murky green waters some 40 meters below were once used (again) for sacrifices to encourage the weather gods to be kinder.
By the time we’d returned from the cenote, the crowds had emerged from Playa and Cancun. Topless Russian men in speedos (I’m not kidding) and women in high-heels were joining in the clapping chorus. Like an applause to an invisible dancer. We’d seen most of the sight, been dazzled and amazed and now it was time to leave.
We checked out a few minutes after 1pm (..backpackers right? .. I know.. ) and sat in the restaurant and ordered hamburgers, just killing time until our bus to Cancun at 4:30pm from the car-park of ‘The Wonder’. What to expect in Cancun? It has this horrible reputation for spring breakers from the US. So maybe it’s like a Bali for Americans? But then we’ve heard the beach is amazing. The plan for the next few days was simply to get there, stay a night and leave the next morning to an adjoining island, Isla Mujeres, only some 15
minutes away by ferry and much quieter.