At a time when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, the
Mayan culture was thriving in the jungles of Mexico
and Guatemala. Without the use of metal tools,
the wheel or beasts of burden, the Mayans cleared away huge
areas of jungle and constructed canals, roads and giant temples.
They were masters of mathematics, developed a writing system
all of their own and studied astronomy. The vast city of Chichén
Itzá was the nerve centre of this remarkable civilisation,
and it dominated the Yucatan Peninsular until the 13th
century. Today it's the best preserved of all the Mayan sites.
What's the history here?
Although archaeologists have analysed the ruins of Chichén
Itzá for decades, it's history remains largely enshrouded
in mystery and legend. A large Mayan community inhabited the
site between 700 and 900 AD, and most of the buildings in
the south of the city date from this period. Interestingly,
the structures at the centre indicate that the architectural
style was influenced by the Toltic traditions from
The reasons for this architectural anomaly remain unclear.
One school of thought maintains that the Toltecs invaded Chichén
Itza, while others believe that the Mayans may have been influenced
by Toltec traditions during the course of trading expeditions.
Ancient legends passed down through the Mayan and Toltec
tribes may give us a clue to the relationship between the
Toltec and the Mayans. While the Toltecs related that Quetzalcóatl,
their ruler, was expelled from his kingdom in 987AD and floated
away on a raft of snakes, the Mayans asserted that the same
year Kukulkán the Serpent God arrived on Mayan
shores, conquered the city and took Chichén Itzá
for his own. A strange co-incidence or tales based on history?
Perhaps we'll never know.
The real reasons for the sudden decline of the most sophisticated
civilisation in mesoamerica remain unclear, but by the end
of the end of the 10th century AD Chichén Itzá
had been completely abandoned an left to the ravages of the
What's there to see and do?
The ruins of Chichén Itzá can be visited in
a day trip from either Cancún or Mérida,
but you do need a couple of days to explore the site properly.
It's a 2 or 3 hour coach journey from either city, but by
mid-morning the site becomes extremely crowded, so it's a
good idea to arrive as early as possible.
Highlights of the site include:
The Pyramid of Kukulkán is a staggering 79
feet (24 m) high. Each side had a total of 91 steps, which
if you include the platform at the top makes 365 - one step
for every day of the year. On the spring and autumn equinox
the sun's shadow in the steps of the pyramid gives the illusion
of a snake slithering down the structure. It's an impressive
sight which is witnessed by thousands every year.
The Ball Court was the largest arena in all the Mayan
cities 40 ft long by 25 ft wide. The game they played here
involved two teams, who hit the ball with their elbows, hips
or wrists. The aim was to score a goal by aiming the ball
through one of the 20 ft high hoops attached to the wall of
the court. The carvings on the walls of the court indicate
that this was no ordinary sports match: The captain of the
losing team was decapitated, perhaps as a human sacrifice
to one of the Mayan gods.
The Cenote is a well-like hole, which leads down to
an underwater river. This was the Mayan's main source of water
and had certain religious significance attached. The remains
of children have been found in the cenote, prompting some
to claim that this was a place of human sacrifice.
The Caracol is also known as the Observatory. It was
from here that the Mayans studied astronomy and mapped the