Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen Itza

El Castillo 2Visited: Jan 3 and 6, 2011

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 1988

Chichen Itza one of the largest and most important cities in the ancient Mayan Civilization. While it had definitely declined by the time of the Spanish conquest, there was still a large local population by the 16-17th centuries, disproving that the Maya were ‘lost.’ Thousands of people gather during the spring and autumn equinox to view the fantastic ‘serpent’ event that happens on the central pyramid known as “El Castillo.”

 

 

The Observatory is one of the most distinguishable buildings in the complex.
The Observatory is one of the most distinguishable buildings in the complex.

The Great Feathered Serpent

The light of the sun first strikes the top of the pyramid. Because of the geometric shape, shadows in the form of triangles appear on the side of the steps. These triangles resemble the diamond-back of the feathered snake, an ancient Mayan god, giving the illusion that the serpent is slithering down the pyramid as the sun begins to set.

 

Serpents are a common theme in Maya mythology.
Serpents are a common theme in Maya mythology.

Are The Goods Authentic?

One of the most interesting things I noticed were the souvenirs being sold within the complex. Mexico was once an artist wonderland with Guanajuato city alone boasting over 1600 arts and crafts shops. Today, only four remain due to an intense flooding of much cheaper Chinese replica goods.

Mayan masks for sale.
Mayan masks for sale.

I became really suspicious about the source of the crafts being sold. I was interested in buying a shirt or a mask, but did eventually work up the nerve to ask, “How do I know that mask wasn’t made in China?” The guy handling the shop just smiled at me, and then broke into a laughter when he realized I was serious. I couldn’t imagine that things would be so cheap if they were indeed made in Mexico. He stood up, and pointed at his brother a few feet away. I was so caught up in everything, that I hadn’t noticed the people carving away right in front of me.

 

It is quite incredible how they make such beautiful art with very few tools.
It is quite incredible how they make such beautiful art with very few tools.

Mayans Live On

The shopkeepers claim lineage to the Mayans of long ago. While this isn’t too surprising to Mexicans (as we are a very mixed people), foreigners are increasingly amazed that they still exist. Indeed, native peoples were not wiped out like in the US, but they have had over four centuries of change and adaptation, so don’t expect them to do any ritual dances or sacrifices.

 

The Maya throne where the king watched the ball game.
The Maya throne where the king watched the ball game.

Evaluation

1) Completeness and Originality (13 out of 15): It is as preserved as you might expect something that is 1000 years old to be. However, due to centuries of neglect, some parts are definitely forever lost.

Observatory

2) Extensiveness of the Site (9 out of 15): I would say that a good 4-6 hours is enough to explore the whole thing, but that really depends on you. I became mesmerized by the ball game stadium and stayed longer than most.

The Mayan Ball Game Stadium
The Mayan Ball Game Stadium

3) Cultural Significance (23 out of 25): Chichen Itza encompasses everything about the Maya who influenced the Americas for centuries. They were the great scientists of the New World and a testament on how humanity’s curiosity was not limited to the Old World.

Chichen Itza 2

4) Personal Impact (14 out of 15): The setting and geometry is a tradition the Mexican government continued. As you step into the archaeological site, it feels like a deep forest with trees preventing you from seeing far away. Suddenly, there is a clearing and BAM, “El Castillo” is staring you down in all of its glory.

"I was like...oh my gosh"
“I was like…oh my gosh”

5) Logistics (7 out of 10): Much like other sites in Mexico, this is definitely difficult to judge since I am Mexican and fluent in Spanish. From my research, getting here from Cancun is quite easy the overpriced way, but a bit trickier the local way. Getting here from Merida took some exploring of two different bus stations, but I didn’t see many foreigners take this route. The ticket in was about $5, but the guided tours are $30.

Many signs in Mexico come in English, Spanish, and the native language.
Many signs in Mexico come in English, Spanish, and the native language.

6) Uniqueness (13 out of 20): There are other a dozen Mayan sites in the region, each more impressive than the last. With that said, it hasn’t been named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World for nothing. Furthermore, the “Cenote Sagrado” is a truly unique natural wonder indigenous to this region of Mexico.

The Sacred Cenote is one of the biggest in the area.
The Sacred Cenote is one of the biggest in the area.

Combined Score: 79/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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