Destinations Mexico North America

The mysteries of Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, one of the most famous and popular Mayan sites in Mexico, is a short day-trip from Valladolid, and I made sure I went there early to avoid the crowds. I expected to be wowed, and indeed the extent of the settlement and grandeur of the buildings was incredible, yet I did not feel the euphoria I’d had at Machu Picchu.

In my journey across the ancient Mayan landscape of southeast Mexico, I have come to realise the widespread misconceptions about the Mayan society. Like the fact that they were not one massive conglomerate, but rather individual tribes united under a common branding. Or that the people did not simply disappear, a myth created by the fact that their grand sites were abandoned before the arrival of the Spaniards.

I was slightly unsettled by the harshness of Chichen Itza‘s architecture, though perhaps that was the city architect’s intention.

The Castle

The famous central pyramid, called El Castillo (The Castle) was rough and austere, with nine levels to represent the nine steps down into the underworld, and one set of steep staircases on each of its four sides.

chichen itza

El Castillo’s 9 levels represent the stages of the underworld

The central stairs are framed by balustrades, at the lower end of which are dragon heads with snakes coming out their mouths. Brazen, dominating (at 24m high), defiant, all sharp angles and straight lines with plenty of space around it, the pyramid seemed provoked fear and submission in its onlookers.

In some ways, this made sense. It was here in Chichen Itza that I first heard about the Toltecs, a group separate to the Mayans but obviously close enough to influence their architecture. El Castillo is typical of their warlike architecture, used to display power and dominance.

I had to ask myself: who the heck are the Toltecs, and if they were powerful enough to influence Mayan architecture, why had I never before heard of them?

Brief history lesson

The Toltecs were most prominent between 800AD and 1100AD. Precursors to the Aztecs, they were a militaristic society that expanded their territory through trade and conquest. At the height of their power, there were some 40,000 Toltecs spread across their empire. It was a Toltec god, Quetzalcoatl, a plumed-serpent, that became the supreme god of both the Aztecs and Mayans.

The presence of Toltec architecture in Chichen Itza, so far from the rest of the Toltec empire, is a little of a mystery. The two most predominant theories is that the Toltecs invaded Chichen Itza or else traded intimately with them.

Platform of the Skulls & Temple of Warriors

The ominous Toltec architecture in Chichen Itza also included the Platform of the Skulls, a creepy structure decorated with carvings of seemingly grinning humans skulls all around its base, and the Temple of Warriors, with its harsh, almost Grecian columns. Certainly a culture I would not have enjoyed opposing.

platform of the skulls

The Platform of the Skulls is renowned for its gruesome skull carvings

Ball Court

It was only when I came across the ball court that I realised these were real people, living their simple daily lives so long ago.

The ball court has two parallel walls, high upon each of which is a ridiculously impossible stone hoop. Players were not allowed to use hands or feet to keep a leather ball off the ground, and apparently sacrifices of players occurred at the end of the game, although theories differ as to whether the winners or losers were killed.

Images of the game were depicted across the lower base of the walls, displaying such human characteristics in its sportsmen, depicted with sticks through their noses and feathers in their hair, that the Mayans finally came alive for me.

The site was so huge and rich in history it would be impossible to detail it all in a short blog.

Although not, in my opinion, the most awe-inspiring of Mayan sites (for me, that’s Palenque), it is well worth the visit to gain a greater understanding of the Mayan culture (and the amount of missing information and speculation that ensues) and to wonder over the mystery of the Toltecs.

Looking for more inspiration for Mexico?

There’s so much more to Mexico than ruins (though that’s a large part of it!). Here are some other activities – ruins and otherwise – you can enjoy in this marvellous country:

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