Posted by: ktzefr | March 9, 2010

Chichen Itza, 2012, Waiting for the Equinox…

The sun is out and the temperature is rising!  Snow piles have almost melted and daffodil sprouts have popped out of the ground.  The spring equinox is only a few days away.  When I was growing up in Kentucky we referred to this annual event as “the sun crossing the equator” and it meant that it was time to turn the soil and start planting.  It will be awhile before I can turn the soil in my snow-soaked yard, so I sit in a slant of sunlight thinking about other places, other times, and other ways of celebrating the equinox.

Next week thousands of people will descend on the Yucatan peninsula to witness the equinox at Chichen Itza.  I won’t be among them as I don’t like crowds, but I will share here a few of my own notes and pictures from those amazing ruins…

Chichen Itza, Mexico.  Pedro arrives before breakfast, dressed in safari garb and carrying a walking stick and a satchel full of pictures.  He has photographed the ancient city of Chichen Itza at all hours of the day and in every season, always catching the light in a new way.  We have to go early, he says, to get there before the tourists.  He’s eager to share both his photographs and his knowledge about the Mayan civilization, and I like being a traveler, rather than a tourist…being immersed for a short time in the culture, rather than taking a hit-or-miss hop from here to there to the next place.  So, off we go.

El Castillo, the great pyramid of Kukulcan (the serpent god of the Maya), is the most impressive site in the ancient city.  (Click to enlarge photos, especially on columns as hieroglyphs become more visible.)

El Castillo pyramid, Chichen Itza

At the height of the Mayan civilization this building must have looked even more amazing, painted red, yellow, green, and blue…the Mayans decorated lavishly with many murals and hieroglyphs.  Their calendar is incorporated in the architecture.  There are four sides with 91 steps on each side plus the top platform to equal a total of 365, the number of days in a year.  The ancient stone masons built and aligned this pyramid to project the sun’s rays into a serpent of light and shadow that “travels” down the pyramid every year — only on the equinox!  The sun falls exactly on the corner of the pyramid, leaving one side in total sunlight and the other in total shadow.

Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza

The statue (top, center) is of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.

El Mercado, or market place, with its Plaza of a Thousand Columns (actually fewer than 500) is one of a kind in the Mayan world.  The columns are perfectly straight and aligned one to another; they were dedicated to the warriors of Chichen Itza.

Columns of the Mercado, Chichen Itza

The Platform of the Skulls would be a little creepy in the dark.  It was believed to have been used to display the heads of captured warriors and human sacrifices.

Tzompantli, Platform of the Skulls, Chichen Itza

There are 13 ball courts located throughout the ruined city; the largest is the biggest in all of Mesoamerica.  Carvings on the walls show the violent end of the game, including human sacrifice.  But do the carvings depict what really happened or are they merely symbolic?  Did the loser or the winner get sacrificed?  No one knows for sure.


Juego de Pelota, Ball Court, Chichen Itza


The acoustics in the ball court are spooky perfect.  You can hear someone talking in a normal voice from one end of the court to the other — 490 feet away!

Pedro stands near the ball hoops and claps.  The echo sounds exactly seven times — every time.

On some ruins, the Lower Temple of the Jaguars, for example, the stones still hold some of their original color.

Temple of the Jaguars, Chichen Itza

The Casa de las Monjas (nunnery) and La Iglesia (church) are spectacular examples of Mayan architecture and art.  The actual usage of these buildings is unknown, though some believe they were part of a palace for royalty.  The conquistadors gave them these names because the complex resembled a European convent.


Anexo de las Monjas, Chichen Itza

hieroglyphs, Chichen Itza


The Mayans built sacbes, white roads, through the jungle connecting their cities.  The roads were always built in perfectly straight lines; they were wide and built up on platforms.  Mayan engineering was advanced for the time considering the land is pancake flat and covered in thick jungle; they had no elevation points to get their bearings, but yet the roads are flawlessly straight.

Today, the Maya still build thousands of wide paths through these jungles to link their villages to each other and to nearby towns.  The modern highway is a toll road, three hours from Cancun to Chichen, and too expensive for many locals.  It’s used primarily by tour buses and commercial vehicles.  In this area many of the local Maya walk or ride bicycles.  Their three-wheeled bikes have a huge front basket for carrying firewood, food, and children.  They slip from the jungle one minute and disappear into it the next.


El Caracol, the Observatory, Chichen Itza


At El Caracol (the snail — the interior winding staircase is similar to the inside of a shell), the observatory, Mayan priests studied the stars.  The round building has eight tiny windows precisely aligned with the points of the compass rose.  The Mayans were able to accurately predict the orbits of Venus and the moon, the appearance of comets and eclipses.   With removable stones on the dome of the observatory, they could shift positions and isolate and study the planets.  The accuracy of Mayan astronomy is amazing.  They mapped the cycles of the moon so precisely that now, 1500 years later, we discover they were off by only 33 seconds!

An amazing place…awesome in the early morning hours.  Pedro opens his satchel and lets the photos spill out, shows us how light plays on the ruins, how at any moment a place can look entirely different than it did a moment earlier, why it’s important to slow down, reflect, consider the details. Why he is still enthusiastic about coming here day after day, year after year.

We head back to the hacienda for lunch and a Mayan ritual kakaw treatment…a room filling with copal incense, a swipe with sipche leaves to send away the bad air, a pool of smooth stones to gather… and getting painted in chocolate head to toe!

Hacienda Chichen, a 10-minute walk to the ruins.

Ahhh...another time, another story…

If you’ve seen the movie 2012 and been scared out of your wits, consider this: the Maya didn’t say the world would end in 2012.  Hollywood did!

12/21/2012 does, indeed, mark the end of an era on the Mayan calendar.  This era is 5,126 years long, but most scholars liken it to an odometer in a car.  As each “section” reaches 9 it clicks over to zero and starts a new cycle.  There is evidence that the Maya believed a new era would begin in 2012, but there is no reference in any of the Mayan artifacts to indicate this was related in any way to the end of the world.

Check out National Geographic’s You Tube presentation on Chichen Itza.  Another good video about the equinox at Chichen Itza — in Spanish with English subtitles.

Reading:  Check out “On Books and Writing” on this site and click here for a few good reads — short fiction, travel writing, poetry about Mexico.


Now available in paperback!!!


At Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, IndieBound, and other booksellers, as well as AMAZON



  1. Thanks for the memories and the great pictures ! Hope to return there one day to see and feel it all again !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: