The Famous Chichen Itza
A post by Felicity
Chichen Itza is probably the most famous and certainly the most visited of all the ancient Mayan sites in Mexico. The Maya name of the site, ‘Chichen Itza’, means ‘At the mouth of the well of the Itza’ but another possible translation for Itza is ‘enchanter (or enchantment) of the water’.
Located in the Yucatan region, Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and its variety of architectural styles (Central Mexico as well as the Puuc and Chenes styles) suggests it had a diverse population. Chichen Itza was a major economic power in the northern Maya lowlands, participating in the water-borne circum-peninsular trade route, and they were able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant areas (such as obsidian and gold). Between AD 900 and 1050 Chichen Itza expanded and became a powerful regional capital controlling north and central Yucatan but its power extended down the east and west coasts of the peninsula too.
From its earlier occupation between 750 and 900 AD to its rise in the 10th century Chichen was a bustling city but after this time, the history gets rather sketchy. One source suggests in the 13th century they were conquered by Mayapan while more recent archaeological evidence suggests that Chichen Itza had declined before the Mayapan became a powerful entity.
Many of the Ancient Maya and Aztec sites we visited while in Mexico filming ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ had apparently suffered similar fates – usually it appeared the city had grown too large and it became impossible to sustain resulting in the inhabitants being forced to leave and seek out water and new land to grow their crops etc. Over time the ancient cities were forgotten and the jungles reclaimed them. There is no evidence to suggest that this was the case at Chichen Itza, however. In fact records suggest that the cenotes located in and around the city of Chichen Itza survive to this day and one in particular, the Sacred Cenote, remained a place of pilgrimage for the Maya people (which we found ironic as it was the one thing we visited while in Chichen Itza which was not swarming with people as it required a short walk from the main site!).
During the Spanish conquest in 1532 the Spaniards used Chichen Itza as a base and faced growing hostility from the Mayans which forced them to barricade themselves in while the Maya cut off their supply routes. No reinforcements arrived and when the Spanish attempted to break the siege they lost around 150 soldiers and then in 1534 they were forced to flee Chichen Itza. By 1588 the Spaniards had conquered all of the Yucatan Peninsular and absorbed Chichen Itza and used the site as a cattle ranch.
In 1483 John Lloyd Stephens wrote a book ‘Incidents of Travel in Yucatan’ which first introduced the site to the wider world and inspired many more visitors and exploration eventually leading to the much of the site being restored and becoming one of the most prized and famous examples of an ancient Mayan city in existence today.
The most famous buildings in Chichen Itza are the El Castillo and the massive ballcourt. While they are certainly impressive (and all of the remains in Chichen Itza are worth looking at), I must say that Greg and I were actually somewhat disappointed when we visited this grand site. Our guide book was somewhat out of date and talked of the views from the top of the remains and what you can see as you look around inside them…. That is no longer possible at Chichen Itza. Everything is roped off. Its location to the nearby tourist destinations means that Chichen Itza has become a major coach trip destination for all tourists. With the huge increase in tourism, I guess it became necessary to reduce the human interaction to protect these ancient treasures.
With the increase in tourism came the increase of souvenir stands. Greg and I tried to arrive at opening time for each place we visited in Mexico and this usually meant the sites were either deserted or certainly quiet while we were there. This was not the case at Chichen Itza! Upon arrival at opening time we were forced to join an already extensive queue to enter the site. The entrance to the site includes a large market area and we watched the vendors opening their stalls and setting up for the bustling day ahead. We had seen other such set ups at other sites – a market at the entrance and then the well preserved archaeological site within. I assumed this would be the case at Chichen Itza but it was not quite so as once you get through the gate the market continues. On every path between ruins there is a continuous row of stands selling all sorts of souvenirs.
I had very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand we were there to explore the ancient city, not to stock up on modern gifts. We found that exploring the city was not possible in the way we had hoped but at the same time, this city was alive with people which it would have been back at its height of occupation. The stands would have been a variety of everyday goods and necessities rather than solely souvenirs and the crowds (I assume) would have been going about their every day lives rather than posing for selfies in their holiday and beach wear but the energy and crowds would have been there all the same. It was a different experience to any of the other archaeological sites we visited in Mexico.
I actually largely preferred the other sites. I am not generally one for crowds. However I would still recommend everyone visit Chichen Itza if you have the chance. Just know what to expect. If you are just interested in the history and exploring the ruins themselves, other sites such as Calakmul, Palenque, Uxmal or Yaxchilan will be more your cup of tea. If you like walking around the ruins rather than climbing and interacting with them, but want somewhere quiet, I would recommend places like El Tajin. However, if you just want to see a Mayan site and you aren’t afraid of big crowds, include a visit to the most famous site of all, visit Chichen Itza.
I strongly recommend you save your spending money for this site too and stock up on souvenirs while you are there. As we walked around, it almost felt that this site is more about the market than the ruins! You can find a huge assortment of things from the typical tourist bits (such as magnets and factory made statues and t-shirts) to hand crafted, traditional treasures. Things such as carved drums, Mayan and Aztec calendars, carved masks and statues, wind instruments and precious stone ornaments and so much more and all at great prices too. For any of you that love souvenir shopping, save it for Chichen Itza and you can get a bit of history and ancient culture while you shop!
I enjoyed shopping at Chichen Itza and am so grateful that sites like this exist. It gives package holiday style tourists somewhere to visit and see something of another country and it keeps the other sites free for those of us that want to delve deeper and do more than shop or take a selfie. Either way, whatever your reason, I would recommend a trip to the famous Chichen Itza.
Thanks for reading, stay safe,