Our reservations for our tour to Chichen Itza said that the van would pick us up at our hotel lobby at 7:35 am Mexican time, so shortly after 8:00 it was there. We crammed into the only two remaining seats, and fortunately our drive told us that we were not making the three hour trip on this van, but instead we were being dropped of in Cancun only 30 minutes away to catch a bus. What our driver did not specify was that by being dropped off to catch a bus he actually meant that we were simply going to stop on the side of the highway and that the bus would be there in a few minutes to make a stop on the shoulder also. When the bus arrived we all got out and boarded the bus only to be delayed several more minutes while they searched for Ralph, some unknown person who they had a ticket for but could not locate. After a few minutes it was apparently decided by the crew that poor Ralph was out of luck wherever he was and we took off.
Our guide Antonio took turns in both English and Spanish giving us an overview of the day, a brief history of the Maya and letting us know most importantly that the toilet on the bus was for number one only, not number two. Thankfully the bus that we rode in was modern, air conditioned, and comfortable because looking back from our seats in the front it was apparent from the bloodshot eyes and unkempt hair that most of the people here were also staying at hotels with open bars. The majority of the ride was spent in the silence of a peaceful, hungover slumber for most on the bus.
Yucatan has no rivers running through it, at least above ground. However, there is a vast underground river system and at points there are massive sinkholes, called cenotes in Spanish, that have collapsed exposing the underground network and creating pools of nearly unimaginable beauty. Our first stop before the ruins was one of the more magnificent of these at the Ik Kil cenote. This vast cavity has a drop from the ground level to the surface of the water of nearly 90 feet and then the pool itself is a depth of another 150 feet of cool, refreshing water to the caves floor. It is easy to understand why the Red Bull cliff diving championships would choose such an idealic setting for a stop on their tour, but as I stood on it’s ledge looking down it was difficult for me to comprehend mustering up the courage to throw myself off of that ledge into the deep chasm. Fortunately for me, there is a man-made stairwell drilled throughout limestone that spirals down along the caves wall to the water below. From the bottom, the roots from the trees above can be seen having grown though the edge to the waters surface like safety lines thrown down to rescue some unseen victim. The sounds of the splashing of the swimmers, the water cascading down, and the hushed conversations of the others at the bottom echoed off of the rock walls. A small amount of sunlight made it through the natural skylight creating and eerie, darkened feel in the middle of the afternoon . All of these sensations contributed to an otherwordly feel.
Even without getting into the water, the tranquil nature of the place was rejuvenating. That along with a buffet lunch in the closest town seemed to energize everyone, and by the time we arrived at the ruins we were ready to explore. Immediately as you enter the park, there is a long path with overhanging trees that leads to the main plaza. At the end, the trees part, the sky opens up and the majestic pyramid appears, just as is pictured in travel posters across the globe. That first glance does not disappoint. It is a perfect resemblance to the one in my mind that I had imagined for years before actually standing here. But the first view, as grand as it may be, is not what makes this place so majestic. The power of this site lies in its sheer magnitude of scope and size. The pyramid might be the centerpiece, but all of the structures contribute to the wonder. The ball court that was the ancient equivalent of today’s football stadiums. The hundreds of columns of the market that remain standing. The temples and astronomical observatories. The dozens of smaller structures that make up the nearly five square kilometers of the ancient city.
As awe inspiring as it is, I hope to never hear “cheaper than Kmart” or “almost free” again. It is disappointing to walk through the ruins and have dozens of vendors stands right next to some of them. It takes away from the atmosphere when there is someone making fake jaguar roars and hawking mass produced “authentic” Mayan souvenirs. I am certain that during the Classic period every Maya had a cheap plastic pyramid replica in their hut or a carved wooden jaguar head that makes jaguar calls. After the drive in, I understand clearly the amount of poverty in the region and that they are simply trying to make money, but there are plenty of areas away from the ruins that they could sell their goods while still preserving the atmosphere of such an important site.
If you enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy more from Mexico in Cozumel.
Chichen Itza, Mexico November 2014