I’ve had a life-long dream of seeing Chichen Itza and today it finally came true!
I board the tour shuttle and we stop at various hotels and resorts to pick up passengers: a couple from Oklahoma, a college student from Michigan, several French tourists, and a few Italians. It’s a melting pot of culture. Our guide, Gregorio, tells us we are lucky for booking the early shuttle. Chichen Itza will be swarming with tourists. With a big smile he says we will be there an entire hour before all of the other vans and will have the place to ourselves. I thank the resort staff for telling me to book the early shuttle.
We spend the next two and half hours driving on narrow jungle roads. We pass through several small towns with ramshackle buildings. I can’t help but wonder if it’s merely luck that dictates why some people are born into conditions like this and others into lives of privilege. Or is it a greater plan? Deep in thought I barely notice that our shuttle has come to a stop. Gregorio tells us to please exit the shuttle and leave nothing behind. The Federales have decided to stop us and search for drugs and other illegals. Here I am in the middle of the Mexican jungle, surrounded by Federales with machine guns. My mom would be so proud.
Luckily our stop at the military checkpoint was a quick one and we were soon exiting the shuttle again at Chichen Itza. It’s barely 9am and it’s already sweltering. Even though my wide-brimmed hat is ridiculously Indiana Jones, I’m happy for it. Gregorio tells us to drink lots of water and find lots of shade – it’ll only get worse. One of only two other tour vans present, Gregorio quickly gets us underway so we can visit the great Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo) before the crowds arrive.
Chichen Itza is the largest pre-Columbian Mayan city in the Yucatan and was populated sometime between 500 and 900 AD. The grounds are amazingly expansive and the number of structures and ruins is a bit overwhelming. The architecture is purely impressive. To think that a civilization could build something so exact, so precise, and with so much detail that long ago is astounding. It’s truly a magical place. When we arrived at El Castillo our tour group was the only one there. We were ecstatic! Gregorio told us that during the spring and fall equinox, thousands gather to watch the temple come alive. The afternoon sunlight creates shadows that cascade down the stairs, imitating the body of a great serpent. The shadows terminate at the bottom of the temple when they join with the sculpture of a serpent’s head. How amazing that would be to see!
Gregorio gives us all an hour to browse at our leisure before meeting back for lunch. The heat is sweltering and some choose to simply sit in the shade and relax. I join some members of our group and visit the Sacred Cenote, a large sinkhole caused by the collapse of limestock bedrock. The cenote at Chichen Itza was a site of object and human sacrifice to the Mayan god of Rain, Chaac. The path to the cenote was filled with locals selling crafts, artifacts, and other trinkets. I spent a fair amount of time greeting the locals, buying a few souvenirs, and enjoying all of the bright, beautiful colored fabrics.
After lunch our tour left Chichen Itza and headed to the Cenote Samula, located in Dzitnup, about 7km southeast of the city of Valladolid. Also popular in the area is Cenote X’Keken, one of the most photographed in the Yucatan because of it’s fantastic stalactite features. Our guide took us to the newly opened and less crowded Samula, and as we descended down a set of narrow and slippery stairs, there before us was the most unbelievable site I’ve ever seen. It’s nearly impossible to accurately portray it in photographs, you just have to see it in person. The roots of a giant ceiba tree from above the cenote extended down through the hole and sunlight glittered through the roots. Swallows were flying in circles, dodging in and out of the roots. After our tour group picked our jaws off the floor, we donned our swim suits and jumped into the chilly water for a refreshing swim. We laughed and giggled like kids while backstroking in the crystal clear, cool water, enjoying the other-worldly view of our surroundings.
After exiting the cenote we bought some postcards and candy from the kids in town and then made a quick stop in the city of Valladolid, a beautiful old town with a gorgeous church and a violent history of Mayan battles and revolt. Our stop was brief but we had enough time to take a quick stroll around the city square, buy some candy from local kids, and grab a light snack. The rest of the ride home none of us could stop talking about what we had seen today. There is magic in the Yucatan, I’m sure of it!
If you ever plan to visit Chichen Itza, definitely book an early morning tour. To experience the site without massive crowds and have El Castillo nearly all to yourself is well worth the extra early wakeup call. And a side trip to the Cenote Samula is a pretty jawdropping experience.