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Part One: Vanished City of Chichen Itza

It’s mind boggling to me that a place once inhabited by 50,000 people no longer exists.

These places where there’s maybe a handful of what were once major buildings and some random artifacts or another, but that’s it. No other signs so many people once lived their lives, raised their children, buried their family, all in that location.

Exterior photo of pyramid with large clouds in the sky
Pyramid of Kukulcán **

It’d be like looking back 1,000 years from now at where Galveston, Texas, Palm Springs, California, or maybe, Charleston, West Virginia, once were, and there’s practically nothing left.

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around it.

That sense of wonderment is very much how I felt visiting Chichen Itza.

No, not Chicken Pizza. Chichen Itza is included on a new list of the seven wonders of the world. A Mayan city, it’s near the southeast tip of Mexico, less than a hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, just 350 miles from Cuba.

There’s a treasure trove of history here. Societal, cultural, economical, historical, you name it.

I’m going to give it the once over lightly with links to more information if you’re into doing your own deep dive.

Brief History Lesson

Chichen loosely translated to At the Edge of the Well. Itza is the name of the Mayan people who founded the city and that name means Water Sorcerers. Add it together and you get At the Edge of the Well of the Water Sorcerers.

The well, actually wells, the name is referring to are very real. They are the cenotes located nearby, pools of water you see in many places in Mexico. These pools often lead deeply below the surface to incredible underwater cave systems.

Photo of steps leading up the pyramid. The steps are badly deteriorating.
There are steps on each side of the Pyramid of Kukulcán. Not long ago, visitors could still climb the steps but that is not longer allowed. **

The ancient Mayans used cenotes as their water source and oh, by the way, human sacrificies. You know we’re gonna get into all that sacrificing stuff in Part Two of this blog post.

The Itza were there as far back as the mid-300s AD, but it wasn’t until around 700 AD, give or take a hundred years, that some of the more permanent buildings began to appear.

Even then, Chichen Itza didn’t reach its height of glory until between 900 and 1,100 AD when the symbolic Kukulcán pyramid was constructed, along with the Temple of the Warriors and the Great Ball Court, another fun sacrifice story coming up in Part Two.

I’m such a tease.

During this period, Chichen Itza became a major regional capital, ruling over the vast surrounding lands and serving as a major trade route.

It doesn’t appear to be entirely clear what happened to Chichen Itza leading to its demise and utter vanishing from the earth.

Warring between different peoples living throughout Mexico at the time seems to have led to its downfall as a dominant city by the mid-1200s.

Even so, people were still living there in 1526 when Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the scene and sent his son, Montejo the Younger, daddy Francisco being the Elder, to capture the city around 1532 or 33.

Enclosed roped bridge
Random, just-for-fun, photo. A monkey crossing above the four-lane highway leading to Chichen Itza. **

The Younger did ok with that for a while, but then decided to start dividing up the city and parceling it out to his soldiers as a reward.

As you might expect, the Mayans still living there got a little upset about that and revolted, killing 150 of his soldiers, and forcing Younger out of the city.

By 1535, the Spanish had not only left Chichen Itza, but the entire Yucatan Peninsula.

After that, the Mayans may have died off from illnesses brought in by the Spanish, suffered from further warring with other groups, or simply decided to move on.

I lay no claim to being a Mayan authority and, depending on what sources you refer to online, the information is convoluted at best and contradictory at worst. I’m going to leave this history discussion here, before I get myself into deeper trouble with scholars who know what they're talking about.

Let’s just say that someway, somehow, over the next couple of hundred years after Elder and Younger, Chichen Itza became a ghost town.

Chichen Itza Today

Chichen Itza is entirely open to visitors. Access to the interior of the structures is limited. You used to be able to walk up the pyramid steps but, for preservation purposes, that is no longer allowed.

Ticket price for adults is $35 - $40, depending on the exchange rate with the peso. That allows you to freely roam about the grounds, exploring on your own. There are several guided tours also available.

Sidewalk vendor displaying souvenirs like chess boards, colorful plates and decorative skulls.
One of the dozens of souvenir vendors lining the sidewalk entering Chichen Itza. **

What surprises visitors is the first thing you see upon entering are a countless number of sidewalk vendors. Dozens of them are not only located along the path leading into the area, but also scattered throughout the grounds.

These are Mayan people who believe it is their ancestral right to sell merchandise there, and for many of them it is their source of income. Some sell handmade items, which is cool, but most are peddling obviously mass-produced stuff.

This has become increasingly contentious over the years as the number of tourists has increased, including a protest last year blocking roads to Chichen Itza.

At least when I was there, it wasn’t a big deal. Occasionally, a vendor would call out to get your attention but most stood by their wares quietly, waiting for a customer to first approach them.

One last note, wear sunscreen and a hat. It’s hot and the sun is right there. You are in southern Mexico after all. There is very little shade to speak of at the site. You’re right out there in the open.

Pyramid of Kukulcán

Let’s start right at the top with Chichen Itza’s most visible symbol, the Pyramid of Kukulcán.

Kukulcán was a feathered serpent (snake) god. The Mayan’s creator god, he was god of rain, wind, storms and life.

Large stone figures near steps in shape of snake head.
Serpent heads at the base of the pyramid honor, Kukulcán, god of rain, wind, storms and life. **

At 78-feet high, the pyramid is one of the tallest examples of Mayan architecture. The stairway leading downward, in front of the pyramid, has raised edges running beside it with serpent heads symbolizing Kukulcán at the bottom.

There is a rectangular temple on top, on which it is believed, you guessed it, priests performed human sacrifices.

There’s some fascinating facts about the structure.

There are 91 steps on each side of the pyramid, with one more leading to the temple, a total of 365. The same number as days of the year.

If you’re lucky enough to be there around 3 p.m. for the Spring Equinox on March 21 or the Autumn Equinox on September 21, you’ll see the sun hit just right along the edge of the pyramid so that it’s shadow resembles a serpent, or snake, rising along the wall beside the front steps.

Temple of the Warriors

Nearby is the Temple of the Warriors. Measuring in at 133-feet-wide and 75-feet-high, it was the city’s largest indoor meeting space.

Exterior view of the temple with, a tall building with steps running down the middle and many short columns spread out in front
Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. **

The building atop the temple would have been covered with a roof made of wood, thatch or mortar, serving as a place for worship, important rituals and ceremonies.

The many columns in front of the temple stretch further to the right, as you face the temple, part of The Thousand Columns, plus or minus 800.

In actuality, there are only 200 columns, each maybe 10-feet tall. The name is more in honor of the inspiration created from viewing the columns than the actual mathematical number of them.

Temple in background with several stone columns, positioned in rows, on the ground in front.
Closer view of The Thousand Columns in front of The Temple of the Warriors. **

The columns are all part of structures that have long ago collapsed. In its day, there was a second temple/meeting hall attached to the Temple of the Warriors.

Carvings at the temple illustrate warriors, it is the Temple of the Warriors after all, as well eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts. These Mayans were really into their heart devouring.

Speaking of which, within the depths of the temple was found the Tomb of the Chaac Mol.

Chaac Mols are Mayan sculptures depicting a reclining figure whose head is 90 degrees from the front, supporting himself with his elbows. They are considered messengers of the gods.

A Chaac Mol on the ground with vendors in the background.
Chaac Mols, other than the one at The Temple of the Warriors, are located elsewhere at Chichen Itza. Also, additional souvenir vendors can be seen in the background. **

The Chaac Mol at the Temple of the Warriors wears a helmet and a belt with human heads attached.

He also holds a plate, resting on his stomach, where it is believed the Mayans placed the beating hearts of human sacrifices.

Which is the perfect segue to Part Two of our Chichen Itza posts where we really get into the whole human sacrificing thing.

Stay tuned!


**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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