I’d be lying if I said the torrential rain added to the ambience, because it didn’t. In fact, it only made walking along the grounds of the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that much more “unpleasurable.” Not that I wasn’t excited to be there. One’s first ever visit to some of the most spectacular ruins in the Americas is quite thrilling. But when you’ve been vacationing in the beach resort of Cancun for the past week, where none of the days have seen even a spot of rain, only feeling the scorching sun beating down upon your back the moment you step outside of the sanctuary known as air-conditioning, you feel like the joke’s on you, especially when your formerly damp t-shirt (damp due to the humidity) now resembles what would be seen at a wet t-shirt contest.
Although we had a pleasant dining experience, feasting on a variety of regional dishes including poc chuc (a Mayan/Yucatecan version of barbecued pork), sopa de lima (turkey, lime, and tortilla soup), and what is perhaps the region’s most famous dish, cochinita pibil (a marinated pork dish), I was anxious to see El Castillo (Spanish for castle as well as the common name given to a Mesoamerican step-pyramid).
As we walked along the path that would take us to the center of the ruins, I couldn’t help feeling slightly intimidated by the dense jungle that completely surrounded us. (Most of the Yucatán Peninsula is in fact still jungle, including the sprawling and overdeveloped Cancun area). In comparison, the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacán are located in the central part of the country, surrounded by plateau highlands, essentially vast open stretches for as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t help but think how many warriors and Spanish conquistadores had hid in these very jungles that we were passing by, waiting to launch a sneak attack on their enemies. Even now, I could still feel like pairs of eyes were watching me.
El Castillo is like seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum for the very first time. You’re completely awestruck over being so close to such a magnificent structure, an architectural feat especially considering the time period in which it was built. It was an image that up until then you had only ever seen in books. But unlike my first time seeing Paris’ and Rome’s most renowned edifices, my first time with El Castillo involved the heavens above opening up… literally. We stepped through the clearing and the rain gods unleashed their fury upon us. The first minute or so of the rain, standing beneath the massive canopy of a tree, was refreshing. The temperatures were after all in the high 90s with unbearable humidity. But then it just kept pouring and pouring.
We felt bad, but my parents and I abandoned our tour guide, who was in the midst of giving his history lesson, and ran to an adjacent covering that was closer to El Castillo, realizing it was every man or family for themselves when dealing with such torrential rain. It was there that we consulted our guidebook and learned that the Castillo is less than 80 feet, nearer to 100 when including the temple at the top of it. We also read that the step pyramid style features a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides leading to the temple on top. Each of the pyramid’s four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform on top as the final ‘step’, produces a total of 365 steps. Interestingly this is equal to the number of days of the Haab’ year, the Haab’ being the Mayan version of the 365-day Roman calendar..
Being the adventuresome 19 year old that I was, I immediately started to climb the steps of the pyramid, not at all concerned over the slickness of the stone steps or the fact that my soaked through sneakers now resembled water shoes appropriate for the bottom of the ocean floor. It didn’t take long to climb to the top (and thankfully by then it had stopped raining) but upon reaching it I was slightly awestruck by the views that greeted me. Just as when one stares at the ocean and sees nothing but the mighty blue sea, it was the same here in the jungle. For as far as my eyes could see, there was nothing but jungle, miles and miles of it, except for a few of the ruins whose very tips popped through at the top. I also found amusement at a sleeping dog nestled in one of the crevices at the top. None of the dozen of people congregating around the top of the pyramid disturbed his slumber.
Although it was incredibly easy and quick climbing up the pyramid, it was slightly more nerve-wracking on the descent. I had a hard time finding my “groove” as in deciding what would be easier and safer-descending on one’s bum almost a step at a time, or climbing down backwards. I opted for the latter, although I did glance around at almost every step I took. One never equates climbing the steps of a pyramid as turning into a fatal incident, but occasionally there are reports of someone having died while climbing ruins in the Americas. In fact, climbing El Castillo became a thing of the past after it was deemed unsafe in 2006. I’m all for having my parents staying young (in theory, if not in actuality sometimes), and I actually climbed El Castillo a second time with my dad. My mom however preferred the firmness of the ground, and instead safeguarded all of our belongings, which did make the ascending and descending part of the climb much easier hands free.
As we walked along the grounds of the ruins, I had a hard time imagining thousands of ancient Mayans converging on the Great Ball Court, watching a game being played until death. Losing often meant being sacrificed to the gods for not being the victors. My favorite feature of the Great Ball Court were the rings that had been carved with intertwining serpents, located high up on each of the court’s long walls, rich with meaning in the ancient Mayan religion and culture.
Before it was time to return to our bus that would transport us back to touristy, glitzy and overdeveloped Cancun, I tried to imagine what Chichén Itzá must have been like for the hundreds of years it remained “undiscovered” and “unknown” to most of the Western world. For it was not until the mid-19th century that the white man’s world made contact with the ruins, even though the Mayan people and other descendents of ancient civilizations throughout the world have always known of the ruins’ existence.
Coming from a country whose origins date back only a couple hundred years, it’s often incredible to think that at the same time the European continent was withering away during the Dark Ages, a complex and advanced civilization in the “undiscovered” Americas was thriving. Touring the ruins of Chichén Itzá are an incredible experience, even when contending with mobs of tourists, unbearable humidity, and the eyes of ancient warriors watching you.
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you're interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!