The ancient cities of the Maya have an air of mystery whenever you visit them but for many travelers, a trip to the World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza in September to witness the Equinox offers even more wonders.
An ancient god returns to earth
On September 22 and 23, the Pyramid of Kukulcan or El Castillo reveals its function in ancient times as a solar clock marking the passage of the seasons. It is aligned to catch the rays of the setting sun on the days of the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September. Triangles of light and shadow appear along the side of the north staircase forming the rippling body of a snake. It merges with the head of a stone serpent at the foot of the building, creating the illusion of a gigantic reptile coming down from the sky and slithering across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.
The snake symbolizes Kukulcan (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the spring planting and fall harvest seasons for the Maya.
A reflection of the Mayan calendar
The pyramid of Kukulcan was built some time between A.D. 650 and 800, with later modifications during the Itzae period of glory, possibly from A.D. 1000 to 1150. It is also believed to represent the ancient Mayan calendar as the number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the Mayan year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases, including the top platform, equals 365, the days in the year.
Chichen Itza’s ancient astronomers had an observatory
A short distance from the Great Plaza is the round tower known as El Caracol or the Observatory. It has a viewing platform and wells, which were used by ancient astronomers to mirror starlight, and the building was aligned to catch sunsets and moonsets on both equinoxes and to mark the course of Venus.
Planning your trip to Chichen Itza
Ask your Concierge to arrange a trip to Chichen Itza for you. The snake of light and shadow is also visible the day before and after the equinox, cloud cover permitting.
Why not make a day of it and visit Valladolid and its nearby cenotes beforehand, explore Chichen Itza and witness the Equinox? Eat an early dinner at the neighboring hotel and stay on for the brand new evening Light and Sound Show in the Great Plaza, a marvel of computer-generated art and video mapping.
More Mayan Wonders
A 20-minute drive to the north of Valladolid is the ancient city of Ek Balam, which means “black jaguar or star jaguar” in Maya. The city flourished between A.D. 250-1200 and its crowning glory is the façade on the upper level of the Acropolis, the principal building, which features the magnificent stucco figure of an ancient lord thought to be the first ruler of the city. The figure’s ornate feathered headdress resembles wings and has led many people to refer to him as “el angel” or the angel.
An hour’s drive south of Mérida, Uxmal is one of the loveliest ancient cities in the Maya World. During the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), it was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities referred to as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná.
Apart from location, these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.
Highlights at Uxmal are the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nuns’ Quadrangle, a gracious courtyard surrounded by four palace-like buildings with magnificent friezes and the impressive Palace of the Governor on a mound and platform overlooking the site. Other buildings of note are the Temple of the Birds, the Great Pyramid, The House of the Turtles and El Palomar.
From Tulum on the Riviera Maya coast, head inland to the ancient city of Coba (25 miles/41 km from the coast), one of the Maya World’s largest archaeological sites.
Coba means “waters ruffled by the wind” in Maya and the pyramids and temples at this jungle site are clustered around four shallow lakes. The city reached its peak during the Mayan Classic period, A.D. 250-900, when it was an important trade center. Archaeologists believe that it may have had links with Tikal in Guatemala.
The principal buildings or groups at Coba are Nohoch Mul, at 42 meters, the tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatán, the Cobá group, La Iglesia (another pyramid), Las Pinturas, the Ball Court, Xaibe and the Macanxoc group which has nine circular altars and eight stelae.
Cobá is also famous for the sacbes or Mayan roads that radiate from the heart of the city. The longest sacbe in the Maya World links the city with the site of Yaxuná, near Chichén Itzá and is 101 km long.