Deep within the jungles of Mexico lies Chichen Itza, the ancient Mayan City on the Yucatan Peninsula. This ancient city is one of the best preserved historical sites on the planet and is undoubtedly one of the new 7 wonders of the world. Chichen Itza dates back more than 1500 years and was a major focal point of the Mayan civilization from about 600 AD – 1200 AD. It is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world as well, and as many as 1.2 million tourists visit the ruins every year.
The main core of the city extends over an area of about 5 square kilometers (2 square miles), and during the height of their civilization it was one of the largest Mayan cities. The most prominent feature of the city is the main Temple of Kukulkan, usually referred to by locals as El Castillo (“the castle”). It is a step pyramid that stands exactly 24 meters high (about 98 feet), with sides approximately 181 feet long at the base.
One incredible feature of this pyramid is that twice a year on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a shadow that resembles the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, the shadow appears to ‘slither’ down the stairs, eventually reaching the base of the pyramid where it joins with a large stone serpent head at the bottom of the grand staircase. Some scholars have suggested that this is a deliberate representation of the feathered serpent god, Kukulkan, for whom the pyramid is named. The pyramid has 365 steps, one for each day of the year, just one example of the Mayans incredible astronomical skills.
Chichen Itza, which means “at the mouth of the well of Itza”, is composed of dozens of other pyramids, temples, columned arcades, observatories and other ceremonial stone structures. Intricate artwork and hieroglyphs grace many of the walls and structures in the city, representing daily Mayan existence and the life of their gods. All built without metal tools of any kind, an unimaginably difficult feat.
Another well preserved area of the site is the largest ball court in the Americas, measuring 168 meters (554 feet) long and 70 meters (231 feet) wide. During the ritual games here, players tried to hit a 5.4 kilogram (12 pound) rubber ball through stone scoring hoops set high on the court walls. The entire city would come out to see these games and the competition was exceptionally fierce – the losers were put to death!
But perhaps the most interesting fact about the city is that during the early 1400’s, the people of Chichen Itza abandoned the city and fled to the jungle for unknown and mysterious reasons. Though the inhabitants left behind amazing works of architecture, art, and science, they left no record of why they fled the city. Scholars have hypothesized that they may have left because of drought, disease, or royal conquest, but there is no evidence to support a specific cause.
Chichen Itza is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was named one of the 7 new wonders of the world after a worldwide vote in 2007. Only a few hours bus ride from Cancun, this ancient city is on the bucket list of many travel aficionados and will be sure to amaze visitors for many years to come!