Chichen Itza, the descent of the feathered serpent
Discover one of the planet's most curious phenomena, which takes place during the spring and autumn equinoxes, at the pyramid of Kukulkan, the most important site of the ancient Mayan civilisation.
Kukulcan pyramid, renamed "the Castle", is the highlight of the visit
During the equinoxes, the sun is positioned directly over the equator, and day and night are of approximately equal length. At that time, around March 21st in spring, and September 22nd in the autumn, thousands of visitors wait in front of the great pyramid of Kukulkan to experience first-hand the descent of the great feathered serpent, one of the most important gods for the ancient Mayans, as well as for other early Mesoamerican cultures. The perfect alignment of the pyramid with the sun causes a play of light and shadow that creates the illusion of a huge reptile gradually slithering down the staircase of the north side of the structure, the only side whose base is decorated with snake heads.
This unique phenomenon is perhaps the clearest and most startling evidence of the profound astronomic knowledge of the Mayans. However, it is not the only secret associated with this monument, erected in the twelfth century by the Itza Mayans, and which was named El Castillo - the Castle - by the conquistadors who discovered Chichen Itza. When they reached the site, it was already uninhabited, but the Mayans, one of the greatest civilisations of antiquity, had left behind an impressive legacy. The pyramid, the clear star of the ancient site, is, in its entirety, a giant calendar.
Just as it's no coincidence that at the equinoxes Kukulcan descends to Earth, winding his way down the steps of the most important pyramid in this ceremonial centre, nor is it a coincidence that each of the four flights of steps that give access to the top of the pyramid consists of 91 steps: adding these figures together plus one for the upper platform on which the temple sits, gives us 365, the number of days in a year. What's more, the body of the pyramid, 30 metres high by 55 wide, is made up of nine platforms; nine is another key number in Mayan cosmogony, as there were nine levels of the underworld and nine lords of the night. Each platform is divided by a staircase, giving 18 sections, the total number of 20-day months that made up the Mayan calendar. And simply by adding in the five days the civilisation considered unlucky, we get back to 365.
The bewildering mathematical and astronomical precision of building the Temple of Kukulcan, where perfect alignment with astronomical phenomena was absolutely necessary, speaks for itself of the ambition and knowledge of the Mayan priests and builders. This is also evident in other major Mayan legacies such as the Observatory, the Sacred Cenote (also known as the Well of Sacrifice), the Great Ball Court and the Group of a Thousand Columns; all of these form part of the Chichen Itza site, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988 and a New Wonder of the World in 2007.
The visit to Chichen Itza
The complex is open daily from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm and the usual tours lasts at least three hours. At the entrance, it is easy to find official guides whose explanations will help you enjoy your visit far more. At night, there is a son et lumiere show which, despite being very tourist-oriented, is absolutely spectacular. Entrance to the ruins, including a visit to the museum and access to the night show costs about £80.
Where to stay:
Most visitors stay in Cancun or on the Mayan Riviera, about three hours away by road, or at Merida, which is closer, and make a day trip to Chichen Itza. It is also possible to spend the night at one of the delightful local hotels, such as the Mayaland, built in 1923, just a short walk from the temples and surrounded by beautiful gardens and top level facilities. There is also the Hacienda Chichen, a sixteenth-century colonial mansion with complete spa facilities and just twenty-eight rooms, all with large patio-terraces overlooking the hotel gardens, home to hundreds of species of migratory birds between October and May.
Mexican cuisine is much more than tacos and fajitas, in fact it is one of the great cuisines of the world, with dishes like cochinita pibil - roast suckling pig - the chicken dish chilaquiles de pollo, tamales made from almonds, mutuleño eggs, spicy lime soup, red snapper with onions, red shrimp and coconut shrimp. There are also Yucatan specialities such as papadzules - corn tortillas dipped in pumpkin seeds, chopped egg and chiltomate salsa. The three restaurants of the Mayaland hotel, as well as those of the Chichen Itza hotel and the Chichen Itza Archaeological Towns are good places to sample Yucatan cuisine within walking distance of the monument. And just three kilometres away, there's the Ik il restaurant, alongside the spectacular Ik il well, in whose sacred waters you can cool off after your visit while you wait for your meal of roast suckling pig in tacos or panuchos, lime soup and typical papadzules to arrive at your table.
Book a ticket to the son et lumiere show held nightly within the Chichen Itza precinct (touristy but still very impressive). Visit - preferably first thing in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowds - the nearby Mayan port of Tulum, with its spectacular temples silhouetted against the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean, a stone's throw from the charming Carmen beach and the beaches of the Mayan Riviera.