Chichen Itza, Top to Bottom

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Even as my lawyerly side contemplated liability, I relished climbing the monuments at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza on my first visit there 24 years ago. I remember hearing stories of high-heeled women falling to their deaths on the narrow steps of El Castillo, the pyramid on which the Mayan serpent god appears in the shadows on equinoxes. Back in 1989, I marveled that there wasn’t so much as a railing to protect tourists ascending the monument, just a chain-link rope to cling to. After climbing to the top with a bit of dignity, I shed all self-consciousness and went back down those narrow steps on all fours, feet first. I had no pride but got an incredible memory.

The view from the upper steps of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, 1989. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

The view from the upper steps of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, 1989. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

A yellowed 1989 image of Chac-Mool at Chichen Itza. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

A yellowed 1989 image of Chac-Mool at Chichen Itza. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

I experienced Chichen Itza entirely differently on my most recent visit. Our guide informed us that tourists had not been allowed to climb the monuments since Chichen Itza became one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007. The place would be preserved, but visitors would no longer get to see the ball court as the Mayan elite had, from positions high above an apparently bloody playing field. No one could touch Chac-Mool. The observatory would only be seen from a distance.

I wondered what impact the rational decision to prohibit tourists from traipsing on the exhibits had on the tourist industry surrounding Chichen Itza. The first time there, my friends and I made an overnight adventure of our visit, staying at the Hacienda Chichen. This time, we made a day trip of it, departing from Cancun via a small passenger van on a Grayline tour. We didn’t feel short-changed; if you’re not climbing on the monuments, you can manage to see the place thoroughly in a few hours. We had plenty of time for lunch and swimming at the Mayaland Hotel. Top or bottom, Chichen Itza is impressive. But I had much more of an adventure there when it was more of a jungle playground.

The view from beyond the ropes at Chichen Itza today. Photo credit: A Kindly Stranger

The view from beyond the ropes at Chichen Itza today. Photo credit: A Kindly Stranger

© Lori Tripoli

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