Chichén Itzá Enthralls Us
In its heyday, Chichén Itzá was one of the biggest cities in the Mayan empire and served as both a hub for trade and a site with deep spiritual significance. Eager to make the most of our visit, we hire a private guide (about $50), archaeologist Rafael Burgos, a Mayan descendent who grew up in the shadow of the park before it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Temple of Kukulcan, the main pyramid, boasts edges that are impressively straight and razor-sharp, even though the Mayans had only stone tools. The restored 98-foot-tall pyramid is a physical representation of the Mayan calendar. On the spring and summer equinoxes, the late afternoon sun shines on Kukulcan in such a way that the shadows cast by the steps on the northwest balustrade make it appear as though a snake is descending the pyramid.
Each side of Kukulcan, also known as El Castillo, has 91 steps. Multiply that by four sides, one for each season, and add the top, and you have one step for each of the 365 days in a year. On April 6, the sun rises right in the belly of a stone statue of a woman giving birth. At each stop along our roughly two-hour tour, I am more dazzled by the intentionality with which the Mayans lived. Every structure we visit has celestial significance and each intricately carved building, sculpture and place of business also serves as an element of a giant clock.
“Time was the obsession of the Mayans,” Burgos tells us, “time, and the movement of the sun.” They spent years, he says, patiently observing nature and making careful calculations.