A day plus 30 minutes in ancient Chichen Itza


ould I go to Egypt and not see a pyramid? To Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower? To Las Vegas and not see a pyramid and the Eiffel Tower?

Then how could I go to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and not see the ruins of Chichen Itza?

I'll tell you how that could happen: Egypt, Paris and Vegas don't have a beautiful blue-green ocean, great scuba diving and all the grande margaritas one could wish to drink.

OK, they probably do have margaritas, but you get my point: I had gone to Mexico to relax by the sea, and I found it difficult to leave my shady seat under the palapa to tromp through the jungle looking at old stuff. Besides, my vacation, like most vacations, was not a long one.

On the other hand, Chichen Itza is not your typical pile of archaeological rocks. It truly does rank with places such as the Egyptian pyramids and Machu Picchu. Its buildings have been rebuilt, giving three-dimensional proof of the amazing structures the Maya created over the course of seven centuries.

And then you have the "I was there" factor. Chichen Itza's huge pyramid pops up on a slew of TV shows, magazines and more. I knew I'd later regret it if I didn't see the pyramid and climb to its top. After all, why do we travel if not to annoy our friends by pointing at photos and TV screens and proclaiming, "I was there"?

In the end, I arrived at the same solution that many other travelers find: I would see Chichen Itza, and I would see it in one day. If everything went according to schedule, I'd be back on the sand by happy hour.

The reclining statue of Chacmool, a Mayan fertility god, sits atop a platform in the Temple of Warriors at Chichen Itza. There are three basic choices on a Chichen Itza day tour: Stay at a local hotel to begin with or go by land or air. The universal time/money continuum applies here: Buses are slower and cheaper, planes are faster and more expensive.

From Cancun, a bus tour costs in the neighborhood of $85 per person; from Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, about $100. Lunch usually is included. The Cancun bus tours can take up to 11 hours (five hours of it on the bus), the Cozumel tours up to 14 (six hours on the road).

Air tours cost approximately $250 from Cancun, $220 from Cozumel or Playa. Total time: Five to six hours, about 90 minutes of it in the air. The air tours tend to be offered less frequently than the ground tours and are subject to cancellation if they don't fill the plane.

Among the many companies offering excursions is Intermar Caribe (IMC), at www.travel2mexico.com. Most hotels will handle the tour arrangements for their guests.

Another option is to rent a car and drive it yourself. Solo travelers won't find this any cheaper than the bus tour; couples might; larger groups definitely would.

I opted for the air tour from Cozumel, partly because it took fewer hours but more because of its schedule.

My goal was to get to the ruins as early as possible. Midday is rush hour at Chichen Itza, the time when the tour buses from Cancun, Cozumel and other resort areas converge on the site. That's when the solitary ruins of your imagination become more like Disney World, with throngs of visitors milling past one another. By signing up for an early-morning flight, you can enjoy an hour or so of quiet before the crowds get there.

And quiet was pretty much what we found when our guide led our four-person group through the entry gates at Chichen Itza. Then, before I even expected it, we were standing before the pyramid.

From a distance, the Temple of Kukulcan, or El Castillo, looks a little too perfect -- as if this were Disney World. This is partly caused by the parklike expanse of grass that surrounds it and partly because it doesn't seem ruined enough to be a ruin.

On closer examination, you can see how the massive serpent sculptures at the base of the stairs have weathered, and how, on two of its four sides, the reconstruction was left unfinished.

El Castillo becomes even more real when you climb it. The steps are very narrow, very numerous and very steep. It's almost easier to climb at an angle, so that you can turn your feet sideways to the stairs. Some clamor up on all fours.

When you make it to the top, you get a magnificent view and the chance to look down on others that are creeping up the stairs. The house-like structure at the peak is a temple with carvings of the Chac, the rain god of the Maya. I had someone take my picture, just in case I ever have to prove my "I was there" claim.

There is more to Chichen Itza than El Castillo, however -- much more. And therein lies the main drawback to a day trip. The guide (whose services were included in the tour price) hit the high points, but his hour-long walk and talk could only scratch the surface.

After that, we were allowed another 90 minutes or so to roam around on our own. I backtracked to the larger structures our guide pointed out to us -- the Temple of the Warriors, the Thousand Columns and the Ball Court.

The guide had discussed the buildings while standing some distance away from them, but I wanted to be in and on them. Call it the "playground" approach to educational travel: If you can't jump around on the rocks, they just don't seem real. Not that you can jump around just anywhere -- some areas are off limits -- but what I liked best about Chichen Itza is that you can get close to many of the structures.

By this time, the bus groups were out in full force, so I had lots of company on the playground. This is drawback No. 2 to the day trip: Even if you arrive early, you will soon enough be caught up in the midday crush.

Atop the Temple of the Warriors, I carefully framed a photo of the reclining Chacmool statue with El Castillo as a backdrop.

But I could never snap the picture without having three or four fellow tourists in the frame.

Was the day trip worth it? Definitely. There is a world of difference between seeing a picture of a 75-foot-tall pyramid and standing next to it (or, better yet, on top of it). Walking on an ancient ball court where athletes once played (and, according to some accounts, died) is far more powerful than reading about it in a book.

And, truth be told, those who have a limited interest in history and archaeology will probably find two-and-a-half hours at the site to be plenty. But myself, I wanted more. In the end, I got more -- 30 minutes more, anyway -- though I didn't plan it that way. For this, I can only thank the ancient ones who built Chichen Itza.

As our guide had explained, many of the buildings at the site are laid out with precise alignments to the sun and the stars. (The most famous example of this being the "crawling serpent" shadow on El Castillo that occurs during the spring and autumn equinoxes.)

As a result of this careful design, many of the main walking routes radiate out from the four sides of El Castillo. One goes to the main exit; others go elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the ancients weren't so careful about constructing signs to direct you in the proper direction. So, as the time for our departure grew near, I began walking away from the pyramid, toward what I thought was the exit. And I walked. And I walked.

Eventually I arrived not at the parking lot but the Sacred Cenote, a water-filled sinkhole that once served as the city's water supply. I had gone a half-mile in the wrong direction, and it was now 1:30 -- the time the plane was scheduled to depart.

I began to jog back in the proper direction. Twenty minutes later, I arrived at the airfield to find my plane, pilot and fellow travelers waiting. None of them was amused by my tardiness. They made me sit in the back row.

As we climbed above the site, I could see the sinkhole glittering below. I pointed at it and spoke to the person in front of me. "The Sacred Cenote," I shouted (this being a rather loud prop plane). "Did you go see it?"

"Didn't have time," he said.

"Too bad," I said. "I was there."


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