Chichen Itza an Ideal Site to Explore the Past

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CANCUN -- Chichen Itza ranks as one of the best-known pre-Columbian sites in the Yucatan and can receive as many as 8,000 visitors in a day, according to a local guide.

It is a grand and magnificent collection of Mayan and post-Mayan ruins dating to, perhaps, the early centuries of the first millennium A.D. The entire site covers about four square miles, but the heart of Chichen Itza is smaller, centered around El Castillo, also called the Pyramid of Kukulkan.

Acres of open lawn surrounding this pyramid provide easy access to a number of other buildings, including the aptly named Group of the Thousand Columns; a large sacred cenote, or sinkhole, used for ceremonial events, and the largest ball court in the Mayan world. Larger than a football field, this imposing structure was host to a game that might have been similar to soccer.

As with other Mayan sites, the ruins of Chichen Itza are just that: ruins. All of the noteworthy artifacts that could have been carried off have long been plundered, and most are now in museums or private collections far from the Yucatan. The visitors' center at Chichen Itza, however, does house a small collection of pre-Columbian art.

Whatever was left by the Spanish or other explorers was taken back by the jungle until restoration efforts were begun in this century. Archaeologists have done an admirable job of repairing many parts of Chichen Itza, and the intricate carvings cut into the limestone -- portraying humans, gods and other entities and scenes -- are most impressive.

Chichen Itza is about 110 miles west-southwest of Cancun. About 50 miles southeast of Chichen Itza lies Coba, which provides a more mysterious and intimate experience. Set on the shores of two lakes, Coba probably was the grandest classical Mayan city in the Yucatan, grander even than Chichen Itza.

Coba, undiscovered by modern man until mid-century, slowly is being resurrected from the jungle and receives as many as 1,000 visitors a day.

One Mayan temple was in the process of being excavated by archaeologists during a recent visit by this reporter. The 5% of the site that has been excavated includes Nohoch Mul, the tallest temple in the Mayan world; a number of stelas, or slabs of limestone inset with carvings, and the Mayan's largest sacbe, a raised limestone road running more than 50 miles to another Mayan city.

But one especially interesting aspect of Coba can be found in the many unexcavated buildings alongside the trails that criss-cross the ancient city. Covered with vegetation, they have been left untouched for centuries and provide the casual visitor with a real sense of discovery. And a climb up the 120 steps of Nohoch Mul offers a wide vista of excavated and unexcavated temples rising all around from the flat jungle floor.

Another interesting note is the profusion of butterflies and birds that can be observed along the pathways.

A third site hosting a Club Med villa is Uxmal, south of the city of Merida and less than 200 miles southwest of Cancun. Uxmal is regarded by some as the most purely Mayan site in the Yucatan, with few of the architectural elements brought by invaders about 1,000 years ago as the classical Mayan culture was dying.

Highlights of the site include the Pyramid of the Magician, a unique, oval-shaped temple; the Palace of the Governor, which bears evidence that it was built by or for a master astronomer, and Nunnery Quadrangle, the use of which is unknown but was so named by a Spanish explorer because it resembled a Spanish convent.

As with the other two sites, licensed guides are available at a cost of less than $50 for two to three hours and can be well worth the investment for those who want more than a cursory experience.

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