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
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
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