Why you must visit Chichen Itza, Cenote and Valladolid …

Our first visit to Mexico and we played it safe. Go where the crowds go. But ignoring Chichen Itza from our Cancun (tip of Yucatán Peninsula) itinerary would have been similar to going to Agra, India and not romancing the Taj Mahal or in Paris blanking out Eiffel Tower or not ‘Trapezing’ the Great Wall of China when in Beijing. We were travel- perfect and booked the all inclusive Chichen_Itza, Cenote and Valladolid tour lured by the tour company’s descriptions and hoping that there would be no disappointments. (https://www.getyourguide.com/chichen-itza-full-day-cenote-valladolid-tour)

Chichen Itza, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World, is located in the state of Yucatan in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and is a diversion, exactly 197 km and 2:30 hrs, from the beachy extravaganza Cancun.

Tour: On designated day and time the pick -up from hotel at 7.30 am and journey to the ‘mother’ bus where other dozy eyes gave us the stares. We set off to the Guide’s monotone of not mis-using the bus conveniences (fine imposed) and other dos and don’ts. There was no onboard refreshment or entertainment, carried our own snacks and drinks (water, soda) and dug in for the 2 hour plus journey on the highway snaking through miles and miles of road construction, fields and open lands, remote rural villages and glimpses of rural Mexican life of multi-hued houses or chalets, the roadside display of Mayan artifacts, blankets, hats, masks and occasional restaurants and motels. This was the interior, east of Cancun, dry with occasional water bodies or cenotes, forested wilderness and fields of prickly blue agave plants, the main ingredient of Tequila, the popular Mexico drink.

*Google informs that Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco and only Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas production could be labeled as Tequila. The Yucatan Tequila or the blue agave beverage cannot be referred to as Tequila even if it is identical in quality. We pass the fields of Destilería Artesanal de Agave Mayapán ,Yucatán’s best-known agave distillery located on the outskirts of Valladolid and not included in tour itinerary. (https://yucatanmagazine.com/mayapans-agave-spirits-are-delicious-just-dont-call-them-tequila/)

A cloudy-sunny day of anticipation. The bus rested, no sound from any seat, till we approached closer to the site. It was the cue to our Guide to entertain us with his repartees and difference with other tour groups and guides. Ah well… we will have to give in to his efforts on being an honest guide who would not throw us to ‘tourism wolfs’.

Chichen Itza….Here we were, a never ending line of tourist buses, cabs, private cars and people and I felt what Salman Rushdie did on visiting the Taj Mahal “ it’s as if every hustler and hawker in Agra is waiting for you to make the familiarity-breeds-contempt problem worse, peddling imitation Tajs of every size and price”. Here there the Mayan calendars.

We are hustled through the main entrance into a courtyard or waiting area for tour groups, ticket booths, eateries and designated sellers of umbrellas (a must) and Mayan calendars. Our Guide was at hand “do not trust the people selling… trust me your guide. I will take you to genuine people who are friends of mine”… ha! ha! how do we know. With already purchased tickets in hand we cross over into the Complex through lanes lined with stalls selling Mexican artifacts, masks, clothes, hammocks, blankets, jewellery etc. 

If one stops to think about it, it is a little unsettling to find that the Maya-called the Greeks of America-could have designed such a frugal architecture, almost the enemy of ornamentation. However, amidst the somberness of the Castle exists an austere and fearful aesthetic project, and a concept of beauty inspired in the bellicose people who dominated those lands.”

The name Chichén means “mouth of the well” and Itzá refers to those who founded it, the Itzáes “water witches”, around the year 435. To the layman, including us, the structures represent ancient pre- Columbian vibrant Mayan city centrally located on the northern half of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The El Castillo Pyramid , in all its greyness and with active participation of the Sun, obliterates the modern drug induced gun toting image of Mexico. At same time highlights the different facets of ingenious Mayan capabilities.

El Castillo pyramid/temple, dedicated to Kukulcán, the feathered serpent deity was constructed sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries CE. Kukulkán is the Mayan word for the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl related to wind, Venus, Sun, merchants, arts, crafts, knowledge and learning and patron god of the Aztec priesthood. The structure served as Mayan tracker of the ‘spring and autumn equinoxes via a light and shadow effect on the temple’s northern staircase’. The principal façade or main entrance has two columns, each representing serpents with open jaws and headed with a large mask of the god Chaac. During archaeological digs it was found that the Pyramid was built on top of an earlier, smaller, 16 metre high, temple along with a Cenote and other structures and remains.

By now the Complex was crowding up, footfalls reverberating to stereotypical explanations of the play of sun and shadows followed by collective ‘Ohs’ as the K’uk’ulkan or thePlumed Serpent’ hypothetically slides down the south phase. The K’uk’ulkan is the Mesoamerican Serpent deity worshipped by the Yucatan Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula. One admires the adherence to precision and intention as each side of the pyramid has 91 steps with additional 1 more step leading to the upper temple, giving 365 steps, one per day of the year. The steps are flanked by stone balustrades and at the base of the north staircase are two colossal feathered serpent heads, effigies of the god Kukulcan. It is on these stairways and parapets that the shadow of the Serpent superimposes, descending and ending in the stony head located at base of the stairway.

I try to understand the phenomenon (forgotten Geography lessons) the play of light and shadow patterns created by the sun at various times of year in conjunction with the placement and shape of stones that allowed the Maya to use the structure as a calendar. When to sow seeds, harvest corn, perform ritual ceremonies and track astronomical events. There is an observatory, El Caracol (Spanish for “snail,” named for a narrow, winding staircase found within) containing the remains of a domed structure, probably to observe the heavens.

Our Guide had an attentive audience listening to his explanations, extolling the accuracy of Mayan calendar at the time when calendars did not exist, the precise calculations of Mayan priests that were more exact than the standard calendar the world uses today. I wanted to ask him about the miscalculations responsible for the frenzy of December 21, 2012 prediction about end of world quoting Mayan calendar. Nothing had happened as we waited anticipating the worst. In a way it was for the good of humankind as I would not have been standing here admiring this astronomically aligned spectacular edifice. The four sides represent each season with 91 days, with each step equal to one day. This in sum represents the period of time between each phase of the annual solar cycle: winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox. 

With such intricate calculations how could the Maya go wrong? Every system has its glitches and despite the failed prediction the Maya were ahead of their time and I look at El Castillo with humble eyes.

The scripted preface continues…. about the Mayan extinction, causes to the decline of Chichen Itza due to lengthy drought during the 11th century, widespread revolt of native Yucatec Maya against the Itzá rulers of northern Yucatan. “How can the Spaniards claim responsibility (inhilating the Maya) when the Mayan were already finishing themselves”. We follow him around… past remnants of wars, massacres, human sacrifices, walls plastered with what appear as heads, coloured red. Somehow conducted tours leave with half heard explanations as one gets busy tallying what is being said to what was read.  At one point we were asked to clap in unison to hear the reverberating sound. The explanation… that during ceremonies, when Kukulan was being worshipped, a priest would face the Pyramid and clap and then turn to face the Temple of Warriors and clap again, causing a low rattle to seemingly emit from the rocks. With other groups clapping in unison the sound rolled around the Complex. 

Next is the 545 feet long and 223 feet wide Great Ball Court once used for playing tlachtli or Mayan pok-ta-pok game, the largest such court in the Americas. The court walls are adorned with six sculpted reliefs depicting the victors holding aloft severed heads of the vanquished team. (Sounds like a brutal game). At end of court, on its upper platform, is the Temple of the Jaguars with murals (inside) showing warriors laying siege to a village. We were made to stand on a platform, towards the North, to experience listening to a ‘whisper from 150 feet away’.

Nearby is the High Priest’s Grave, the Colonnade (Thousand Columns) and the adjoining Temple of the Warriors completed in the Early Post-Classic Period (c. 900–1200). Towards the Late Post-Classic Period (c. 1200–1540), Chichén Itza was eclipsed by the rise of the city of Mayapan and by the time the Spanish entered the country (16th century), the Maya were confined to small towns, with major cities, including Chichén, abandoned. ( John Lloyd Stephens in Travel in Yucatan (1843))

The main attention grabber, for me, are the confrontational 365 steep steps of El Castillo that were reserved for Priests to reach the temple to perform sacred rituals and bring them closer to the gods in the sky. Restrictions for public was imposed (2006) when a woman slipped on one of the steps to tumble down to her death. I do not blame her or the Polish tourist who made a similar attempt as recent as January 2023, a week after our visit to Chichen Itza. He crossed the restricted zone to tackle the storied steps and was beaten by people and fined for his audacity.

The tour over, with 30 minutes extra to shop around or stroll the grounds. The exit to the Complex is via passages crowded with gift shops. A keepsake photograph turned into a serenaded mumbled whispered ‘extortion for money US $50’ with pointed weapon at my throat. Finally settled for US$5. (Part of their act)

Back on the bus for part two tour stop..the Cenote. 

Cenote Saamal and Hacienda Selva Maya

The Maya believed that when people died, they entered the Underworld through a cave or a cenote. The Cenotes/ Xenotes/Dzonot meaning natural well, was sacred as they were the only source of freshwater in the middle of the jungle and abode of the god Chac Mool who watched over Xibalba, the place of fear. According to legend, Chac Mool was reborn as a jaguar at dusk and spread fear among the people. To appease him, the Maya made offerings of pots, jade and living sacrifices. The cenotes were considered as natural passage to the underworld or Xibaba.

Cenote Saamal once a sacred place for the Mayan rituals for Chaac, the god of rain, in present avatar is a commercialised venture in agrestic settings of Hacienda Selva Maya. 

Saamal is about 60m/200 ft in diameter and about 40 m/130 ft deep. One can go in for Cenote swimming, life jackets mandatory, and many in our group opted for its rejuvenating cooling qualities from their shouts and screams in the cavernous pool. 

I avoided because of the 80 plus steps walkdown/walkup to enter the waters and claustrophobic imaginings of Maya sacrifices. Preferred to explore the landscaped gardens of Hacienda Selva Maya with its shops selling artifacts and Tequila varieties in a well maintained nature setting. With tour buses downloading eager tourists, at regular intervals, we made a beeline for the lunch (included in package) before it turned into an organized chaos and queue. The authentic Mexican lunch (not Tacos according to our Guide) was palatable.

Hacienda Selva Maya

Back on the bus for the Part 3 of the Tour:

Valladolid Village: It was a fresh lot on the bus, eager-earred for more platitudes from our Guide about the next stop, Valladolid Village, west to Chichen Itza. This is a colonial city showcasing 16th-century buildings including Convent of San Bernardino of Siena, the baroque-style San Gervasio Cathedral, Casa de los Venados with Mexican folk art and furnishings amongst other buildings

We follow the snaking line of tour buses through streets flanked by picturesque colorful houses, boutique shops, window grills, flower boxes, and atmospheric cafes. I am reminded of Goa (Portuguese once) and its laid back ambiance. 

Valladolid is on different trajectory to Cancun and since we are here for an hour what little we saw… the colonial buildings, quaint streets, arts and crafts an exquisite mix of Mayan and Spanish cultures, it certainly is Pueblo Magico and worth visiting for a longer period. 

Our bus was parked alongside the market, Municipal Market, where we could do our purchasing in colorful little stores with tiled frontage, including the Guide recommended Tequila shop. Since we were not into souvenir buying walked the cobbled street towards the Church of San Servacio and the fascinating Calzada de los Frailes famed for Friars Walk on fridays and saturdays.

There is more to see, the Fountain of La Mestiza ( mixed race woman that shows the coming together of Mayan and Spanish cultures), the Nunnery, churches, art centers, parks, the main Plaza or Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado, hotels, restaurants. Throughout the city one can find establishments selling leather and henequen crafts, hamacs and traditional fabrics. Local food the sak-kol turkey, the smoked longaniza or longaniza ahumada and lomitos… icons of this province in Mexico.

History: (Google) Valladolid, in Yucatán, was established by Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo’s nephew on May 27, 1543 at a lagoon called Chouac-Ha in the municipality of Tizimin. The early Spanish settlers complained about the mosquitos and humidity and petitioned to have the city moved further inland in 1545. The city was built atop a Mayan town called Zací or Zací-Val, whose buildings were dismantled to reuse the stones to build the Spanish colonial town. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valladolid,_Yucat%C3%A1n

Lesson Learnt: A conducted tour is ‘no hassles comfortable’ but plan your own itinerary as there is more to see and learn than what is presented.


You get what you pay for

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