“What’s up dude iguana,” my two-year-old cheekily said to one of the many iguanas roaming the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza on a visit to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula a few years ago. The archaeological site is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were shocked at how few restrictions there were at the time, and I cringed when my toddler climbed all over the ancient structures. We welcomed the freedom, and yet it was disturbing to witness visitors literally loving the site to death.
Climbing to the top of the central pyramid with our son in a backpack was one of those peak travel moments, part Rocky, part Raiders of the Lost Ark. Negotiating the narrow steps, worn from centuries of foot traffic, exacerbated my festering fear of heights. There are 365 steps, one for each day of the year. I had my bulky old Nikon FE camera and the film was loaded incorrectly, so we don’t have pictures to prove we made it to the top. I still curse myself for not loading the film more carefully because tourists are no longer allowed to climb the central pyramid of El Castillo. The ministry of culture prohibited it in 2004.
A short walk from El Castillo you will find a large ball court where Mayan men played a game called pok ta pok. Experts believe that the object of the game was to hurl a ball through a ring that was mounted on a wall, seven meters above the ground. Each team had six field players who would attempt to pass the ball to their captain without using their hands. He would try the shot using a type of racquet. The captain of the team that made the first successful “basket” was then decapitated as a sacrifice to the gods! The Mayans saw this as an honor and a guaranteed ticket into heaven. The spiritual and, yes, gory quality of the game is palpable, as the imaginary sounds of the sacred arena seem to echo all around. Standing there, in awe of the Mayan culture, one can honestly envision the game as it must have played out, albeit informed by a History Channel reenactment.
It’s usually hot so get there early. Touring Chichen Itza makes a long day trip from Cancun or Merida, so we chose to stay in Valladolid, just 40 minutes from Chichen Itza. In fact, we had the best Yucatecan meal of our two week trip in our hotel.
The site is open 365 days a year and you could easily spend the whole day there. Soon, however you will be able to take a virtual tour on your iPhone thanks to U-Tour, a multimedia company based in the Mexican state of Chiapas, but to see the iguanas skittering across the ancient structures, you’ll have to make the trip south of the border.