We Wonder: Chichen Itza, Mexico


A side from the markets, the glorious Caribbean Sea and the food, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula had a lot more to offer, as we were quickly discovering in our Cancun week. We found an all-inclusive bus tour to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and signed up a few days later. The bus would pick us up at a certain San Francisco supermarket near our hotel at 7 am for the 2-hour trip there. We found the place and showed up at the appointed date and time, still smarting from our overexposure to the sun but determined to make this happen.

Half an hour later than required, still no bus. I had the tour organizer’s number, and a pay phone nearby was actually working, so I called him. But the line, and his English, made for not such a clear conversation, so we trudged back to the hotel to ask its concierge for help. Fortunately, his English was up to the task.

Turned out our hotel wasn’t as obvious as it should be; the tour people thought we were in a different town entirely, which also had a San Francisco supermarket! The bus had waited for us there until it had to go, then moved on for other pickups. Not our fault, though! An alternate bus for that day came up, and we were able to join it.

Our tour included plenty of information along the way, in both Spanish and English; lunch; souvenir shopping; time at the site of the famous Chichen Itza complex; and a swim stop at a cenote, or sinkhole, on the way home.

The Mayans, we learned, are an ancient people who built the local pyramids and other amazing buildings as part of their cities, in ancient times. Their demise, however, cannot be blamed on the arrival of the Spanish. They declined after a revolt from the peasantry to overthrow the elite in the fourteenth century. Who can blame them? If you were born on one of five unlucky days of the year, your lot was to become a living sacrifice, your heart cut out still beating, at the top of the main pyramid of your city!

The Mayans are also famous for their hieroglyphic writing, its meaning lost to them but rediscovered with renewed interest from the 19th century onwards. There was precious little to work from on paper: the Spanish HAD ordered the destruction of most written works in the language to combat pagan rites in their push for Catholicization. Their calendar, too, is a source of wonder, dating from about the 5th century BCE and amazingly accurate.

Our bus group split into its two main language groups for the stop at Chichen Itza itself, so we could hear more about it and then be free to explore on our own. The complex features many restored buildings, roped off to prevent climbing. It’s a magnificent testimony to the creativity and education of these people. The main pyramid has a staircase which the sunset at both annual equinoxes lights up just so: it traces the form of a serpent’s body moving down to the carved head at the base of one side! They built the whole huge thing knowing this in advance. The winged serpent, Kukulkan, was one of the Mayan gods. Thousands of people come to this spot twice a year for the sight, and an average of over three thousand a day visit the complex itself.

The cenote was a welcome respite from the day’s heat. There are some 2000 of these holes in the local limestone, filled to within 15m or so of the top with water; this one’s water was over 50m deep, cold and clear. All swimmers had to wear lifejackets, as I imagine the patrons had long tired of diving to pick unfortunate bodies off its deep floor.

They got our drop-off stop wrong as well, that night, although at least it was only a 10-minute walk back to our hotel. I hope that one day this tour company will learn where we were and fit such a humble place into its itinerary; but the day was, overall, a great success in impressing us.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1800 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:


Tony Hanmer

19 April 2018 20:37