11 APRIL (Friday)
After an early breakfast (I can now say "plata de pina" - plate of pineapple slices), we drove the short distance to the archeological site of Coba. At the entrance to this site, which consisted solely of a small old giftshop, we got our tickets and made our way past a group of waiting men who tried to convince us that we REALLY needed a guide. Well, we really didn't, as we had our site map from the guide book, and you merely have to follow the paths through the thick trees (making note of the occasional sign) to get anywhere.
There were very few tourists at Coba, which wasn't surprising, considering its lack of grandeur. It's a large site (6000 structures have been seen by satellite photography), but there are less than a dozen structures actually excavated, and none of them are in particularly great shape. It does have a ball court, a large building called "The Church", and its most famous structure, "Nohoch Mul". The later is a large pyramid that is supposed to be the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Unfortunately it only seems to have been unearthed, and not restored. Its difficult to picture what its original shape or features may have been. If you're near Coba, it is worth it to stop by, if only to climb to the top of Nohoch Mul. The view from the top is very nice, as you gaze out over the jungle stretching out in all directions around you. You can see the lake and other features from there as well.
Climbing the Nohoch Mul pyramid at Coba. (I'm the white blob almost near the top.) This is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, with a great view over the surrounding jungle.
Our stop at Coba provided us with a good place to spend the night, and added one more site to our list. It doesn't take long to tour it, so it shouldn't be hard to fit into your schedule. When we were done with Coba we headed for our next destination, Chichen Itza.
While I was researching my trip back in the States, I had read in a guide book that said that in order to drive from Coba to Chichen Itza you should drive north to Neuvo X-Can, and then on to Chemax, Valladollid and Chichen Itza. There was a road that cut westward across from Coba directly towards Valladolid (via Chemax), and on the map it looked like it would save a lot of time. However, the guide said "don't take that road, it is in terrible condition. Drive the more modern road via Neuvo X-Can". It sounded like a good thing to know at the time. While in Coba, though, I had asked about the "old" road and they said "Oh, that road was recently repaired. It is now MUCH better than the one to Neuvo X-Can!". So, we took the direct road, and saved ourselves time and potholes.
We arrived in the town of Piste around midday, and from there it was a very short distance to our hotel (the "Hacienda Chichen"), which was right near the ruins of Chichen Itza (you can see one of the Mayan buildings easily from the hotel). We checked in, had a nice lunch on the hotel patio, and then went to the ruins for the rest of the day.
Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan sites, and this was reflected in the large amount of tourists, the size of its parking lot, the plethora of shops at its entrance, and the size and quality of its visitor's center and museum. We did not need a guide at this site, as all of its buildings were easy to find, and each was described in our guidebook.
The north side of the pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza
Despite all my research, there were a few things that I had not anticipated or known. The famous step pyramid of Kukulkan ("El Castillo") that is seen in almost all Mayan tourist brochures is actually only restored on two sides. The other two sides have been left unrestored, to show how it was found when it was uncovered. The Temple of the Warriors, with its famous chacmool (statue of a semi-reclining man with a plate on his belly), is now off limits for climbing. I had listened to my cousin tell me about his trip to Chichen Itza, and how he had put his head on the chacmool's plate, but that experience was denied me. Another surprise was that there was a giant temporary stage being built in front of the Temple of the Warriors, getting ready for an upcoming concert by the tenor Pavorotti.
Chichen Itza is also the first place that I could remember where we saw iguanas. The northern end of the Yucatan is full of them, so we saw them at our hotel and an a number of times amongst the ruins for the next several sites. Some of them were quite big, and they always kept a wary eye on us to make sure we didn't get closer than a few feet.
Chichen was also the first archeological site where we saw Mexican army soldiers standing guard with automatic weapons (at one end of the great ballcourt). They didn't look like they were actively guarding anything, and I guess their casual demeanor meant that they knew they didn't have to quell tourist riots very often.
Climbing the main pyramid, known as El Castillo (The Castle) or the Pyramid of Kukulkan, was quite an experience. The temple at the top is only somewhat interesting, but the view from all four sides is definitely worth the climb. If you go to Chichen Itza on the day of the spring or autumn equinox, you can watch as the sun's movement creates patterns of light and shadow on one side that makes it look like the stone snake that runs along the western side of the north staircase is actually moving and descending into the earth. Very impressive, and it only happens twice a year, but the crowds look so thick that it would probably spoil the experience.
The snake heads at the bottom of the pyramid's north side. They become part of the illusion of light and shadow on the two equinoxes each year.
El Castillo is an example of a Mayan tradition of building a bigger pyramid over the top of an existing one. Some Mayan pyramids have several "layers", as succeeding generations of kings would try to improve an already holy site by making it larger and grander. Archeologists have extensively tunneled within the Chichen Itza pyramid, exploring a smaller pyramid that lies within. At the top of this inner pyramid is a room that contains a green chacmool and a red jaguar (with spots made from 72 pieces of jade). They are behind bars to protect them from the public, and flash and video photography is forbidden. The public is allowed to see them twice a day (at 11:30 and at 4:30, if I recall), and entrance is through the bottom of the north side of the larger exterior pyramid. You have to climb a tunnel-like set of steep stairs to get to the inner room, and it is not for the claustrophobic. The stairs are so narrow that two people would have to squeeze by each other to pass, and the heat, humidity, and people's sweat makes the well-worn steps and walls damp and slippery to the point that they are almost dangerous. I recommend that you go during the late afternoon time, because the one at midday is usually overrun with tourists.
The green chacmool inside El Castillo (no flash permitted).
Midday at Chichen Itza is the worst. The heat is at its strongest, and the crowds are at their fullest. It takes a few hours for the buses loaded with tourists from Cancun to arrive at the site, so the best times to visit Chichen Itza is in the morning or in the late afternoon when they have gone back to their resort.
After we had seen most of the highlights of the site, we went back to the hotel for dinner. We returned to the ruins in the evening to see the sound and light show (for an extra fee, of course). We took the time to watch the night sky from a darkened part of the site prior to the show, as it so happened that Hale-Bopp, a large double-tailed comet, was still very visible to the naked eye. Seeing such an impressive celestial sight from the ruins of a great city (once populated by a people to whom astronomical events were so important) was a very special experience. It was easy to mentally travel back in time, picturing ourselves amongst the priests and sacred temples while gazing upon the comet up above.
The sound and light show was entertaining, though a little touristy. You sat in rows of chairs to one edge of the large plaza facing the pyramid of Kukulkan. The pyramid and other buildings around you were lit up with various colored lights in time with a theatrical soundtrack of music and voice that told the story of the Maya. Images of warriors and other Mayan pictures were shown in light patterns on the walls of the Temple of the Jaguar (part of the main ballcourt) to our left. I have the whole 45-minute show on video, though only the audio really came out, as the auto-focuser on my video camera had a hard time focusing on the distant buildings in the darkness.
Returning to our room afterwards we looked forward to taking our showers and turning in, but first I had to remove a large millipede from our bathroom floor. I carefully scooped him up with a couple of magazines and tossed him into the garden area outside of our room. Earlier in the day I had found another large spider on the wall of our room, looking like he wanted to get into our luggage, which we had been careful to keep off the floor (along with things like our shoes). I killed the spider by stepping on him, while I filmed the event on video. I never told Sue about it, as she was squeamish about spiders. I let her find out about it when we reviewed the videos back home after our trip.