Wheeling Chichén Itzá – The Maya

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I’ve consulted all the sages,
I could find in the yellow pages,
But there aren’t many of them…
And the mayan panoramas
On my pyramid pajamas
Haven’t helped my little problem.

The Alan Parsons Project

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I’ve always had a dream to see the pyramids. Little did I know that I was going to get acquainted with the South American pyramids before an encounter with the ancient Egyptians. But it turned out that the Yucatan peninsula definitely has more to offer than amazing beaches and tacos, and that it’s an excellent place for what I would call wheelchair accessible pyramid sightseeing.

After some days of chilling in the garden of our air bnb, it was time for a real day trip. We had a rental car for only a week, and it was time to use it. My own batteries were also charged again after some days with pool & sunshine, and this was good because we had some hard core sightseeing ahead of us.

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Our plan was to visit the Mayans. Or the remains of them to be more precise. We were heading to Chichén Itzá, which is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico with over 2.6 million tourists in 2017. The area is most famous for it’s giant pyramid El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan).

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Chichén Itzá was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.

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Our guide showing us the huts that the Mayans used to live in.

But before we could enjoy the mysteries of the ancient world, we had to drive approximately 2,5 hours from Cancún. We decided to buy tickets to the Maya pyramids by a roadstand, where we also got a very useful map over Chichén Itzá. I cannot remember if it was the same roadstand, but at least we managed to find an accessible toilet on our way. Which was very good, because we were not able to locate any wheelchair accessible toilets inside the park/archeological site.

I don’t know if it’s the Mexican driving style or what, but at least you are properly warned when you’re approaching a curve. Or a Maya pyramide…

We ended up buying the VIP tickets, because according to the guy on the ticket stand it would be much easier to find parking for us at the back entrance (by Mayaland lodge) and it would also be less crowded to enter the park. Since we never visited the main entrance, we don’t know if this is correct. But our gut feeling told us that he was actually right and that the back entrance is probably the best one if you arrive with a car (and a bunch of wheelchair users).

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Before we entered the park, we had originally decided not to buy a guide. But when we entered the park, it turned out to be a little bit more hilly than first expected. And some of the paths were a bit bumpy, which would probably make it quite physically challenging to wheel all by ourselves.

So after checking what a guide cost, we decided to hire Jonathan for a few hours guided tour. And this was probably the best decision we did during our two weeks in Mexico. Jonathan was an experienced guide from Mayan origin with lot of knowledge about the history of the site. And I think it would have been impossible to get the same experience from a guidebook, that we got with Jonathan’s assistance.

He was also able to help us at the most bumpy paths and being a group of 3 wheelchair users and one pedestrian, this was very convenient. Especially since Ingrid’s “mini engine” decided to go on strike before we entered the park.

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An example of some of the worst obstacles you will face wheeling Chichen Itza.

Sometimes when a stranger is going to help me on bumpy paths, I’m scared because the person is not used to handling a wheelchair. He or she might end up shoving your front wheels into a hole or a ditch, which might cause a nasty accident. But Jonathan had obviously met wheelchair users before. He was very relaxed about the situation and gave us a push when we asked for it or when he saw we were struggling. Otherwise he just left us to wheel ourselves, which is the perfect solution for me at least.

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And disregarding the wheelchair issue – a guide was a good investment because we understood much more of the different constructions on the site. The layout of Chichén Itzá site core developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD, and the 10th century saw the rise of the city as a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatán to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula.

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On top of this construction they used to sacrifice people.

One of the “fun facts” that got stuck in my mind, was the stories about the violent nature of the Mayans. They basically liked to kill and sacrifice each other in all kinds of different ways. No matter if it was head chopping, pulling your heart out, using your head as a football or throwing your body into a cenote (natural pools).

The scientists disagree, but this thirst for blood might be the reason that caused the end of the whole civilization. It’s kind of logical. If you throw too many living or dead bodies  into your drinking water, you might end up polluting not only the pool itself, but the ground water in the whole area. A little bit similar to what we are doing with plastic in our oceans at the moment…

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One of the survivors…
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The observatory

So even if the Mayans were incredibly smart in mathematics (they invented the zero for instance) and astronomy, they were also incredibly bloodthirsty and stupid. Quite similar to several other ancient civilizations I guess…

The most impressive construction in Chichén Itzá is the giant pyramid El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan) in the middle of the site. Around the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulcan.

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There’s also a special sound effect that the Mayans created as a amplifier, so the sound from the speeches of the rulers on the top of the pyramid would reach a bigger area and not only the people in close proximity. This sound phenomenon can be tested by clapping hard at certain places in front of the pyramide. You’ll then hear an echo similar to a squeaking bird. Of course we had to try it…

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Archaeologists have identified thirteen ballcourts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichén Itzá, but the Great Ball Court about 150 metres (490 ft) to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 168 by 70 metres (551 by 230 ft).

Because of Jonathan we learned about the ball court, the different eras where Chichén Itzá was inhabited and developed and the different gods they believed in. We never really understood though if it was the winners of the ball game that got sacrificed at the end of it or the losers. Details, details…

We also learned that it’s probably smart to bring a cap or an umbrella. Because the heat was pretty intense inside the site, with little or no shadow to seek refuge in, except for the “shopping street” with numerous souvenir stalls.

And remember to bring cash! In general cash is king in Mexico. Both our debit card and credit card got skimmed in an ATM in Cancún – so watch where you use it! After a day of very interesting sightseeing and food for the brain, and a little bit of souvenir shopping, it was time for some food for the stomach.

First we ended up in a place that looked charming on the outside, but turned out to be a gigantic tourist machine full of grumpy tourist and staff members on the inside. From the decorations on top of the garden walls, it was clear that intruders were not welcome. Or just another example of the fact that Mayans are still a bit blood thirsty…

So instead of the tourist machine we ended up having the elementary tacos & guacamole at a smaller place down the street, which was nice, quiet and somewhat forgettable.

It was time to head back in the direction of Cancún to get ready for some relaxing days on the beach instead of Antonio’s garden.

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