One of the most well-known landmarks in the world Chichen Itza is a highly-trafficked tourist destination for the simple reason that it is truly astounding. History buffs will find endless joy in dissecting the storied past of the remarkable Ancient Mayan city, those in search of inspiration will find it within the stunning stone structures, and everyone in between will leave with a sense of wonder unlikely to ever be paralleled.
Given its firm hold on the world stage, much of Chichen Itza's story is widespread, but there is still plenty for visitors to discover either alone or with a local guide. It is unlikely we will ever know all of the secrets hidden here, but here are ten interesting facts you may not have heard.
10 It’s A New Wonder Of The World
Beginning in 2000, a seven year campaign was run to find the newest Wonders of the World. The popularity poll offered 200 existing monuments for voters to choose between and the winners were announced on July 7 in Lisbon, Portugal. Chichen Itza made the list with ease.
Over 100 million votes were cast but the result does not hold any official standing, although many travelers do defer to the list once their wanderlust has led them to all of the official Wonders of the World. In addition to its place on this list, Chichen Itza was also made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
9 The Pyramid Everyone Recognizes Is Named El Castillo
The step-pyramid that dominates the center of Chichen Itza is known in Spanish as El Castillo, or ‘The Castle’ in English. Built somewhere around the 10th Century, it served as a temple to the god Kulkulkan; a feathered serpent closely related to Aztec gods.
Standing an impressive 30 meters tall, each side of the pyramid contains 91 steps, which when added together in addition with the temple platform creates 365 steps, equal to the number of days in the average year. An additional fact about this structure, just to prove how much fun archaeologists are, is that their official designation for El Castillo is ‘Chichen Itza Structure 5B18.’
8 The Sun Creates A Serpent On The El Castillo Staircase
Occurring twice a year, a week before and after the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun plays an elaborate trick on the eyes of visitors trained on El Castillo. The playful light and shadow creates the appearance of a snake that slowly descends the staircase, writhing in a realistic manner until it reaches the earth.
Thousands gather to witness this phenomenon ever year and while it is impossible to tell if this was an intended effect by the pyramid’s creators or simply a happy accident, it doesn’t really matter when you see the joy in the eyes of all in attendance.
7 There Is A Platform Dedicated To Venus
Also known as the Tomb of Chac Mool due to the discovery of one of the famed sculptures during excavation, The Great Platform of Venus is a 25 meter squared platform featuring carved mythical creatures displaying the forms of eagle, serpent, jaguar and human combinations.
Devoted astronomers, the Mayans studied and tracked Venus extensively here and considered the planet a heavenly body and ideal astronomical measuring point. Much of the Mayan Calendar was devised here and the planning of rituals was done under the supervision of Venus.
6 One Of The Smaller Pyramids Opens Into A Natural Cave
The Ossuary, also known as the Bonehouse or the High Priest’s Grave, is a crumbling pyramid southwest of El Castillo. A first glance at the structure will reveal several beautiful serpent heads at the base of the staircases, but a more inquisitive investigation will lift the curtain on so much more.
Placed at the top of the structure is the entrance to a square shaft that leads down into a cave once used as a burial chamber. Seven tombs rest here, all of which have seen humans remains discovered within. One of the most incredible locations in Chichen Itza, it is much less known than it perhaps should be.
5 Chichen Itza Sounds Amazing
There is a theory that the ancient Mayans constructed their pyramids to act as huge resonators in an effort to produce evocative echoes and the theory is backed by science. Many of the sites at Chichen Itza are well known for the sounds that can be created within. For example, a single clap at the borders of the Ballcourt can produce nine echoes within the court’s center while a clap in the right spot of El Castillo creates an echo reminiscent of a serpent’s chirp.
As with many of the incredible side-effects of the pyramids designs, it is impossible to know if these occurrences were meticulously planned and engineered or just coincidental results but either way, the audio wonders of Chichen Itza are just as wonderful as the visual ones.
4 Chichen Itza Was Discovered In 514 AD
It is generally believed that Chichen Itza was discovered in 514 AD by the priest Lakin Chan. The storied history of the area then states that it served as the ceremonial center of the Mayan Civilization until approximately 1000AD when it was invaded from the North.
From there, a civil war broke out around 1221 and archaeological evidence suggests that many of the structures suffered fire damage throughout this period. In 1531, Spanish conquistadors attempted unsuccessfully to control Chichen Itza and in the 1830’s an American explorer purchased the ruins which today are federal property.
3 There Is An Area For Ball Sports
The Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza measures a huge 146 meters by 36 and is the largest of its kind in Mesoamerica. It was constructed in a different style to most ball courts of the period, making it interesting to historians and travelers alike.
Walls that mark the boundaries of the space feature carvings that give insight into the games that took place here. One particularly spectacular image is a scene depicting two teams doing battle, with one member decapitating someone on the opposition.
2 The City Contains A Stunning Cenote
Cenotes are beautiful underground spaces containing crystal-clear water, remarkable natural formations and more often than not an atmosphere of magic and wonder. Chichen Itza, in addition to the incredible structures on its surface, is home to its own glorious cenote.
Nearby the ominous Platform of Skulls, Cenote Sagrado cuts 35 meters into the earth and is laced with tangled vines and vibrant vegetation. Ruins of an ancient steam bath sit next to the cenote, a spot that has to be visited while exploring this underground delight.
1 The Oldest Structure Dates Back To The 2nd Century
Given the wide-ranging and complex history of Chichen Itza, it is no surprise that many of the structures are dated to different periods of the past. The oldest of these is believed to be Akab-Dzib, believed to have been raised as far back as the 2nd Century.
The name translates to ‘Obscure Writing’ and refers to the entrance on its southern side where a lintel depicts a priest holding a vase etches with hieroglyphics that have yet to be successfully translated.