We arrived in Chichen Itzá in the early afternoon after an uneventful two-hour bus ride from Tulum. The free left-luggage room in the ancient ruins complex was unexpected but welcome, so we opted to explore first and find our hotel later. On a Sunday afternoon the place was thronged with busloads of Mexican and foreign tourists, including the USA National under-18 basketball team.
We ran the gauntlet of multiple confusing ticket desks – as foreigners we needed tickets from both federal and state governments – and made our way finally through the turnstiles.
We walked through the trees as the centrepiece of Chichen Itzá was slowly revealed to us: El Castillo (the Castle) stood alone in a large clearing, towering thirty metres above us, an icon of the ancient Maya. The nine separate levels of the pyramid decreased in size as they approached the temple at the summit, whilst an almost perfectly-restored steep staircase of ninety-one steps drew the eye skywards.
Even with the hundreds of other visitors and throngs of souvenir-sellers chanting “only one US dollar, amigos” El Castillo was magnificent. The last time I was here in the late nineties visitors were allowed to climb right to the top, but this time it was roped off like almost every other structure in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Blessed with another cloudy and relatively fresh day, we strolled the site for hours, visiting the huge ball court, the Thousand Columns, and more. With only the brief notes of The Book (our trusty Lonely Planet) to guide us, we no doubt only scratched the surface of the rich history of the site, but the carvings on the ruined buildings spoke for themselves. Ornately-decorated kings stood on the crumpled bodies of their captive subjects. Serpent heads formed the end-points of steep banisters carved to depict the scales of the serpent. One ruin was carved around the base with hundreds and hundreds of human skulls.
Over by the Thousand Columns, a vantage point on top of the Temple of the Warriors housed the famous reclining figure of Chac-Mool, a minor deity, waiting to carry away the hearts of those who have been sacrificed to the god Ku. Looking for all the world like a sunbather on his back but now leaning on his elbows to look out over his shoulder, more eroded and damaged versions of him are to be seen all over the site, and replicas in hotel gardens and on roundabouts all over the Yucatán.
For a time we happened across the same two young Spanish-sounding dudes every place we stopped. Barefoot and bare-chested, they strolled about wearing only loose-fitting cut-off cotton trousers and impressive dreadlocks. Clearly used to travelling light, we surmised, but surely they could have found room amongst their meagre belongings for some soap and a deodorant stick? We made sure to stay well upwind when we could.
The archaeological site went on and on. Through another break in a wall or down another footpath we found more and more to see. Yet more columned balustrades; a ruined steam house for ritual purifications; a pyramid-shaped ossuary; the ruined remains of the building where all the ceremonial food had been prepared. The Observatory was amongst the most impressive, with half of its original domed roof still intact. The windows in the dome were exactly placed so as to frame Venus in the night sky at astronomically auspicious times.
Another building, the Nunnery, still had most of its ornate stone carvings intact, and stood beside La Iglesia, a large temple structure with a huge staircase leading to the top. It was smaller than El Castillo but impressive nonetheless.
Before we left, we headed back to El Castillo and followed a dead-straight path due north towards El Cenote Sagrado or Sacred Cenote. The path was lined with souvenir sellers, and small children approached us selling cotton handkerchiefs, tine replicas of El Castillo or little contraptions that, when blown into, make the sound of a snarling jaguar (jaguar imagery is almost as prevalent as serpents at Chichen Itzá).
The cenote itself – sixty metres in diameter with opaque green water at the base of twenty-metre cliffs – was spectacular and awe-inspiring. It is said that many sacrificial victims were thrown into the cenote as gifts to the Mayan gods, as well as untold treasures offered as appeasement or tribute. We gazed down into its murky depths before taking our leave for the day to find our hotel.
A five-minute taxi ride into the small village of Pisté found the Píramide Inn. Run by a Baby Boomer American couple, it’s a little run-down but perfectly pleasant with large gardens, a pool and some genuine Mayan ruins out the back.
I immediately went to check out the pool, with was a little leaf-blown but clean, cool and refreshing after a long afternoon strolling the ruins. Orlando had a nap while I showered and relaxed on the balcony with my book.
Around 7.30pm it was still light as we wandered slowly back towards the ruins for the Son y Lumiére show. Orlando brought a long-sleeved shirt and I took along a wrap in case of mosquitoes – well, we were in the middle of the jungle. The show – all in Spanish – started almost as soon as we arrived. I didn’t catch all of the commentary, which appeared to be partly historical detail, partly dramatic performance, but the atmosphere was powerful, with the imposing presence of El Castillo and the other structure all around, and the spirits of the Maya just out of reach.
The walk back to the hotel would be less than twenty minutes. The road was well-lit and a steady trickle of cars meant that we would not be alone on the dark jungle road. No, problem, we thought, and set out happily.
After no more than a couple of minutes we realised the awful truth: we were far from alone on that dark road. In fact, we were walking through a veritable fog of flying insects, huge brown beetles, even bigger green-black ones, and a good handful of saucer-sized creamy-grey monster moths. They moved slowly, colliding with us at every step. They flew right into our faces and hair, their low buzzing sounds heard too late to take any evasive action.
Where the light was stronger – under the very street-lamps we had seen as our allies – they were impossible to escape as we stumbled shrieking through literally thousands of the awful creatures. Suddenly our long-sleeved garments and my wrap meant more than protection against mosquitoes: I do not believe I could have made it back to the hotel in one piece without all of my body being covered, however scantily. It didn’t stop countless huge crawling things landing on my neck and on my shoulders where their weight, clawing at my sheer chiffon wrap was too much to bear. It was the longest three kilometres either of us has ever walked.
After what felt like an age, we saw the lights of the State Police checkpoint ahead and knew we were almost home. The policeman was sitting quietly in the dark a hundred metres or so from his post, in the shelter of an abandoned trader’s stall. He waved goodnight as we passed. Then it became apparent why he was not at his post: lit up like a Christmas tree, his little sentry box was besieged by an enormous black swarm of night creatures, swirling angrily like a single living being, making a mockery of what should have been his sanctuary. One look passed between us, and wordlessly we crossed to the other side of the narrow road which was not quite so well lit. Heads down, we dashed the hundred or so metres past the black swarm, and into the relative safety of our hotel. We had made it.
Or had we?
There was one more hurdle to surmount. We had left the light on outside our room. As we approached the end of the terrace towards our hotel room door, our horror returned as we saw hundreds more of these flying creatures swarming for yards all around our lamp, and coating every surface: the ceiling, the floor and the door itself. How were we to get through? There was no time to lose as they began to land on our clothing again; we swiped them away with revulsion. Orlando tried to clear a path to the door by scraping a balcony chair back and forth, but to no avail. Then in desperation he unlocked the door, shouted “Go! Go! GO!” and we bolted inside. We inspected every inch of each other for interlopers, killed one innocent-looking flying thing, and collapsed on the bed in exhaustion.
Next time, we’ll take a taxi.