Yucatán is the place to be if you are a big fan of Mayan ruins. Just Google “Yucatan”, “Maya”, “Map”, and you will see how the place is full of pyramids everywhere you look. Of course, the most famous one is Chichén Itzá, but there are dozens more that are less popular yet evoke the same mysterious feel, and less tourists to boot! If you plan to go pyramid hopping, there is this itinerary called the Ruta Maya, but I don’t recommend it unless you have a lot of time to spare. You’ll be fine with just a pyramid or two.
Cancún is in Quintana Roo, dubbed as the Mexican Caribbean. Yucatán is the province right next to it. The bus ride from Cancún to Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, usually takes four hours. If you want to cut the trip in half, you can also set up camp in Valladolid, which is closer to the border of the two provinces. Chichén Itzá is halfway between Mérida and Valladolid, which means you can access it from either city. The deciding factor would be the other Mayan pyramid side trips that you’ll include in your itinerary.
Of Yucatán’s many pyramids, only two are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, the latter being an hour away from Mérida to the south. On the other hand, Valladolid has Ek Balam less than an hour away to the north. It’s not a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it has a really tall pyramid and is definitely off the beaten path. Valladolid is a quaint little town, colonial Spanish to the core in terms of orientation. Mérida is the same but has more of a party atmosphere, and always full of tourists.
You have to pay around MXN200 to enter Chichén Itzá, but since I still have my UNAM ID, I showed it to them and they gave me a free pass. Hooray? Hooray! Savings always qualify under Hooray! I went to Chichén Itzá coming from Valladolid, which is supposed to be around 15 minutes shorter aboard an Oriente bus. It didn’t take an hour, actually. Even the fare was cheap. It costs MXN26 (~PHP70) one-way. Double that amount for your return trip.
The place is quite big, but nothing unexplorable in an hour or two. Expect it to be teeming with tourists. That comes for free with the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag, unfortunately. Without a doubt, the most popular pyramid in the area is El Castillo. If you have seen any documentary focusing on Chichén Itzá, then you have definitely seen this one already. It’s that one which features the shadow of a serpent crawling down the steps for a specific day of the year when the sun shines on it. Don’t ask me when. I have no idea.
This pyramid is the first one you will see as you navigate your way through the ruins. It’s also easy to find because everyone is there! Getting a selfie can be challenging not just because of competing camwhores, but also due to the sun. But given how that pyramid has four identical sides anyway, I don’t think this should be that big an issue. No, you can’t go all the way to the top either. I think it’s not allowed in most ruins, except for those at Teotihuacán.
Anyway, I didn’t like Chichén Itzá that much. In fact, if I rank all the ruins I have been to, this one would be in the bottom three. It’s not really the place itself but everyone in it. Have you ever been to a night market? Pasar Malam in Malaysia? Mercato at the Fort? Keep those in mind as a visual aid, and then adjust the theme to something Mayan, pyramids and all. That’s how it felt like! It’s not just a typical tourist spot full of sightseeing vacationers, it’s also replete with touts!
If you thought that everything is going to be quiet, that you will be treated to a soundtrack of birds humming and crickets chirping, then dream on. Or let me give you an axe-kick to the face to give you a jolt powerful enough to bring you back to reality. Chichén Itzá is probably the most popular tourist destination in this country. Of course it’s going to be jampacked, not just with tourists but also with touts. Oh yes, let’s talk about those touts and what I honestly feel about them.
Most of those touts are locals whose livelihood has been displaced due to the tourism boom, leaving them with no choice but to adjust via producing handicrafts, mostly by hand, primarily for tourist consumption. The thing is, there are so many of them right next to one another that it makes you wonder how the heck they can survive if that is their only source of income. Somehow I feel pity for them because they are just like everyone else, trying to make it through day after day.
But the handicrafts seem legit. If I had a house, I’d fill it with those from wall to wall. Good luck with Philippine customs, though. They sell the same products ranging from souvenir shirts to those wooden thingies you blow into to replicate the sound of a jaguar’s roar. And so instead of nature’s serenity, that’s the soundtrack that will welcome you at Chichén Itzá. But yeah, the intricacy of the carvings is impressive. I so loved the Mayan wheels and masks. Perfect wall decors!
Aside from the pyramid, you will also find the typical Maya fare in the vicinity. You have more than two cenotes, but most of them are off-limits and look like the birthplace of the Zika virus. There are various other cenotes spread out across Yucatan where you can actually swim. And then there is that structure in homage to the warriors, surrounded by God knows how many pillars. I saw an aerial photo online and it looks even more impressive. They are just next to El Castillo.
PROHIBIDO EL PASO means you can’t enter IF you are from El Paso. This is due to a bitter episode in Mexican-US relations, back when Donald Trump won the governorship of Texas in 1629. Long story short, he had a group of evil cowboys board a Greyhound all the way to Yucatán to convince the indigenous population there to build his wall. When they didn’t oblige, all hell broke loose. This event is the theme of the upcoming documentary, Mayans of the Caribbean: Curse of the Donald Trump. In cinemas, 2016!
To the west is the ball court, which is a common feature of ruins in this area. The Mayans love playing with balls, you know. Or Quidditch, maybe? There are many other smaller pyramids but all of them are off-limits. If you want a more peaceful area, head to that zone behind the pillars. There are less people there most of the time. There is no shortage of buses going back to Merida and Valladolid. All you have to do is wait at the parking lot. I think they have one passing by every 30 minutes.
[TINUM] The Tianguis of Chichén Itzá