Sunday, June 19, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 1: Chichen Itza, Wonders of the Kukulkan Pyramid and My First Cenote

Fiji was an amazing, bucketlist trip that set off our adventure travel bug - and last summer, I was excited and grateful to go off on another, this time in Mexico!

With two of us arriving early morning and fellow dive & dine enthusiast friends gourmetpigs and @jennybawel in the afternoon, the early birds decided to tour the ancient Mayan capital and UNESCO World Heritage site, Chichen Itza.

After a redeye from LA - we had just enough time to drop our bags at the hotel before the tour shuttle pulled up.

After an educational 3.5 hour ride (downside of guided tours: time spent rounding up guests from hotels; upside: knowledgeable guide: did you know "Cancun" was derived from Mayan words for 'pot of snakes' or 'nest of snakes'?), we arrived at Chichen Itza which translates to "at the mouth of the Iza well".

From ~550 AD-800 AD, Chichen Itza served mainly as a ceremonial center for Mayan civilization. Around 987 AD, two people, likely the same person, were believed to have brought Toltec beliefs and practices to the region: Kukulkan (Kukul means “feathered” and kan means “serpent”) and Quetzalcoatl (also meaning feathered serpent, but an Aztec god of wind and learning): including the practice of human sacrifice.

The iconic El Castillo or Kukulkan pyramid, a temple to celebrate the deity, was of course the first sight we visited, and it is rich with symbolism.  There are 4 sides to the pyramid with 91 steps each, representing the four seasons and days in the season, plus one extra step at the very top to total 365 calendar days per year. 

Not only is the pyramid imdued with meaning, it is an incredible meeting of poetic artistry with brilliance in math and sciences - especially in its ingenious design to interact with the sun at specific times of year: equinoxes and solstices.  On equinoxes the length of day and night are equal, while on solstices we have the shortest daylight and longest darkness of the year.  The location of El Castillo, the direction the pyramid is facing, and the steps and platforms on each side, interacts with the sun at different times of year so that light and shadow play off the pyramid (e,g. during solstices exactly half the pyramid is in light or shadow; just before fall equinox the sun seems to 'snake' down the side with nine triangles in the evening to hit the snake heads at its base) - which Mayans were believed to have used to plan harvests / plantings, wedding and burials.  Guess how many days between these events?  91, except for the summer solstice and fall equinox - which is separated by 92 days. Yes, this matches the number of steps on the pyramid to total 365.

We didn't get to witness the chiaroscuro during our visit, but all the more reason to come back again (for those interested, equinox dates are March 21 & Sept 22, and solstice dates are usually around June 21 & Dec 22, but this year it's tomorrow June 20). 

With the featured serpent god, sculpted snake heads were incorporated into the rich architectural detail throughout the site. 
We also toured the platform of eagles and jaguars (symbolizing warriors tasked with bringing humans to sacrifice to the gods), ancient Great Ball Court, and the plaza of a Thousand Columns (which stood the test of thousands of years apparently only to end up in service of modern music videos).

But to geek out some more on the architecture.  The quetzal bird, with males sporting resplendent tail feathers up to a meter long, is not only considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world, in ancient times it held special significance for Mayans and Aztecss - and was associated with feathered serpent king Kukulkan.

So it was, our guide pointed out, that a pyramid built in tribute to Kukulkan would incorporate this acoustic feature: stand on the West or North sides of the pyramid, facing the bottom of the steps, and clap: sound waves will travel up the limestone steps as if the steps were percussion strings, to echo through the empty chamber at the top to create a sound that mimics the call of the rare bird quetzal. (The only reason why this doesn't work on the south and east sides now is because of damage / missing blocks.)  An amazing architectural feat in any day, but especially astounding that Mayans were able to build with such precision in ancient times.

After our time at the pyramid and surrounding grounds was up, we took a short ride, 2.5km away to my first ever cenote.

Cenotes are sink holes, where the limestone roof over a body of water collapses - the ground water below is pristine and gorgeous surrounded by lush greenery rimmed openings. There are many of these in the Yucatan pennisula and they even form a vast underground system.  Mayans believed them to be 'sacred wells' (direct translation of name) which are portals through which they can communicate with the gods.

We planned to scuba dive through fresh water and salt water cenotes once our entire group arrives.  But, the one we visited our first day, Cenote Ik Kil was a nice intro to an all-access cenote that was easy for families to get to: it was even set up with a restaurant directly above.

After a buffet lunch (included in price of tour, but offerings to be honest are pretty basic, this is definitely not destination dining, but more of a utilitarian approach to service tourists - though the surroundings are beautiful.  If you are particular about your food I would bring your own snacks and water)...

...we were given an hour and a half of free time to enjoy the cenote.  I was glad Viator had given us advance notice to bring our swimsuits and our own towels - we changed quickly in the modern restrooms, and made our way down several flights of limestone steps to the swimming hole (note, bring dive shoes with tread if you can, as the steps are rough, wet and slippery pretty much all of the time).

In retrospect, after having dived through truly life changing cenotes that were more remote, beautiful and indeed spiritual, Cenote Ik Kil was not the best way to experience the natural phenomena - it was extremely crowded, and the water was actually quite deep and quite cold, so those like me who are actually not strong swimmers may have some hesitation.  However, it was included as part of the Viator tour, and great for larger groups and families where accommodations need to be made for different levels of mobility and interests.

Another few hours' ride back to hotel zone, and coming straight through from a redeye, we had absolutely maxed out our first day and fed quickly at the lovely ocean front Westin Resort & Spa before tapping out for the night.

With that wrapped our first culture, history and fun filled day in Cancun!

Read on for recaps of Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5.  To see more pics from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog

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Cancun, Mexico
USA Transfers
Shuttle from airport to hotel zone
Email: reservations@entertainment-plus.net
Ph: (310) 909-8634 or local in Cancun: 914-0290

Chichen Itza
Kukulkan Pyramid, Yucatan Peninsula, in the Yucatan State; Mexico
Website: chichenitza.com
Viator day tour from Cancun
Ph: 1 (866) 648-5873

Cenote y Restaurante Ik Kil

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400
Website: starwoodhotels.com
 

Day 1 costs breakdown per person:
  • Shuttle from airport to hotel zone: $35 (total for up to 3 passengers, so individual cost for 2 of us came out to $17.50 + tip = $21 each)
  • Chichen Itza Kukulkan Pyramid with Viator tour: $69.99 + $15 tip
  • Cenote Ik Kil and restaurant buffet lunch: included with Viator tour, but bring cash for drinks which cost extra (USD accepted) 30 pesos (~$1.60 USD) + 5 pesos tip (~$0.25 USD)
  • Taxi to hotel: 250 pesos (~$18 USD total, $4.50 each)
  • Westin Resort & Spa Cancun: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$113 USD per person 

Read on to get the recap of Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5.  To see more pics from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog.


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