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Checking Out Chichén Itzá

Sure, you go to Mexico to relax. We get it. But let’s say that, after a few days of margaritas and beach time, you’re a little antsy. A quick day trip might be just the ticket. These three getaways are all within easy reach, whether you’re staying in Cancún or anywhere on the Riviera Maya. There’s one for archeology buffs, one for history lovers and one for island fans. They’re waiting if you need a break. No rush.

Just two hours west of Cancún’s crowds sits one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” But even before making the final seven in a 2007 poll, Chichén Itzá (pronounced chee-chen eet-zah) was a wonder. Your first glimpse of these ancient Mayan ruins is El Castillo (“the Castle”), a beautifully proportioned 80-foot-high pyramid that is the city’s centerpiece. Staircases with 91 steps climb each of the pyramid’s four sides, making for a total of 364 steps. Add the platform and you have a step for each day of the solar year. Details like these help bring the ruins to life; the easiest way to learn them is by hiring a guide.
Some of the structures here may date back to the 5th century. Intriguingly, new pyramids were built atop old ones, so inside El Castillo is a series of smaller buildings that have yet to be explored. Chichén Itzá’s Great Ball Court, the largest of nine courts built here, was used for a bruising sort of field hockey played for the benefit of the gods. Your guide can point out carvings that depict everything from the protective gear worn by players to the game’s dramatic close: the ritual decapitation of the captain, possibly the winning team’s. Losers never had it so good.

Nearby, look for the Cemetery, whose walls are covered with eerie skull carvings that look trendy today. On the Platform of Venus, you can still see traces of the brilliant paint that once covered all the buildings. Beside it is a Chacmool figure, reclining casually on its elbows. Celebrants would place sacrificial offerings to the gods on its stomach. Walk farther to see the Observatory, a building aligned with the planets that, according to guides, acted as a sort of Farmer’s Almanac to predict rainy seasons, weather cycles, eclipses and so on.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.