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Mayan maths and eco-chic at Chichén Itzá | The Times

Mayan maths and eco-chic at Chichén


The El Castillo step pyramid at Chichen Itza Meera Dattani

Meera Dattani
Last updated May 7 2010 12:01PM

Combine a visit to Mexico’s most famous Maya site for

the Spring Equinox with a stay in a hacienda that helps
the indigenous community
I realised while standing in front of the huge El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá, baking
in the relentless heat of north-eastern Mexico’s Yucatan plains, that it is worth making
the journey to view this ancient wonder at the time of year that it was designed to put
on a natural light show.

At about 4.30pm in the days around the Spring Equinox (21 March), the sun performs
an impressive light-and-shadow show, casting the incredible image of a serpent
slithering down the pyramid of El Castillo or Temple of Kukulkan, the Maya name for

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Mayan maths and eco-chic at Chichén Itzá | The Times

their snake deity Quetzalcoatl.

My tour guide Victor has Mayan roots and is worth every peso for his desire to inform,
elaborate and entertain. As we watch this spellbinding spectacle, he recreates the
sound of the sacred quetzal bird, which represents the spirit of the Maya, by clapping
his hands in the deepest part of the palm causing the bird sound to resonate around
us. But as the serpent image sharpens with each passing second, the Maya’s
mathematical and architectural accuracy becomes even more apparent.

Designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, 1500-year-old Chichén
Itzá is one of the most important Maya sites. Victor explains it is a Mayan word
meaning mouth (chi), well (chen) and of the Itzá tribe (Itzá) so ‘at the mouth of the
Itza’s well’. The serpent shadow faces the direction of the Sacred Cenote (Holy Well),
dedicated to the ancient raingod Chac, a sacrificial pool where many met their end
(survivors were considered to be seers/prophets).

The numbers game

When it comes to the mathematics of the architecture, Victor explains the Mayan
calendar and pyramid structure with simple, logical precision. The calendar is part-lunar
- 13 months with 20 days each; and part solar (for agriculture) - 18 months with 20
days and an additional month of 5 days. Each Maya cycle lasts 52 years, after which a
new cycle would commence. To mark this, a new pyramid would be built over the
existing one, Russian doll-style.

To this end, El Castillo acts as a huge stone calendar.Each of the four sides has nine
terraced levels, each level split into two. 9 x 2 = 18, the number of months in the solar
calendar’. On each of the four sides are five Mayan symbols – 4 x 5 equals 20, the
number of days in each month, with the final five days represented in the pyramid’s
upper reaches. In Maya times, this marks the spot where the High Priest would conduct

And there’s more. The staircase has 90 steps on each side, which, multiplied by 4
equals 360, plus the upper five to make 365, the number of days in a year. It may be
like the explanation in the numbers game in Countdown, but it shows the pyramid was
built with such pinpoint accuracy that during equinox, the sun’s position would shade
the entire pyramid to create the serpent image (and in case you thought the Mayas had
missed a trick because your compass seems not to correlate, it’s not an oversight – it
was built to the solar, not geographic north).

Lost in history

Little remains of written history from the Maya world, something which Victor shakes
his head over. On July 12, 1562, the acting Bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa
Calderón, ordered the burning of the sacred books of the Maya, along with about 5,000
cult images.

This brutal eradication of idol worship meant the history and culture of a civilisation
went up in flames. Only three Maya books (codices) remain (in Dresden, Paris and
Madrid), and fragments of a fourth. However, restoration work in the 1920s helped

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uncover more detail and a fuller picture has developed.

What is known is the Chichén Itzá temple complex was probably built by the Mayans
around 300AD and prospered around 800AD. Chichén Itzá underwent huge change
around 900AD when the Toltecs, warrior people from the Aztec civilisation, arrived and
conquered the Mayans. The site’s three sections are formed of the North grouping of
Toltec-style structures, a central group from an earlier period and the southern group of
‘Old Chichén.’

Ball courts and light shows

Some of the highlights include the Temple of the Warriors and Group of a Thousand
Columns behind El Castillo, Toltec creations featuring carvings of human hearts, the
rain god Chac and Chac-mools (messengers to the gods) while in Old Chichén stands
the domed Observatory known as El Caracol (the snail). But it’s the ball court or Gran
Juego de Pelota that is most intriguing.

In this vast walled stadium with almost miraculous acoustics, a game was played. The
rules remain unclear, but Victor confirms that it was no friendly derby. Seven ball
players would attempt to hoist an extremely heavy ball through one of two stone rings,
mounted high up, using only their joints to propel the ball. Once achieved, no doubt
painfully, the captain of the losing team (perhaps even the entire team) was beheaded
in a post-match sacrificial ritual.

Human sacrifice was common, as it was believed to please the gods and would improve
crops, trade and health. With about 1,500 ball courts, one would hope the Maya
enjoyed excellent living standards after each match.

As the stifling heat of the afternoon subsides, Chichén Itzá assumes a more
comfortable, balmy air. Later on though, the sweltering heat of the day morphs into a
gusty wind across the plains. It’s warm fleeces all round if you’re off to the nightly light-
and-sound show. Not the most imaginative of shows, it’s included in the ticket price so
worth seeing El Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors lit up in hues of purple, green
and pink. Pick up an English audio guide at the entrance and don’t forget to wrap up

Hacienda home

What makes Chichén Itzá special is, unlike like the Pyramids of Giza, its immediate
surroundings are deliberately low-key with only a handful of upscale resorts and small
hotels. The town of Piste is 2km away, but somewhat lacking in atmosphere, so it’s
worth staying closer if you can. I chose the Hacienda Chichén Resort, a former
hacienda (estate) turned-five-star eco boutique hotel and Mayan Spa.

The luxury was only mine to admire - spring equinox meant the hacienda’s 28 luxury
rooms (all named after prominent archaeologists) were booked. I took up an offer from
the Maya Foundation in Laakeech (Maya for ‘we are one’) that the hacienda works with.
Set in the hacienda’s lush grounds, the classic oval-shaped Maya Hut with a grass roof
is a simply furnished but comfortable bungalow, not least for the indoor hammock that
rocked me to sleep.

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The bungalow is often home to volunteers working for the not-for-profit initiative which
improves lives of rural Mayan children by supporting sustainable tourism, volunteer
programmes and funding healthcare.

The Hacienda itself has a low construction density, so less than 0.5% of the land is
used for building across its 300 hectares, and around 150 bird species reside in its Bird
Refuge and jungle gardens. Modelled in Spanish colonial-style with yellow-hued arches
at the entrance, it’s also renowned for its tropical gardens.

José Santos Tamay Puerto, the hacienda’s charismatic concierge, shows me around this
green paradise, pointing out enormous papaya fruit, banana trees whose sap alleviates
mouth ulcers and the Yucatan’s superfood plant, chaya, or tree spinach, used in
cooking and to make refreshing juices.

Many of these plants are actively used at the Hacienda’s renowned Yaxkin Spa where
Maya cleansing rituals and healing ceremonies reinforce the holistic spa concept. Jade
algae body mud wraps, body gemstone therapy and marine sponge baths are some of
the weird and wonderful treatments available although even the word ‘marine’ didn’t
make the sponge bath sound any more appealing. Wraps for me please.

The Hacienda Chichén may be a five-star resort but it has a conscience. Inside its Toh
Mayan Boutique gift shop, amid the jade jewellery and Mayan weavings, there’s replica
Mayan art and pottery by Patricia Martin, Rodrigo Martin and Roger Juarez, three of the
Yucatan’s most renowned Mayan reproduction fine artists. Profits go towards the Maya
Foundation In Laakeech and the hotel’s Wild-Herbal Medicine Project which teaches
locals how to cultivate native habitats.

And as for Chichén Itzá, yes it’s touristy. It’s also busy, bustling and lined with souvenir
stalls. But it’s also one of the most important sites in the Maya world. It tells us a
colossal amount about an ancient civilisation, more than colonial invaders wanted us to
know. Braving the heat, the chill and the crowds during equinox is worth it – it’s a
chance to see something really quite special at this sacred Mayan site.

Need to know

Meera Dattani stayed at the Hacienda Chichén Resort, low season (May-October) rates
start at £80 for a double room up to £120 for the Catherwood Master Suite with king
bed and Maya spa bathtub. High season rates start are from £110-£185 per night.

Chichén Itzá costs 116 pesos (£6) which includes the light-and-sound show. You can
also see the nightly show on arrival and obtain a discount when visiting the site the
next day. A private guide costs around £40 when booked through the Hacienda Chichén

For more information on the volunteer programme of the Maya Foundation in Laakeech,

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Mayan maths and eco-chic at Chichén Itzá | The Times

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