All aboard Bus No.4 to Chichén Itzá pt.2

Trip Start Dec 29, 2012
Trip End Jan 12, 2013

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Flag of Mexico  , Yucatan Peninsula,
Saturday, January 5, 2013

At 1pm we arrive at Chichén Itzá and, after being split into English and Spanish speakers, we are led on site. Armando takes the English group, and while proving himself to be as bossy as ever, he actually provides a wealth of information as we wander around. We also seem to be ahead of many of the other touring groups as the site doesn't seem too overcrowded as yet.

After about 90 minutes of being guided Armando hands us all feedback forms with sad or smiley faces to denote our levels of satisfaction. "The buffet is nothing to do with me so I don't care what you say," he postures, "but 'Information provided by the Tour Guide', that is me! So I want happy faces for all of those please." And he stands there watching as we circle the various sections on the form.

Once we've ensured he keeps his job we're finally allowed to explore by ourselves and Coman and I race off in the blink of an eye, eager to get some peace and quiet in the remoter sections of the site. It's difficult amongst the vendors of genuine Mexican antiquities ("one dollar, senor, one dollar!!") and the by now burgeoning groups of tourists but we wander around checking out the various structures and snapping away as we go.

Rediscovered in the 19th century in the grounds of a Mexican hacienda, Chichén Itzá was bought for $75 and excavated in the early 1900s by an American, Edward Thompson who pulled down the hacienda and used vast quantities of the stones to build himself a grand house nearby (now a hotel) and ship untold quantities of relics back to the US, most of them now housed by the Peabody Museum and Harvard University. America's very own Lord Elgin or Carnarvon!

Fortunately he was interested enough in Mayan culture to oversee the clearing of the jungle overgrowing the site and reveal the remaining structures (now denuded of their treasures) to the world.

The main pyramid El Castillo is hugely impressive, perfectly aligned with the stars and the intricacies of the Mayan calendar, but due to that slippery dame's unfortunate exit its magnificent temple carvings on the top and its original interior boasting the red jaguar throne, tunnels to the underworld and ancient Maya paintings are now off limits, as is climbing any other building. It's a grand sight nevertheless, not quite as impressive as the amazing Aztec complex at Teotihuacan outside Mexico City, where I was lucky enough to climb the enormous Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon a few years ago, but stunning all the same.

Next up is Gran Juego de Pelota, the largest ball court in Mexico, its towering walls a miracle of acoustics where conversations uttered at one end can be heard 135 metres away at the other, and a single hand clap produces seven echoes back and forth. El Castillo has a similar miraculous, and as yet inexplicable to modern science, trick to play - when stood directly in front of its staircase a hand clap produces an echo identical to the mating call of the Quetal bird (one half of the winged serpent god). Yet step two metres either side and the echo disappears. It's quite remarkable.

Two temples, Templo del Barbado & Templo de los Jaguares y Escudos (Bearded Man & Jaguars and Shields) flank each end of the ball court while nearby are Los Platformas de Craneos & de las Aguilas y Jaguares (Skulls & Eagles and Jaguars). On the other side of the plaza, atop the Grupo de las Mill Columas, a forest of pillars that is reminiscent of Pompeii and once housed administrative buildings, sits the Templo de los Guerreros (Warriors).

South of the main plaza is another section of the site comprising the ruined pyramid El Ossario, also known as the Tumba del Gran Sacerdote (High Priest's Grave), El Caracol (The Observatory) with its dome and spiral staircase, Las Monjas (Nunnery) which was a palace for Maya royalty and the strangely named Akab Dzib ('Obscure Writing') which is the most ancient building excavated to date, hailing from 100AD and containing heiroglyphics which remain untranslated.

Frustratingly an entire new section of the site beyond this housing more Maya royal palaces, which has remained unexcavated and restored, is due to be finally opened to the public in March so we are cruelly denied further investigation.

However Armando was very clear that we must return to Bus no. 4 by 4pm and the hour is almost upon us so we head back to the Visitor Centre, stopping at a few stalls en route to pick up souvenirs, and board the bus as one of the last passengers.

Fortunately the heat of the day and the length of the drive has taken its toll on everyone and the journey back to Playa Del Carmen, past a beautiful pink sunset over the forest, passes in relative tranquility, with most of the bus including the exhausted baby nodding off.

We are awoken just before arriving by Armando who switches on the lights and demands, "So, how much are you going to tip me? I have been guiding you for eleven hours so I hope you show your appreciation. Tips for the driver go in his basket, but put your tips for me in my hand, not in his basket! Make sure you have them ready as you get off the bus."

It's jaw-droppingly blatant but it works as most of us sleepily fumble in our wallets rather than face Armando's wrath. It's easier to give him 100 pesos and get off the bus than try and slip past him empty-handed as one or two unfortunate people do. Those angry, blood-letting Toltecs obviously still have descendants alive and well in the Yucatan peninsula, and Armando is flying their flag loud and proud. Don't cross an angry Mexican!
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