BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With one of the Seven Wonders of the World a brief walk down a private path, hammocks under your patio palapa roof, cooking classes featuring classic Mayan dishes, and pools to cool—perhaps with Pancho the peacock in view—you can combine a winter’s vacation with immersive education in Chichen Itza. In the Yucatan just two hours from the Cancun airport, where many direct flights from Chicago arrive daily, the gigantic pyramid, El Castillo, and Caracol, the observatory, beckon from just outside your window and legends abound of an advanced civilization once lost in the jungle.
If you choose to stay at the Lodge at Chichen Itza, you’ll be walking in the footsteps of industrialist Andrew Carnegie who received the right from the Mexican government to explore the ruins first written about by John Lloyd Stephens in 1843. The centuries-old hacienda, with stones from the pyramids nearby as part of its foundation, was one of the world’s first hotels within an actual archeological zone.
Descendants of the Barbachano family, who first opened the hotel in 1923, still run the hotel, located in over 1000 acres of landscaped grounds. Casitas, pools, and a spa surround the classically beautiful central villa with its striking original furniture.
The Lodge offers a “Be Maya” opportunity. General Manager Luis Maldonado Azcorra explained: “We invite guests to learn, love, and live our Mayan culture. With cooking classes, a program at our own observatory on how the ancient Mayans read the stars, opportunities to learn several Mayan words, and an overall appreciation of these amazing people, visitors learn about this advanced civilization.”
With an estimated 2.6 million visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site yearly, it more than makes sense to be up early and enter the hotel’s private entrance to the park before the tour buses arrive. Arrange for a private guide at the Lodge to explain the historical importance of the Maya, who first invented the math concept of zero and developed an astrological calendar with 365 days.
The stepped pyramid of El Castillo was their calendar: each side has 91 steps, with one final step on the top, thus totaling 365 days for the year. During the equinox, the two days of year when there are equal amounts of day and night, crowds gather to see how the sun casts a shadow on the pyramid resembling a snake moving down the pyramid. Your visit to El Castillo is almost always accompanied by the sounds of clapping, with the resulting birdcall always responding as if by magic.
My memories of Chichen Itza cover four generations, with the most recent family members, Eloise and Hilary and their parents Dolly and Jack, enchanted during a two-day visit recently. We stayed in a bungalow with lush gardens and a pool, and even participated in an outdoor cooking class nearby.
Chichen Itza was entirely different when an adventurous young newspaper reporter, amateur archeologist, and horsewoman visited the Lodge in the early 1930s. My mother came when only the original hacienda existed and dirt roads brought you through the jungle from Merida. I came as a child of 10, then again with my own son, George, and my mother.
Six years ago it was a delight to show my husband, John, the magic of the Maya. Seeing the latest generation watch the pyramids turn from red to blue during the nightly sound and light shows took me back to young George’s visit when we were the only visitors to the show and found our flashlights failed on the path back to the hotel. Thank goodness for the guide who found us!
Today, the private path from the hotel isn’t open at night, and you enter through the park’s main entrance along with hundreds of other tourists for spectacular visual history played out in lights upon El Castillo. If your Spanish isn’t advanced, it is good to get an audio guide in English for the show.
The colorful costumes of the area, in the lightest of cottons and embroidered with the flowers that grow nearby, still toast the tropics and have not changed over the years. Dancers continue to entertain with flair, often dancing with trays of beer bottles and glasses on their heads.
I asked my husband, John, about other places around Chichen Itza that he enjoyed:
“Just 10 minutes away are the magnificent grutas, or caves, about half a kilometer of well-marked trails through the underground cavern dominated by a central rock pillar resembling a tree of life. This area where the Mayans worshipped 1,000 years ago, as evidenced by votives and sacred offerings, had been walled off, discovered only around 1990.”
“The cenotes, giant holes in the limestone where water from the underground water system collects into beautiful pools, are numerous. Tourists cool off in the cenote just minutes to Chichen. Changing rooms are provided.”
Because there are so many visitors to Chichen Itza, you are no longer permitted to climb the pyramids or to visit the pyramid within El Castillo where the remarkable red jaguar throne remains at the top of a narrow corridor. But if you have a yen to pyramid climb, visit Ek Balam, just an hour away near Temozon, just off the highway to Cancun. As John describes: “A fairly recent discovery selected for restoration, Ek Balam features exquisite stone and plaster carvings, as well as bar reliefs, protected by thatched roofs extending part of the way up the pyramid. It is a spectacular and alarming climb.”
Perhaps you want to cool off in Cancun in the sea and the pools of the hotels that line the beach as we did before leaving the Yucatan. Children love the nearby aquarium and a 45-minute ferry ride takes you across the turquoise waters to Isla Mujeres, known for its snorkeling and scuba diving in its surrounding coral reef.