In school one of my boys studied the ancient Mayans. At dinner he told us stories of their deadly ball game, Pok A Tok, where lore says the losing team was sacrificed. The biggest Mayan Ball court in the world is at Chichén Itzá, a couple hours inland from Cancun.
Chichén Itzá may be best known for the Temple of Kukulcan, an ancient pyramid and a mathematical and archeological wonder. Built between 800 and 900 AD, the design captures the edge of the sun’s shadow on the fall and spring equinox, leaving one side in total sunlight and the other completely in a shadow, creating the optical illusion of a snake slithering down the massive castle steps.
A few years back, when our spring family vacation to Cancun fell over the equinox we couldn’t wait to visit the ancient ruin with our easy–going, little travelers, aged 9, 7 and 4. (Ha!)
Before it was even light we climbed aboard the bus leaving behind our all-inclusive paradise filled with ridiculous amounts of food, all the drinks you could slosh down and free kids activities and babysitting.
We calculated we’d be at Chichén Itzá by about ten in the morning. We figured it wouldn’t be too hot yet and we’d have plenty of time to explore the ruins, an area slightly smaller than Central Park in Manhattan. Guess someone should have told the tour company what we were thinking. Three times on the way there, and twice on the way back, the bus pulled into ingeniously designed rest stops.
To reach the baños (bathrooms) you maneuver through an open air market filled with peddlers selling souvenirs — jewelry, plates, carved wood masks, tiny El Castillo pyramids. It’s all charming, and not things you can buy at home, except possibly at Pier 1 (which I’ve been known to do since it’s so much easier then lugging gifts back from vacation along with all your dirty laundry.) When you exit the bus, the driver closes the door behind you and you’re parked in in such a way that the only place to stand is in the middle of the souvenir stands.
Of course, the boys all wanted something. My 7-year-old begged the hardest. I tried to distract him but he was adamant. Finally he said, “But they just want to sell us something really, really badly.” That was true. They really, really did.
We stopped for lunch at a sit down restaurant. The kids typically eat quickly and are ready for the next activity, but lunch for 60 bus patrons was followed by nearly an hour of guitar music. Lovely, but we really wanted to see the ruins. When we asked the tour guide why such a circuitous route, he said because of the equinox they had to stagger visitor arrivals.
As we neared the park, the bus line snaked on for miles. It easily took us an hour to travel the last kilometer or two.Then there was a line at the park entrance. The boys were restless. We were restless. The day was beginning to feel like a mistake.
Finally about three in the afternoon, we stood at one of the wonders of the world. It was beautiful and historic and amazing. And packed. Everywhere you looked were tourists, families and lots of new-age, free spirit, love-in types celebrating another journey of the earth around the sun. There were extra restrictions at Chichén Itzá on the equinox because of the huge crowds. No running up the stairs of the ancient pyramid. And because we’d arrived so late in the day, we weren’t able to see as much of the park as we would have liked.
But the boys loved hearing about the ruins we did see and we got to go right up to the ancient ball court. And even though we were all hot, tired and a little crabby, no one was sacrificed.
The guide led us to the pyramid just before the shadow snake began his descent. Although there’s not a bad seat, the crowd mentality had us jockeying to get closer, elbows and shoulders brushing against the thousand other visitors. I hoisted my 4-year-old on my shoulders, the 7-year-old on my husband’s and the oldest stood on tiptoes.
And then…it was the moment. The snake shadow slithered down the stones. My husband grabbed my hand, and pulled me close so I could hear him. “You know,” he said. “It would have looked a lot like this yesterday.”
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