Ruins, relics and all things ancient have always fascinated me; exploring their link to eras and civilizations long gone top the list of things I most enjoy doing when I travel. So when I had the chance to view in person a rare astronomical event involving one of the most famous ruins in the world, I didn’t hesitate before hoping on the plane.
The end of the Mayan calendar this year is a big deal, but not for the reasons you may think. The calendar marks an end to a cycle, not the end of the world but that fact hasn’t deterred thousands of tourists from visiting Mayan sites this year. Chief among these sites is Chichen Itza, one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and a site with amazing astronomical details, including a curious phenomenon that happens only twice a year: the Descent of the Feathered Serpent. That was the reason for my trip to Mexico and I couldn’t wait for the experience.
Although the temperatures in Cancun hadn’t been scorching, the further inland we traveled the hotter it seemed to get. We arrived at the famous ruin in the mid-afternoon, amidst a throng of hot, dusty tourists all there for the main event: The Descent.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and was built around the 9th century AD. It is also one of Mexico’s most visited tourist destinations, was granted World Heritage Site status in 1988 by UNESCO World Heritage and was recently selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. There are a lot of astronomical marvels at Chichen Itza, but one of the most exciting is the Descent of the Feathered Serpent. The central Pyramid of Kukulkan is built in such a way that on the equinoxes a shadow play is created where serpent heads on the staircases become whole snakes through the shadows of the pyramid’s terraces.
The show was due to start at 4:10, it’s timing selected by the ancients and the cycle of the planet and the sun. We had time before that though for a tour of the ancient city, led by Abel, arguably one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had. He grew up at Chichen Itza, his father sold crafts to visiting tourists and Abel learned all about the site well before receiving advanced degrees in history and archeology. Needless to say, we had the right person for a quick and dirty tour of one of the most important archeological sites in the world.
The site was great, the guide interesting, but I kept looking back at the Pyramid of Kukulkan wondering and waiting for the main event. After we’d traipsed through Mayan ball courts and marveled at the sophistication of engineering that almost guarantees an alien presence in the ancient world (not really), it was time. It was time apparently to wait in the hot sun as half naked (and not in the good way) Italians sauntered past.
I was intent though, I had staked out a spot recommend by the guide that promised to be the best viewing point on the grounds. What we were waiting to view was still fairly uncertain to me, but I was sure it would appear like a flash and be instantly recognizable. So I waited and after twenty minutes, as the phenomenon was well underway I turned to the person next to me and asked, “So is it amazing yet?”
I was being honest in the question. I feared that the phenomenon was so slight that perhaps I was somehow not looking in the right place. While it was true the shadow effect began at 4:10, it took an hour for the full sight to be realized. I thought during that time each step would transform magically in front of our eyes until the master effect was in place. Yeah, not so much. For the duration of that hot, sweaty hour it didn’t really look like much of anything and I wasn’t alone in that belief. Bored tourists wandered about aimlessly, carrying extra-large parasols and dodging the veritable army of Mayan souvenir vendors. But our lack of patience paradoxically was well rewarded.
Just as the sun hit a certain spot and immediately before the heat turned my brain to mush, I looked up and saw it. There it was, a massive snake descending the ancient pyramid. The head was a statue at the base of the pyramid’s stairs and its back was comprised of seven triangles created through shadow, an engineering feat that boggles the mind.
I started snapping photos from every angle, even managing to elbow my way through the crowds and get a few photos without cut off heads in the foreground. Obviously I’m well on my way to Ansel Adams-like abilities. And then it was over. It was as if a siren had sounded and the crowds all started migrating towards the parking lots and their giant motor coaches.
I stood back for a minute to look up at the colossus again, marveling at the ingenuity of the Mayans and wondering not for the first time what other marvels lay strewn about the tropical jungles undiscovered. And that is why I travel, to capture, even for a few seconds, moments like those.