The Slithering Serpent and 6 Other Secrets of Chichén Itzá

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcan, dominates the center of the archaeological site at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Makalu/Pixabay

During the fifth century C.E., the Maya began constructing an incredible city in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula: Chichén Itzá. At its peak in 800-1200 C.E., the city was a thriving metropolis of 50,000 souls, not to mention a political and economic powerhouse.

Yet despite the people's highly advanced astronomy skills, agricultural practices, building techniques and more, Chichén Itzá was largely abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. And while theories abound as to the cause, no one knows why.

Today, 12 of Chichén Itzá's 300-plus buildings have been excavated and restored, attracting nearly 3 million visitors in 2018. The ancient city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, in 2007, was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

Barbara Nash, an avid long-distance hiker and explorer, recently visited four times over a three-day period, and advises setting aside plenty of time to explore the mysterious site, which is known for both its archeological richness and its gore. "The older section, centered around the Nunnery, is more beautiful," she says. "But it is often overlooked for the newer, more spectacular, section featuring the great pyramid."

Whether or not you're planning a visit, here are seven secrets about this beautiful and mysterious place that you may not know about.


1. You Can't Climb El Castillo

El Castillo is a 79-foot (24-meter) terraced pyramid with 91 steep steps on all four sides, plus a 20-foot (6-meter) temple on top. The temple is dedicated to Kukulkan, a Mayan feathered serpent deity. For years, adventurous tourists climbed El Castillo. But in 2006, the monument's management closed access after an 80-year-old American woman plunged to her death after reaching the top.

2. El Castillo's Famous Snake May Have Been Unintentional

Tourists love to visit Chichén Itzá during the spring and autumn equinoxes to watch for the snake. During the equinoxes, when the late-afternoon sun hits El Castillo's northwest corner, triangular shadows cascade down the balustrade and end at a decorative serpent's head, creating the look of a feathered serpent slithering down the pyramid. While many believe this is an intentional design feature, as the Maya were masters in astrology, experts say it may be a coincidence.

A demonstration by artificial light of how a plumed serpent can be seen along the edge of the staircase leading up to the top of the El Castillo pyramid. The same effect can be seen on the spring and autumn equinoxes, at the rising and setting of the sun along the west side of the north staircase.
Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

3. The Maya Tossed People Into the Sacred Cenote

Cenotes are water-filled sinkholes that, in the Yucatan, are the only source of fresh water. The Maya believed their rain god, Chaak, lived under the waters in Chichén Itzá's Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Cenote. Scientists say that during droughts, the Maya tossed valuable objects — plus men, women and children — into this cenote as offerings to Chaak. One researcher discovered that 80 percent of the bones found in the Sacred Cenote belonged to children between ages of 3 and 11.

4. There Is Likely a Hidden Cenote Under El Castillo

Chichén Itzá has four visible cenotes. But in 2016, a Mexican scientist determined there is likely a fifth, hidden under El Castillo. It wouldn't be unusual, as smaller temples on the grounds were built over caves and other cavities. Plus, archeologists recently discovered a secret tunnel, thought to lead under El Castillo that was sealed off by the Maya centuries ago. In 2018, geologists used electrical resistivity imaging (ERI) to map the earth under El Castillo. The results indicate the presence of a body of water, indicating the fifth cenote.


5. The Maya Beheaded Winners

The Maya's favorite sport was a game that involved throwing a heavy, rubber ball through a stone ring set high up on a wall. Chichén Itzá's ball court — one of the largest ever found — is 545 feet (166 meters) long, with walls that stretch 27 feet (8 meters) high. While many long believed the captain of the losing team was beheaded after every game, researchers say the Maya actually lopped off the head of the winning team's captain — and sometimes the heads of the entire team.

6. The Ball Court Is Acoustically Perfect

The ball court may have inspired gruesome activities, but if you stand at one end and whisper, everyone along the entire court can hear what you're saying, even someone at the opposite end. And these perfect acoustics are rarely affected by anything, including wind and climate conditions.

7. The Maya Cut Beating Hearts Out of People's Chests

Remember that gory scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" — the one where the priest Mola Ram pulls a beating heart from a man's chest? The Maya did that, too. Chichén Itzá is home to the Temple of the Warriors, a building constructed solely for the purpose of sacrificing these fighters. After a warrior's heart was removed, the Maya placed it on a nearby Chac Mool sculpture. Chac Mool sculptures are Mesoamerican pieces depicting a reclining male holding a bowl on his torso; the bowl was used to hold sacrificial liquids and other offerings.