Chichén Itzá – Yucatán, Mexico
Mayan Engineering Genius and Toltec Grandeur
The most famous, spectacular, and, consequently, most frequently visited of Mexico’s Mayan sites, the magnificent metropolis of Chichén Itzá was the principal ceremonial center of the Yucatán. If you are lucky enough to be here on the spring or autumnal equinox (March 21 or September 21), you will marvel at the mastermind who positioned the temple of El Castillo de Kulkulcán: The play of late-afternoon light and shadow creates a moving serpent (representing the ancient leader-turned-deity Kulkulcán) that, over the course of thirty-four minutes, slithers down 365 steps to the giant’s head at the base of the pyramid’s principal facade before disappearing into the earth.
The 7-square-mile site at Chichén Itzá (2 square miles of jungle have been cleared) was inhabited for about 800 years, beginning as early as A.D. 432 during the Mayan Classic Period and ending with the arrival of the Toltec people. No more than thirty of its buildings have been explored, leaving hundreds untouched.
Beat the bus caravans of day-trippers by staying at the romantic Hotel Mayaland, set in 100 private acres at the edge of the ruins. Many of the rooms have views of the cylindrical El Caracol observatory. The flowering gardens and pools help pass the hottest part of the day; the only way to visit the ruins at night is with tickets for the sound-and-light show (which is a lot more entertaining than one might imagine).