There’s something about touring an ancient ruin that can cause your heart to skip a beat. The reality of walking among the same structures that a civilization built with their hands thousands of years ago, wondering what the people who lived there would think if they saw a bus load of tourists walking around their temple grounds today… It’s a thrilling experience. This year, I was able to visit Chichen Itza while on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Cozumel, Mexico – it was an adventurous day and a major item checked off my bucket list!
When I purchased my tickets for the excursion from the ship’s Shore Excursions counter, we were instructed to meet in the Pacifica Theater at 7:45 a.m. on Thursday morning. (Gotta say, that early morning time made my heart skip another beat too!) But in order to make it to the ruins and back before the ship left port, our tour had to leave early.
Cruising Tip: When you take shore excursions, you will most likely be among the first people off the ship. If you don’t like dealing with lines and crowds, shore excursions could be a great “hack” for getting off the ship early without the fuss.
Transportation to the ruins included a 45 minute ferry ride from Cozumel to the mainland, and then a bus ride to the ruins. At the ferry dock on the mainland, we met our tour guide, Carlos, and had a chance to use the banos before taking a short walk through the streets of Playa de Carmen to where the bus was parked.
Once everyone was accounted for, the bus headed out and our adventure began. The tour guide, Carlos, didn’t speak to the group until we were out of the city, and when he did, he spoke Spanish! LOL! Very quickly, his point was understood. After a few awkward moments of silence from our group, the guide switched to English and launched into the first lesson of the day. Step into a foreign country and can’t speak their language? Everyone gets confused! He went on to tell us that’s exactly what happened when the Spanish arrived in Mexico. After months at sea, they stepped on Mayan soil and asked, “What is this land called?” The locals answered in Mayan, “We cannot understand what you are saying.” Of course, the Spanish couldn’t understand them either, but for some silly reason, they felt the Mayans were answering their question. A little taken back from the land’s “incredibly long name,” they shortened the phrase to the word they heard – Yucatan. Unfortunately, Yucatan isn’t really a Mayan word – it’s a badly pronounced Mayan word – but it stuck, and today, the Yucatan Peninsula has an incredibly funny story to go along with its name.
Cultural Insight: The correct way to pronounce Cozumel in Mayan? “Coots-ah-mill”
After our history lesson and a drive through the Mexican wilderness, we came to the entrance of Chichen Itza. Carlos was eager to explain that the park receives anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a day. In December, the line is so long to get into the ruins, cars/buses can be backed up for two miles. At times like that, visitors are only able to spend 20 minutes at the ruins before having to leave. In case anyone was wondering about visiting outside of a tour group, a taxi from Playa de Carmen to the ruins and back would cost $250.
Tip: Don’t visit Chichen Itza in December and don’t take a taxi! LOL!
The bus driver dropped us off and we followed our guide into the shopping area that had trinkets, a fast food place and bathrooms. We had five minutes to use the restroom before we were given our tickets and lined up to walk through the turnstiles. Once through the gates, we walked along a dirt path until we came to a large opening in the trees where the ruins sat.
Carlos led our group to a large tree where we enjoyed standing in the shade while he explained the history of the ruins. (It may have been February, but it was hot!) Some interesting facts about the ruins were…
The main structure we see photographed and labeled Chichen Itza is called the castle. Its formal name is: Kukulkan Temple.
Archaeologists have discovered layers of earlier temples underneath the structure we see today. That means the original temple was much smaller, and as history marched on, each generation built a bigger and better temple on top of the one they had.
If you stand directly in front of the temple and clap your hands, you will hear a sound, which to me, sounded like a quacking duck. Actually, the sound is an exact copy of a bird that is indigenous to the area. Scientists have come in and done tests and found the sound is the exact soundprint from the bird’s call. How clapping in front of an ancient temple copies the sound? No one has figured that out yet, but it sure is cool.
Though the Kukulkan Temple is the most recognized part of Chichen Itza, there were several other structures on sight. Carlos took us to three other ruins: The Platform of Venus, Platform of Skulls and the Ball Court. I had seen Ball Courts on previous excursions to Tulum and Coba, but the Platform of Skulls and Platform of Venus was something different. Carlos explained that the Platform of Skulls was the place where warriors would impale the heads of their enemies and line them up on the platform as a symbol of victory. He said that the Mayans were a peaceful people and did not initially practice this custom; this was brought in later by the Aztecs, who were a brutal people. After seeing the length and width of the platform in person…yeah, I’d say brutal was an understatement!
After our tour of the ruins, we followed our tour guide back to the bus and began the journey back to Cozumel. Surprisingly, we made it back to the ship in time to change and go to dinner in the dining room before settling in to enjoy a few concerts in the evening. It was a great day!
At the end of the day…
Chichen Itza was one of those places I had always dreamed of going, but the reality of making it happen was slim. Let’s face it, Mexico is #1 on the most dangerous countries for American tourists to visit, as compiled by Forbes.com in 2017. That being said, even Forbes said the Yucatan is relatively safe, but still, it can make you rethink your bucket list.
However… there’s always ways to get around things like this, and taking a cruise is one of the best “hacks” a tourist can make. When you book an excursion through the ship, the ship is responsible for your safety, getting you back to the boat before it leaves, etc. As long as the Shore Excursions Desk has a tour for the place you want to visit, you really can’t go wrong!
So, with safety secure, let’s get back to talking about Chichen Itza. Royal Caribbean was the first cruise line I’ve seen offer excursions to this Mayan ruin, and it was exciting for me. Previously, I had been on two cruises to Cozumel where I booked excursions to Tulum and Coba – both tour guides from those trips said a tour to Chichen Itza would never happen for cruisers because it was too far away, and the ships would never be in port long enough to get a group to the ruins and back. Maybe that explains my excitement about this tour. All I can say is, I could have stood in front of the Kukulkan Temple for five minutes and said it was worth the trip, but, we were able to see much more and learn about the history of the people who lived there. It’s a long day and you miss doing anything on Cozumel, but if you love history, architecture or ancient civilizations, this would be a great tour for you to go on.
More Mayan Ruins?
Read about my trip to Coba in 2016 —> here