Let’s Go Exploring! Chichen Itza: The Scariest Place in Mexico

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Pop quiz: If you were captain of the basketball team and your team won the season, you should:

a) Get a butt load of money because you kick ass.
b) Get promoted because you kick ass.
c) Get beheaded because you kick ass.

If you picked C, you’ve clearly been to Chichen Itza.

But for those who haven’t, let me give you some background.

Long before basketball was invented, the ancient Mayans played a game called “Pok-A-Tok”. It’s kind of a cross between soccer and basketball, except much MUCH harder (and scarier). Instead of nets, you have rings–made of SOLID ROCK and you’re only allowed to touch the ball with your thighs or hips.

Now a days, we like to think of our athletes as badasses who could outlast their competitors in an multi-hour game, but back then, Mayan players used to play not just for hours, but DAYS, and sometimes even MONTHS.

And you know how all-star players whine about how they’re not getting paid enough, and get poached by other teams for a bigger payout?

Well, with “Pok-A-Tok”, you don’t get a high pay-out for being a great player. In fact, you don’t even get a payout for being a great Captain. You get this:

If you can’t quite make out what’s going on in that relief, that’s a captain getting his head chopped off, and his blood spurting out and turning into serpents. Because that’s what happens when you lose your head. You turn into a 6-headed serpent monster and somehow that means you’ve become a God.

The Mayans actually believed being sacrificed to the Gods is an honour. That’s why they reserve holy sacrifices like this only for their best warriors and athletes.

Why in God’s name (no pun intended) would anyone want to play a game in which their reward for leading their team to victory is a beheading? No idea. But as it turns out, when it came to the Mayan’s strange, murderous belief system, I had only touched the tip of the iceberg.

As we walked around Chichen Itza, we saw other evidence of their obsession with death and murder.

For example, this wall here with all the skulls?

That’s not them professing their love for Goth and heavy metal. The skulls are there because they literally used this wall as a display case for severed heads. That way any enemies who try to invade their city will get a preview of what’s in store for them (though, if you’re a Pok-A-Tok captain, wouldn’t that make you happy rather than scared?)

As fun as the Murder Relief and Beheading Wall were, it turns out the scariest, most terrifying relic of all was this:

What’s that you ask? An innocent little stone house overlooking a serene, little lake?

Nope. Nope. And nope. Our first clue was when they refused to let anyone swim in it and said this Cenote was completely off limits.

That’s when we found out this “innocent” little house was used to “purify” children with hallucinogenic drugs before they were toss into the cenote.

Remember how I mentioned how much I love Cenotes? Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but Cenotes were believed by the Mayans to be pathways to the underworld, where the Gods live.

So whenever there was a drought, farmers would pray to their God, Chaac, to bring rain and save their crops.

photo credit: By see description ((Original text : Dresden Codex -)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But in order to appease the Gods, they would need to sacrifice something really really precious. And no, your latest iWatch or Tesla wouldn’t cut it. The only thing deemed good enough to sacrifice to the Gods in those days was…their kids.

When the “lucky” sacrificial offspring was chosen, an elaborate ritual would be held, where the kid would be bathed, massaged, and fed purifying water (basically hallucinogenic drugs) over a couple of days. Once they were “ready” (aka drugged enough that they wouldn’t know what’s going on), they would be tossed into the Cenote with a rock tied around their feet. Nowadays, this a practice knows as “murder”, but back then their parents didn’t actually believe they had died. Instead, they believed that the kids simply travelled to the underworld via the Cenote and were now serving the Gods.

Ah-huh. I’m starting to see why the Mayans were so easily conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors now. Oh no! Foreign invaders! Quickly, murder all our children and athletes! That should ward them off!

And THAT’S why of all the places in Mexico, Chichen Itza was the scariest of all. Boy, am I glad I wasn’t born during that time period.

Luckily, this all happened over 1000 years ago, so if you’re worried about swimming in Cenotes, don’t be. They only let you swim in the ones that have been cleared out of children corpses.
*Phew*

Here’s how much we spent visiting Chichen Itza:

Category Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $19/night We stayed in an AirBnb in Merida which is only a 2 hour drive away. The place only cost us $530/month for room with private bathroom. It also had a swimming pool and a weekly maid. We shared the kitchen with the host who gave us a ton of good tips about places to go in Mexico."
Food: $11/day Food was only $11 because we grabbed a sandwich instead of eating at the overpriced, touristy restaurant on site. I also cooked dinner instead of eating out because Airbnb gave me the use of a kitchen.
Transportation: $42/day The ADO round-trip bus ticket was 314 pesos per person, or $21CAD each.
Entertainment: $33/day Entry to Chichen Itza was 242 pesos a person, or $16 CAD each. A bit pricey as far as Mexican attractions go. We didn't bother getting a guide. Having had a guide for Uxmal earlier, who spent way too much time telling us about boring buildings, I didn't find the cost worth it. My favourite guides, the most gifted storytellers, were in Europe. Instead we just downloaded an audio tour from the apple store for $1.
Total: $105 CAD/couple/day ($79 USD/couple/day)

So as far as attractions go, Chichen Itza was pretty touristy and somewhat pricey by Mexican standards. To be honest, I loved the Teotihuacan pyramids near Mexico City WAY more. That being said, Chichen Itza was spacious enough to spread out the crowds and had enough “interesting” stories to keep you entertained all day. Though you might encounter a nightmare or two at night…



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19 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Chichen Itza: The Scariest Place in Mexico”

  1. I had the good fortune to visit Chichen Itza back in ’97, on a high school orchestra trip, when one could still climb the pyramid (and boy, did we ever!). It’s part of why I got a puzzled look on my face a few months back when you professed your love for swimming in cenotes — the only one I’d ever seen was, ahem, not entirely suitable.

    This really takes me back. Thanks for the morbid fun!

    1. Yup, climbing the pyramid would’ve been cool…though I think shutting that thing down probably makes sense from a safety perspective. I did get to climb the Teotihuacan pyramids though so that was fun.

      As for the cenotes, there were A LOT of cenotes in Tulum and I didn’t see any bodies in them so hopefully none of them had been used for sacrifices… 😛 The only one we swam in in Chichen Itza was Il kil…too deep to know if there was anything underneath….*shudders*

  2. You should check out 1491 by Charles Mann (if you haven’t already). Goes into detail on a lot of what the Western hemisphere was like prior to European contact based on the most current scholarship. Basically: Indian societies were larger than previously believed, they were older and more sophisticated than previously believed, and they had a much greater impact on their environments than previously believed. Really interesting read.

  3. Maybe I’m not dedicated enough, but if I was a pok-a-tok captain I would definitely choose only the school nerds for my team 🙂
    But seriously, based on this Mayans were completely sick people and they totally deserved all the conquistadors, European diseases etc. After murdering drugged children, that’s kind of the bare minimum…

    1. To be fair the Mayans were quite advanced in mathematics and they built a lot of really cool buildings and structures too so it’s not all about killing, but man, were their belief systems morbid!

      And yeah, I were a pok-a-tok captain, I’d pick the chess team to be my players as well 🙂

  4. Tikal across the border is an amazing Mayan place too .. went there in 86 ….
    pre iphones pre internet . pre everything really … .

    1. We’re so spoiled now with all our iphones, google translate, and internet now, I have no idea how you managed to do it back then. I would’ve gotten so lost….

      1. just a Lonely planet book and chatting to travelers at guest houses , and simply winging it …. . we did the same in India this last winter we simply walked around and found the best place for us . no way we would have found the place on the internet ….. I really don’t like booking ahead because i have to pay in advance and can’t change my mind and move around
        ..

  5. Chichen Itza isn’t that scary (been there 3 times). Did you get a chance to climb the Temple of Kekulkan? Fun fact, the observatory there could make astronomical readings that are within .003 of today’s readings. And if you take a helicopter ride at a certain point of the year you can see a quetzalcoatl shadow cover the compound. Oh this makes me miss Mexico. If you want to climb some ruins not far from Chichen Itza head to Coba.

    1. We weren’t allowed to climb any of the temples ( A few years back, a tourist fell and died, so they shut it down for safety reasons). And yes, I did hear about the astronomical readings and the descent of Kukulkán on El Castillo from the audio guide. That part was cool. Didn’t get a chance to visit Coba, but may check it out next time if we go back.

  6. Awesome summary as always. I’ve never been in a Cenote and after you mentioned them in an earlier post I had added them to my bucket list. Thank you for the below mental image that will definitely haunt me when I finally swim in them :)…and I doubt they got all the child corpses out, but maybe that’s just my pessimism. Maybe the bodies became some type of underwater mummies! A girl can dream.

    “Luckily, this all happened over 1000 years ago, so if you’re worried about swimming in Cenotes, don’t be. They only let you swim in the ones that have been cleared out of children corpses.
    *Phew*”

    1. “Thank you for the below mental image that will definitely haunt me..”

      I know, I’m the WORST :P. Tell the underwater mummies I said “hi!”

  7. Fascinating stuff FireCracker, (if a bit morbid). I would guess that beheading only happened when you won the “superbowl” of pok-a-tok games.

    Was it the entire team that got beheaded, or just the team captain?

    Either way, that level of religious fanaticism is scary stuff indeed.

    1. According to the audio guide only the captain…but who knows, maybe every now and then they would sacrifice a few team members for shits and giggles as well. Good times!

  8. Damn it!! Stop making us feel so DAMN old! 🙂 We went there 21 years ago!!

    We went to Cancun in 1996 and it is one of our best vacations. It was restful on the beach and we love visiting “Chicken Pizza” and Xcaret! We loved walking to the top of the ruin. History from many nations is usually DARK but we appreciate seeing what the natives built.

    1. HA HA, “chicken pizza”, that’s what Wanderer’s mom calls it too. I would’ve enjoyed climbing to the top of El Castillo but unfortunately someone fell and died after 1996, and they had to close it down. I agree the history is super dark but the architecture is nice.

  9. Absolutely fascinating! I have been to 2 bone churches (one in Czech and one in Portugal) and although it is super creepy being surrounded by skulls and femurs and vertebrae, I find that stuff so interesting. Not sure how I’d feel about children’s corpses though.

    1. We also went to then bone church in Prague…I didn’t know there was one in Portugal! Weird minds think alike. Even though it was pretty creepy, I thought it was interesting too.

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