There is a ghost town in Mexico. It curls silently through the dense heat that crawls off the Caribbean. Observatories, ball fields, and shopping centers sit abandoned but not destroyed. Graveyards lie open to the sky, too deep to see the bottom of, but filled with bones. All along the roads are vaults filled with heads, and nowhere is any sign of what happened. It’s called Chichén Itzá and it was the crown jewel of the Mayan Empire. To this day it is one of the most haunting and mesmerizing places I’ve ever been, as I often have dreams calling me back.
The nearby metropolis of Cancun is a deceptively innocuous hot spot on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. You can find any array of swanky hotels to sit poolside or jump into the ocean – or both. If margaritas and mole are your thing, then Cancun is your town. If, however, you lie awake at night staring up at the ghostly tulle that haunts the edges of your canopy bed and hear the heart of the abandoned Mayan empire beating in the jungle, then you might need more.
For me, the eeriest part about the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá is how alive they feel. You can take any number of tours through the area and get your money’s worth. You step out into the middle of the city center and are magnetically drawn to El Castillo. The 75-foot tall ziggurat (in essence, a terrace step pyramid) is the anchor of the city and if you could see it at night, then you’d see the stars swirl around it. Chichén Itzá is a city built so that every stone edifice courts the night sky. The local observatory (still in tact) thrusts up to the sky and serves as a brilliant reminder of how sophisticated the Mayan culture was. The Mayans charted the night sky so accurately that they could predict solar eclipses, even without Google.
Next up, tour the ball court, the largest in the Americas, which spans 554 feet long and 231 feet wide. The acoustics are so perfect that you can whisper to a friend at the other end and easily be heard. Back in the day (750 AD or so), the Mayans played a ball game that involved lofting a 13-pound rubber ball up through a stone hoop. There is some debate as to whether it was the victorious captain or the losing captain, but historians know that at the conclusion of the game, someone lost their head, literally. The heads of the captains are kept in a stone vault along the road. It’s still up in the air whether this was a fast lane pass into the best part of the afterlife or a harsh punishment for dismal Mayan basketball skills.
What still keeps me up at night, though, are the sinkholes in town. These pits pulse cool air up from invisible depths. They were the main source of water for the city and a major pitfall (my apologies for the pun) for young women. Lovely maidens, dripping in jewelry, were thrown into the wells to feed the rain god that the Mayans believed lived in the depths of the wells. Archeologists are still exhuming the skeletal remains of young women cloaked in gold and finery.
Viewfinder Tip: Bring your own water, as the interior of the ziggurats are hellacious and water sold on site is very expensive.
You can even crawl through a few of the ziggurats with your guide. The balmy heat pours out of the black doorways and stone jaguars leap out of the turns as you explore along 1,000-year-old corridors. It is truly a place to evoke the images of El Dorado or Indiana Jones. A city, at its peak, abandoned overnight. While you climb the hundreds of steps or meander along the edges of sacrificial tables, still stained with the thousands of beating hearts they claimed, you can feel an electric current. It’s a subtle whisper, the flicker of an invisible serpent’s tongue along your leg. You can feel what drew people here, and perhaps, what drove them out.
All of this on the coast of the Caribbean. There are nights where I still think back to my time in Chichén Itzá and hear the drums calling me back. Be warned, if you go, it will brand your mind and you’ll never be free of the place.
Would you rather explore the ruins or chill on the beach?