The sun of spring makes illusion slither down Chichen Itza pyramid

CELEBRATING THE EQUINOX

January 24, 1993|By Mary J. Pitzer | Mary J. Pitzer,Contributing Writer

A bit of magic happens at Chichen Itza, Mexico, on the first day of spring.

As the sun goes down, seven sunlit triangles appear on the north staircase of the Castillo, the main pyramid in this ancient Mayan city. With a massive stone snake's head illuminated at the bottom of the stairs, the interplay of light and shadow creates the illusion of a serpent that has come alive.

It's an eye-catching sight that archaeologists and astronomers believe the Mayas used in ceremonies to mark the vernal equinox. Locals have known about the snake for ages, but scholars and tourists began to notice it about 20 years ago.

Since then, the snake's appearance on March 21, the official beginning of spring, has grown into a major event. Thousands of tourists and locals converge at Chichen Itza, the largest and best-restored of the Mayan ruins in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Folk dancers, musicians and poets entertain the crowd before the pyramid becomes the focus of attention late in the day.

March 21 is not the only date travelers can see the snake: The vernal equinox, when the hours of sunlight equal the hours of darkness, can show up a day earlier or later. This year the equinox will fall -- as it did in 1992 -- on March 20.

As my husband and I drove from the Caribbean coast last year, we realized that we would be at Chichen Itza on the actual equinox. We would miss the festival, but witnessing this unique astronomical event without crowds would more than make up for it. For me, at least, it would be easier to imagine Mayan rituals performed in homage to a feathered serpent 1,000 years ago.

Founded in the fifth century, Chichen Itza flourished between the ninth and 13th centuries. Mayas, influenced by Toltecs from Central Mexico, built a grand ceremonial center covering 3 square miles.

Residents abandoned the city some 300 years before the Spanish arrived, but it still attracted pilgrims. The rest of the world found out about the ruins after American explorer John L. Stephens wrote about his visit to the Yucatan in the 1840s. Archaeological expeditions followed years later.

Chichen Itza remained off the beaten path until recently. Now, knowing when hordes of tourists invade the ruins can be valuable. Tours from Cancun, the popular Caribbean resort, and Merida, the state capital, tend to flood even these extensive grounds.

My husband and I have visited these ruins a half-dozen times in the past 20 years. By planning carefully, we climb pyramids almost by ourselves, just as we did when Chichen Itza was a somewhat adventurous destination for independent travelers.

We stay overnight at a hotel within walking distance to miss the midday heat and as many bus tours as possible. We enter the gates as soon as they open at 8 a.m., when the ruins are nearly deserted. After buses begin arriving, we go back to the hotel for lunch, a swim and a siesta. Then we return in the late afternoon when many tour groups have left.

The morning of the equinox last year, we walked through Chichen Itza's southern ruins. The most intriguing building is the Caracol, or "snail." Named for its circular shape, it is also known as the Observatory, probably because it looks like one.

It's unclear how much astronomy was done at the Caracol. But the ruin does have celestial significance. Two windows in its crumbling upper tower line up with Venus' most northern and southern setting points, writes E. C. Krupp in his book "Echoes of the Ancient Skies." (Mr. Krupp is director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.) Opposite corners of the Caracol's upper platform also align with sunrise on the first day of summer and with sunset on the first day of winter.

Most people will have to take the experts' word for it. Visitors aren't likely to be in the ruins when any of these things happen, since the ruins are only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it's nearly impossible to get close to those windows. Rubble blocks the stairs on the outside of the cylindrical tower. A sign warns of

dangerously loose stones.

But almost anyone can walk up the two broad sets of stairs to the Caracol's upper platform where the tower sits. From there, it's easy to see how little altitude is needed to get above the dense scrub jungle that covers the Yucatan. Just a few feet higher and the heavens open for anyone curious enough to watch.

The day was getting steamy, so we went back to the Mayaland Hotel, a Spanish colonial-style resort built in 1930, for a club sandwich and a beer in the patio bar. Overlooking tropical gardens, it's the perfect place to relax after a hot, sweaty hike in the ruins. Later, we swam in the hotel's pool as bougainvillea petals fluttered down to the water.

We returned to the ruins after 3 p.m. Shadow covered most of the Castillo's north face, except for the west side of the staircase's balustrades. The monumental carved snake heads at the bottom basked in the sun. Nothing resembled a serpent's body yet.

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