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Mexico: Chichen Itza & the cruelest game in the world

Personally I think Mexico as a holiday destination is fabulous and seriously underrated. (I know, not a very smooth segue). Especially in the New Zealand market where it seems Kiwis only want to fly to USA, Asia or Europe.

But Mexico is a treasure trove of ancient culture and art, history and beliefs, of conquerors and con carne and I would go back for another visit in a heartbeat.

SO! What does that headline have to do with this post, you ask. Good question. I shall get on with it.

If you stay in Cancun one of things that you probably already have on your agenda is to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. (And if you don’t have it on there, add it now!)

Map of Mexico

By the way, see how close Cancun is to Cuba? I just checked on Skyscanner and see you can fly return from Cancun to Havana for under NZ$300. But I digress….

Chichen Itza (pronounced cheechen eetsa) was the largest Mayan city and is located on the Yucatan Peninsula from about 600AD to 1200AD. It’s hey day was the 10th Century and judging by the many types of architecture, it is believed it was a multicultural city.

It takes just over two hours to drive to from Cancun. Lots of people add the seaside ruins of Tulum (on the coast south of Cancun) and make a full day of it.

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Visit chichen itza, Mexico
The entrance to Chichen Itza

Tip: take your swim suit for a dip in one of the famous and enormous sink holes or ‘cenotes’ draped in climbing (hanging) plants.

Chichen Itza is most famous for the enormous pyramid that crowns the flat grass edged in souvenir sellers – and you will pay an admission fee to the park.

But it’s worth also taking a guided tour (I always think guided tours are worth it because you miss so much if you just wander and look) around the many ruins and sculptures to find out the tales and history.

This temple sits over an older temple too

See the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol, the restored pyramid El Castillo and the Great Ball Court. This is where I learned about the fierce Mesoamerican ballgame where death was often the fate of the losing captain…

This ball court at Chichen Itza is one of the largest that has been discovered between Arizona and Nicaragua (there are 13 ball courts here in Chichen Itza alone), but they all have sloping concrete sides in common and latterly the stone rings were added about six metres above ground.

Mesoamerica ball court
The great ball court of Chichen Itza

The game is played with a hard rubber ball made from latex-producing plants found in this part of the world and ranging in size from 12-30cm.

The rules are hard to verify and there are versions of the game still played today, but according to drawings and friezes on the walls of ancient stadia, including here at the Chichen Itza ballpark, it was played by teams of two to four players and you could only use your hips to bounce it. Sometime later it seems forearms were allowed and in some versions there were sticks or bats.

Note the stone rings carved high into the wall? If you got the ball through that you won. It looked to me like an ancient version of quidditch!

Great ball court ring
A great pic of the hoop. Pic Flickr/EricB

There are reports of players getting injured and of such bruising that they had to be cut open. But wait, there is also the added twist of human sacrifice, which – to be fair – didn’t occur in every game, but it happened often enough for carvings of victorious captains holding the severed head of his opponent in triumph displayed on these walls. Sometimes the games were rigged.

Mayan woman
I bought 3 hankies from this adorable lady

But aside from this horror, Chichen Itza is a great place to visit for its many ruins and locals selling their wares, like this little lady who spoke no English with her embroidered handkerchiefs for which she wanted $1.


I also stayed a few days in Cabo on the Baja Peninsula and loved it! You can read about that here >>

I loved Mexico and recommend it to my friends. It also features on this list of the 7 wonders of the world.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!