Originally uploaded by Aleksu
The results are in - it was the final days of lobbying wot done it!
The Mayan city of Chichen Itza has been named as one of the official 'New' 7 Wonders of the World.
The photo is one of Aleksu's - a contact of mine from Flickr who takes gorgeous photos. He's been urging people to hit the 7 Wonders Website voting for Chichen.
Chichen Itza was the first Mayan ruin I ever visited, aged 15, on a hugely memorable trip to Yucatan with my father, stepmother and three sisters. We were driven there on the slow dusty road from Cancun. Not by my father - who stayed in Cancun to play golf - but his chauffeur. This was before cars routinely had aircon. It was a sweltering August day - at least 45 degrees Celsius and close to 100% humidity. and the site was crowded - even in 1981 it was Mexico's most popular archaeological site after Teotihuacan. My sister Pili passed out from heat stroke in the ladies' bathroom.
We walked around the site in stunned, exhausted silence. I was nursing my usual sunburn and was in agony most of the time. (Sunblock didn't work in those days; I always forgot to wear a T-shirt for a critical hour or so, for which I always paid in tears of pain). I tried climbing the main staircase of tht Temple of Kukulcan aka El Castillo (pictured above) and got about twenty stairs up before I turned around and had an attack of vertigo. I knew without a shadow of doubt that if I climbed to the top with my sisters I would have to be helicoptered down. I managed to climb back down those 20 stairs but my legs were shaking all the way down, even though I used the trick of descending on a diagonal.
I went into the tunnel in El Castillo to try to climb the Temple of the Jaguar that sits under the newer, flashier Toltec-influenced pyramid. There was a crowd of tired, hot, breathless tourists waiting patiently to ascend a tight staircase just wide enough to permit a line of people going up and a line of people going down. It was like a steam oven in there; everyone was being slowly poached. The skin on my shoulders felt like it was on fire. I took one look up that staircase and felt like I'd got as close to hell as I ever wanted to be. A wave of claustrophobia gripped me; I almost shoved people out of my way on the way out.
Chichen isn't my personal favourite of the Mayan sites. I prefer something more Classic Mayan, with the Puuc or Rio Bec architecture, ideally in a more jungle-setting, like Palenque. However Chichen has two sites, including an older, Classic Mayan site which is Puuc style.
Chichen's buildings are spectacularly preserved - by now all four faces of El Castillo are restored, when I first visited it was just two. This pyramid is precisely aligned to capture the sun on the sides so that it lights up triangles on the main staircase and the serpents head at the base. This happens only on the Spring and Winter equinoxes and it has the effect of creating an undulating serpent-of-light on the staircase. I've never visited then because the crowds at that time of year are insane. (There must be a Youtube video of it...I'll check).
Despite the constant pain of my sunburn I was impressed beyond anything I'd ever experienced. I'd never visited any Mexican pyramids before, for some reason I'd never been taken to Teotihuacan (near Mexico City). I'd had a fascination with the Maya since aged 11 my father took us to stay at the Acapulco Princess, fashionable in the late 1970s/early 80s, and - I was told - built in the style of a modern Mayan pyramid (although the website says Aztec but still...) But to see the real thing, to experience something of that atmosphere, to imagine the citadel filled with warriors and priests, ball-players and sacrificial victims...was quite, quite amazing.
We returned late that evening to the hotel in Cancun. I went into the hotel bookshop and bought the shortest book I could find about the Maya. It turned out to be one of those Erich-Von-Daniken type books about ancient astronauts and their supposed influence on early civilisation. I lapped it up. I hardly slept that night.
If any of you read 'Invisible City' next February you will see just how far that day left its indelible mark on me.