Posted by Cila Warncke
Hell is other people, according to Sartre, and he never even visited Chichén Iztá.
Welcome to the show
Despite the overwhelming quantity of tourist press I was looking forward to seeing Chichén Iztá, the “new wonder of the modern world”. Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc whetted my appetite for picturesque ruins and walking across straw-coloured grass beneath cornflower skies, eagles overhead, lizards below and so forth.
As it was, a combination of bad navigation skills and bad timing very nearly melted my resolve to venture forth, but I finally happened across the bus station, had a lunch of sopes and chocolate biscuits and settled in for the ride. Bus journeys are one of my favourite things in Mexico. I love tucking myself into a musty seat, armed with random foodstuffs (on this journey, a giant bag of juicy, piquant, freshly-peeled tangerines, purchased off a little boy who jumped on the bus at one of the pueblos with a cooler full of fruit slung on his arm), a notebook, a camera and music. I like watching the sky and the unhurried, unvarying plains of the Yucatan snake past. Better still the villages with their neat, empty squares dominated by pink, yellow or blue colonial churches and dogs sagging in the heat. Beyond the squares lie Crayola-hued concrete block houses mingled with traditional, thatched Mayan cottages.
The signs get bigger and more professional as we approach Chichén Iztá. Cenotes! Artisans! 25km to Chichén Iztá! Taste of Yucatan! Swim in the sacred blue waters! 5km! Welcome to Chichén Iztá! Behemouth tour buses eddy in the parking lot, jockeying for spaces. To the left a giant banner, to the right the Mercado. Initially I feel a spasm of irritation when I realise it’s a few minutes to four, and the last bus back to Merida leaves at ten past five. Should I stay overnight? I decide to buy my entrada and take it from there. By the time I’ve taken two wrong turns in a maze of yapping American children, ice cream stands, gift shops and giant concrete planters my inclination to linger is nearly gone. Emerging from the parado turistico into a gauntlet of voices I resist the urge to turn around and walk straight out.
Hey lady. Senorita. Amigita. Mas barato. One dollar. Ten pesos. Cual te gusta? Mixed with: Scott! I’ll be right over here. Did you read this plaque? The other side of the pyramid looks nicer. Get in the picture. Oh my gawd, then he was like…. Sweet Jesus. It’s Glastonbury without the music, or drugs. Or something you’d find in a hotel foyer in Las Vegas. Corporate sponsorship is only a matter of time.
A creatively sunburnt conglomeration is sitting on the cropped grass around the splendid pyramid, El Castillo, as if waiting for the next band to arrive. They are bawling to each other in that peculiarly penetrating American tone. The Justins, Jennifers, Joshes and Jessicas of the world, concentrating and projecting their privilege from the space between the tip of their noses and the point of their chins. It’s a shame, because El Castillo is beautiful. Or would be if it weren’t surrounded by old ladies in sunhats; bare-chested, cigar-puffing goons on day trips from Cancun; and families trailing nappies and bags of pork scratchings.
I am definitely never coming back so getting a couple of dozen photos sharpish is priority. I do a lap of the pyramid, dodging tour groups and whining couples. The only thing I really want to see, apart from El Castillo, is El Caracol – a spiral-staired astronomical observatory. Taking a deep breath I plunge into another self-contained hell of hustling vendors. Everything from jaguar masks to embroidered handkerchiefs is going for 10 pesos it seems. Casi gratis, one vendor points out. Hellonwheels. That’s less than 50 pence. Anything that cheap definitely isn’t worth having. Sucking up a breath I swim through them. Peace on the other side.
El Caracol (snail) is the one outpost of this godforsaken themepark that looks like it might have some magic left in it. I can’t get close enough to tell, exactly, because – like everything else – it’s roped off. The crumbling curve of the tower carries itself with dignity, though, imposing a sort of stillness over its little empire. I flop down on the grass and watch a hawk drifting past. This would be good on a starlit night.
Behind me a man on a moto is mumbling into a radio, urging us in crackly tones to make our way to the exits as the park is closing. Ye gods. On my way across the main square I snatch a glimpse of what I came to see: the setting sun of the spring equinox tracing a triangulated shadow down the side of El Castillo, the undulating mimic of a serpent’s body meeting the roaring stone head at the base of the stairs. The awe-inspiring mathematical, astronomical and architectural nous behind this phenomenon is rather lost in the welter of tourists shouldering for a shot, and applauding when the sun emerges from the cloud. A man in yoga trousers and dreads flexes his bare torso. His girlfriend’s nose is pierced.
Taking a wrong turn towards the exit I happen across the ball court, snap a couple of photos then leg it for the entrance. Time to escape. Getting out is more fun than being there. A man gets on the over-crowded, past-due bus just behind me. I squeeze into a row of Mexican kids. A boy in the seat in front of me gets up, “sientate con tu marido,” he says, gesturing to a stranger. What the hell. I swap seats. “Hi. They seem to think you’re my husband.” The stranger looks at me for a second then we start laughing.