Chichen Itza means Well of the Itza, referring to an enormous natural well located at the site of the ancient city. Itza is the tag archeologists gave to the sea faring warriors who arrived in the area in the eighth century. Prior to that, the plateau had been populated by proto-Mayan tribes for over 6000 years. The Itza first colonized the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, then moved inland, establishing their central capital at Chichen Itza. These people are the ones we know as the Maya today.

The Maya tried a different form of government at Chichen Itza then they had previously attempted. Chichen Itza was ruled by a council of many lords, rather than the previous single ruler. Chichen Itza became the pivot of several allied cities, and was occupied by the Maya continuously for several centuries.

Toltec influence is found in many of the architectural and artistic features of the great city. The Maya maintained trade relations with the Tula Toltecs and other Mesoamerican peoples of the day.

Probably the most important ceremonial structure found at Chichen Itza is The Temple of Kukulkan (the feathered god, also known as Quetzalcoatl). This ninety foot tall pyramid was built during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries upon the ruins of previous temples. This temple is a storehouse of information on the Mayan calendar. Each face of the pyramid has 91 steps, which when added together with the shared top step, add up to 365, the number of days in a year. Each face of the pyramid is divided by a central stairway into 18 segment, representing the 18 months of the Mayan year. The pyramid is oriented to reflect the equinoxes and solstices each year.

The ruins of Chichen Itza are some of the most spectacular extant Mesoamerican ruins around. They are located about a two hour drive from the coastal resort of Cancun, whose strip of luxury hotels punctuated by cheesy drinking establishments such as Senior Frog's contrasts harshly with the Mayan holy site.

In addition to the temple of Kukulkan described above, there are ruins of the ceremonial structure surrounding the well, a grand sports stadium, a bizarre field of columns, and various other buildings and walls.

The sports stadium was the site of a ritual game that took place in Chichen Itza every year in which two teams attempted to get a rubber ball through a high hoop without using their hands. The hoops are still attached to the high stone walls that ran the length of the playing field, about the size of a soccer field. Depending on which team won, the Mayan astronomer priests would be able to make predictions about the coming year. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed and this was a great honor. Elaborate fantastical scenes of such sacrifices of captains are visible on carved stone murals that cover the walls of the stadium.

Supposedly new layers of the temple of Kulkukan were built on top of the previous layers every 52 or so years, at the point in which two different Mayan ways of reckoning time, the lunar 'year' and the solar year, coincided. Thus the temple has some inner chambers, one of which contains a jade jaguar statue and can be visited.

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