My guide is waiting for me at the main gate of the Chichen Itza complex; the most famous of Mexico’s numerous Mayan ruins. He greets me with the words:
‘This is Chichen Itza not chicken pizza.’
I suspect that he has said this very same thing at least a million times before and wonder if anyone has ever found it remotely amusing.
The main feature of the Chichen Itza complex is Kukulcan Temple (see picture). Until fairly recently tourists were able to clamber up its steep steps but several fatalities have brought an end to this practice and one must now be content with merely viewing the impressive structure. My guide, who is standing on the grass directly opposite the entrance at the top of the temple’s steps, proceeds to clap a number of times. Each clap is followed by an echo, which sounds like the cry of the quetzal bird. This is not the building’s only extraordinary detail. On the evening of the spring and autumn equinoxes, the equinox shadows project a snake that descends down one side of the temple as a series of inverted triangles.
We saunter through to the ball court; an expanse of ground with stone walls either side (picture 2 shows one of these walls). I notice that the walls are perfectly straight; an astonishing feat when one considers the Mayans used only basic stone tools. This being a skill that my builder back in London has yet to acquire, I take a number of photos to show him on my return.
The exact details of the ball game that was played here are much debated but the basic rules were that the players on the field utilised their limbs to keep a rubber ball in the air. The ball would be passed up to one player standing alone on the ledge (visible towards the bottom of the wall in picture). He would then attempt to shoot it through a hoop high up on the wall.
The guide suggests that this game was the forefather of football. I insist that it was us English who invented the game. He appears ready to argue this point but, presumably remembering the prospect of a potential tip, does not.
My guide’s theory is that the game’s victor (i.e. the person who got the ball through the hoop) would be sacrificed after the game. I tell him that this is a ludicrous suggestion and that he must mean that the losers were sacrificed. The guide remains adamant that it was the victor and that they would have been more than happy to be sacrificed, as they were guaranteed to be transferred straight from this World to paradise. It is difficult to imagine one of today’s over-indulged sports stars being prepared to forfeit their vast wealth for a ‘guaranteed’ place in heaven; departing now.