Twice a year, during spring and fall, the earth aligns with the sun in such a way that the sun spends equal time above and below the horizon, causing night and day to last roughly equal amounts of time around the world. We call these special days equinoxes, after the Latin words aequus, meaning even or equal, and nox, meaning night. Today, equinoxes denote the arrival of spring and fall and are associated with various celebrations around the world, such as Easter and Passover; however, for the ancient Mayans, the dates were steeped in religious significance and were among the most important dates in the calendar. Nowhere is this importance more evident, or awe-inspiring, than at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichen Itza and the smaller ruins of Dzibilchaltun in modern day Mexico.
The archeological site Chichen Itza, roughly 2.5 hours from the international meetings hub of Cancun and 1.5 hours from the regional capital of Merida, is truly a wonder to see. Built between 750 and 1200 A.D., the city is filled with some of the finest examples of Mayan architecture in Mexico, including the region’s largest ball court, which was used for ceremonial games; a sophisticated observatory capable of viewing 20 astronomical events called El Caracol; and of course, El Castillo, the iconic stepped-pyramid that has recently been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World by the New7Wonders Foundation, based on a seven-year global vote.
While El Castillo—which also goes by the name Pyramid of Kukulkan, after the feathered serpent deity that the city worshipped—is impressive outright, the subtleties of the structure, which are directly connected to the equinoxes, are what make it spectacular. During the late afternoons of March 20 and September 22, the orientation of the pyramid casts shadows upon one of its staircases, creating roughly seven triangles of light that seem to slither down the pyramid’s side as the sun sets, creating the illusion of a snake descending from the heavens. Near the end of the event, the snake head carving at the base of the staircase is illuminated, giving the impression that the great Kukulkan has arrived in his terrestrial domain.
The four-sided temple also has exactly 91 stairs on each side, the exact number of days between a solstice and equinox. When added together and capped with the final step to the temple on top, the total equals 365, the number of days in both the modern and Mayan calendars. Taken as a whole, El Castillo seems to be much more than just a temple, but a calendar of sorts, possibly indicating the correct times to plant, harvest or perform ceremonies.
A nearby and lesser-known archeological site that also harnesses the sun’s rays is Dzibilchaltun. Dating back to the year 300 B.C., Dzibilchaltun is a tad less developed than its impressive colleague to the east; however, its buildings are just as sophisticated. The site lies only 30 minutes north of the burgeoning capital of Merida, which is also a rising meetings destination. Dzibilchaltun is highlighted by a small, four-sided temple called Templo de las Siete Munecas, or Temple of the Seven Dolls. Named after seven figurines found inside, the structure is positioned east to west in such a way that during sunrise on an equinox, the sun’s rays are channeled directly through its two doorways onto a stela, or free-standing tablet decorated with inscriptions, erected in front. The effect is an incredible burst of light radiating outward, which may have marked the start of a special religious ceremony. Additionally, the site offers more than 8,400 structures for curious guests to explore and a cenote to take a swim in.
The nice thing about Chichen Itza and Dzibilchaltun is that they both lie remarkably close to the major meetings destinations of Cancun and Merida, making them must-see attractions for visiting groups. Transportation is readily available and modern visitor centers are located at both sites, giving groups convenient places to organize, hire a guide or take a break from the hot sun. Making arrangements in advance is extremely important, as Chichen Itza and Dzibilchaltun get very crowded during the equinoxes. Another thing to keep in mind is that the phenomena at both sites are visible for a week before and after the equinox, so don’t worry if you can’t get there during the main days.
The Mayan inhabitants who built these sites were keen on creating a sense of awe, wonder and spirituality for their people—and all of these emotions can still be enjoyed by eager attendees today.
See our August issue for more information on Mexico meetings.
Image: El Castillo during the spring equinox in 2009, courtesy of wikimedia.org.