The Other Side of Chichén-Itzá: Was It the First "Cancún?"
by Jeanine Kitchel
Is Chichén-Itzá one
of the Maya's most revered and renowned pyramid sites or a glorified
shrine-museum concocted by slick politicos to reap tourist dollars?
It's no secret that the Mexico National Tourist Corporation
(MNTC) designed Cancún
with the intention of creating a luxury destination that would
pull in coveted currency to fill state and government coffers
-- and if some spilled over into the private sector, so much
In 1967 the Mexico government's aim was to locate the best
area for an international tourist resort with the finest beaches,
the most beautiful water, and the fewest hurricanes. Another
requirement would be proximity to its wealthy northern neighbor
so flight times would be minimal.
A strip of unpopulated sand at the northeast tip of the Yucatán
Peninsula fit the bill -- Cancún -- a destination so
easily accessible that one could be in New York at 9 a.m. and
by noon, landing at Cancún International, just moments
away from a gorgeous white sand beach and a pitcher of margaritas.
And with that very same
intent, as early as the 1920s, long before Cancún was even a
glimmer in MNTC's eye, the Mexico government, along with help
from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was priming Chichén-Itzá to become Mexico's first full-fledged tourist destination.
Fullbright scholar and
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Washington,
Quetzil Castaneda details this in his book, In the Museum of
Maya Culture: Touring Chichén-Itzá (University of Minnesota
Press). Through prolific research, Castaneda explains how it
all came about.
Chichén-Itzá (Mouth at the Well of the Itzas) had actually
been a tourist destination for over 500 years. After being twice
abandoned by both the Itzas (750 AD) and the Maya (1194 AD)
the site became a pilgrimage spot for religious groups in the
1500s because of its sacred cenote.
Modern day Mexicans
only had to follow their noses to realize that Chichén-Itzá
had been a bonafide tourist mecca for centuries, place the Maya
came to pay homage to their gods.
Early explorer John Lloyd Stephens, artist Frederick Catherwood,
Edward H. Thompson and others fueled the flames of discovery
and from their explorations the Yucatec and Hispanic elite,
according to Castaneda, began to create a Maya myth or identity
-- distinctly different from both Spain and Mexico.
'CITY OF FABLES'
In the 1920s, the Mexico government organized excavations
under its agency Monumento Prehispanicos, and permitted the
Carnegie Institution of Washington, headed in the Yucatán by
explorer Sylvanus Morley, to conduct 'multi-disciplinary'
research in the Yucatán and to excavate and restore what Castaneda
calls 'a city of fables.' Castaneda insists that the main
goal of the Director of the Carnegie Institution's Excavations
Department was to create a 'tourist mecca,' rather than
to restore the site to its original state.
Castaneda believes not only do economic interests (from local
to international levels) now compete at the site but different
government agencies and levels of state jurisdictions also compete
for the slice of Chichén-Itzá's tourist pie. Castaneda's book
maintains that the Maya civilization, although very real, has
been 'tweaked' by competing government agencies to make the
'reproduction' of the archeological excavations more desirable
A DIFFERENT VIEW
In his book he calls Chichén-Itzá a 'museum exhibit'
which represents the Maya through the epochs. The 'exhibit'
implies the Maya came from 'a primitive society or race'
and then rose to a high stature through the creation of the
pyramids. Castaneda argues that the Maya are examined through
'the eyes of European civilization,' by which all civilizations
are compared and judged.
In many ways, Castaneda's views are similar to those of author Daniel Quinn
in his controversial book, Ishmael, which divides the world
into two camps: the takers (modern Western civilization) and
the givers (indigenous cultures).
Quinn's premise is that by Western man usurps indigenous cultures
and these ethnic societies and their "myths" are then
lost forever, so that the takers can impose their myth (science)
onto the entire world. Quinn equates this with the destruction
of all indigenous societies. Castaneda's book basically concurs
with this premise, and in his lament for the Maya, goes so far
as to call what the state and government have done at Chichén-Itzá a "violation" against Mayan society, on par with
But Castaneda believes the height of the deception takes place
every vernal and autumnal equinox
(March 20, September 21) since 1974 - when Mexico figured out
this date was significant to the Maya. According to Castaneda,
specific knowledge of the phenomenon dates back to when Morley
was excavating the site in 1928, but it was ignored by archeologists,
local Maya, and Yucatecos until a thesis was published in Mexico
City in 1974 by researcher Luis El Arochi.
El Arochi, after years of study, noted that at 3 p.m. on these
dates, sunlight bathed the main stairway of the pyramid Kukulkan
(feathered serpent), creating a serpent-like shadow which crept
down the pyramid's massive stairs. El Arochi called this the
"symbolic descent of Kukulkan," and believed it related
to Maya agricultural rituals.
Once word was out about the equinox display of light and shadow,
Chichén-Itzá's Kukulkan pyramid became a tourist magnet. Tourist
numbers jumped 30 percent that year. A star was born.
In 1921, Yucatán Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto signed an agreement
with Carnegie Institution that gave Sylvanus Morley a renewable
ten year permit to conduct scientific study at the ancient Mayan
city. Among the site projects, studies would be conducted in
geology, botany, zoology, climatology, agronomy, medicine, physical
anthropology, linguistics, history, archeology, ethnography
Through these studies the Maya way of life could be dissected.
Castaneda insists this allowed the structure of an evolutionary
fable that created " a museum of history" at Chichén-Itzá.
"With Maya labor from nearby towns, the jungle was peeled
back to reveal the ancient stones of decayed buildings. Chichén-Itzá was restored as a replica of itself and reconstructed into
a life size model of an ancient Maya city."
Y TU, FELIPE
Castaneda even goes so far as to state that Felipe Carrillo
Puerto, progressive governor of the Yucatán, permitted Morley
and the Carnegie Institution to conduct research to create a
class consciousness amongst the Maya and forge an identity as
an ethnic group onto them, which was essential to complete the
socialist revolution in the Yucatán for which Carrillo Puerto
In the Yucatán, however, the plan would serve another purpose
as well. It would bolster a long stagnant economy based on the
former reign of henequen with something yet unseen -- tourist
This contradictory view of Chichén-Itzá only heightens the mystery
of the Maya.
For a culture whose entire past was wiped out in an afternoon
bonfire conducted by a fanatical priest in 1543, it makes one
wonder anew -- who were the ancient Maya?