CHICHÉN ITZÁ, Mexico - Two stone snakeheads, representations of the Mayan serpent god Kukulcán, watch out from the northern base of El Castillo, the showpiece pyramid in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, here in the Yucatán. Above the heads, 91 impossibly shallow stone steps stretch up into the sky.
The pyramid is small, reaching only about 75 feet at its peak, but it is known more for astronomy than architecture. This is a calendar made of stone.
Each of the structure's three other sides also features 91 stairs, equaling 365 when the top terrace is counted.
Most impressively, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, shadows create the illusion of the serpent god ascending and descending the staircase.
El Castillo is the first thing a visitor sees after walking down into the site, and it is immediately apparent why Chichén Itzá was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The city was built starting around the 7th century AD, but it's been a wonder for just over a year. Last year a Swiss company announced the results of an online vote to determine the "New Seven Wonders" (the only wonder of the ancient world still standing is the Great Pyramid of Giza). Chichén Itzá beat a field that included Easter Island and the Eiffel Tower to make the list.
After I was confronted by the first of many hawkers, my excitement began to wane. We circled the pyramid, and I saw that any hopes I had of a tranquil, contemplative moment would be dashed by other tourists.
We kept running into groups who stood in front of the pyramid and repeatedly clapped their hands at it. I had read that the site's acoustics were amazing, but the claps produced only a slight pinging echo.
With each corner we turned it became more apparent that we wouldn't be allowed to climb any of the staircases. I thought that we had just picked a bad day, but I later learned that El Castillo has been closed since a woman fell down the steps and died in 2006.
We kept walking, past the Temple of the Warriors, so named because the hundreds of columns in front are carved with depictions of men in battle dress. The temple was impressive, but it too was roped off, and we weren't able to get close enough to examine the carvings. Instead we wandered toward an ancient marketplace and steam bath.
We walked to the Sacred Cenote, an acre-sized natural well with tall, steep walls surrounding motionless green water. This is where the Maya performed human sacrifice. Victims were thrown into the water, as were jewelry and pottery, all to please Chaac, the rain deity.
After about two hours of exploring, we stopped on our way out at the huge I-shaped ball court. Ball courts are common at Mesoamerican archeological sites. This one, longer than a football field, is the largest, and arguably a more impressive structure even than El Castillo.
I had a few hours to kill before the nighttime light and sound show that comes free with admission to the site. I drove into the dusty village of Piste, less than two miles away, and purchased a night's hotel stay and a dinner of grilled chicken and onions, all for $24.
When I returned, I took my place with the other tourists on one of the plastic patio chairs set up maybe 200 yards from the pyramid. The light show was not spectacular, but the narration was valuable (I hadn't paid for a guide earlier in the day). I learned that ballplayers may have used bats to knock the ball through two stone hoops in the court, and I learned that mostly old men and young boys were sacrificed to the Sacred Cenote. Conquered warriors were sacrificed at the Temple of the Warriors.
Back in town I ended up sharing tequila and a Cuban cigar with two other travelers and a Mayan archeologist - known to the locals, he said, as "El Doctor."
I asked him about the tourists clapping at the pyramid. "What the guides will tell you is that the echo mimics the sound of the quetzal, a bird that was sacred to the Maya," he said. ". . . Now limestone just happens to reflect sound, and limestone is what they had to work with.
"That echo is merely serendipity."
Calvin Hennick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.