The Other Side of Chichen Itza: Was It the First “Cancun?”

by Jeanine Lee Kitchel ©

The Other Side of Chichen Itza
Is Chichen Itza 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 Cancun 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 the better.

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 Yucatan Peninsula fit the bill--Cancun--a destination so easily accessible that one could be in New York at 9 a.m. and by noon, landing at Cancun 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 Cancun was even a glimmer in MNTC’s eye, the Mexico government, along with help from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was priming Chichen Itza to become Mexico’s first full-fledged tourist destination. Fulbright scholar and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Washington, Quetzil Castaneda details this in his book, In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichen Itza (University of Minnesota Press). Through prolific research, Castaneda explains how it all came about.

Chichen Itza (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 Chichen Itza had been a bonafide tourist mecca for centuries, a place the Maya came to pay homage to their gods.

Early explorers 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.

In the 1920s, the Mexico government organized excavations under its agency Monumento Prehispanicos, and permitted the Carnegie Institution of Washington, headed in the Yucatan by explorer Sylvanus Morley, to conduct ‘multi-disciplinary’ research in the Yucatan 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 Chichen Itza’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 archaeological excavations more desirable to tourists.

In his book he calls Chichen Itza a ‘museum exhibit’ that 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. But 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 Chichen Itza a “violation” against Mayan society, on par with rape.

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 archaeologists, 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, Chichen Itza’s Kukulkan pyramid became a tourist magnet. Tourist numbers jumped 30 percent that year. A star was born.

In 1921, Yucatan 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 Maya city. Among the site projects, studies would be conducted in geology, botany, zoology, climatology agronomy, medicine, physical anthropology, linguistics, history, archeology, ethnography and sociology.

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 Chichen Itza. “With Maya labor from nearby towns, the jungle was peeled back to reveal the ancient stones of decayed buildings. Chichen Itza was restored as a replica of itself and reconstructed into a life size model of an ancient Maya city.”

Castaneda even goes so far as to state that Felipe Carrillo Puerto, progressive governor of the Yucatan, 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 Yucatan for which Carrillo Puerto was striving. In the Yucatan, 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 dollars.

This contradictory view of Chichen Itza only heightens the mystery of the Maya. For a culture whose entire past was wiped out in one afternoon bonfire conducted by a fanatical priest in 1543, it makes one wonder anew -- who were the Maya?

(Jeanine Lee Kitchel is the author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, available locally or from or . She is working on a new book, Explorers of the Yucatan, and contributes to,, Mexico Connect, and Mexico File. Contact her at