Please note that all photos in this post are property of Matthew Sockolov. If you would like to use one for any reason, you can purchase them on my Shutterstock page or email me at Matthew@MattSock.com.
This last weekend, we took an amazing trip to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. Together with our friends Ollie and Caro, we spent just a little over 24 hours in town. Ollie took the reins and booked most of the trip for us, and did a kickass job.
A Little Background
I’m certainly not an expert on Mayan ruins, but I wanted to offer a little insight into the site of Chichén Itzá. There are many Mayan ruins near Playa del Carmen, but this is certainly the most famous.
Chichén Itzá is in the state of Yucatán in Mexico. It was inhabited during the Terminal Classic Period of the Mayans (around 600-1200 CE). It has separate areas and archaeological styles, which you can see clearly when visiting.
It was one of the largest cities of the Maya people, considered one of the mythical great cities of Mesoamerica. It was believed to have the most diverse group of people of any Mayan city, which made it a hub of culture, art, and architecture.
The name means at the mouth of the Itza, and Itza may refer to the cenotes nearby (and under El Castillo). It was a huge economic power, and perhaps the center of the entire Mayan economy. Obsidian and gold were common here, as they had access to the stones of central Mexico and gold from other parts of Latin America.
The city was subject to drought, which caused it to largely be abandoned. When the Spanish colonists arrived, they found a mostly-empty city. They even took some stones from the pyramid to build their own buildings.
The most popular pyramid is El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan. At about 30 meters tall, this pyramid is quite impressive. I won’t go into all of the things I know a tiny bit about, but recommend reading the Wikipedia page on the Temple.
The Trip to Chichén Itzá
One of the challenges of visiting Chichén Itzá is that its a little over 200km (about 125 miles) away from Playa del Carmen. And, our little scooter is not highway-friendly. We opted to take the ADO bus for about 450 pesos round-trip per ticket (about 25 USD at the time of writing this).
It took about four hours, and the bus is pretty comfortable. We arrived at the actual parking lot of the archaeological site, which was absolutely insane. I will try not to be dramatic, and estimate that there were a solid 20 tour buses in the parking lot and about a thousand people standing around.
We caught a taxi over to our hotel, Mayaland Hotel & Bungalows. The hotel was pretty sweet. It has a private entrance into the park, views of the ruins from the hotel, and beautiful grounds. The staff members were super kind, helpful, and all-around great with us. Here’s the view from the balcony of our room. You can see the observatory of the ancient city right from our bed.
The Laser Light Show and Cenote
When we got in, we decided to go hit a cenote. There are tons of cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula. We called a taxi, and he took us to Cenote Ik Kil. We didn’t even get out of the car. There were dozens of tour buses, and a solid hundred people waiting in line to get in. Not our scene.
The taxi driver recommended some other cenotes about 20km away, so we went. We arrived at Cenote Yokdzonot (still can’t pronounce it), and it was much better. For a while, we were the only people in the cenote. When other people came and went, it was usually just one group at a time. Nice and quiet, and simply beautiful.
After the cenote, we had a few hours to chill before the laser light show. Yes, that’s right. A laser light show at Chichén Itzá. Not just at Chichén Itzá; on the famous pyramid. We were all a little skeptical at first. However, we figured that we might only go to Chichén Itzá once in our lives. Why not do everything we could?
When we arrived, we had an hour to walk around the site and see the ruins lit up in various colors. It was quite incredible, and a relatively small group of people. This alone would have been worth the money.
After some time looking at the ruins, the show started. The laser show told the story of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god for which the famous temple was built. The sound was incredible, and the show enveloped all of us. I think I sat with my mouth agape for the entire duration of the show.
If you’re going to visit, I super recommend doing the laser show. We learned a lot, had fun, and were all impressed by the experience. You can book the laser light show through Viator, the TripAdvisor company that handles tours and activities HERE.
Sunrise Tour of the Ruins
Getting into Chichén Itzá isn’t cheap, especially compared to other ruins we’ve visited. For a little additional fee, you can take a sunrise tour. We decided to do this, as nobody in our group loves big crowds. Ollie and I are both passionate photographers, and the morning light also offers great opportunities. Also, there are less people to Photoshop out of the background of our photos!
We met our guide in the lobby, and he took us in the back entrance of the site. We started in the main area, and got to look around before the sun even came up. The guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and had been giving tours of Mayan sites for over 45 years!
We got a ton of great photos, and learned quite a bit from the guide. It is hard to retain all of the information he gave us, but it’s fair to say we were all engaged and interested the entire time.
Viator likewise offers a sunrise tour. It’s the way to go, and you can find it HERE.
Overall, it was just an incredible experience. We worked our way through different areas of the site, seeing the older ruins of the central area as well. We actually finished at the observatory we could see from our room!
We returned from our sunrise tour at around 8:00am, and had a full day to hang out before our bus back. Of course, I brought my new macro lens, the Canon 100mm F2.8 that I bought used. I also wanted to practice taking photos of people, which this lens does well. So, Elizabeth and I took a walk around the grounds of the hotel.
I got two good photos of Elizabeth that I like. She was as patient as always, and makes a great model!
I also spent quite a bit of time with the macro lens and telephoto lens, looking for new animals and critters. I ended up with one cool photo of a bug on a succulent, and a colorful frog on a lily pad in the pond from the photo of Lizzie above.
Finally, Ollie and I spent the previous night out giving a new style of photography a shot. We took some photos of the stars with our cameras on tripods. With the limited light pollution out there, it was a great opportunity to try to capture the Milky Way.
I got one shot that I like, but it’s certainly not the best photograph in the world. It was my first try, and I’m pretty happy with what I learned. I used my wide angle lens, had ISO set to 1000, and took a 30 second exposure to create this. I then brought it into Lightroom and Photoshop to bring the whites and colors out, and darken the black of the sky.
I also caught a photo of the moon with my telephoto lens. Nothing super special, but I like it! Ollie and I were looking at photos of the pyramid on Instagram, and saw tons of photos that were obviously worked on in Photoshop. Fake skies, stars, sunsets, etc.
Rather than judging, I thought I would give it a try! I don’t use Photoshop very much, as I do most of my developing in Lightroom. I will use it here and there to take something out of the background, but that’s about it.
So, I took two separate photos of the pyramid and added a little bit! I used the photograph of the stars on one, and the photograph of the moon on the other. You can see the original photos of the pyramid earlier in the post, and the stars and moon below.
I’m certainly no expert, but I like the way they came out. To me, they look obviously fake. It was my first try at this, and it was fun. Although it’s not really photography or developing, it felt like a new way to investigate creativity. I don’t know if it will ever be a thing I do regularly, but I had fun in the moment and that’s what matters!
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