The Great Pyramid and Ruins at Chichen Itza

Shooting the Pyramid, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Shooting the Pyramid, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

I wanted to do a mix of activities on my trip to Cancun, exposing the boys to some history as well as the more accessible (for kids) water activities. One of the great cities of the Mayan Civilization is Chichen Itza, with its famous pyramid, El Castillo. It was our first major activity, which started with a 2+ hour bus ride West into the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The site is dominated by the 95 feet high Step Pyramid that is now closed to tourists. Back many years ago, my wife was allowed to climb the great temple. The tour guide mentioned that with the increase in traffic, these archeological treasures are now closed to the public. Luckily they are easily photographed and if you are patient enough, it maybe possible to shoot without getting unwanted people in your shot. In the photo above, I purposely decided to include the brightly colored woman as a counter point in the composition.

Stone Snake, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Stone Snake, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

I brought my tripod with me but left it on the bus. The tour guide said that you need special permits to use one. I opted to shoot HDRs freehand, the only reason I needed a tripod in the first place. It turned out that the needed dynamic range was not as wide as I imagined. One RAW photo was able to capture the scene without any blown highlights or dark shadows. Very strange. This is not the experience I have in Texas when I shoot during the day time. Perhaps the quality of light here is different? Either way, I decided to throw away my extra HDR exposures and process single photographs.

Interlocking Stonework, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Interlocking Stonework, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

There is much to see architecturally with a giant ball court, temple remains and an observatory. I’m not going into detail about the place, you can read this Wikipedia article if you are inclined. While it is an interesting place to visit and I didn’t regret going, I didn’t find it inspiring for photography.

While historically significant, the buildings lacked detail and beyond taking pictures of the pyramid and several of other noteworthy structures, there weren’t enough things to ultimately intrigue me. The funny thing is that large-scale white limestone structures reminded me of buildings in Central Texas, though we certainly don’t have a giant pyramid in Austin. The same ancient seas that formed the limestone in Texas must have done so here in the Yucatan.

Tourists at the Observatory, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Tourists at the Observatory, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

On the way to Chichen Itza, we passed through an old city called Valladolid. This place had a wonderful center square with a park and big church. The area was bustling with activity and would be a wonderful place to street shoot. Ironically, I think I would have enjoyed photographing there more than the famous tourist spot. I like living cities with real people. While the pyramid is dynamic, Chichen Itza is ultimately a dead place, merely visited by tourists.

The view from the bus - Valladolid, Mexico

The view from the bus – Valladolid, Mexico

Our bus didn’t stop in Valladolid, it just passed through and I couldn’t get any good photographs. I saw other buses parked near the town square so I recommend a tour that includes a stop at this place. The Wikipedia article on Valladolid makes it sound interesting. I think I could have easily spent a day there taking pictures. The contrast of this place to some of the Texas towns I’ve visited recently, couldn’t be more dramatic. While the Central Texas cities were half boarded up, this place is vibrant and charming. I can’t vouch for its safety with the recent incidents in Mexico but from the number of big tour buses there, I imagine it’s safe enough.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

El Castillo, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

One of my readers suggested adding a bit of tint to black and whites to add a little warmth. I decided to process some of the photographs in a toned black and white. I do think it works here and gives a kind of archeological and timeless feel to the photographs. Some of these images looks like they could have been taken 100 years ago. Though actual photographs from a century back shows a place over grown and nearly taken over by the jungle. The place has been rebuilt to some extent so what you see here is not the original stonework. The backside of the pyramid, however, shows what appears to be the original condition.

If you visit Cancun, it is certainly worth visiting Chichen Itza, especially if you are a history buff. See if there are tours that stop at Valladolid. I think that will add a nice slice of Mexican life and give you the feel of an old Spanish town.

Stone Pillars, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Stone Pillars, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

Mayan Hieroglyphs, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Mayan Hieroglyphs, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico


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12 thoughts on “The Great Pyramid and Ruins at Chichen Itza

  1. Great post, nice photos. I especially like the toned black & white ones. I spent quite some time in Central America and the Yucatan was an amazing place. When we got to Chichen Itza we were exceptionally lucky as we had the entire place to ourselves and it was nice to walk around at our leisure and wonder at what it might have all been like once upon a time. Like you I didn’t find it to be inductive to making photographs but well worth the visit nonetheless.

  2. Very nice photos. I’m inspired to visit this place now during our family vacation in August. Do you think it’s worthwhile to bring 6D with 24-105L along with EOS M3? Thanks.

    1. Thank you, James. The 6D with 24-105L should be fine. I was a bit wider since I had a 22mm equivalent. You can bring the EOS M3 but what feature is that camera going to give you over the 6D? More reach with a crop sensor or are you bringing EOS M specific lenses?

      Keep in mind that it’s most likely going to be hot and it can be tiring. Less is more, equipment wise.

      1. Thanks for your advise. I’m seriously thinking just to bring EOS M3, along with EFM 18-55mm & 22mm lenses, and leave the 6D at home. The thought of carrying a heavy dslr & L lens in the heat and humidity of Cancun in August gives me the cringe. I also have a Tamron 18-270mm that I’ll bring with me too. I’m still not sure I’ll bring my tripod or just purchase a monopod with feet. What’s your thoughts on that?

      2. James, do you plan to do low light photography, HDR photography or group portraits to include yourself? Do you really need a tripod? If so would a monopod really help? Bring the Tamron if you really into telephotos. Regarding the 6D, better to have a good time and take lots of fun photos rather than being tired and miserable. It all depends on your strength and dedication how much gear you want to bring.

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