July 21, 2010

Why Can't I Climb on the Maya Pyramids?

The Maya pyramids were built to be climbed. They usually have steep stairways rising to the top, where there is often a temple or, at least, an altar. The views over the rest of the ruins and the jungle were enough to reduce grown men to tears of wonder. Millions of people, in the past, have made the pilgrimage up them. Advice abounds on how to survive the arduous ascent - don't look down until you reach the summit; sip water frequently; try not to do it in the midst of a massive group - and even more advice for the sheerness of the descent - hold onto the guide-rope; come down on your backside, bumping from step to step; do it like a crab, sideways.

El Castillo


Yet, increasingly, the great pyramids are being roped off. You can no longer climb the mighty El Castillo at Chichén Itzá; but, at Cobá, it is still possible to make your way up the tallest pyramid in Yucatán peninsula - Nohoch Mul. Within two or three years, it is likely that no Maya pyramid will be available for the public to climb upon. This really is a call out that, if you wish to experience this, then you will have to visit the remaining sites now. They are Cobá, Dzibilchaltún, Ek' Balam, El Meco, El Rey, Itzamal and Uxmal. The other sites have already banned climbing on their buildings.

(Edit: Since posting this blog entry, I've since learned that Uxmal is starting to rope off more of its structures too. It's still possible to climb the Great Pyramid there, but some of the others can be seen only from ground-level.)

Climbing these pyramids, especially El Castillo, usually turns up on 'things you should do before you die' lists. With this in mind, disappointed tourists often demand to know why they can't climb on them. Unfortunately, the issues have arisen from the sheer number of tourists that wanted to experience the climb and the views.

Over a million people, annually, climbed the sides of El Castillo. Within a decade, the effect was obvious. Tourists, triumphant in reaching the Cobásummit, had left their mark in the form of graffiti. The stone steps, which had survived centuries, were already showing signs of rapid erosion. Letting people up there was severely damaging the pyramid itself.

The climb was already steep, but the crowds rendered the steps shiny with wear. It was hot work getting up there, so sweat poured off them onto the stone, adding another slippery layer. As more and more people flooded into the site, the ascent was generally made with huge groups of people clambering up together, knocking into each other. In short, it was becoming way too dangerous for those attempting the climb.

For a while, the owners of these sites, not wishing to deny the experience of the climb to their visitors, opted for damage limitation. An ambulance was on permanent stand-by at the foot of El Castillo (aka Castillo de Kukalcan). It was used more often than anyone would like, as tourists slipped and fell. Most injuries were fairly minor, but there were an alarming number that were a little more serious. Then came a tragic event that was a lot more serious.

Over Christmas 2005, eighty-year-old Adeline Lorraine Schiller Black was on vacation, with family and friends, in Mexico City. Adeline Lorraine Schiller BlackBy all accounts, she was a fit, healthy, inspirational woman, with a zest for life. She spent a lot of her latter years canyoneering. She was already planning her next vacation, even while on this one.

After three weeks in Mexico, Mrs Black and her family were due to return home to Clairemont, San Diego, USA, but there was one last day for an adventure. On January 5th, 2006, Mrs Black and her family chose to travel down to Chichén Itzá. Once there, Mrs Black did not want to miss out on the experience of a lifetime, so she climbed the 91 steps of El Castillo.

All was well on the way up, but the descent is famously difficult. It was also noon, so the temperature was soaring, even for January. Around the 46th step, 18 meters (60ft) above the ground, Mrs Black slipped. She tried, but failed, to grab the guide-rope. In front of a crowd of horrified, helpless staff and tourists, Mrs Black fell down the remaining steps of the pyramid.

Medical assistance was immediate. The ambulance, permanently stationed at the foot of El Castillo, was mobilized. Its crew administered aid at the scene, then rushed her to the nearby Regional de Valladolid Hospital. Unfortunately, the lady's head and neck injuries were too severe. Despite the best efforts of the hospital personnel there, Mrs Black died four hours later.

For the owners of Chichén Itzá, this was the last straw. They had bowed to public pressure to keep the structures accessible to climbers for too long. An army of specialists had scrubbed or otherwise erased the graffiti; repairs had been made to eroded steps; guide-ropes had been fitted; and the ambulance installed. But there were now simply too many people wishing to climb the pyramids. What had occurred with Mrs Black had been an accident waiting to happen; and now it had actually happened. The decision was made, for the safety of visitors and the preservation of the structures, to prohibit public climbing on the pyramids.

Meanwhile, other archaeological sites took note. Some places, like Tulúm, had also been suffering with graffiti and erosion, but they didn't wait for a similar tragedy to occur within their premises. As soon as news spread about Mrs Black's fall, the owners of several sites started to rope off their tallest, steepest structures too. The more squat buildings are still accessible in all of the sites.

Tulúm


Other places were lesser known, so didn't get the same quantities of tourists. There had been little or no damage caused there by the crowds. Their steps might be steep, but they weren't worn by millions of feet, nor covered in the perspiration of dozens of tourists per minute clambering up them. They decided to risk leaving access open, until such time as that situation changed. However, this meant that more and more visitors arrived, en route from one of the larger sites, now wishing to climb a pyramid. As the popularity of the smaller sites grew, then more of them started roping off their structures too.

For some, this is an absolute travesty and it's ruined their vacation blah blah. For others, this is actually better. In previous years, the structures could barely be seen under the press of bodies climbing all over them. Now they are there in all their glory. It's not like these buildings are small. The rope is very long and there are whole courtyards to stand in and marvel at the architecture. This isn't like going to see the 'Mona Lisa' in Paris, where short people don't stand a chance of viewing the main attraction. These are huge pyramids, for which even toddlers in pushchairs could find a decent viewpoint.

Now the magnificent buildings look more like they did in the books and pictures back home, which had enticed visitors here in the first place. It was only ever a percentage of people who actually climbed them. The more intrepid adventurers would often start their ascent leaving behind the rest of their party,Chichén Itzá who would watch from the ground level. Some tourists have whispered that the roping off is much better, because they no longer have to wait in the heat, with all the bags, while their teenagers disappear off up the steps. Selfish, maybe, but much more enjoyable for all.

There is still plenty to see and do at places like Chichén Itzá and Tulúm. They are still world class heritage sites, with stunning vistas and a sense of the mysterious. They are just a whole lot safer now for their visitors. Just over a year after some buildings were roped off, Chichén Itzá was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A recent visitor to the site, Susan, blogged about it just a couple of days ago,

'There are few times in life when you approach something so amazing that it literally takes your breath away. I mean the kind of things you’ve seen online and in books and even on TV, but that you never imagined you’d see up close. Lisa and I dedicated our last day in Mexico to such an encounter...

... Tourists used to be able to climb the steps of El Castillo, but it is now prohibited. Looking up from that view, I was perfectly fine with keeping my feet on the ground.'
Chichen Itza, July 18th, 2010, at Transient Travels, by Susan

For those who, despite all of this, still wish to experience that climb, then Cobá, alongside the smaller sites of Dzibilchaltún, Ek' Balam, El Meco, El Rey, Itzamal and Uxmal, are waiting for you. However, please do hurry. There's no telling how long those pyramids will remain accessible for the climb. The only certainty is that they too will eventually be forced to rope off their structures, in order to maintain the safety of their visitors.


Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.






Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

28 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for the shout out :) Great post!

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  2. Good thing I got the opportunity to climb chichen itza and the observatorio, in the late 90s.

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  3. Susan - You're very welcome. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog.

    Anonymous - Yes, it is. :D Though the climb up Nohoch Mul, at Cobá, is worth it too, if you wanted a repeat performance.

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  4. Wow, thats a very sad story to hear about the elder lady. I have always wanted to climb the pyramids, but if it preserves them for future generations, then I understand. At least no other people are going to get hurt.

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  5. the old bat shouldnt have gotten her self on the dang building in the first place. she is 80 and wants to climb up steep steps....yea, moron derserved death

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    Replies
    1. Stupid bat ruined it for everyone else. Selfish bitch.

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    2. Yes. I'm sure she fell off and died on purpose to stop you from getting up there prat. I visited Chichen just the other day. Awesome sight and whilst I did climb Coba, it is good just to admire them from below and know they will be here for much longer than us (especially without trampling, graffiti etc.)

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    3. Who ever wrote this is the moron. Can't believe someone would say that another person deserves death.

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  6. Cancun Carol - Your view is pretty much the same as mine. It is incredibly sad to hear about Mrs Black. I only hope that I'm as fiesty and full of life, when I reach her age.

    Anonymous - I really do not share your view. Mrs Black was a healthy woman, who spent her time canyoneering. There was no reason to suppose that this climb was beyond her capabilities.

    There is a view that this was an accident waiting to happening, as those steps became more eroded. Unfortunately for Mrs Black, and her family, it happened to her. But the authorities responsible for the site have made sure that it will never happen to anyone else.

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  7. Age means nothing as far as climbing as long as you are fit. There have been some cases of young Experienced Climbers falling to their death. I am from Alberta Kananaskis Country. Mountaineering is a way of life for some. Remember, The Mayans built these stairways so peoples heads and body's bounced of of them on their decend downward.

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  8. Hi Anonymous - I thoroughly agree that age never automatically excludes anyone from anything. If you have the fitness, then the world is your oyster.

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  9. Those stairs almost gave me Susto. They needed to close it.

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    Replies
    1. You needed to stay off it.

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  10. Thank you for your comment. It is always such a hard call between giving tourists what they want and keeping them safe. This one was especially difficult, as people had such high expectations. I think they made the right decision though.

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  11. Standing on top of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced. It is so sad that this is no longer available for others to appreciate.

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  12. Another thing to keep in mind that these are altars and places of worship. Common people, like all the ones that visit the ruins these days, would never be allowed to climb them. It's not Disneyland.

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  13. I climbed Chechin before it was roped off. I returned in December 2013 and was relieved it was roped as I could not believe I had got to the top of such a huge structure and WALKED down. It was definitely dangerous

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  14. I climbed the pyramid of kukulcan around 2004. i actually was misled into doing it, i was following my parents to the top and they didn't really warn me that it would be hard walking back down. Let me tell you, when i looked down the steps once i was at the top it was so steep it almost seemed like a vertical drop off. i remember i lost my balance several times and almost fell, i was not using the guide rope very much. I survived but it took all my effort to do so. Thinking back on it, it was insane, I shouldn't have done it. Ended up losing all the photos i took on my camera when i was at the top. All i have left is the horrific memory of almost falling to my death.

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  15. This article is so engaging and interesting. Thank you for sharing; I was looking up research for an article on Chichen Itza.

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  16. 2006 was always a bad year...

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  17. Watch our video of El Castillo taken in May 2004 and uploaded to YouTube in Sept. 2012. Going up was a little easy but going down was nerve cracking and dangerous/ We were lucky we reached the top of this great pyramid before it was closed to public climbing. A view from the top and steep steps, link - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4kaXyzKzz8

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  18. I was lucky enough to climb Kukulkan back in 1990. My husband and I came back down very quickly and easily. Uxmal, on the other hand, is EXTREMELY steep and you need to use the heavy chains they have to back your way down. A fabulous experience.

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  19. We climbed Nohoch Mul at Coba last week. It was amazing, but I can see how accidents could easily occur. In today's society we expect for everyone else to protect us, and climbing that is definitely for someone who understands they are doing it at their own risk. I'm not saying you have to be Indiana Jones or anything, but don't go into it thinking it's Disney or something. You slip, you'll get hurt. You fall, you'll get hurt. You step off the wrong area, you'll get hurt. But what an amazing experience!!!

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  20. Excellent Post !


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  21. Wow Nice Blog..
    This Maya Pyramids is one of the famous place in cancun.The person who wants to take a Tours from Cancun they can enjoy this place.

    I think you may like it...

    ReplyDelete

 
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