Since being named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, the Mayan temple has been the focus of an ownership dispute between a local family and those who want it to be returned to the people. David Usborne reports from Yucatan
A jewel of archaeology
Even before the sun has begun to heat the pale stones of the Temple of Kukulkan pyramid and the adjacent Great Ball Court, the daily invasion of the Chichen Itza, the archeological jewel in the heart of Mexico's Yucatn peninsula that - 1,000 years ago - was one of the largest city-states of the Mayan world, has begun.
They traipse in not via the visitors' entrance but via litter- strewn paths through the surrounding woods. By the time the actual tourists arrive, either from their rooms in the few nearby hotels or on day-trip buses from the beaches of Cancun two hours away, this first human onslaught will be complete. They are the hundreds of vendors who every day erect their stalls all across the site, hoping to scrape a living selling so-called handicrafts which, in fact, are mostly kitsch souvenirs made in China.
Even the barely aware visitor will sense that all is not quite as it should be at Chichen Itza. Its 100 acres can, on some days, feel like a seething bazaar of hawkers and child beggars. Serenity is elusive as you try to conjure in your mind the magnificence of what once stood here, or appreciate the ancient skills involved in placing the temple in direct correlation to the rays of the sun during the spring and autumn equinoxes, or in erecting the El Caracol Observatory to track the movement of the stars. The problem is partly one simply of Chichen Itza struggling to cope with its newfound fame.
It is four months since it was designated one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a global competition that invited people to vote via the internet. The other sites to win the honour included the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The Chichen Itza archaeological park is now at risk of being overwhelmed by a new influx of tourists - and of vendors hoping to lighten their wallets.
What most visitors do not know is that beneath the crisis of the vendors is a far more profound struggle over who is actually in charge of the park. As they file through the turnstiles, they are setting foot not on government property but on land owned by the Barbachanos, a prominent Yucatn family. Since the results of the Seven Wonders vote was announced in July, Chichen Itza has been plunged into a dispute over its ownership, pitting the Barbachanos against the federal government. The row is as bitter as any Mexico has seen in decades, and echoes the raw class warfare that triggered the national revolution of 1910.
The story of Chichen Itza's guardianship is already long and tangled. Barely 100 years ago, it was little more than a cattle ranch. True, the wider world knew of its special significance thanks to the US archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens and the British illustrator Frank Catherwood who, in 1843, stumbled on the ruins - then mostly buried in the jungle - and published a book, Incidents Of Travel In Yucatn. But it was only in 1894 that Edward Thompson, the American consul in the city of Merida, bought the land and began concerted excavations, sending treasures to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
Thompson soon found himself accused of illegal smuggling and the Mexican government summarily expropriated his home, the Hacienda Chichen, and all his land on which the temples stood. Years later, after Thompson had died back in the US, a new government dropped the original charges and returned the property to his heirs. They, in turn, decided to sell it in 1944.
The buyer was Fernando Barbachano Peon, a grand-nephew of a former governor of Yucatn. His commitment to opening up Chichen Itza to the outside world, which included building two hotels just beyond the limits of the site, earned him a reputation as the first pioneer of tourism, not only in Yucatn but across Mexico. …