Slowly eroding in the world-famous Mayan city of Chichen Itza, the El Caracol “observatory” stands as a monument to the architectural skill of the ancient Maya civilization, as well as their advanced understanding of the heavens.
El Caracol, which translates to “spiral-shaped,” or, more literally, “snail,” is named after the winding staircase that rounds the interior of the central tower. The stacked levels of the building resemble a stone wedding cake with staggered staircases leading to the central tower whose collapsed dome is somewhat similar to the design of modern observatories.
El Caracol’s crumbling viewing tower rises above the lush jungle, so ancient astronomers could have viewed the stars in 360 degrees, tracking solstices, equinoxes, and eclipses. Most delighting is the alignment of the remaining viewing windows, which seem to be designed specifically to track the appearance and disappearance of Venus in the night sky. In addition to assigning the second planet some religious significance, the Mayans were able to track the movements of Venus and thus measure longer intervals of the Earth’s orbit.
Within eyeshot of the pyramid El Castillo, El Caracol is easy to visit and is considered a major Mexican tourist attraction.