During our visit to Chichen Itza, our guide Ivan – described to us by his employer as the Russian with the heart of a Mexican – shared with us his trick for getting the tour without having to pay for the tour.

Places like this Mexican ruin are extremely popular, and thus extremely busy. This however can be turned to your advantage. Instead of arriving first thing in the morning to jump the crowds, try and get there when the first morning’s tours are beginning. Then you can move around the site using your own sighting seeing activities of taking pictures and looking around, to get close to the tours and listen to the explanation the guide is offering.

No need to pay if they’re going to say it loudly enough for you to hear anyways.

Several courts throughout the various Mayan ruins have been identified for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame of Tlatchtli, and have been found as far south as Nicaragua and possibly as far north as the state of Arizona. The Great Ball Court however is the most impressive.

Tlatchtli was a sport that carried heavy ritualistic associations and is believed to have been played as early on as 1’000 BCE. Over the millennia the sport saw different versions rise in different areas, and in current day the modern version of ulama exists and is still being played in a few places by the local indigenous population.

According to the Codex Chimalpopoca the Toltec king Huemac played the rain deities for the maize, revealing the game’s deep-rooted associations with warfare and themes of fertility and its importance in Mayan society.

Interestingly the rules for the original ballgame are not know, but extrapolations from the modern version suggest that it would be similar to racquetball with the aim being to keep the ball in play. In fact the Ballcourt goals seen at places like the Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza, were a late addition to the game and are believed to have entirely changed the nature of the game as scoring a “goal” through the ring could attain an immediate win.

An important change when you consider that some games were held as a formal ritual event featuring the famed stories of human sacrifice. However this association occurs rather late in the archaeological record at Aparicio with the decapitation of the ballplayer Stelae CE 700-900 being the earliest recorded example.

Much of the Late Classic ballgame art in fact features decapitation, and with the Aztecs the skulls of the losing team were said to be placed in a “skull rack” to the side of the field with their blood being offered to the gods. Some even speculate that the skulls were used as the balls.

Interestingly various reports suggest that the game had also been used as a proxy for warfare, where emperors and kings alike played each other for the right to rulerisking entire nations over the loss or win of a game. But would likely have also been placed casually by children and perhaps even women for recreation.