Google Street View now available for Mexico archaeological sites

MEXICO CITY -- For travelers who've never been to the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza, a virtual window into the site's pyramids and plazas is available online, among 30 archaeological zones in Mexico now mapped by history's greatest peeping Tom: Google Street View.

From the comfort of a computer, any Internet user anywhere can now zoom in and examine the perfect form of Chichen Itza's Kukulkan pyramid, known also El Castillo, or the Castle.

On Google Street View, a viewer can almost feel like they might tumble into the Sacred Cenote, or natural sinkhole, where Maya priests practiced ritual sacrifice. Or imagine cavorting on the Plaza of the Thousand Columns. Or maybe do some souvenir browsing, up close and in intensely high resolution.

Google and Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, announced the new maps last week. Using a 360-degree camera mounted on a bicycle, Google captured "street views" of other major archaeological sites in Mexico, such as Monte Alban in Oaxaca and Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.

Lesser-known Mesoamerican sites are also now mapped by Google Street View, including Tula in the state of Hidalgo and Xochicalco in Morelos.

The Internet search engine has focused its publicity campaign for the new maps on images captured at Chichen Itza, one of Mexico's most storied tourist destinations. But for travelers who have been there, could Google Street View now be better than the real thing?

Consider: A recent (physical) visit to Chichen Itza confirmed that tourists are no longer allowed to climb the Castillo pyramid, no more tackling its famous 91 steps that President Felipe Calderon recently climbed in a widely mocked tourism video.

Visitors can no longer actually, physically cavort among the plaza of the columns. In fact, most of the structures at Chichen Itza these days are off-limits to tourists, who must settle on snapping photos behind wire barriers. Worse, the archaeological zone is also overrun with vendors from the neighboring communities, making a non-virtual visit a somewhat disappointing experience overall.

Since Chichen Itza was declared a new Seven Wonders of the World site in 2007, access has been limited due to concerns over deterioration and also because the site's restoration process is ongoing, said an INAH spokesman.

The same is true at the Palenque zone in Chiapas, the spokesman said, where a visitor like you and me may no longer be able to climb that site's spectacular structures. But on Google, at least, there's a decent shot of a man in an orange polo with a sweat towel on his head.

Photo: A view of the Kukulkan pyramid, or El Castillo, at the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Mexican state of Yucatan. Credit: Google, via INAH