Chichen Itza emerged from the jungle in the 6th century A.D. and quickly grew into a bustling metropolis by the 10th century, with a prosperous trade network that reached the Caribbean shoreline. Its majestic temples and sacred cenotes, or natural wells, attracted pilgrims from all over.
However, Chichen Itza’s prosperity was short-lived. The city was destroyed after the overthrow of its ruling elite in the 12th century and was quickly abandoned. Over time, nature took over, and the once-thriving city became lost to history.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Chichen Itza’s grandeur was rediscovered. Archaeologists and explorers began to excavate and restore its temples and ballcourts, shedding light on the city’s fascinating past. Today, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist sites, drawing visitors from all over the world.
Despite the city’s downfall, the surviving temples and ballcourts of Chichen Itza still inspire awe and wonder. The most famous of these is the pyramid-like El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulkan. It is said that during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun rays casts a shadow on the pyramid that creates the illusion of a serpent slithering down the steps.
Another notable structure is the Temple of the Warriors, which features a series of columns decorated with intricate carvings of warriors and captive soldiers. The nearby Ball Court is also a must-see, as it is the largest of its kind in Mesoamerica.
You should ideally plan your trip between November and April to avoid the summer humidity and rain. However, it will still be hot with temperatures occasionally climbing above 30 degrees Celsius. If you want to avoid the peak tourist season and the crowds that come with it, try visiting in November, February, or March.
To make the most out of your trip to Chichen Itza, plan to arrive early to avoid the midday sun and crowds.
How to Travel to Chichen Itza
The easiest way is to join a guided tour from your hotel along the Riviera Maya, from Cancunto Tulum. You can also find tours available in Merida. If you prefer to travel independently, renting a car in Cancun or Merida is a good option. The roads are safe, and it will take you about two to three hours to drive there from either city.
If you’re an experienced traveler, you may want to take an ADO bus from Cancun to Chichen Itza. The earliest bus generally departs around 8 or 9 am, providing a late-day arrival at the ruins. However, limited departures could affect your travel plans.
Alternatively, start your journey in Merida or Cancun and take a public bus to Valladolid. This charming city offers an ideal location for a home base with numerous museums, cenotes, and other lesser-known Mayan ruins including Ek Balam.
Inside the Pyramid Kukulkan in Chichen Itza
In 1931, archaeologists explored the Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza to investigate whether it had been built on top of an older pyramid. They discovered a box filled with coral, obsidian, and turquoise artifacts alongside human remains, confirming their hypothesis.
The explorers continued their journey into the temple’s substructure, where they stumbled upon a Chac Mool figure adorned with shining nacre shells on its nails, teeth, and eyes in what is now known as the “Room of Offerings” or the North Chamber. Just a few meters away, they found another chamber called the Sacrificial Room that held more human bones.
They also discovered a vibrant red sculpture depicting a jaguar with 74 jade incrustations that imitated the animal’s iconic spots. Expect to see all this and much more inside the Pyramid Kukulkan.
The Castle in Chichen Itza
The Castle in Chichen Itza is a magnificent structure that boasts a square base measuring 55.5 meters per side and stands 24 meters tall. It features nine staggered and sloping tiers with protruding rectangles that adorn its exterior, reminiscent of Zapotec culture and El Tajin architecture. The temple has four staircases, decorated by serpents with feathered heads, providing access to the temple.
The main entrance to the top-level features three gaps created with two curved columns that present serpentine heads at their base and tails supporting wooden lintels. Inside the sanctuary, there is a vaulted ceiling featuring two pilasters exhibiting bas-reliefs, with a narrow hallway behind it that leads to three doors leading to the west, south, and east pathways.
The temple has a gentle, slanted wall with two cornices around its frieze, with three sunken panels in the center of these cornices. One of these panels adorns a Chac mask, the god of rain. The door jambs and interior pilasters are decorated with intricate figures such as warriors in lavish clothing that provide an air of grandeur to the entire structure.
A remarkable fact about the Kukulkan Temple is that it’s not perfectly centered. The gap between the final step of its primary staircase and the wall on top is larger than usual. If you observe from the west side, you’ll notice how the entrance door does not correspond with either temple or niche at peak; however, it matches up well with the said staircase!
Best Things to Do in Chichen Itza
Explore the Temple of Kukulcan
As you enter the archaeological site, you’ll be struck by the first and most impressive structure – the Temple of Kukulcan. This towering temple, once used to honor the Mayan serpent deity, stands at an impressive 100 feet tall today after being restored to its former glory.
Visit the Great Ball Court
Next up is the Great Ball Court, which is one of the largest in the world and offers a glimpse into the intense ball games that were once played here. Thirteen different courts have been found in Chichen Itza alone, and each city or village would have had their own arena. With its hoops still intact and sacrificial inscriptions on the ruins, it’s easy to imagine the excitement and spiritual significance of the games.
Witness the Skull Platform
For something more gruesome, check out the Skull Platform, where severed heads were once proudly displayed as mementos from sacred ball games. Mayan reliefs on the platform’s side clearly depict these macabre scenes, offering a chilling insight into the Mayan culture.
Explore the Temple of the Warriors
The Temple of Warriors is another very impressive structure in the complex, believed to have been a sacred place for venerating Mayan warriors. It stands as one of the biggest temples, featuring numerous statues and carvings that depict warring Mayans. Its entranceway is composed of hundreds of tall stone pillars on both sides, making for an awe-inspiring sight.
Witness The Observatory
The Observatory, or El Caracol, is a captivating ruin atop the temple mound that was once used by the ancient Mayans to maintain their calendars through precise observation and recording of dates. Visiting this site will give you an appreciation for how much effort went into tracking time so long ago!
Check out the Sacred Cenote
The Sacred Cenote is another site of great importance, as it was used as a ritual site by the Mayans due to its spiritual symbolization and significance as a source of water. Human remains have been found at the base, pointing to its possible use as a sacrificial site.
Through careful archeological exploration, human remains have been found at the base of the esteemed Sacred Cenote, pointing to its possible use as a sacrificial site.
After a day of exploring, head to Cenote Ik Kil for a refreshing swim in crystal blue waters surrounded by long hanging vines. This is one of the few cenotes in the region where swimming is permitted, and private lockers and changing rooms are available for your convenience. Refuel with delicious tacos at the on-site restaurant before heading back to your accommodations
Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza
Here are some tips to make sure your visit goes smoothly and successfully!
Get there early
First and foremost, it’s best to arrive at Chichen Itza as early as possible. The entrance gates open at 8 a.m. and peak season means that queues may have already formed by that time. By getting there early, you can beat the crowds and have a few precious hours alone to admire the awe-inspiring site.
Grab ‘Early Access’ tickets
If you’re interested in getting even more exclusive access, there are limited “Early Access” tickets available that allow you to enter before 8 a.m. on opening day. To make sure you secure your early entrance, book your tickets ahead or join an exclusive sunrise tour.
Stay under shade
It’s important to note that there’s very little shade at Chichen Itza, so remember to bring sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water to stay cool and hydrated.
Don’t bring a camera tripod
Also, leave your camera tripod at the hotel, as they’re not allowed in the archaeological area due to their professional nature that requires advance and costly permits. Hand-held cameras are a great alternative for capturing memories of this historic site.
Don’t climb the temples
While exploring, remember that climbing the temples is not permitted. However, if you’re eager to ascend an ancient pyramid, the nearby Coba Ruins hold Nohoch Mul, the Yucatan Peninsula’s tallest temple that can be climbed.
Bring your swimming gear
Lastly, don’t forget to bring your swimming gear! After admiring the wonders of Chichen Itza, you’ll want to take a refreshing dip in one of the stunning cenotes nearby.
Where is Chichen Itza located?
Chichen Itza is located in Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, about 120 kilometers east of Merida. The Yucatan Peninsula includes parts of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Chichen Itza itself is located in the Mexican state of Yucatan, which is in the eastern part of the peninsula.
How old is Chichen Itza?
The true commencement of the construction of Chichen Itza remains unknown to archaeologists. However, historical records suggest that it began around 600-750 A.D. This means Chichen Itza has been around for over 1,500 years.
When was Chichen Itza built?
Its construction began in the 6th century AD, but most of the city’s major buildings and structures were built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods of Mesoamerican history.
Who built Chichen Itza?
The Maya founded Chichen Itza because of its close proximity to the Xtoloc cenote. Many Mayan cultures and architectural styles existed in the Yucatan region, and different groups established themselves in the area.
Can you climb El Castillo?
Unfortunately, you can’t. It’s off-limits to climbers to preserve the monument for future generations. But don’t worry, nearby Coba has a great alternative for adventure seekers. You can climb Nohoch Mul, the tallest temple on the Yucatan Peninsula.
El Castillo stands tall as the tallest structure of pre-Columbian origin in Chichen Itza at 98 feet. But that’s not all there is to see in the area. You can also visit other stunning architectural wonders such as the Great Ball Court, which has 95-foot-long and 25-foot-high stone platforms – perfect for ancient sports events!
The Osario Pyramid and Temple of Warriors are also amazing examples of the Mayan’s ability to construct monumental structures that still stand today.
How Much time do you need to visit Chichen Itza?
One day is enough time to explore Chichen Itza’s ruins thoroughly. If you walk briskly, you can see the entire archaeological site in under three hours. If you have extra time and a bit of luck, nearby cenotes are accessible through tours or by car/colectivo.
Can I stay at Chichen Itza?
For a more immersive experience exploring the ruins of Chichen Itza, several hotels within walking distance allow visitors to linger longer or even be first in line when gates open each morning. While the hotels near this archaeological area are in limited supply and don’t offer great value, they provide unbeatable convenience for travelers.
How much is entrance fee to Chichen Itza?
The cost of admission to Chichen Itza has increased from 250 MEX to 481 MEX in just one year. However, it is still only around 25 USD for you to experience a part of history and discover the wonders that this ancient civilization left behind.
If you wish to visit Cenote Ik Kil as well, then an additional 80 MEX fee applies, as it is privately owned and managed differently than Chichen Itza’s archaeological site. These prices are a small price considering what they offer – entrance into an almost mythical world!
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