In the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, stands something extraordinary. Deep in the tropical jungle lies Chichen Itza – one of the most impressive Maya ruins of Central America. A spectacular pyramid, sacred temples, cenotes, and other stone structures were once home to a knowledgeable ancient civilisation. If you thought this mystical place was just another archaeological site, be prepared to have your mind blown.
Why is Chichen Itza so special?
Chichen Itza is far more than just thrilling Indiana Jones adventure. This impressive ancient city was one of the largest Maya cities. Today Chichen Itza is the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico. Besides, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
And that`s merely the start. No-one knows for sure when exactly the first people settled Chichen Itza, but it was probably about 1,500 years ago. At the height of its power, Chichen Itza was home to as many as 50,000 people. Throughout centuries, different cultures left marks on these world-famous ruins. Moreover, as Chichen Itza grew during the time, the city became a religious, political and commercial centre in the Maya world.
However, after the Maya civilisation declined, Chichen Itza disappeared in the jungle, and nobody knew about it until 1841.
Top sights in Chichén Itzá
The top attractions to visit in Chichen Itza are:
1. Kukulkan`s pyramid in Chichen Itza (El Castillo)
The best place to start is probably at the beginning and what is Chichen Itza known for. Chichen Itza is famous for many sights, but none of them is more spectacular than the Temple of Kukulkan. The highest pyramid in Chichen Itza is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Mexico. But that is just part of its appeal to tourists. The mystery is probably the other reason why it`s visited by millions of visitors every year.
A glorious step pyramid which dominated the centre of the plaza is, however, more than just a regular pyramid. This marvellous design is impressive for the connection with astrology and also the Maya believe system. What`s more, the Maya people built the Kukulkan`s pyramid with such sophistication that it must be seen to be believed.
The 30 metres (98ft) tall square-based pyramid is a fascinating wonder. Not only the pyramid has 365 steps – one of each day of the year, but also all four sides of the temple have 91 steps, which when added together with the top platform make a total of 365 steps. Also, the pyramid`s four stairways represent the four points of a compass.
Unlike most of the other pyramids in the world, the Kukulkan`s pyramid which dominates Chichen Itza is, hiding some secrets. Further excavations revealed that an impressive Temple of Kukulkan sits atop of two older pyramid temples. Hence, the Russian nesting doll comparison. What`s more, the scientists recently discovered massive sacred sinkhole under this unique Maya temple.
Clapping at the pyramid in Chichen Itza
Clapping at the base of the Kukulkan pyramid causes echoes which are identical to a quetzal bird call. The ancient Maya people believed that the colourful bird was a messenger of the gods.
Can you climb the pyramid in Chichen Itza?
Climbing the Kukulkan pyramid and other sites in Chichen Itza is off-limits for tourists after the unfortunate death of a tourist who slipped when walking down. Also, many of the monuments have rope barriers and, therefore, it`s not possible to touch them.
Visiting Chichen Itza during the annual equinoxes
If you happen to visit Chichen Itza during the annual equinoxes, you might be lucky to witness the spectacular phenomenon. At about 3 pm, sun rays create a shadow across the pyramid temple steps which give the appearance of the snake shape. Kukulkan, a Maya snake god, comes to life for a few hours twice a year for over 1,000 years. This light and shadow illusion happens twice a year and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. Make sure you don`t miss it if you are in Mexico at this time of the year!
2. Venus Platform
Once you`ve seen El Castillo pyramid, pay attention to the nearby Venus Platform with mythical creatures on side panels. This squared platform, dedicated to worship of the planet Venus, has four staircases. The Venus Platform, also known as the Tomb of the Chac Mool, has a flat stage for public views. This monument likely served for ceremonial purposes, such as public speeches, dance or rituals.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Chichen Itza is home to 2 different monuments with this name. The Venus Platform located near the Great Plaza (where you can find El Castillo) is the better known.
3. Great Ball Court
Ball courts or playing fields where Maya athletes played their ball games don`t sound very exciting. But there is more to Maya ball courts than that. There are many ball courts in ancient Mesoamerica; however, the one in Chichen Itza is the most impressive. Not only it`s well-preserved, but it`s also the largest ball court yet discovered.
The Great Ball court, located just a short distance from the Kukulkan`s pyramid, had multiple purposes though. This famed Maya ball court, in the size of an American football field, was once the central point of social life in Chichen Itza. But it was also a sacred playground. The Maya ballgame was unusually harsh and also, deadly. During games, players tried to hit a 5 kilogram (12-pound) rubber ball into stone circles. Not only small circles were high on the court walls, but players couldn’t use their hands or feet. Legends say that during the rituals, the captain of the winning team was also, sacrificed.
While a human sacrifice to the Gods may seem like a strange reward, the Maya people believed that it was the ultimate honour.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Besides, Maya people were acoustic engineering geniuses. One of the many unique features of the great ball court is that if you stand at the North Temple, you can hear someone standing at the far South Temple even in a whisper. A whispering gallery undoubtedly unique – it permits voice communication between temples which are about 140 metres (460 feet) apart.
4. Wall of Skulls (Tzompantli)
While you are near the Great Ball Court in Chichen Itza, don`t forget to explore the Wall of Skulls. This large platform with skull carvings was a place where the Mayas placed human skull of enemies and offerings to their god.
5. Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza
One of the most significant attractions in Chichen Itza is undoubtedly the Sacred Cenote. As you probably know, the Yucatan peninsula has many cenotes – limestone sinkholes with fresh water. There are thousands of them, and there are the only water sources as there are no rivers or lakes on the Yucatan. However, not all cenotes are nature`s swimming pools with refreshing temperature.
A Sacred Cenote, located at the northern end of Chichen Itza also has ceremonial significance. This massive sinkhole was undoubtedly very special to the Maya people. They believed that “Chac”, the Maya rain god, lived at the bottom of the cenote. Therefore, the Mayas made offerings to the Sacred Cenote for a variety of motivations (rain, health, harvest). Not only they tossed precious things to the cenote, but on occasions, a human sacrifice was also a part of the offerings.
The Sacred Cenote revealed thousands of gifts to the gods, including gold, pottery and human remains.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Today, the 60 metres (200 ft.) in diameter Sacred Cenote is a popular attraction is Chichen Itza. Those who would like to satisfy their curiosity can walk to this sacrificial well. Walk to the cenote from the Kukulkan pyramid takes about 10 minutes. The shaded trail to the cenote is lined with stalls selling souvenir.
Can you swim in the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza?
Swimming in the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza is not possible due to cenote`s ceremonial significance. Not only human sacrifices were part of offerings to the Maya rain god during religious ceremonies, but water in this sacred well is also green and murky.
6. Temple of the Warriors
Next, you can visit the Temple of the Warriors, one of the most impressive structures in Chichen Itza. This pyramid structure with a central stairway and a sculpture at the top consists of four platforms. On a side and at the front you can see more than 200 stone columns – they`re Maya warriors protecting this sacred place. This large building used to hold once huge gatherings.
7. Group of a Thousand Columns
Take a moment to turn away from the beautiful Temple of the thousand columns and have a look at the nearby columns. These exposed columns supported a roof before Chichen Itza became the lost city.
8. Xtoloc Cenote
Less than 5-minute walk from the Temple of the Warriors will bring you to another cenote in Chichen Itza. Xtoloc Cenote, named after the Mayan word for “iguana”, is overlooking the ruins of the Temple of Xtoloc. The second-largest cenote in Chichen Itza and it was once the main supplier of water of this ancient city.
9. El Caracol
Another highlight in Chichen Itza is undoubtedly El Caracol, located to the north of Las Monjas Group. This crumbling circular-shaped building on a large platform once served the Maya people for stargazing. El Caracol rising above the thick jungle offered unobstructed views of the skies to the Mayas. Therefore, they could observe here changes in the movement of planets and other astronomical events.
10. Other cenotes near Chichen Itza
There are several beautiful cenotes where you can refresh after exploring the ruins of Chichen Itza. Some of them are more popular, while others are more authentic.
Cenote Ik Kil
The atmospheric Ik Kil is undoubtedly the most famous of all Yucatan cenotes. Cenote Ik Kil located a close distance to Chichen Itza is the most popular of them all. And for a good reason, though. A round-shape cenote with green leaves and vines hanging from the top of the swimming hole is unbelievably beautiful. Take a refreshing dip in sinkhole were water is about 50 meters (150 feet) deep, if you dare. However, bear in mind that the Mayas used sacred Ik Kil cenote for human sacrifice to their rain god.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Ik Kil Cenote is a popular stop for bus tours and, therefore, it can get crowded during the day. Consider visiting this cenote early in the morning (before 11 am) or in the late afternoon.
- Opening times: 9 am -5 pm.
- Admission fee (March 2019): 80 pesos ($4) for adults, 40 pesos ($2) for children. Cash only.
- There is a possibility to rent a towel and also a lifejacket. The site has large changing rooms, bathroom and a restaurant.
Less than 20-minute drive will bring you to another beautiful cenote in the area. Mystical cenote Yokdzonot, located in the middle of the jungle, is full of charm. This unique Maya cenote is an excellent place if you would like to connect with nature and escape the crowds. Swim in the crystal clear waters and uncover the underwater world. More adventurous souls can also rent a bicycle and explore the second cenote at the end of the trail. Alternatively, challenge yourself and rappel down the cenote, or try a zip line.
- Opening times: every day from 9 am – 5 pm.
- Admission fee: 40 pesos ($2)
How much is an entrance fee to Chichen Itza?
The entrance fee at Chichen Itza archaeological site is 486 pesos (US$23) per adult (as of 2020). However, the cost varies for Mexican citizens. The entrance fee consists of 2 fees – the federal and the state fee. To enter the site, you need to present both tickets.
Chichen Itza Tips
- Admission fee to the site consists of two tickets which you need to pay at two separate windows (the federal and the state fee)
- Bring pesos when visiting Chichen Itza.
- Those arriving at the site with large luggage can rent a luggage locker at the site.
- Arrive early or late. Chichen Itza has millions of visitors every year, and bus tours start arriving at the site around 10 am. Alternatively, arrive in the afternoon.
- Avoid Sundays, national holidays and peak times (Christmas and Easter). It`s also important to note that Mexican nationals get a cheaper entry fee to Chichen Itza on Sundays. Hence, avoid visiting on those days.
- The Chichen Itza Light Show at night is on Sunday evenings for half price. Pre-book your tickets to get the best seats.
- Climbing El Castillo pyramid and other monuments are not possible due to the conservation.
- Swimming in cenotes directly in the Chichen Itza archaeological area is also not possible.
- Dress accordingly. Bring comfortable shoes, a sun hat or umbrella and expect to walk most of the time in direct sunlight.
- Bring biodegradable sunscreen and mosquito repellent to help preserve the environment.
- Hire a guide to ensure that your experience of Chichen Itza will be a good one. Only a local tour guide can bring the story of the Maya civilisation to life through their experiential knowledge of the site. They`re worth investing in and also it`s a way how you can support the local community.
- Explore all the area, not only the famous Kukulkan pyramid. There is more to Chichen Itza than the famous pyramid. Make sure you check out other monuments, you will be surprised.
- Bring water and own snacks
- Get ready for hundreds of vendors who set up their shop with souvenirs within the complex.
- Tripods are allowed to use only with the special permit which you need to arrange in advance.
- Stay overnight. It`s possible to visit the ruins from Cancun or Riviera Maya. A drive by car is min 2 ½ hrs. However, for a better experience, consider spending a night in nearby Valladolid or Piste town.
How to get to Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza Tours
There are many ways how you can get to Chichen Itza, although the most convenient one is by bus tour. You can take a guided tour to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Tulum and other places in Riviera Maya. It`s undoubtedly the most comfortable way of travel, especially for those who don`t want to drive a car in Mexico.
Those who don`t mind driving in Mexico can rent a car from one of many car rental websites. It`s an excellent way how to explore Yucatan, especially if you are staying in the country for longer. Renting a car allows you to arrive at the site before bus tours. Hence, you can experience more peaceful Chichen Itza.
Good to know:
There aren`t many gas stations on the highway, so make sure you fill up your tank.
Public Transport (ADO buses)
If any of the options above aren’t right for you, consider using public transport. The ADO bus service from Cancun downtown to Chichen Itza runs once per day at 8.45 am. The journey takes about three hours. Alternatively, take the ADO bus to Valladolid and get another bus to the site.
Have you been to Chichen Itza before or is it on your bucket list? Are there any places you’d add to this list? We’d love to hear!
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