This is the king of Mayan sites: dozens of spectacular, beautifully restored buildings lie spread across immaculately manicured grounds. Almost everyone reading this will have seen at least one photo of Chichen Itza before, probably of the striking Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itza is a world heritage site, and the Pyramid of Kukulcan was proclaimed one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007. Naturally with it’s level of fame the site is extremely touristy and busy. The site receives 2 million visitors a year and 5000 a day at the busiest times of year, showing just how popular the site has become.
Even if like me you prefer your ancient sites to be more rugged and without the crowds, no tour of the greatest Mayan ruins would be complete without a visit to this magnificent place.
The name Chichen Itza means ‘mouth of the well of the Itza’, likely referring to the large sacred cenote at the site. Chichen Itza is not one of the oldest Mayan cities, it was founded sometime in the 6th century when the great cities of the southern Yucatan peninsula were already nearing their peak. The city really started to flourish in the late 9th century, as the capitals in the Peten such as Tikal and Calakmul were declining before finally collapsing. It became a regional powerhouse from the late 10th century, controlling the whole of the central and northern Yucatan and having a more culturally diverse population than any other Mayan city. The region was either conquered or heavily influenced by the Toltecs after 1000AD; this accounts for the unique architecture of buildings from the cities peak, as it’s a blend of Mayan and Toltec styles.
Chichen Itza went into decline in the 13th century, with elite control of the city collapsing and monumental building stopping. As with other Mayan cities there has been a lot of debate about what caused its collapse, with several main theories proposed. It’s likely the collapse of the city was caused by a combination of overpopulation, drought and political turmoil.
Due to the location of the city close to Vallodolid and other Spanish settlements the city was never ‘lost’ like many other Mayan ruins, and was used for Mayan ceremonies right through the colonial period. In modern times the city was excavated in the late 19th century by Edward Thompson in conjunction with the Carnegie institute. The site was put under the control of the Mexican government in 1972.
Chichen Itza is a large site with many stunning buildings to see, but it’s relatively compact so there isn’t much walking between the main areas. Wondering around the site you can see how much work has gone into restoring and renovating the site. Unlike many other Maya sites, here all the major buildings have been cleared of vegetation and many of the plazas have been uncovered. This allows you to fully appreciate the architecture more clearly and get a sense of what the city would have been like in the past.
After entering the main plaza your view will be dominated by the immaculately restored Pyramid of Kulkulcan or El Castillo, now one of the new seven wonders of the world. It’s easy to see why this pyramid has received so much attention, it’s a beautiful, elegant building that has been restored to how it would have looked during the cities height (minus the colourful paint of the original). The pyramid is 36 metres high including the temple on the top. Each side has 91 steps with one step leading up to the temple entrance, adding up to 365 steps to represent the 365 days of the year.
Unfortunately since 2006 no one has been allowed to climb the pyramid. The pyramid was actually built on top of an older temple, whose throne room complete with Jaguar shaped throne can be accessed via an internal stairway. The throne room is also off limits to tourists now; sadly lack of access is one of the main drawbacks of the site. Unlike at other Mayan sites you can’t climb or go inside any of the buildings here, which does make exploring the site feel more soulless. This is added to by the hundreds of tacky souvenir stands which are allowed inside.
The magnificent ball court at Chichen Itza is worth the price of admission alone: it’s the biggest ball court in Meso-America at 95 metres long and 8 metres high. The walls are extremely well preserved, all the intricate carvings are still intact. Standing in the centre of the ball court I find it easy to imagine what it would have been like here during a game.
Rows of the cities elite and dignitaries would have lined the top of the stands, solemnly watching the two teams battle it out on the court like their lives depended on it — which they sometimes did! Matches could be intense, with injuries and even death not uncommon, which is understandable when you realize they used a hard rubber ball that could weigh 9 pounds (just imagine heading one of those). After the game ended depending on the type of match the captain of the losing team was sometimes executed. Talk about taking one for the team.
No visit to Chichen Itza would be complete without visiting the scared cenote to the west of the main plaza. The cenote of the Itza is where the city got it’s name from. The cenote also holds a dark secret, as when it was dredged the remains of dozens of sacrificial victims along with assorted ornaments and artefacts were discovered. The Mayan elite used to sacrifice unfortunate victims here in the hope of appeasing the Gods and ensuring favourable weather for the year ahead. Those Mayan priests made even the Spanish inquisition seem reasonable.
My favourite area of Chichen Itza is the eastern complex containing buildings such as the astronomy observatory and the templo de las mesas. The buildings here have some stunning architecture missed in with more vegetation and no vendors, which gives the area a more authentic feel. If you explore this area late in the afternoon after the tour groups have left it’s also much quieter, allowing you to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the sight at your leisure. The late afternoon light really adds to the visual feast before you too: golden beams of light highlighting the intricate details of the temples and infusing the stone with a golden glow. It gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like to visit here a few decades ago, before the site was swamped by hordes of visitors.
I went to Chichen Itza knowing it would be very touristic, but I still thoroughly enjoyed exploring it despite the drawbacks.
One of the main problems is you can’t climb up, over or inside any of the buildings here. This lack of access takes away a lot of the fun and makes the experience less immersive than at other quieter sights. It would have been great to have been able to climb up El Castillo and inside some of the other temples, but with such high visitor numbers conservation of the sight has to come first. Exploring the park can also feel a bit like walking around an outdoors museum crossed with a theme park at times; especially in the early afternoon with all the dozens of vendors and tour groups around.
However, Chichen Itza is undeniably stunning and it’s the best preserved of all the Mayan sights. The city is also of great historical value, so it’s a must on the Mayan ruins list.
Accommodation: Most people who visit the site don’t stay near here, with the majority of visitors coming on tours from Cancun and the rest of the Mayan Rivera. Independent travellers often come for the day from charming Valladolid or sometimes Izamel, where accommodation is much cheaper. However, if you want to stay close to the ruins there are a number of hotels in the area, including several near the entrance.
Here are a few good options:
Stardust Inn: This hotel is one of the few budget options in the area. It’s a twenty minute walk from Chitchen Itza in the village of Piste. Has twin rooms and a pool.
Villas Arquelogicas Chitchen Itza: This beautiful 3 star hotel is one of the closest hotels to the site. It has a classic colonial design and comes with great reviews.
Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows: This expensive hotel is the closest place to the ruins, it even has a private entrance to the temples. If you can afford to splash out this seems like a superb hotel to stay at.
Opening Times: – 8:00AM – 5:00PM. Opens again at 6.30pm for people attending the sound and light show which starts at 8pm.
Admission price: 230 pesos. The sound and light show costs an extra 440 pesos.
Location and getting there: Chichen Itza is 35 miles from Vallodolid in the state of Quiatana Roo in the northern Yucatan peninsula.
Collectivoes leave regularly from Valldolid one block west of the bus station starting around 7am. You can also take a bus from the bus terminal: the price is 30 pesos one way for the second class bus and takes around 50 minutes.