Chichen Itza is Mexico’s #1 visited archeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage site. As well, in 2007, it was voted in a global survey as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Each year 2.6 M people visit, can they and UNESCO be wrong? Probably not. But if you are going to visit you need to be prepared so you make the most of your visit. The last thing you want is to arrive after all the tour buses, miss out on a guide, and then wander around aimlessly.
Fortunately, we’ve done all the research for you! Find out why Chichen Itza is the most famous site in Mexico and how you can make the most of your visit. Also, get our easy reference infographic is essential for your trip to Chichen Itza. In one page it has what you should see, what you need to know before you go, what you should take, and what you should ask when you’re there. As well as a map of the site so you don’t get lost!
The town of Chichen Itza was first established around 435-455 AD. Located close to two cenotes, which provided the town's water. The name Chichen Itza in Mayan means “At the edge of the well of the Itzaes”. Throughout its 1,000-year history, different peoples left their mark on the city. This sacred site was one of the greatest Mayan centres of the Yucatán peninsula.
So much so that in 1988 UNESCO designated Chichen Itza as a World Heritage Site. This means it is an area of outstanding international importance. And so deserves special protection. While Mexico has many ancient archeological sites, Chichen Itza is the most impressive of the over 4,400 Maya sites in Mesoamerica.
Being the most stunning Maya site in Mexico makes it a popular destination for visitors. What makes it even more popular is its location close to Mexico’s largest tourist destination, Cancun. This results in over 2.6 million visitors a year. On average that's over 7,000 visitors a day. And during the high season likely double that.
In planning to visit Chichen Itza there are a few things you should consider. For example, where its located and what mode of transportation to take to get there. Also, are you going on an organized tour, a smaller private tour, or going to do it yourself? Let’s start with how to get there.
Located in the Yucatan Pennisula the closest major city is Valladolid 40 km to the East. Further to the East is the state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum. To the West of Chichen Itza is the city of Merida.
Fortunately, good highway infrastructure to Chichen Itza makes it possible to visit and return on a day trip. It takes between 2 and 2 ½ hours to go to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Ocean Breeze Akumal, and Tulum. From Merida, it is only 1 ½ hours.
While getting there is straightforward, deciding on how to get there is more complicated. You have a few options to consider, each with their pros and cons.
Rent A Car
If you’ve already rented a car then this is definitely the best way to get there. Even if you haven’t you should consider renting one. The driving is easy and if you use Google Maps you’ll get great directions and won’t get lost. Parking, once you arrive, is quite straightforward and inexpensive (~ $80 pesos, or ~$4 USD) in a shaded area. Some people instead park along the side of the road before you get to the archeological site. But while you save $80 pesos you run more risk of your car getting dented.
Along the route, there is a toll highway, which costs $190 pesos (~$9.50 USD). I recommend taking the toll 180 road it's quite a bit quicker. The no toll 180 takes longer and has lots of speed bumps (Topes). MAKE SURE, however, you bring pesos for the tolls as they do not accept credit cards or USD.
Archeologists Are Still Making Discoveries
Archeologists are still making discoveries in Chichen Itza. For example, National Geographic recently reported a stunning discovery. While hunting for a sacred well beneath Chichén Itzá a trove of more than 150 ritual objects were discovered. These had been untouched for more than a thousand years.
Book A Group Tour
One way to go is to book a group tour and travel with a large busload of people. The advantage is that you don’t have to drive. But, one disadvantage is it takes a lot longer. Since there are several stops at various hotels to pick people up, this will add an hour to your journey each way. Secondly, the cost per person (including the taxes) is about $80 USD per person. This does include the entrance fee which is ~$24 USD per person but is still about $42 USD more for one person. Or for 4 people it’s ~$210 USD more than compared to taking your own car. The group tour does include a guide also but you can hire your own guide for around $50 USD. And you don’t have to share the guide with 65 other people!
Another disadvantage of going with a group tour is that you arrive with a large number of tourists at the same time the other tour buses arrive. By either taking your own car or by going on a private tour (below) you can plan to arrive before the tour buses. Thus, avoiding the majority of the crowds.
Book A Private Tour
If you don’t want to drive yourself you also have the option of booking a private tour. If there are 5 of you it works out to be about the same cost as booking a group tour. The costs for the transportation and guide are typically $300-350 USD (not including the entrance fee). A private tour can accommodate up to 14 people comfortably. So, if you have a large group it's quite inexpensive. For 10 people about $30-35 USD each, for 14 people $21-24 USD each.
There are several added advantages of taking a private tour. Firstly, you can arrange to leave at a time to arrive well before the group tours arrive. So, you get to see Chichen Itza before the large masses of crowds descend on it. Secondly, if you decide you’d like to stop for lunch you can arrange that with your driver. Or you could go to a cenote, or go shopping outside of Chichen Itza. You aren’t beholden to the large group. Thirdly, since you don’t have to stop to pick-up at lots of locations, your travel time will be about an hour less each way. And lastly, travelling in a comfortable vehicle with friends is often a lot more fun and convenient too.
Travelling by Bus
You can travel to Chichen Itza by the ADO bus. And it might be worthwhile doing this if you are travelling from Valladolid. However, I think the trip takes far too long if you are coming from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, or Tulum. While the cost is inexpensive at $386 pesos (~$20 USD), the journey takes about 4 hours, each way. That’s a long time on a bus, especially adding in 4 hours at Chichen Itza. The ADO buses leave at 8 am from Playa Del Carmen (check the ADO website to confirm times, tickets, and departures). It then leaves Chichen Itza around 4pm, getting back around 8pm. A rather exhausting day.
Most people won’t arrange their travel dates around timing a trip to Chichen Itza. But if you can, then go outside of the high season (mid-Dec – end of March). Since there would be fewer visitors from April to early December.
Yet, no matter what time of the year you visit you can choose what time to arrive. My recommendation is to go early. Chichen Itza opens at 8 am and closes at 5 pm. Definitely arrive well before 11 am – and the earlier the better. Assuming it takes 2 hours to get there (by car or private tour) if you leave at 8 am you should arrive at 10 to 10:30 am. If you are coming from the state of Quintana Roo (Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum etc)., in the high season then you are in luck. Quintana Roo doesn’t change the time for daylight savings whereas Yucatan does. What it means that if you leave at 8 am in Quintana Roo that’s still only 7 am in the Yucatan. Thus, you gain an hour. In high season you can leave at 8 am (Quintana Roo time) and after 2 hours of driving you can arrive at Chichen Itza at 9 am local time!!
The other time you can try to arrive to avoid the crowds is to go much later. If you arrive around 3 pm it is often less crowded, but you then only have 2 hours to spend at Chichen Itza. This is doable but very rushed. Often a guided tour takes 1.5 hours. Then after that, it's nice to explore other parts of the site on your own. A good amount of time for most people would be 3-4 hours.
If you go on either a private tour or a group tour, a guide will be included. However, if you travel there yourself you then have a choice whether to hire a guide or not. The cost of a guide at Chichen Itza is about $1,000 pesos ($50 USD). Personally, I think it is very worthwhile to hire a guide. The cost isn’t that expensive especially if you split it between a few people. The 1.5-hour tour covers many of the important buildings and they’ll show you lots of remarkable things. Ones that you would otherwise miss. But if you are an expert in Mayan culture and history (or if you travel with one) then you can avoid hiring a guide.
If you do hire a guide don’t hire one before you get to Chichen Itza and have entered and paid your entrance fee. The guides outside Chichen Itza are not official guides. The ones inside Chichen Itza are, and they provide a very good and informative service.
Below is a list of things to bring with you that will likely come in useful. The site is large (5 km2, 2 sq. miles) and only has a few shaded areas as much of it is open to the hot sun. So be prepared.
Fortunately, as the site is very open there aren’t many bugs so you can leave your bug spray behind.
You aren’t allowed to take food into the archeological site. But there are a handful of food vendors after the ticket-booth. Prices are more expensive due to the location, so you might want to stop for food before you go in to see the ruins.
Both outside the entrance and inside there are lots of vendors selling souvenirs and other wares. Be prepared to haggle if you want to buy something. And also realize that you will pay more here than you would in a less touristy place. Some people writing about Chichen Itza have stated that the vendors are aggressive. But whenever I have been that’s not been the case. They do ask you frequently if you’re interested in buying something as you walk past their stall. But a simple ‘no gracias’ is often all that’s required.
The history of Chichen Itza spans 1,000 years and was probably the greatest Mayan center of the Yucatan Peninsula. During its development different people occupying the settlement have all left their mark. One of the most interesting aspects is the fusion of Maya and Toltec architecture and beliefs. The combination of Mayan building techniques with newer elements from central Mexico.
The town that was first developed had several important monuments. These include a Nunnery, a Church, the Temple of the Panels and the Temple of the Deer. All constructed between the 6th and 10th centuries in the typical Maya style of the time. This initial settlement is called Chichen Viejo (Old Chichen).
A second settlement of Chichen Itza coincided with the migration of Toltec warriors during the 10th century. Between 967 and 987 AD the King of Tula, also known as Kukulkan, took over the city. Following this conquest, a new style developed by blending Maya and Toltec traditions. Many of the buildings and monuments constructed exhibit aspects from both cultures. After the 13th century, no major construction continued.
In the 10th century, the growth of the city saw it become a regional capital. Controlling an area from central Yucatan, to the north coast, and extending down both the East and West coasts of the peninsula. This growth of Chichen Itza coincided with the decline of major Maya centers in southern parts of Mesoamerica (Coba and Yaxuna). As one of the largest of the Maya cities people travelled to Chichen Itza from all over Mesoamerica. Giving it a diverse population. This also contributed to the variety of architectural styles found here.
Feathered Serpent Deity
The feathered serpent is a common deity found in many Mesoamerican religions and cultures. Know as Kukulcan by the Maya, The Aztecs call it Quetzalcoatl. The feathered part representing its divine nature and its ability to fly and reach the sky. While the serpent represents its human nature and ability to creep on the ground with other earthly creatures.
From 1100 onwards the city began its decline. The actual cause of the decline is still debated. Some suggest it was due to warring between Maya peoples. Others ecological challenges from the inability to support a large population. At one point while the Chichen Itza elite left the city, it still had a thriving local population even when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. In fact, the high population of the time was a major factor why the Spanish wanted to locate a capital there.
In 1527 the Spanish invasion of the Yucatan began. Yet, it wasn’t until reinforcements arrived that the Spanish took control of Chichen Itza in 1532-33. After experiencing little resistance initially, the Maya became more hostile. In a typical guerilla warfare technique, the Maya cut off the Spanish supply line to the coast and laid siege. After several months and no more reinforcements, the Spanish fled the city in 1534.
In 1841, the American explorer, writer and diplomat, John Lloyd Stephens, rediscovered Chichen Itza. His 1843 book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, recounted his visit and discovery of Maya sites. In 1860, the French traveller and archeologist, Désiré Charnay, surveyed Chichen Itza. Taking many photographs they were published in 1863.
Edward Herbert Thompson, the US Consul to the Yucatan took an interest in the site. Thompson in 1894 purchased large tracts of land including Chichen Itza. And he explored the site for the next 30 years. And in 1923 the Mexican Government awarded the Carnegie Institute a 10-year permit to excavate and restore Chichen Itza. But, 3 years later the Mexican Government charged Thompson with theft and smuggling of artifacts. He never returned to the site. Subsequently, in 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled posthumously that Thompson had not broken any laws. The site returned to his heirs.
Since the early 1960’s Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have overseen excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza. Up until 2010, Chichen Itza was privately owned when the Yucatan Government purchased it.
Chichen Itza is one of the larger Maya sites covering an area of more than 5 km2 (~2 sq miles). In this area, the architectural buildings are close together. Beyond this area, smaller scale residences extend for an unknown distance. Now covered by the dense rainforest.
The ground on which the monuments were built was over cenotes which risked potential collapse. So the area was built up and levelled before building. The ground level of many buildings is ~ 2 feet higher than the original level of the land. The Maya bringing in stone, to not only build each monument, but first to build up and level the site.
Across the main site (see map) many restored stone buildings are present. A network of pathways called sacbeob, connect them. So far archeologists have unearthed over 80 Sacbe. Many of them crisscrossing in all directions from the city. Originally the buildings were brightly coloured in red, green, blue or purple. The colours coming from natural pigments.
The architecture of the buildings and monuments encompasses several styles. The buildings are grouped in sets by architectural style. For example, the Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo), the Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court are all part of one architectural style. Another is the Ossuary Group which includes the Ossuary Pyramid, and the Temple of Xtoloc. Another is the Central group: the Caracol, the Nunnery, and the House of Hidden Writing.
Further south of the Nunnery are several other groups of buildings. This is the area known as Chichen Viejo, but it is only open to archeologists.
If you arrive before the tour buses, then you’ll probably spend 45-60 minutes paying at the entrance, using the facilities, and hiring your guide. After that assuming you take the guided tour that’ll take another 90 minutes. So, at this stage, you’ll have spent about 2 ½ hours at Chichen Itza. You can easily spend another 60-90 minutes walking around many of the other remaining structures. So, you should plan on spending 3-4 hours here.
But, if you arrive when it's very busy then getting inside and organized will take a whole lot longer. So you’ll have to decide which structures you see. If you go with a guided tour, you’ll likely get to see the Temple of Kukulcan/El Castillo. #1 on your list. As well, you’ll likely see the Platform of Skulls, the Great Ball Court, the Temple of Warriors and El Caracol. If your guide doesn’t show you any of these then take time after the formal tour to visit each of them.
If you then have time, I would recommend visiting Las Monjas including the Church, then Akab Dzib. If you still have time left, visit the Ossuary Group. However, if you are short on time and have seen a few cenotes then you won’t miss not visiting Cenote Sagrado. There’s no swimming there anyway since it’s pretty murky and used to contain human remains!
Also, don’t forget to plan time to browse some of the vendor stalls if you want to bring back a couple of souvenirs.
The Temple of Kukulcan (or El Castillo) is a Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the Chichen Itza archeological site. Built between the 8th and 12th centuries AD it was the temple to the god Kukulcan – the Maya Feathered Serpent Deity. The temple sits on a pyramid consisting of a base and a series of square terraces made of limestone. The height of the monument is 79 ft (24 m) with the temple adding on another 20 ft. Each side is 55 m long (181 ft). As well each side has a stairway to the temple at the top. Along the sides of the northern balustrade are sculptures of feathered serpents.
Another interesting aspect of the pyramid is that each of its 4 sides has a total of 91 steps. When added together and including the top temple platform, (the final step), it produces 365 steps in total. Or the total number of days in a year.
Interestingly the pyramid you see is actually built over an older one buried below it. Also, the location of the pyramid sits at the intersection of four underground cenotes: the Sacred Cenote, Xtoloc, Kanjuyum, and Holtún.
One of the most amazing sights to behold is at the spring and autumn equinoxes. In the late afternoon, the sun strikes the northwest corner of the pyramid. This casts a series of shadows against the northern balustrade. Incredibly it creates an illusion of a feathered serpent crawling down the pyramid. (see picture right). This an extraordinary sight. And illustrates the complex understanding the Maya had of astrology and mathematics. As well as, emphasizing the importance of their god Kukulcan.
Another incredible thing to experience at Chichen Itza is the chirping staircases of El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan). The staircases are designed with taller risers and short treads. And this creates acoustical distortions. To hear this stand at the base of the pyramid in front of one of the staircases. Then clap your hands and you will hear an echo. But not an ordinary echo. Instead, it sounds like a chorus of chirps that crescendos before fading into silence.
Acoustic studies have confirmed the similarity in the sound to that of the Quetzal bird. Like the snake, the quetzal was considered divine by the Maya. This “god of the air” was a symbol of goodness and light. The headdresses of many important Mayan people contained its tail feathers. But, no birds died during the creation of the headdresses, since killing a sacred quetzal was forbidden.
Scientists still argue whether modifying the echo was done intentionally or not. Many believe that it was created through trial and error. And then replicated throughout the many temples and pyramids in the Mayan culture.
A second acoustic phenomenon is when people walk up the stairs of the pyramid. Unfortunately, this is no longer allowed to preserve the monument. But the sound created, which you hear at the bottom, is like raindrops on the stone. The May created this in homage to one of their most important deities, Chaac the god of rain.
Ball courts are common structures found in ancient Mayan cities. Across Mesoamerica, there are at least 13 ballcourts. Yet, the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza, north-west of the Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo), is the largest and most impressive. The ball court measures 168 x 70 m (551 x 230 ft). The walls stand 8 m (26 ft) high. Set up high in the center of the walls are stone goals carved with intertwined feathered serpents.
The game played by teams of up to 8 players, competed on either side of a central line. Using a rubber ball each team kept the ball in play by bouncing it off the walls. And by hitting it high in the air and also rolling it along the ground. The game was like racquetball or volleyball where the aim is to keep the ball in play. The stone rings/goals were a later addition. As the ball weighed up to 20 lbs, players wore protective equipment to prevent damage by the hard rubber.
As well as entertainment, the ball game gave neighbouring cities an alternative to war in settling disputes. Games were also played as part of formal rituals. Later in its history, the winners were sacrificed including at Chichen Itza. At the base of the interior walls of the court are stone panels depicting the ballplayers. In some, the players have been decapitated!
The skull platform or Tzompantli is a platform only a few feet off the ground. The walls around the platform are covered in sculpted stone skulls. These skulls are of war captives and human sacrifices and are common throughout Mesoamerica.
Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars
This is to the east of the Great Ball Court and includes both Maya and Toltec architectural styles. A staircase rises up each of the four sides decorated with panels of eagles and jaguars.
Platform of Venus
North of El Castillo is a platform dedicated to the planet Venus.
This building consists of three parts. A waiting gallery, a water bath and a steam room. The steam created by heating stones and placing them in water.
Sacbe Number 1
This is a pathway that leads to Cenote Sagrado. This white road is 270 m (890 ft) long and 9 m (30 ft) wide. It begins a few meters from the Platform of Venus.
Most of the Yucatan lies on limestone rock and the area has no rivers or streams. However, under the ground are thousands of caves, or cenotes, where rainwater collects. It is these cenotes that enabled the Maya to live in this area. Periodically the ceiling of the cenote collapses to reveal an open-air natural pool.
Cenote Sagrado, or sacred cenote, was used to sacrifice objects including humans, as a form of worship to the rain god Chaac. Objects including gold, jade, pottery, flint, obsidian, copper, shell, wood, rubber and cloth lay in the cenote. And the human remains found have been consistent with wounds from human sacrifices.
This circular pool is 60 m in diameter. From the ground level down to the water, it is 22 m. While the depth of the cenote varies from 6 to 12 m.
This is a large stepped pyramid surrounded by rows of carved columns. The columns depicting warriors. It is like, although larger than, a temple at Tula, the Toltec capital. At the top of the pyramid's summit leading towards the temple, is a Chaac Mool.
Chaac-Mools are common figures symbolizing slain warriors carrying offerings to the gods. The bowl on the chest is to hold sacrificial offerings. Some offerings included tamales, tortillas, tobacco, turkeys, feathers and incense.
Next to the Temple of Warriors are several other structures. These include the Group of a Thousand Columns. These columns once held an extensive roof stretching across 3 buildings. At the southern end of the Temple of Warriors is El Mercado (the market). Initially, it was thought that this large gallery was a marketplace, however, it is now believed it was used for ceremonial purposes.
Further south from the northern structures are several buildings. They are orientated towards the second-largest cenote at Chichen Itza, Xtoloc. The main Ossuary structure is another step pyramid. Like the Temple of Kukulcan but smaller in size, this pyramid has a staircase on each of its four sides. Also, with a temple at the top. Unlike the Temple of Kukulcan inside the temple is an opening leading to a natural cave.
Outside the Ossuary Platform is the Temple of Xtoloc which was recently restored. Named for the large cenote that it overlooks. Xtoloc meaning in Maya, ‘iguana’. The temple contains carvings of people, plants, birds and mythological scenes.
Other structures located here include another Platform of Venus and a Platform of the Tombs. This complex of buildings is thought to be the creation of a social subdivision of “the lords of Chichen Itza”.
South of the Ossuary are two buildings, House of Metates and House of Mestizas. They were both residences for some, very, important people.
Leading south from the Ossuary Group are several smaller structures. They are amongst the oldest of those found at Chichen Itza. Casa Colorada (Spanish for Red House) is one of the best-preserved buildings at Chichen Itza. In one of the chambers are carved hieroglyphs. They mention the various rulers of Chichen Itza and contain a date that corresponds to 869 AD.
In addition to Casa Colorada, there is also a small platform and the remnants of La Casa del Venado (House of Deer).
The central group contains some of the most interesting structures at Chichen Itza and is definitely worth a visit.
Las Monjas is Spanish for ‘the Nunnery’ but actually, it’s use was as a government building. This complex of buildings was built in the Puuc style of architecture. According to popular legend, the building was named by Francisco Montejo when he attempted to conquer and establish a Spanish city at Chichen Itza in the 16th century. While the Maya defeated Montejo, the name stuck.
To the east is a small temple called La Iglesia (The Church). This small building owes its name in part to its proximity to the ‘Nunnery’. And, due to the elaborate decoration on its upper façade (see opposite). Looking closely, you can observe large areas of the original stucco on the Grecian repeating design.
Seated in the center of the building is a god or ancestor. Either side is elaborate ‘big-nosed’ masks. This building is one of the best examples of the Puuc style of architecture at Chichen Itza.
To the north of Las Monjas is El Caracol or the snail! This is a rare round building set on a large square platform. The stone spiral staircase inside gives the building its name. Due to the round shape, and its position on the platform it is believed to be the observatory of Chichen Itza. The doors and windows of El Caracol align with astronomical events, such as the path of Venus as it travels across the universe.
Akab Dzib, or House of Mysterious Writing, was the home to the Administrator of Chichen Itza. It is one of the most intriguing buildings at Chichen Itza. Its restoration was completed in 2007. Firstly, unlike other buildings at Chichen Itza it is not built on a platform, but on level ground. At only 6 m high, it is 50 m long and 15 m wide. The eastern side of the building faced what is now a dry, cenote.
Another intriguing aspect of this building is at the south end entrance. Inside the door, it opens up into a small chamber, and opposite is a second doorway with a lintel above it. This lintel contains many elaborately carved glyphs. The glyphs, however, have not yet been translated. It is these glyphs that give the building its name.
During your visit, you will be bombarded with many things to see and experience. And your guide will do a great job of pointing out many of the important sites. However, they can’t tell you everything in 90 mins. So below are a few questions you might want to consider asking during your tour.
So now you know why Chichen Itza is an archeological site of outstanding international importance. And why it’s classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. And why it was named one of the new seven wonders of the world. However, if you visit (and I can’t think why you wouldn’t!), you’ll also be joined by over 7,000 others on an average day! So, you need to plan ahead to make the most of your visit. Fortunately, you now have all the info you need to visit, explore, and make your trip an experience of a lifetime. Oh, and don’t forget to download our essential, one page, Chichen Itza infographic. You’ll want to take this along with you as a helpful reminder of what you need to know.
Additional information is available in our article on other Mayan Ruins in Mexico.
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