Visiting Chichén Itzá: Mexico’s Wonder of the World

Last Updated on: 29th April 2023, 12:28 am

As crowded as it can get, a visit to Chichén Itzá quickly reveals why the ancient Mayan site is so popular. As the most dominant city in the Yucatán throughout the Early Postclassic period (900-1200 AD), its ruins are some of the grandest and best-preserved in all of Mexico. While best known for its spectacular pyramid, the overall site is huge, and seeing it all can take hours. For those who like to explore independently, the following guide is here to help.

A Brief History of Chichén Itzá

Despite its massive popularity and excellent state of preservation, Chichén Itzá’s history is rather cloudy. The earliest archaeological evidence dates back to the 9th century AD, though scholars believe the site was probably inhabited even earlier.

The earliest extant structures, which date to the mid-9th century, show a clear influence from the Puuc region, which includes Uxmal and several other sites south of it. Presumably, Chichén Itzá was inhabited by people from that region before being taken over by outsiders.

One of the most mysterious aspects of Chichén Itzá is its links with the Toltec culture of central Mexico. In particular, we can observe numerous striking similarities between it and Central Mexico’s Tula, the former Toltec capital located some 70 km north of Mexico City.

While there was undoubtedly some kind of connection, the nature of the relationship remains up for debate. Did the Toltecs conquer Chichén Itzá, or was there merely a peaceful cultural exchange? 

According to legend, a 10th-century Toltec king named Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was banished from Tula before arriving at the Yucatán Peninsula by boat. Fighting his way inland, he eventually conquered Chichén Itzá, making it his capital.

If the legend holds true, it would also mean that it was probably Topiltzin who first introduced Quetzalcoatl, the ‘Plumed Serpent’ and the primary deity of many Mesoamerican city-states, to the Maya. The Mayans would call him Kukulkán.

Or perhaps it was the Itzá people, who had prior commercial ties with Central Mexico, who would bring Toltec influence with them when they came from the western Yucatán and conquered the city.

Chichén Itzá would eventually decline around 1200 AD, and there would never be another Mayan city quite like it. The next dominant city would be Mayapán, though it was built as a replica of Chichén Itzá on a much smaller scale.

In modern times, following the end of the decades-long Caste War, excavations took place throughout the 20th century, with many early expeditions focusing on the artifacts inside the Sacred Cenote.

Visiting Tips

To beat the crowds, it’s imperative to arrive at the site right when it opens at 8:00 in the morning. This is best done by staying in the city of Valladolid, a little under an hour away (learn more below). In the center of town, you’ll find colectivo minivans departing for Chichén Itzá from 7:00, giving you the chance to be the first one in line. The colectivo ride costs $40 MXN each way.

Note that if you’re coming from further away in Quintana Roo, there will be a time difference, with Yucatán state being an hour behind.

Transport aside, visiting Chichén Itzá is not cheap, with the ticket costing just under $500 MXN at the time of my visit. This is actually a combination of a few different tickets going to multiple agencies. While the most expensive of the bunch can be paid for with a credit card, part of the total price can only be paid for in cash.

Chichén Itzá is the only outdoor archaeological site I’ve visited in Mexico (or in the entire world) where security checks your bag for food. They made me throw out a bag of peanuts I’d brought, which I figured was part of an effort to reduce litter at the site.

But upon later discovering multiple stands selling packaged junk food at the ruins, I regretted not hiding it better. Bottled water, at least, was not being confiscated.

While you can visit the attractions in any order you wish, the following guide to visiting Chichén Itzá takes things like crowds and lighting for photography into account. If you’re visiting first thing in the morning without a guide, I recommend visiting the landmarks in more or less the order presented below.

El Castillo (The Temple of Kulkucan)

Chichén Itzá’s main pyramid, known locally as El Castillo, is arguably the single most iconic structure of ancient Mexico. 

While the Mayans and numerous other Mesoamerican cultures built plenty of impressive pyramids, the symmetry and proportions of this one are particularly aesthetically pleasing. What’s more, is that it remains in an excellent state of preservation.

Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo
Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo

The nine-tiered pyramid’s base measures 56 x 56 meters, with four stairways leading to the top on each side. Notice the serpent heads at the base – a clear representation of Kukulkán, or the plumed serpent.

Symbolically, the plumed serpent may represent a culmination of the principles of the upper and lower worlds (symbolized by the bird and serpent, respectively). Kukulkán had the ability to link all three levels of the cosmos, while he also had a role in recreating humanity.

Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo

Amazingly, each year at the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow appears resembling a snake slithering down the pyramid alongside the staircase.

It happens at both sunrise and sunset on those days, and in modern times, the phenomenon was first observed by a worker in the 1920s. Today, the equinox days attract huge numbers of visitors – even more than usual, that is.

Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo

At the very top of El Castillo is a temple consisting of three rooms. While visitors could once climb up the staircase, it’s no longer possible. But that’s good news for photographers who want to take shots without random people in them. But to do so, it’s still essential that you arrive early.

Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo
Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo

Another forbidden part of El Castillo is deeper inside. What not many people realize is that there’s actually an earlier version of the pyramid still standing within. Access to this pyramid within a pyramid is barred to most and can only be visited as part of tours with special permission.

The interior contains a well-preserved jaguar throne which traditionally served as the seat of Mayan kings. Painted red, the jaguar’s eyes are made of jade.

See this video by Anyextee for a fascinating glimpse of what it looks like inside.

Visiting Chichen Itza El Castillo

The Platforms

Just near the pyramid is a set of interesting platforms which seem to resemble it in miniature form. If you arrived at opening time, you’ll still have time to observe them before the crowds arrive.

The Platform of Venus

Just north of the main pyramid is the Venus Platform which also features four staircases adorned with serpent heads. The reliefs depict mythical beings featuring elements of a serpent and eagle as well as a jaguar. Glyphs related to the planet Venus, meanwhile adorn the corners.

Venus was closely associated with Kukulkán/Quetzalcoatl. According to some myths, he transformed himself into Venus after his mission on earth was complete. 

Visiting Chichen Itza Platform of Venus
Visiting Chichen Itza Platform of Venus
Visiting Chichen Itza Platform of Venus

The Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars

While very similar in size and style to the Venus Platform, the reliefs here depict eagles and jaguars devouring hearts, a type of scene also found at the Toltec capital of Tula. Jaguars and eagles possibly symbolized different orders of warriors.

Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars
Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars

The Skull Platform

Also known as Tzompantli, the platform is 60 m long in total and its style resembles similar platforms found in Central Mexico. Possibly intended as a way to deter potential threats, either external or internal, the platform likely served as a base on which to hold actual skulls.

Chichen Itza Skull Platform

The Ball Court

Approaching the Ball Court – easily one of Chichén Itzá’s top highlights – you’ll first encounter the Temple of the Jaguars, a later addition. Along with a jaguar throne, its walls have been entirely covered in reliefs depicting a battle and a procession. 

Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court

Stepping around the corner, you’ll come face to face with the massive ball court – one of thirteen discovered at Chichén Itzá (though most others aren’t accessible).

Not only is this one the largest at the site, but it’s the largest in all of Mesoamerica! That’s really saying something considering how just about every Mesoamerican city had one.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court
Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court

The court measures 168 x 70 meters. And it’s yet another structure at Chichén Itzá to have been built in a style similar to that of Central Mexico.

Notice how high and small the rings are here. Generally speaking, participants would try to get the ball through the hoop for an instant victory, though they could only use their hips, thighs and elbows.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court

While extremely difficult to aim a hard rubber ball through the hoops at a smaller court, scoring a goal here using traditional rules seems next to impossible. As such, some scholars believe there may have been different rules at some point that we don’t know about.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court

At the edge of the court is the North Temple. It too is entirely covered in intricate reliefs which largely depict nature scenes. All the way on the opposite side, meanwhile, is another temple situated on a platform, though only some columns remain.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court
Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court

Alongside either wall of the court is a long series of reliefs depicting the ceremony that supposedly took place after the game. Notice how one man is carrying a large ball with a skull in it, while another man holds an actual severed head!

Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball CourVisiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court
Visiting Chichén Itzá Ball CourVisiting Chichén Itzá Ball Court

Some scholars believe it was actually the winners of the game, rather than the losers, who’d be beheaded. The reason being that this would’ve been considered a straight trip to unity with the gods. This remains up for debate, however.

While the Mayans were by no means a pacifistic civilization, it’s also possible that we’ve taken their artwork too literally. Perhaps these scenes were merely symbolic, as a headless man has been used as a motif to represent the transmigration of the soul since the world’s very first temples.

The Southern Group (Old Chichén)

By now, the crowds will have started picking up in the Ball Court and in the area around El Castillo. It’s better to come back to the Temple of the Warriors later, as it looks much better in the late morning or afternoon light.

Now is the perfect time to head down the shaded path taking you south, to the area that scholars believe is the oldest part of Chichén Itzá.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

Arriving in the area, you’ll find a platform almost identical to the two near the pyramid. Nearby, meanwhile, is a round platform on which offerings were once placed during ceremonies.

Yet another platform around here features columns on its top. Two tombs were found within, along with various arrowheads and obsidian knives. The columns once held up a now-lost roof. 

The Royal Pyramid

But much more interesting than the platforms is a small pyramid which may have predated El Castillo and served as the model for it. It was built over a natural cave which surely had a symbolic function of representing the underworld.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

Like El Castillo, serpent heads emerge from the bottom of each staircase. This pyramid consists of seven tiers with a one-room temple at the top. The pyramid may have served as a private temple of a royal dynasty. 

Interestingly, it shares a lot in common with the royal pyramid of Phimeanakas on the other side of the world in Cambodia. They’re similar in size and style and were possibly built around the same time, though that’s surely just a coincidence.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
National Museum of Anthropology Chichen Itza
Original Ossuary reliefs in Mexico City

At the southeast corner of the pyramid, you’ll find the remains of the Ossuary, or room which stored bones of the dead. The remaining stones are adorned with masks of various gods like the rain god Chaac, Kukulkán, and the creator deity Itzamna.

The Observatory

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

After passing by some smaller ruined structures, you’ll soon encounter one of the area’s most elaborate buildings, the Observatory (El Caracol).

The round structure at the top was most definitely used to observe celestial movements – particularly of the planet Venus. In fact, its windows are aligned to certain positions of Venus along with the sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice.

At the time of my visit, the building was not accessible and could only be viewed from afar.

 

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

The Red House

Nearby is an elegant structure known as the Red House, or Chichanchoob. Its name was taken from traces of red paint found along the roof.

It consists of an antechamber divided into three rooms situated atop a large platform. Its exact purpose remains a mystery, but one of Chichén Itzá’s many ball courts sits right beside it.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

The Temple of the Carved Panels

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

Yet another temple around here is known as the Temple of the Carved Panels, after carvings found of warriors in company with numerous people and plants.

Based on archaeological findings, religious rituals involving fire once took place here. 

The Nunnery Complex

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

The next series of buildings, referred to collectively as the ‘Nunnery Complex,’ is a clear example of the Puuc style of architecture. As mentioned above, they likely date back to the mid-9th century before the arrival of the Toltecs and the Itzá clan.

Furthermore, some of the buildings also show characteristics of the Chenes style of Campeche. Namely, the image of the dignitary who appears to be floating in the sky above the entrance.

In spite of their elaborate decorations, the true function of many of these buildings remains a mystery.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

Xtoloc Cenote

As you make your way back north, you can veer east to see one of the area’s smaller cenotes, or natural sinkholes. On the way there, you can walk down one of Chichén Itzá’s sacbeob (plural for sacbe), or elevated stone roads.

Sacbeob would link distant Mayan cities to one another, in addition to different portions of larger cities like Chichén Itzá. With no horses in the region until the Spanish conquest, the Mayans always traveled on foot.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group
Visiting Chichén Itzá Southern Group

Near the cenote, you’ll find the remains of the Xtoloc Temple which surely was built for performing religious rituals related to the adjacent sinkhole. 

As we’ll go over further below, cenotes not only provided Mayan settlements with fresh water, but they also held a major religious significance, as they were believed to be portals to the underworld.

Plaza of a Thousand Columns

Now back north and to the east of El Castillo, it’s time to explore the Plaza of a Thousand Columns, named for obvious reasons. Continuing east, you’ll arrive in a large square surrounded by long colonnades on all sides.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns

The plaza appears much like the agoras of Greco-Roman cities, and it also likely had a civic function. But of course, nothing was truly secular for the Maya.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns
Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns

Notice how many of the square pillars, some of which have been placed on display in the center, are adorned in reliefs. Like the platform near El Castillo, some of the scenes here include jaguars and eagles eating hearts.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns
Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns
Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns
Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns

On the east side of the plaza is what remains of a palace, complete with carvings of dignitaries and god masks. Nearby is a structure known as the Temple of the Small Tables, which can only be seen from a distance. Keep walking and the columns just never seem to end.  

Now inaccessible are the remains of a market and yet another ball court. But for now, head back toward El Castillo to see the monumental Temple of the Warriors.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Plaza of a Thousand Columns

The Temple of the Warriors

The Temple of the Warriors, which is much better viewed in the late morning or afternoon light, is one of the most important and elaborate structures at the site. 

But unfortunately for those visiting Chichén Itzá these days, it’s only visible from a distance, despite having been climbable in the past.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Temple of the Warriors

The temple is flanked on either side by long colonnades, similar to those of the plaza mentioned above. Notice how the columns in front of the temple are carved in reliefs. The scenes depict things like warriors and their captives.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Temple of the Warriors

At the top of the steps, one would’ve found a chac mool sculpture until fairly recently. But just what is a chac mool

These mysterious reclining figures are depicted with their heads rotated 90 degrees and some kind of disk on their bellies. Their true function remains a mystery, but it’s possible that priests placed offerings atop them.

Generally rare at Mayan sites, they’re much more common in Central Mexico, including at Tula and at later Aztec sites.

While the Temple of the Warrior is currently off-limits, you can see the original chac mool on display at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.

National Museum of Anthropology Chichen Itza
Chichén Itzá's famous chac mool, currently in Mexico City
Visiting Chichén Itzá Chac Mool
A chac mool on display elsewhere at the site
Gran Museo del Mundo Maya Chichen Itza
Atlantean statues at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida

Also on the main platform is an elaborate temple decorated in serpent mouths and the masks of Chaac, the rain god. It also features Atlantean statues which somewhat resemble those at Tula, albeit on a much smaller scale. 

Today, a couple of them are on display at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida, which is well worth a visit.

Visiting Chichén Itzá Temple of the Warriors

Just next to the Temple of the Warriors is a smaller pyramid referred to as the Temple of the Large Tables. It features more Atlantean sculptures at its top, but this temple is also inaccessible.

Just nearby, meanwhile, you can find a long frieze depicting jaguars.

The Sacred Cenote

From El Castillo, the Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado) is accessible via a long forested pathway to the north. Presently, however, the path feels anything but sacred, as it’s entirely lined by souvenir stands and pushy touts. But that’s just part of the experience of visiting Chichén Itzá nowadays.

While the cenote can be visited at any time of the day, I saved it for last because no matter how many people are visiting Chichén Itzá in the afternoon, one can still get a clear view of the water. 

Visiting Chichén Itzá Cenote Sagrado

It’s very likely that Chichén Itzá was settled in the first place due to its proximity to this cenote. The massive sinkhole is about 60 meters in diameter, with the water’s surface located about 20 m below the edge. The bottom of the water then lies up to 12 meters deeper.

Some cenotes were mainly used as water sources and others for religious purposes. And this one was most definitely a case of the latter. We know this due to the myriad of offerings, and even dead bodies, that were discovered throughout years of excavations!

Visiting Chichén Itzá Cenote Sagrado
Visiting Chichén Itzá Cenote Sagrado

Some of these bodies were found to have been clubbed in the head, indicating that they were sacrificial victims. As one might guess, swimming in this particular cenote is off-limits, though many tour groups stop at Cenote Ik Kil on the way back.

Interestingly, on your way out of the archaeological site, you’ll pass by a mechanism from the early 20th century that was used to extract treasures from the Sacred Cenote, as many offerings were made of gold.

Additional Info

Given its convenient location between the Rivera Maya and Chichén Itzá, Valladolid attracts a lot of visitors. And as such, the Pueblos Mágico contains plenty of accommodation options to choose from.

Popular mid-range options near the center of town include Hotel Casa Bamboo and Hotel Fundadores.

As a budget traveler who prefers a private room and bathroom, I found a great deal at Hostal 230 for an average of $314 MXN a night (including VAT). What’s more, is that breakfast is included as well. Looking back, this is the best value I found in all of eastern Mexico.

Even if you want to leave early to explore the ruins, they will give you lunch later when you come back. The place actually doubles as a local Chinese restaurant.

Valladolid is small, so pretty much everywhere is walkable. But I was happy to discover that Hostal 230 is only about a two-minute walk from the colectivo stop for Chichén Itzá, and only several minutes on foot to the shared taxis for Ek Balam.

 

 



Booking.com

The best way to get to Valladolid is by bus. You’ll find direct routes connecting it with cities all over the Yucatán Peninsula, including Cancún, Mérida, Tulum and Playa del Carmen.

The main first-class bus terminal is the ADO Bus Station in the center of town. And just a block away is the lesser-known terminal of the Centro bus company, which also runs routes to Izamal.

(See Visiting Tips above for info on visiting Chichén Itzá from Valladolid.)

While the above Chichén Itzá guide describes reaching the ruins from Valladolid, what if you’re staying in Cancún?

In that case, you’ll definitely want to take a tour. This highly-rated tour takes you around the archaeological site in addition to a swim at a nearby cenote.

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