panoramic view of the Kukulkan's Pyramid (El Castillo)

Visiting Chichen Itza: An overview and tips for visiting

After a few minutes in the full sun you can almost feel your skin sizzle, and your hair nearly burns your fingers as you run your hand through it. The area is vast, but the tourists surrounding the guide crowd under the sparse trees, seeking shade from the oppressive heat.

This is what visiting Chichén Itzá feels like in April. In short: it’s ungodly hot.

We saw Chichén Itzá in 2013, when we vacationed in Cancun on the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. That over was two years ago, but I don’t suppose the area has changed much since then, though some of the excavation work has probably moved forward.

A Bit of History (as always)

“Chi” means “mouth” and “chen” means “well” in Mayan, thus Chichén Itzá means “at the mouth of the well of the Itzá tribe.”

I’m afraid I found conflicting information as to who the Itza were and when they arrived in the region, so I’m not going to say anything about that.

The well mentioned in the name is the nearby cenote, a naturally formed round, deep depression in the ground filled with water, and pretty steep walls. This particular cenote wasn’t actually used for fresh water, however, but rather ceremonial purposes. When the cenote was dredged at the beginning of the 20th century, the archeologists found not only hundreds of objects at the bottom, but also human remains that showed signs of human sacrifice.

Chichén Itzá was a large city, which archaeologists think started gaining importance between 700 to 1,000 A.D.

At the beginning of the 10th century the region saw the arrival of outsiders from the Central Valley, the Toltecs (or people influenced by the Toltecs according to Encyclopaedia Britannica), who made the locals accept their own gods. The main Toltec god was the Feathered Serpent called Quetzalcoatl in Aztec, which was translated to Kukulkan in Mayan.

The most spectacular structures in Chichén Itzá were built during that period – 11th to the 13th century, but the whole area of Chichén Itzá includes both Toltec and earlier, Mayan structures.

panoramic view of the temple of Kukulkan
panoramic view of the temple of Kukulkan

Chichén Itzá’s significance and population started to decline since the middle of the 13th century, as nearby Mayapan gained importance as the seat of the local power.

As a “masterpiece of Mesoamerican architecture” and “the most important archaeological vestige of the Maya-Toltec civilization in Yucatan,” Chichén Itzá was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988.

What can you see at Chichén Itzá?

As mentioned above, Chichén Itzá is not a single building but a whole city, still being excavated. The whole area covers about 4 to 6 square miles (10 square km), and visiting involves quite a bit of walking, so wear comfortable shoes when you go there!

Here are a few highlights of what you can see:

Temple of Kukulkan

The pyramid shaped Temple of Kukulkan (the feathered serpent god), also known as El Castillo, is probably the most famous structure at the site.

To reach the top of the Temple of Kukulkan (the feathered serpent god) you’d need to climb 91 steps on one of its four sides. Why 91, you may ask? Well, including the top platform, the steps add up to 4*91+1 = yep, 365. (The number of days in a year).

There are also 52 recessed panels on pyramid’s sides.

Unfortunately the steps are no longer open to the public. I had heard it was quite a climb, without a rope or a banister to hold on to!

A giant head of Kukulkan adorns the foot of the staircase facing north, and the temple was built exactly so that twice a year, at both Spring and Autumnal Equinox, as the sun sets down, the right-angle edges of temple’s platforms cast a shadow onto that staircase, creating an illusion of a snake slithering down to the ground from the top.

Must be quite a sight! Sadly, we visited in April, so we missed this magical moment.

You can see it happen in Jose Antonio Ariztegui‘s video “Equinox at Chichen Itza” starting at 2:27

 

You can also see photos of the illuminated serpent in “Shadows and Ghosts – Looking for the Descent of the Feathered Serpent at Chichen Itza” by Landlopers.

The Ball Court

Do you see a vertical stone circle placed high on the wall on the right in the photo below? Imagine having to direct a rubber ball through that hoop using only your elbows, knees, or hips!

the ball court of panoramic view of Chichen Itza, the largest in all Mesoamerica
the ball court of panoramic view of Chichen Itza, the largest in all Mesoamerica

The ball games the Maya played in this place was not just for entertainment, however. Those games were ritualistic, played sometimes for two to three days, and, I’ve read, the captain of the losing team or perhaps even the whole losing team was sacrificed afterwards. Talk about high stakes!

Tzompantli – The Wall of Skulls

Tzompantli is an Aztec word, not Mayan, and means the wall of skulls. The Chichén Itzá structure named Tzompantli is rectangular in shape, 65.5 yards (60m) by 13 yards (12m), and its walls are adorned with carvings of skulls representing the skulls of victims sacrificed to the gods, and of eagles and feathered serpents devouring human hearts.

You can see the long, narrow wall of skulls in the featured photo at the top of the post as well.

detail from Tzompantli or the Wall of Skulls
detail from Tzompantli or the Wall of Skulls

Platform of the Tigers and Eagles

Right next to the Wall of Skulls is the platform of the Tigers and Eagles, sometimes also called a Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars.

It’s a small, square shaped platform with stairs on each side, and feathered (or plumed) serpent heads at the end of each balustrade, that are typical of the Toltect style. The panels on the walls show eagles and tigers with human hearts in their claws, which is a reference to the military orders of the Eagles and the Tigers who captured war prisoners later sacrificed in religious ceremonies.

Wall of Skulls is the platform of the Tigers and Eagles, sometimes also called a Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars
Wall of Skulls is the platform of the Tigers and Eagles, sometimes also called a Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars

Observatory or El Caracol (The Snail)

The building named The Snail (El Caracol) was an observatory built by the Maya astronomers whose knowledge of sky at that time far surpassed anything the Europeans knew.

Two windows in the tower line up with Venus’ most northern and southern setting points, while the corners of the Observatory’s platform align with sunrise during the summer solstice and sunset during the winter solstice.

The building is called The Snail because inside the cylindrical tower is a spiral stairway to the observatory area.

The Snail is one of the buildings in from before the Toltec period, built before the structures mentioned above were erected.

the Observatory, also called the Snail
the Observatory, also called the Snail

The Church

The building called the Church is also older than the Temple of Kukulkan, and dates back to the 6th or 7th century. It was called the Church by the Spaniards because it stands close to two other buildings they called the Nunnery and the Annex, which were supposedly religious monuments.

The Casa de las Monjas (“Nunnery”)
The Church

The walls of the Church are adorned with the masks of the Rain God, Chac, and four Bacabs, an armadillo, a snail, a turtle and a crab, who supposedly hold up the sky together.

Hours, Tickets & Where to Stay

Chichén Itzá’s official website seems to have most of the information only in Spanish, with just a few pages translated into English.

The site is open from 8am to 5pm, and I’m afraid it’s hard to find information how much it will cost you to get in if you want to go visit it by yourself and not part of an organized tour.

The website says access is 64 pesos (mere $4 US), but also mentions that the State Government of Yukatan charges an additional fee. Looking at the tickets I saved I can see those cost 125 pesos ($8 US) for each adult, and mere 6 pesos for the kids. Quite a bargain.

When we visited, however, we came as part of an organized bus tour run by Experiencias Xcaret, because we were staying in  Cancun, at the Royal Carribean.

While the whole trip was quite pricey – $109 US per person – in addition to the entry fee to Chichén Itzá the tour also included transportation in a comfortable, air conditioned bus, breakfast and drinks on the bus, waters and umbrellas during sightseeing, a buffet lunch at a restaurant, the entrance to the Ik Kil cenote, and two devoted tour guides that gave us a wonderful overview of the history of the region while we were on our way and back. All in all, since none of us speak Spanish, I very much appreciated being taken care of on this trip, rather than trying to figure out by myself how to get there, how to buy the tickets, and all that.

If you don’t already have accommodations for your trip, you can search what Booking.com has to offer in and near Chichen Itza.

Advice for Visiting Chichén Itzá

As mentioned above, Chichén Itzá covers quite a large area, so I’d advise you to wear your most comfortable shoes when you visit.

Also, because average temperatures in Chichén Itzá  are around 93ºF (34ºC) year round, I suggest you dress light, put on plenty of sunscreen, and have everyone in your family wear a hat, preferably one with a wide brim.  Both grown ups and the kids will appreciate sunglasses as well.

Most of all, make sure to have plenty of water, especially if you are not coming on a bus tour that provides you with plenty of drinks and umbrellas.

Keep this advice in mind when visiting Chichen Itza!
Keep this advice in mind when visiting Chichen Itza!

Other bloggers’ views of Chichen Itza

If after reading the above you’re still not sure whether to visit Chichén Itzá, take a look at a few other posts about this fascinating place:

How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Chichen Itza” by Freelancers on the Road

Private tour to Chichen Itza, Ik Kil and Ek Balam” by We Travel Together

Chichen Itza – One of the 7 world wonders” by Deafinitely Wanderlust

More about the Pre-Columbian Sites

Last, but not least take a look at the gorgeous photos Cape Coconut posted in their “Mexico | Top 7 Ancient Civilizations Ruins.” Fascinating that all those places were built when most of the European cities weren’t even established yet.

Invitation to the #WeekendWanderlust Link Up

#WeekendWanderlust, hosted by Chris & Heather from A Brit and a Southerner, Jessi & Tara from Outbound Adventurer, Ashley from A Southern Gypsy, Justin and Lauren from Justin Plus Lauren, and yours truly, is a collaborative effort to share travel blog posts, and to discuss all travel-related things.

The hosts organize each week a link up through which travel bloggers from around the world can promote their posts, in exchange for a promise to give some attention to other travel bloggers. (One of the rules for linking up is to comment on three linked up posts.)

If the link up is still open, feel free to add a link to one of your posts below, then comment on at least three other linked up posts.

If you leave a comment on this post, I will reciprocate with a comment as soon as I can!

Also, don’t forget to join the #WeekendWanderlust chat on Twitter, every Saturday, at 11am EST, 3pm GMT, 11 pm SGT. You can see the list of our other upcoming topics on Travelogx.

 

#WeekendWanderlust link up logo
#WeekendWanderlust link up logo


28 thoughts on “Visiting Chichen Itza: An overview and tips for visiting”

    1. Thank you for reading, Tara & Vic! I hope you won’t mind my linking up to your post! What a wonderful collection of photos you have! Wow. I’m so glad I can travel to those places virtually through your blog.

    1. Thank you for reading, Lyndall. Chichen Itza is a very interesting place, especially when you know how old it is, and read a bit about the people who lived here.

    1. Thank you for reading, Tanja. I’m glad you like the photos. I do hope you’ll get to see at least one of the great Maya places some time. It doesn’t have to be Chichen Itza. There are some even more spectacular. We just haven’t been there yet.

  1. Thank you for reading, Vicki. Yes, the Maya culture seems so different from ours in their beliefs, religion, and beauty standards. On the one hand, they had human sacrifices, and on the other, they were fantastic astronomers. Very interesting civilization.

    1. Thank you for reading, Brianna. Yes, those pre-Colombian cultures are quite amazing. And there’s still so much we don’t know about them!

  2. I lived in Mexico for about a year, but I never made it out to Chichen Itza. It’s one of the parts of Mexico that I have always wanted to visit. The buildings pyramids look so interesting. Besides, they are super close to those beautiful beaches and cenotes :)

    1. Thank you for reading, Natalie! Maybe some day you’ll get to see this place. :) Just keep in mind the travel tips – go there early, wear a hat, have water with you, etc. But if you lived in Mexico, then you already know all that.

    1. Thank you for reading, Hugo. I hope you’ll get to see some pre-Colombian places one day. It really is amazing what those cultures were able to build back in the days when most Europeans still lived in wooden huts.

  3. What amazing history at this magnificent site. I haven’t been here yet, but can’t wait to visit and take it all in. Fabulous overview you have written here!

  4. I visited Chichen Itza when I was a kid, and my parents and I have a long-standing joke about “Chicken Pizza” which is what we kept calling it. Back then, people were allowed to climb the steps of the pyramid, but I remember being afraid of how tall and steep they were. I was rather sure I’d tumble down if I tried, even as a child. I’d love to bring my own kids there someday, perhaps paired with a relaxing beach vacation. We’re actually not that far of a plane ride away, so I should look into it more.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted…Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day ParadeMy Profile

  5. Thanks for the overview! on our last trip to the area, we didn’t make it to Chichen Itza.. We figured the car ride would be too boring for our then 3 year old so we headed to Coba instead. It was amazing and just what we needed for the time, but now I’m dying to also get back to go here… even with the tourists and touts.. it’s a must do on my list!
    Karilyn recently posted…Must Have Travel Accessory + GiveawayMy Profile

  6. Love this! I had not seen such s detailed post before and it made me feel like I was there, such a fascinating culture, can’t wait to visit I one day!

  7. Loved this comprehensive post. I studied Spanish in high school and learned a lot about Chitchen Itza, so I was excited to visit a few years ago. But the thing I ended up being most fascinated by was the ball court and the wall of skulls. So crazy that they killed the team that won to memorialize their victory. You definitely water and a sun hat. Great advice.
    Katie Baird recently posted…Everything you need to know about Season of the Force at DisneylandMy Profile

  8. Really hot!! … but you explained the historical background of the place really well. Its a nice archaeological place to visit and learn about an interesting civilization. The human bones found on the well data is quite chilling!! … I mean that is scary though if there was water there it would have cooled the bodies from hot weather… just kidding… nicely written(:
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