One of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chichen Itza is situated in the Mexican state of Yucatan. Just 2 to 2 1/2 hours from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, hire a car or book onto an organised day trip to Chichen Itza and get a taste of ancient Maya history.
Brief History of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, meaning “at the mouth of the well of Itza”, is the largest, best-known and most accessible Maya city. This urban centre was core to the Maya empire from 750AD to 1200AD, and the pyramids, temples and monolithic columns were sacred.
Must-see Monuments at Chichen Itza
The site is steeped in mystery as the ruins demonstrate the Maya’s supreme knowledge of astronomical science.
Temple of Kukulkan
The Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, a step pyramid, was used for both religious and astronomical observation purposes. The Maya devised the 365-day calendar, evident in the structure of El Castillo. There are 91 steps on each of the temple’s four sides, and the top platform makes the 365th. Although visitors used to be able to climb this pyramid, it has been closed since 2006 due to several injuries and deaths. Spectacularly, during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the morning and afternoon sun produces the illusion of a serpent crawling down the side of the pyramid.
Chichen Itza may have been built at this location due to two large natural sink holes nearby. Providing residents with water all year round, one of these sink holes, Cenote Sagrado (sacred sink hole), was also a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people, with social and religious significance. As well as throwing in precious objects such as jade carvings and gold, this was also used for human sacrifice offerings to the Chac God, god of rain and lightning.
The Great Ball Court
This ball court is the largest in existence, at 225 feet wide and 545 feet long, and it has stone rings 20 feet high on the walls. There are temples on three sides of the court, believed to have been used for sacred rituals on the days that games were played. Legend has it that the winning team’s captain would present his own head to the losing captain, who would then decapitate him. The Maya believed that this sacrifice was the ultimate honour.
The Temple of the Warriors
The Temple of the Warriors, also known as the Temple of the Thousand Columns is an impressive stepped pyramid. Along the south and west sides of the temple stands a series of 200 round and square columns. The square columns are carved to depict warriors. During the time that Chichen Itza was inhabited, the columns would have supported an extensive roof. Visitors can no longer climb the stairs, but at the top sits a statue of Chac Mool. Chac Mools were considered messengers of the gods and are found in a reclining position, with a plate over their stomach, used for religious offerings. It is thought that this was where sacrificial victims’ hearts were placed as an offering to the gods and visible to the crowds below in the plaza.
Quick Tips for Your Visit
Plan your visit to Chichen Itza for early morning or late afternoon, as the heat, humidity and crowds at this site can be intense. At least 3,500 tourists visit the site each day, rising to around 8,000 in high season.
To witness the serpent descending the side of the Temple of Kukulkan, time your visit during the week before or after the equinoxes, but not on equinox days. The serpent can still be seen but you will avoid the crowds who flock to experience this phenomenon.
Haggle with tour guides once you enter Chichen Itza. These guides make most of their money from big bus groups, so arrive early and get a great deal for a 2-hour tour before the buses arrive.
And, take plenty of water and sun protection, you will need it!