The Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza, Mexico
As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza likely needs no introduction! For some travelers, visiting all of the seven is a bucket list feat in itself, though history buffs and culture travelers will love seeing the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza is located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula — and the only place in North America on the Wonders of the World list. It is about three hours by car from Cancun and two hours from Merida; easily accessible from both by bus and on a group tour. You can also go by yourself in a rental car, and in fact, Chichen Itza is one of the best day trips from Merida and Cancun.
Besides being one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is also one of the 35 Mexico UNESCO World Heritage Sites. According to UNESCO, Chichen Itza is on the list because “This sacred site was one of the greatest Mayan centres of the Yucatan Peninsula.”
So what exactly can you see at Chichen Itza Ruins?
Chichen Itza Ruins is a very large site, as it was once a complete pre-Hispanic city. Both Toltec and Mayan civilizations once inhabited Chichen Itza, before everyone vanished from it in the 1400s for reasons unknown to even Mexico historians and Mayan scholars.
There are about 15 structures to see at Chichen Itza, so it’s a full day affair to visit. It was used for everything from sports games and astrology studies to religious events and as a commerce and trade center. In fact, Chichen Itza has the largest ball court discovered at any Mayan Ruins site to date, the Great Ball Court, which was used to play pa-ta-pok.
Of the can’t miss sites at Chichen Itza, there’s the main pyramid called El Castillo, which means The Castle. It’s also called the Temple of Kukulcan, in honor of one of the most important Mayan gods, Kukulcan (pronounced koo-kool-kan), the feathered serpent deity. El Castillo is the most photographed of all structures, and the most iconic of Chichen Itza’s many buildings.
Besides the El Castillo pyramid, there’s the Temple of the Warriors, Group of a Thousand Columns, Platform of the Skulls, El Caracol Astrological Observatory, Las Monjas Temple (The Nunnery), House of the Dark Writing, Red House, La Iglesia (The Church), and more.
There’s also the Cenote Sagrado, meaning Sacred Cenote. Cenotes (pronounced sen-no-tays) are freshwater jungle pools located throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. They were used by the Maya as both a drinking water source and some, as religious sites. Cenote Sagrado is one of the largest in the Yucatan, and dredging excavations have found everything from jade masks to human remains.
In the Maya language, Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” and the “well” in question is the Sacred Cenote. The Itza were an influential pre-Hispanic ethnic group that once held economic and political dominance in much of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Useful tips to experience Chichen Itza Ruins
Clearly a very important and historical site, visitors will definitely benefit from having a guide with them. As fascinating as Chichen Itza is, you’re essentially just looking at piles of rocks without context and explanation!
There are full group tours with transportation to and from the most popular places in the Yucatan Peninsula, including Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Tulum and Merida. For those who have a rental car, you can drive to Chichen Itza yourself, and then hire a guide on-site for about $50USD, for a tour that lasts about three hours.
As most will want three to five hours at Chichen Itza, you’ll want to wear your most comfortable shoes. There are plenty of vendors selling water and snacks, but you can always bring your own refillable water bottle and keep it in your bookbag. It is quite hot in the Yucatan Peninsula for most of the year, so you need to make sure to stay hydrated.
Since this site is studied so frequently by anthropologists, historians and more, most of the trees have been cleared away to help them better conduct their research. Though this is helpful for them, it means there’s not much shade for visitors. Remember to also wear a sun hat and sunscreen; you’ll also want to bring your sunscreen and reapply it throughout the day.
As Chichen Itza sees about two million annual visitors, it is generally quite crowded no matter when you visit. To beat the crowds as best as possible, arrive right when they open and visit on a weekday. The best time of year to visit Chichen Itza and the entire Yucatan Peninsula is in the winter when the temperatures are cooler and the humidity and mosquitoes are at bay.
Because of how many people visit, the government has had to outlaw climbing any of the pyramids and structures at Chichen Itza to protect their integrity for generations of visitors to come. However, those who want to climb Mayan Ruins in Mexico can head to Uxmal Ruins, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Coba Ruins, which boasts the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula.
About the Author
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! After traveling solo to 16 states in Mexico, she settled down in Merida, Mexico, in 2019.
Today, she runs the Travel Mexico Solo blog and helps travelers plan their perfect Mexico trip.
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