Travel guide to visiting Chichen Itza in Mexico

The major city-state of the Maya civilization

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Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico

GPS: 20.685246816742, -88.566611192607

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Chichen Itza is the most famous Mexican archaeological site. It is located between the cities of Mérida and Cancún, on the northern Yucatán Peninsula (geographical area separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico). This ancient Mayan regional capital, built in the middle of the jungle, constituted the political, religious and economic centre of a very advanced pre-Columbian civilization. In classical times, it flourished not only in Mexico, but also in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

According to archaeologists, the city-state of Chichen Itza was probably founded around the 9th or 10th-century by the Maya people who, a century later could have greatly influenced another major civilization, the Toltec, nicknamed “master builders”. The 26 km² site can be divided into two distinct parts with disparate architectures: the southern zone with the oldest modest buildings in the Puuc-style of architecture (the Old Chichen, laid out by the Maya) and the northern part with the most spectacular monuments. Called the New Chichen, this sector could be attributed to the Toltec invaders for its similarities with the ancient capital of their empire, Tula, based near Teotihuacan. It is also in this area of Chichen Itza that you will find the Temple of Kukulcan (renamed El Castillo by the conquistadors), a sumptuous 30-metre high monument that is more than a thousand years old.

Chichen Itza was abandoned by its inhabitants who left without a trace when the city had about 30,000 inhabitants. Its decline would have benefited the new regional Maya capital of Mayapan before its fall in the 14th-century. The site of Chichen Itza was rediscovered in ruins and invaded by the jungle by Spanish explorers in the 15th-century who did not attach any importance to the site. A great period of drought and water scarcity in the 11th-and-12th-centuries could have been the cause of the fall of this great Maya-Toltec city of Yucatán. In modern times, the remains of Chichen Itza did not begin to interest archaeologists until the mid-19th-century. They undertook excavations and the first artefacts emanating from a sacred cenote was uncovered. Research intensified throughout the 20th-century with the help of an American scientific research organization, the Carnegie Institution for Science of Washington. They continue today thanks to the use of new technological tools in the hope of updating the best kept secrets of Chichen Itza.

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  • A major archaeological site that stood for more than 250 years as the most important Mayan city; a people with a perfect mastery of nature and great knowledge of astrology and arithmetic
  • The Temple of Kukulcan, a monumental representation of the Mayan solar calendar; the two snake heads, at the foot of the temple-pyramid, symbolising the God of the feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl); the incredible play of shadows on the stairs of the monument during the equinoxes
  • El Caracol astronomical observatory and its stone spiral staircase (by observing the celestial elements, the Maya could predict the harvest dates and the right times to go to war)
  • The Temple of the Warriors rich in frescoes and about 200 carved columns (representing Toltec warriors and deities); the numerous bas-reliefs of the Osario temple; the impressive Skull Platform (tzompantli); the many other stone and carved structures
  • The Great Ball Court and ballgame courts with sculpted scenes of human sacrifice; the sacred and natural sink-holes (cenotes) dug in the limestone basement, probable places of sacrifice and offering to the Maya deities
  • The Chac Mool statues representing a man lying down and leaning on his elbows
  • The old stone extraction techniques; the network of elevated paths revolving around the site of Chichen Itza
  • The sound and light show organized daily on site at the end of the day; the festivities accompanying the spring and autumn equinoxes; the opening of the site all year round
  • The Yucatán region rich in tropical and exotic birds; the Mexican traditional art museum located in Valladolid (Casa de los Venados)
  • Etymologically, Chichén Itzá can be translated as “on the edge of the wells of the Itza”. The Itza people, members of the Mayan ethnic group, are considered to be the original builders of the city according to Dominique Michelet (French Mayanist archaeologist). The foundations of Chichen Itza are located in a relatively arid region despite the dense vegetation and its location was not chosen by chance. Indeed, the buildings of the city are based in the immediate vicinity of a large number of wells. Further north, off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, a port was built by the Maya people to facilitate maritime trade (Isla Cerritos). Today, the descendants of the Itza live mostly in Guatemala, on the northern shores of Lake Petén Itzá, not far from the archaeological site of Tikal.
  • The site of Chichen Itza would have been at its peak between the 9th-and-13th centuries, which corresponds to the Maya-Toltec period (the great majority of the buildings visible today date from the end of the 10th-century and the beginning of the 11th-century). According to archaeologists, this regional capital would not have been ruled by kings but by powerful families according to the model of a shared government.
  • The Temple of Kukulcan has several nicknames (El Castillo, the Great Pyramid or the Castle). It has four staircases with 91 steps on each of its four sides. If we add the step at the base, the building has a total of 365 steps, representing the 365 days of the year. Made of limestone, this monument houses a sacred temple at the top while its foundations rest above a huge underground cave filled with water. Called a cenote, this natural cavity formed by rainwater may have been used as a place of religious worship, a sacrificial site and a tool for supplying drinking water in the absence of a river in the region.
  • The Temple of Kukulcan could represent the heart of the Maya universe. Indeed, recent studies show that this site is built in the centre of a set of four cenotes coinciding perfectly with the alignment of the four cardinal points. Only priests could climb to the top of the pyramid in order to make sacrifices to honour the Maya deities.
  • In 2016, Mexican researchers revealed the existence of two old pyramids, hidden and nested one inside the other, inside the Temple of Kukulcan. Three years later, a series of caves (Balamku) containing numerous Maya artefacts were updated on the site of Chichen Itza. This major discovery could bring new clues to archaeologists about the reason for the mysterious fall of the ancient city-state of Yucatán.
  • An extraordinary natural phenomenon occurs twice a year on the facade of the Temple of Kukulcan during the equinoxes (around March 21 and September 21): sunlight creates a shadow image of a moving feathered snake that we see moving in zigzag on the edge of the pyramid staircase. The shadow of the serpent embodies the supreme god Kukulcan (the creative god of time and universe among the Maya). He descends the temple during the spring equinox (the body of the snake comes to join the carved stone head built at the base of the pyramid to generate life). During the autumn equinox, he goes up by taking the sacred road to the sky. This complex triangular shadow effect appears as a three-dimensional event. It is without a doubt the most incredible spectacle on the planet to ever be created with the equinox sun.
  • The Caracol monument (“The Snail” in Spanish) was an astronomical place reserved for the elite. It is designed like a calendar built in stone. Its windows were positioned in key places in the building to materialize the passage of the sun in order to mark the equinoxes and the solstices. The Mayans therefore knew exactly the trajectories of the sun, the planets and the moon, thanks to a knowledge that they accumulated throughout several centuries.
  • Chichen Itza contains the largest ball playground or ball game ever discovered in ancient Mesoamerica (rectangular in shape, it measures 120 metres long and 30 metres wide). This ritual activity among the Maya was played with a rubber ball and two opposing teams. The aim of the game was to pass the ball through a hole (made of a ring of stones) without using hands or feet. Archaeologists do not yet know whether the winners or losers had their heads cut off as a sacrifice. As a sign that this activity was very popular locally, the site of Chichén Itzá contains dozens of other ball fields.
  • There is little doubt that Chichen Itza was never totally abandoned and forgotten by the local population, even after the arrival of the conquistadors. This historic place had undoubtedly lost its splendour and influence but had probably become a pilgrimage site. Cult practices must still have been performed in secret during the Spanish occupation, which sought to divert the inhabitants from their beliefs and convert them to Christianity.
  • The Yucatán jungle contains the largest forest in America after the Amazon. Many Maya treasures would still be buried there under a thick layer of vegetation.
  • The peninsula of this Mexican State rests on a vast crater which formed after the devastating crushing of an asteroid about 65 million years ago. It was this collision of incredible power that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and the disappearance of the majority of the living species on the planet at the time. The asteroid created a crater invisible to the naked eye and measuring 250 kilometres in diameter and 12 kilometres in depth.
  • Due to the high heat, ambient humidity and the large number of groups coming from Cancún on organized trips, it is advisable to visit the site either early morning or late afternoon.
  • Information on site to independent visitors is somewhat lacking, so it is best to opt for the visit with a local guide.
  • Ascending the pyramid is no longer allowed to protect and preserve Chichen Itza. In contrast, the Mexican government has created a new website to take advantage of a virtual visit of the monuments embellished with many points of view inaccessible to the public (including a panorama at 360 degrees at the top of the Temple of Kukulcan).
  • If you wish to complete your knowledge of the Maya civilization, do not miss the visit of the Mayan World Museum of Mérida in the northwestern part of Yucatán (a two-hour drive from Chichen Itza).
  • On your way, visit Izamal known as the yellow city of Yucatán. In addition to having very beautiful colonial buildings of ochre colour, it has a remarkable archaeological heritage including the Mayan Kinich Kakmó Pyramid (5th- century), one of the largest pyramid structures in Mexico. Other important sites like Mayapan and Uxmal, located south of Mérida, also deserve a detour.
  • If your route takes you to the eastern part of Yucatán, do not miss the pretty colonial city of Valladolid and its many ambient cenotes (including Zaci, Dzitnup, Saamal, X’kekén and Samula).

Where to eat

  • Yerbabuena del Sisal
    (refreshing frame)
  • Hacienda Selva Maya
    (lush vegetation and decor)
  • Conato Restaurant
    (guacamole is excellent)

Where to go

  • Ik Kil Archeological Park
    (incredible bathing spot)
  • Balankanche Caves
    (sacred geological formation)
  • Ek Balam
    (archaeological wonder)

Where to stay

  • Hostel Candelaria
    (pleasant youth hostel)
  • Casa Marlene
    (family and friendly hotel)
  • Villas Arqueologicas Chichen Itza
    (in the heart of Chichen Itza)