One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, this Maya city was at its height in the 10th century, when it commanded a vast area of what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. Chichén Itzá’s ceremonial, cultural and administrative centre sprawls out over 2.5 square miles, its edifices aligned with celestial bodies. Within this same area, there were sacred sinkholes (cenotes), where sacrifices to the rain god Chac were made to ensure that life-giving water was always abundant.

Mexico Chichen Itza castle

The Temple of Kukulkan or 'the Castle', dedicated to the feathered serpent god called Kukulkan

A city built in stages from around 600 CE, it was finally abandoned around 1250 CE, but so mighty was its power and so sacred the sinkholes, that Chichén Itzá continued to be a site of pilgrimage for the Maya for hundreds of years beyond.

Today, the pilgrimages persist, with almost 1.5 million visitors flocking to the site each year. The beautifully excavated structures and the pristine nature of this archaeological site have been part of the allure, as well as its proximity to tourist hubs like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. But the stories that the city holds, and the displays of Mayan astrological and architectural prowess make it a memorable destination.

Yes, it is busy, but it is worth braving the crowds to explore this ancient Maya city and learn more about the history, beliefs and enduring cosmology of the people who lived there.

Mexico chichen Itza The ballcourt at Chichén Itzá

The ballcourt at Chichén Itzá

What to see at Chichén Itzá

Temple of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá

The most iconic structure at Chichén Itzá is the Temple of Kukulkan, more commonly referred to as El Castillo, or the Castle. This is a four-sided pyramid that stands 30m high, dedicated to a feathered serpent god called Kukulkan, similar to the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. Each side of the pyramid is flanked by steps that lead up to a central platform and at the bottom of the stairs are intricately carved heads of open-mouthed serpents.

Created at the height of the city’s power and presided over by priests who performed magic as well as human sacrifice, Kukulkan is an impressive sight and is one of the most well-photographed Maya temples. The structure is built above a cenote, and in 2018 excavations began to unblock a secret tunnel closed by the Maya many hundreds of years ago, which leads to the cenote’s water and the Maya underworld.

Equinox at Chichén Itzá

To understand just how impressive the Maya astrological knowledge and construction skills were, visit Chichén Itzá during either the spring or autumn equinox.

Due to perfect alignment with the sun, a shadowy figure of a snake descends the northern steps of the Temple of Kukulkan in the late afternoon sun of each equinox, which the Maya believed then entered the cenote. The alignment of the shadow is exact for a few days before and after the equinox, so visit on the days surrounding rather than on the equinox itself, which attracts thousands of visitors. If you feel like joining in, make sure to wear white, which some believe attracts positive energy from the new sun.

Ballcourts at Chichén Itzá

The ballcourt at Chichén Itzá, where ancient Mesoamerican ball games were played, is one of the largest known courts in the Americas. Engravings along the sides of the court depict warrior ball game players and the court is another perfectly constructed edifice, with precision planned acoustics. Stand in the middle facing the walls, clap and you will hear it echo precisely seven times. Historians dispute whether this ballcourt was ever actually used for play, or whether it was instead a monument used for human sacrifices. However, ball games were serious affairs used to settle political and social disputes. Lose a game and you could lose your head.

Skull Platform at Chichén Itzá

Another edifice of note is the Skull Platform, a rectangular structure, which is carved with images of skulls. The real craniums of sacrificial victims would once have been displayed upon the flat top of the platform, threaded one above the other onto wooden poles to provoke fear in rival groups. The Temple of the Warriors also deserves a visit. This large temple flanked by pillars with carvings of elaborate warrior figures was built in an architectural style which resembles that of the Toltec people of central Mexico. As you approach, look up to see the carving of Chac Mool, the reclining male figure waiting for sacrificial offerings to be placed in the bowl on his stomach. Make sure to check out the cenote at the edge of the site, which when excavated was found to house precious metals, stones and other offerings as well as skeletons of human sacrifice.

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A feathered serpent sculpture decorating the Venus platform

How to get to Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá can be reached by public transport from nearby Merida or Valladolid, as well as from the tourist centres of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. There is ample parking for those looking to self-drive or hire a driver. Doing so allows you to arrive before the large tour buses and get in before the crowds.

To truly bring the site to life and to learn more about Maya history and culture, however, hiring a guide or joining a guided tour is highly recommended. Chichén Itzá is so rich with history that archaeologists continue to make new discoveries and a good guide will be able to give you up to date findings that aren’t in guidebooks yet. You can also hire guides inside the site. Look around for licensed guides who offer reasonably priced tours.

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Stone carvings decorate the buildings

Top tips for visiting Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá is a large archaeological site with limited shade (although more trees are being planted to remedy that) so be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen and take plenty of water. The site is rocky and uneven, so it's best not to arrive wearing flipflops. Arrive early (8am) to avoid the sun and the large tour buses full of visitors that arrive at around 11am. When you arrive, head straight to El Castillo to get a shot of it while it is quiet. Later in the day, it is unlikely that you will be able to get a photo by yourself.

Where possible, it is best to avoid visiting Chichén Itzá on a Sunday, since Mexicans get free entry that day and the site is even busier. Make sure you bring Mexican pesos to pay the entrance fee, as credit card machines often break down.

The nearby Ik Kil cenote is a popular place to stop off after a visit to Chichén Itzá, and while there are certainly other less crowded cenotes, Ik Kil is very beautiful, easily accessible and a great option if your time is limited.

If you have lots of time, consider staying the night at one of the hotels situated around the site. An overnight stay means that you can be the first to arrive at the site in the morning or the last to leave at night and you can spread your visit out over a couple of days, making the heat more bearable.

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Arrive early to avoid the sun and the large tour buses

Alternative Yucatán archaeological sites to Chichén Itzá

Tulum

Located 75 miles south of Cancun, Tulum is possibly the most photogenic of Mexico’s archaeological sites, notably because it sits before a backdrop of the stunning Caribbean Sea. The city saw its peak later than Chichén Itzá, between the 13th and 15th centuries, and was an important trading point for jade and turquoise. Unsurprisingly, given its location right on the coast, the important temples are dedicated to the gods of wind and rain and offerings were made to appease these gods to avoid hurricanes. Tulum’s most well-known structure is also known as El Castillo (the Castle) and sits high up, overlooking the sea. Make time to check out the Temple of the Frescoes which houses murals depicting Mayan gods and religious motifs that still retain their original colour — an impressive feat given the wind, rain and sunshine to which they have been exposed.

Tulum’s ruins, populated by iguanas and lizards basking in the sun, are well worth visiting. Visitors can combine history and architecture with one of the Mayan Riviera’s most beautiful beaches just a steep staircase down from El Castillo.

Come early or just before closing time to experience Tulum with fewer people.

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Tulum once served as a major trading post for neighbouring city-state Chichén Itzá

Ek Balam

Those who prefer to explore archaeological sites without the crowds — or are looking for an alternative site to Chichén Itzá — should make time to visit Ek Balam. Here, unlike at some of the popular sites in the region, you are allowed to climb the pyramids and get up close and personal with the structures as well as taking in the impressive views from the top. Ek Balam’s intriguing name means Star Jaguar or Dark Jaguar and there is still much of the site that has yet to be excavated and understood. Probably the most impressive structure is the Palace, the façade of which takes the form of an intricately carved serpent. Look out for the tomb of Ek Balam’s former ruler located under a thatched roof near the top of the temple.

Around a mile from the Ek Balam ruins is the X’Canche cenote. This sinkhole is surrounded by sheer rock walls and tree roots dangling into the turquoise water, which is home to black catfish. Take some time to walk along the wooden boardwalks and listen to birdsong before taking a swim.

Ek Balam is located about 15 miles from Valladolid or a two-hour drive from Merida and makes a great place to stop if travelling between the two cities. If you want a guided tour of Ek Balam, it is best to hire a guide in Valladolid or Merida and travel to the site together, since the quietness of Ek Balam means that guides are not always waiting at the site.

Mexico Yucatan archaeological zone of Ek Balam

Panoramic view of the archaeological zone of Ek Balam

Uxmal

Known for its rotund structures, the World Heritage site of Uxmal is steeped in myths and legends. Take for example the 40m high Pyramid of the Magician, which greets you at the site’s entrance, that is said to have been built in a single night (archaeologists disagree — they believe it was built in five stages between the 6th and 10th centuries). Clap your hands in front of it and the echo of a bird call comes back to you. The Nun’s Quadrangle offers up impressive latticework that snakes around its four walls in the form of a serpent and the Governor’s Palace is another beautiful example of the Puuc architectural style found at this site, which was built around 700 CE. You can climb some of the structures at Uxmal too, giving you a sense of just how vast and majestic the city was in its time.

What really marks Uxmal out is its Mayan artwork. The Governor’s Palace is covered in stone mosaics of serpents, astronomical symbols and depictions of ancient gods.

Uxmal can be visited as an easy day trip from Merida, or as part of the Puuc Route that takes visitors on a day trip to the Puuc Maya sites of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna as well as the caves of Loltun.

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The 40m high Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal

Coba

This ancient city, which saw its peak between 200 and 600 BCE (before Chichén Itzá became more powerful), is so large that it is best explored by bike or tricycle taxi. You will cycle down road networks called Sacbes, created by the Maya to reach different parts of this vast city, visiting well-preserved ball courts and large glyphs that remain in place. If you can brace yourself for the steep climb up the 1200 steps of the Nohoch Mul pyramid you will be rewarded with incredible views over the site and the jungle surrounding it

Coba is best explored in trainers or walking shoes. The steps up the Nohoch Mul pyramid are narrow and uneven, so flip-flops or sandals will make your ascent harder and rather dangerous. Bring a backpack with a few snacks and water as well as your swimwear. After visiting Coba, you may also want to make time to cool off with a swim in the nearby Cenote Choo-Ha.

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Nohoch Mul pyramid, Coba

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A guide to visiting Chichén Itzá

By Susannah Rigg

Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist based in Mexico City. Her work has been featured by Condé Nast Traveler, CNN, BBC Travel and AFAR among others. She has visited 26 of Mexico’s 32 states and is captivated by Mexico’s rich Mesoamerican history.

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