El Castillo in Chichén Itzá – Image courtesy of Daniel Schwen/Wikimdea Commons
Introducing Chichén Itzá
Discover the fabled ruins of Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.
Once a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya civilization from around 600 AD to 1200 AD, Chichén Itzá (pronounded chee-chen eet-zah) is the best restored and the largest (650ha) of the Maya sites in the Yucatán Peninsula.
The Maya name ‘Chichen Itza’ means ‘at the mouth of the well of the Itza’ and the city was a centre of pilgrimage for ancient Maya for more than 100 years.
Of the two large, natural sink holes (cenotes) on the site, Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) is the most famous and impressive – sheer cliffs plunge some 27m in to the 60m wide pool.
Cenote Sagrado was a place of pilgrimage for pre-Columbian Maya who, according to historians, sacrificed human beings as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac in times of drought. Thousands of items have been removed from the bottom of the sink hole including items of gold, carved jade, copal and pottery, as well as skeletons of children and men.
Admire the huge 38m-high Pyramid of Kukulcan (or El Castillo) or venture inside to explore the humid corridors and dark chambers. Climb the steep and narrow interior passageway to the top where you can view King Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne, an impressive monument carved of stone and painted red with jade spots.
If possible, time your trip to coincide with the annual Spring (March 20–21) and Autumn (September 21–22) equinox, when you can stand close to the giant serpent head at the foot of El Castillo and marvel as the shadow and sunlight of late afternoon evokes the appearance of a serpent slithering down the staircase.
Stroll among the columns at the Temple of the Warriors, explore inside El Caracol (the observatory) and discover bas-reliefs and paintings that decorate every square metre of wall of the Nunnery.
The site is best explored with a licensed guide who can explain the significance of each tomb, temple or carved mask of a deity.
You can visit the ruins on a day trip from Cancun, but to fully explore the site it’s probably best to overnight at one of the hotels located at the entrance or nearby Pisté. This way you can visit in the early morning before the tour buses arrive and watch the evening light and sound show, which is included in the admission fee.
Note: Chichén Itzá is divided into two parts, with a mixture of Maya and Toltec styles. The newer central zone shows Toltec influence, while the older southern zone shows mainly Puuc architecture. The most important structures are in New Chichén.
Location: 179km west of Cancún, around a 2 1/2 hours drive.
Admission: Entrance US$10; licensed guide US$45 for one to six people
Hours: Daily 8am-5pm