Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

Chichen Itza Castillo pyramid, Yucatan, Mexico

Chichen Itza, the most spectacular Maya relic of El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcán). Photo by Olaf Tausch. Sadly, you can no longer climb these monumental stairs, nor the Temple of the Warriors.

How to see Chichén Itzá

View over Chichen Itza from the top of El Castillo Pyramid, Mexico

The view from the top of the Kukulkan pyramid towards the Templo de los Guerreros (Warrior Temple) giving a clear view of the flat, dense green vegetation of most of the Yucatan peninsula.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichén Itzá is a Maya city that peaked in importance around 600 AD.

This huge and partially ruined city in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula features Kukulkan/El Castillo and half a dozen other magnificent structures, monuments and carvings in a grand green space, some well restored.
El Castillo is arguably the prettiest pyramid in the world, made of stone and measuring 65 metres high, 200 metres on each side.
This is not the biggest pyramid in the world, that’s the still overgrown Cholula near Mexico City.

Opening time 8. 0am to 4. 30pm unless you stay in the Mayaland Hotel which is inside Chichen Itza. However we hear that Mayaland facilities are shabby, the food and service poor and the prices high. Still. . .


Quite a number of visitors are disappointed by Chichen Itza and feel it should not be included in the listing of New Wonders of the World. So if you choose to go don’t have expectations that are too high and try to avoid arriving on a tour bus as 11am!
There are two major downsides to the Chichen experience. Unless you calculate the timing of your visit with care there will be an invasion of barbarians happening simultaneously that will make the conquistadores look insignificant.
And you can’t climb many of the better monuments, including the Great Pyramid of Kukulcán. But you can climb the very tall pyramid of Ixmoja at Coba that’s 56 miles (90 kms) east and gives a spectacular panorama over the forest.

Pyramid Construction

Unlike Egyptian pyramids which were solid stone, Maya pyramids were usually built over a mound of earth or rubble.
The Maya also constructed fresh, larger pyramids on top of older ones so tunnels have been excavated allowing tourists a view of the earlier temple of Kukulcan inside the current one. Look for the door at the foot of the north stairway and go up a steep interior stairway to the room at the top where you can see King Kukulcan’s Jaguar Throne, carved of stone and painted red with jade spots. It’s impressive but the climb up the constrictive passageway may be a struggle against screaming claustrophobia.

Yucatán and the Conquistadors

The first Spanish to invade the Yucatan peninsula were led by Francisco de Montejo (see his house in Merida) in 1526. After limited initial success Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 and established a strong base with more forces and sent his son to seize control of the interior , including Chichen Itza, which he took with almost no resistance. Montejo the Younger settled down but the Maya finally realised that the Spanish were there to stay and mounted a successful attack, forcing the Spanish to barricade themselves in the Chichen complex for many months and they finally relinquished the city in 1534. A year later the Spanish abandoned the Yucatán Peninsula.
However, Montejo returned after a number of years, recruited Maya from other regions to assist his conquistadors and recaptured the region. By 1588 Chichen Itza was a cattle ranch.

Some of the more popular Chichen Itza monuments

El Castillo/Kukulcán

The Great Ballcourt

The Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars, an elaborately carved platform located between the Temple of Venus and the Platform of Skulls, with stone jaguar, feathered serpent columns and murals

The Cenote Sagrado (a sacred cave/lake)

The Observatory (El Caracol)

The Platform of Skulls

Various Sweatbaths which played an important rôle in ancient Maya spiritual traditions as places to purify the mind, body and emotions.

The Equinox Serpent

On the spring equinox at the Kukulcán pyramid, the sun creates a shadow of a plumed serpent moving from the top of the building downwards. On reaching the base, the shadow body joins the real stone snake’s head in a stunningly ambitious display of knowledge and skill.
Needless to say this is one of Mexico’s most popular events, and in a dramatic location so book well ahead. The shadow is visible from Mar 19-21. During these three days of the ‘Descent of Kukulcan’ Chichen Itza hosts music, dance and theatrical performances inside the the site.

Plaza of a Thousand Columns, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

Plaza of a Thousand Columns. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

The Temple of Jaguars

The Temple of Jaguars, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

The Temple of Jaguars. Photo by Tony Hisgett.

The Ballcourt

The Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Mexico

The BallCourt where Maya sportsmen had to knock a ball through that ring. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

The Templo de los Guerreros

The Templo de los Guerreros frieze, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

The Templo de los Guerreros frieze with bloodthirsty mega-squirrel taking on the mighty Maya warriors.

El Caracol, The Observatory

El Caracol, aka The Observatory at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

El Caracol, aka The Observatory. Photo by Jim.

El Caracol means spiral or snail after the staircase that winds around the interior of the tower. Archeologists believe that this structure was actually an astrological observatory – as opposed to something that simply triggered a name association.
The raised viewing tower rises above the surrounding jungle so that Maya astronomers could easily track the full movement of stars and planets. El Caracol’s windows appear to be designed to track the movement of the planet Venus.

The Temple of Venus

Platform of Venus frieze at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

The Temple of Venus, otherwise known as ‘the day Stewie dropped acid’ by fans of Family Guy. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Another possibility is that this represents Serpent Bird Man, aka Quetzalcoatl, the ‘feathered serpent god’. The feathered fellow also appears at Teotihuacan and Diego Rivera’s mosaic in Acapulco among many, many other locations and monuments.


Swimmers in a cenote near Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

Swimming in Ik Kil cenote 2 miles (3kms) from Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Photo by Jim.

Visitors cannot swim in the Chichen Itza cenotes, however hot and sticky they may feel. Instead head for the ‘Sacred Blue Cenote’ of Ik Kil on the road between Chichen Itza and Valladolid and walk past the restaurant and a handful of palapa homes, down a wooden stairway. Ik-Kil is a little murky so is more suitable for swimmers than divers.

Chichen Itza has two cenotes – large sink holes – that were an important water source for the city, even if priests did occasionally sacrifice humans in one of them, the Cenote Sagrado. Also known as the Sacred Well and Well of Sacrifice ritual sacrifice was probably made to the Maya rain god Chaac.

The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has around 7, 000 cenotes due to its geological base of porous limestone that over the years gets eaten away by rain, creating large cave systems, some of which collapse creating cenotes.

Cobá, Ixmoja pyramid

View from the top of Nohoch Mul, aka Ixmoja pyramid at Coba, Yucatan, Mexico

The view from the top of Ixmoja pyramid – that at the time of writing you can climb – at Coba. Mid right you can see the top of the little round pyramid of Coba.

Nohoch Mul, aka Ixmoja, climbing the pyramid at Coba, Yucatan, Mexico

Yes you can climb the 130 steps of the Ixmoja pyramid at Coba. It’s 138ft (42m) high, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Photo by Ken Thomas.

Coba is a large but little developed archaeological site deep in the Yucatan jungle 56 miles (90 kms) east of Chichen Itza, 25 miles (40 kms) west of the Caribbean shore and 27 miles (44 kms) northwest of Tulum. A good road connects Tulum and Coba.

At it’s peak from 500 to 900 AD Coba housed around 50, 000 inhabitants over 50sq miles (80 km²), but the city probably survived until the arrival of the conquistadors in 7th century.

Getting to Chichen Itza

One day is not enough for Chichén Itza; the best way to optimise the experience is to spend at least one evening and the next morning there.

It’s well worth overnighting at a Piste hotel or guest house, the little town 2 kms away (or at the lovely Mayaland hotel if you can afford it; it’s inside Chichen Itza grounds! ) to avoid the 10. 30am tourist rush from Merida (1 hour), Cancun (2 hours) and so on.