The ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza dates back to around 550 CE and is located on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, close to the city of Mérida. The ancient city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The site is around 4 square miles (10 square km), and depending on your tour group, you may have a limited amount of time to explore. Between battling the heat and the crowds, it is nearly impossible to see what Chichen Itza offers in one visit. In this article, you’ll find important information about the site and key facts about the impressive structures you will encounter.
The Vendors at Chichen Itza Are Numerous
The first thing visitors to the Maya city of Chichen Itza will notice are the numerous vendors outside of the complex. The vendors line the sidewalks leading from the parking lot to the main entrance, but they do not stop there. Once you enter the main site, there are even more vendors! What feels like hundreds of vendors will try to sell their wares as you make your way to the main pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcán (also known as El Castillo).
The vendors do offer a wide range of goods for sale, many of which are handmade. Clothing, jaguar figurines, and miniature statues of the temple are just a few of the goods you can purchase. One item for sale you will likely hear while at the site is a jaguar whistle. This is a beautiful hand-painted jaguar head that makes a sounds like a jaguar’s roar when you blow into it.
The vendors have had some trouble with the Mexican government in recent years, with many tourists calling for their removal from the site.
The Temple of Kukulcán (El Castillo)
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The Temple of Kukulcán, or El Castillo, is a step pyramid and the central structure at the Chichen Itza site. The temple was built for Kukulcán, the feathered serpent god of the Mayan religion that brought rain and wind.
Archaeologists have discovered a smaller substructure underneath the current pyramid, indicating that the Mayans built on top of their old structures. The serpents on the northern staircase showcase a unique shadow effect during the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. During this time, the shadows make it appear as though the snakes are slithering down. Because of this event, late March and September are very busy times for the site.
Another interesting occurrence can be experienced any time of year. When one claps their hands in front of the pyramid just right, the echo sounds like the sacred quetzal bird.
In 2008, Mexico’s Institute for History and Anthropology prohibited anyone from climbing El Castillo. There was concern about the site’s preservation, as climbing can damage the ruins and endanger guests. Still, a few people have jumped the perimeter and climbed El Castillo since 2008. They were all promptly arrested and faced fines. In November 2022, a woman who climbed the ancient Maya pyramid was heckled and booed by the crowd.
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is home to the largest Mesoamerican ball court, or tlachtli. The Temple of the Jaguar is located on the eastern wall. The acoustics inside the ball court is interesting. Supposedly someone can speak inside the temple at the end of the court, and you will be able to hear what they say at the other end. Intricate carvings adorn the side panel, and images show warrior ball players participating in ritual human sacrifice. The image of the beheaded man shows snakes coming out of his head instead of blood. Balls were made by hand from rubber. There were many different types of games played, some for fun and some to replace battle. There is much debate surrounding the sacrifice of players at the end of a game. Some archaeologists suggest sacrifice only occurred during games with rival cities.
The Temple of the Bearded Man is located on the north wall of the ball court. Well-preserved wall carvings depict a scene with Kukulcán along with men dressed similarly to the ball players shown on the court’s walls.
The Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns
The Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns are some of the most impressive and well-preserved structures at Chichen Itza. A Chacmool statue sits atop the temple depicting a figure reclining with its head facing forward, as is the case with statues of this type at numerous Mesoamerican sites. The Temple of the Warriors is decorated with figures of serpents, eagles, and many warriors. This temple may have been used for religious purposes, evidenced by the Chacmool holding a bowl at the top of the stairs.
The Thousand Columns surround The Temple of the Warriors. These columns were likely used to support a roof structure. The sheer number of the columns is truly incredible to see. This area is thought to have been used as a large communal area or for meetings halls. Near the columns, you will also find ruins referred to as the marketplace or market. This area is made up of beams that also once supported a large roof. Even though it has not been proven that this space was actually used for a market, the name is just an educated guess based on the square shape of the patio area.
The Sacred Cenote
The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza was one of the most important sites for the people living in the city. A cenote is a natural sinkhole in limestone bedrock. The ancient Mayans used cenotes for water and sacrificial offerings.
There are two cenotes at Chichen Itza. The Xtoloc Cenote is a smaller cenote that would have been a source of water, while the larger Sacred Cenote was much larger and was used for offerings to the rain god Chaac. Items containing precious materials like gold and jadeite have been found there as well as human remains — around 200 skeletons of men, women, and some children. Some of the remains show signs of mutilation.
Spanish Franciscan Bishop Diego de Landa wrote that he witnessed live sacrifices thrown into the Sacred Cenote. The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza was a place of pilgrimage for Mayans, and remained so by the time of Spanish arrival in the 1530s.
Other Ruins to Discover in Chichen Itza
There are many other notable ruins to see around Chichen Itza. The Tzompantli, or skull wall, is a large T-shaped structure decorated with skull motifs. The skulls of enemies and sacrifices were likely placed on the wall.
The Observatory is a structure that was used to view constellations and other astronomical events. The round structure on top has windows that allowed the inhabitants to view stars, solstices, and equinoxes. Observing these events allowed them to choose dates for different events like rituals, games, and agriculture.
Chichanchob, or “Casa Colorada”, is a well-preserved structure that might have been used as a dwelling. There is a small ball court attached to the structure. It is also a very simple construction compared to other ruins at Chichen Itza, with mostly smooth walls and few carvings.
The Nunnery is another important structure at Chichen Itza. The Spanish likely gave this complex the name “nunnery” because it reminded them of convents in Spain. The Nunnery is made up of 3 buildings, each with many rooms. It also has a small ball court. Numerous carvings and decorations adorn these buildings, including images of the god Chac.
Other Things to Consider Before Visiting Chichen Itza
Getting to the Site Takes Time
The trip to Chichen Itza can be a long one. Even from the city of Mérida, the trip can take between 1.5- 2 hours. From cruise ship ports, it can be about 2.5 hours.
While visiting Chichen Itza, you will undoubtedly be taking many photographs of yourself and the ruins. Everyone wants to get a perfect photo, but visitors will find that it is nearly impossible to take a picture without capturing other tourists in the shot. With thousands of visitors every day, you are not going to take a photo with an empty background. There will always be multiple people trying to get the perfect photo with El Castillo in the background. Make peace with capturing your fellow tourists and you can enjoy your incredible memories.
Mind the Heat
Although Chichen Itza is located in the middle of a jungle, there is actually very little shade to be found. The heat can be brutal. You will see some tourists with large hats or umbrellas to help escape the sun. It is advised to wear loose, breathable clothing to in order to prevent sunstroke. It is also important to bring water to stay hydrated and to wear sunscreen.