What Are the Must-See Buildings in Chichen Itza?

Chichen Itza is one of the modern day seven wonders of the world. We round up its most significant constructs for wayward wanderers.

Apr 17, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what are the must see buildings in chichen itza


One of the modern day seven wonders of the world, the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza is a treasure trove of architectural marvels dating as far back as the 5th century CE. Located in the eastern portion of Yucatan state in Mexico, the city covers 4 square miles of land and comprises 26 different ruins, many of which were built during different eras of Mayan civilization. Although this means they differ stylistically, all the buildings in Chichen Itza were constructed from locally sourced stone, transported to the site by hand, giving a feeling of continuity from one construction to the next. We look through the most popular and visited sites in Chichen Itza for the budding travelers who want to find out more. 


El Castillo/ The Temple of Kulkulkan

El Castillo in Chichen Itza
The Temple of Kulkulkan, or El Castillo, Chichen Itza.


El Castillo (meaning ‘The Castle’ in Spanish), also known as The Temple of Kulkulkan, is by far the most visited and talked about structure in Chichen Itza. An ancient step pyramid designed to respond to the days and months of the year, this fascinating temple is filled with hidden surprises. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, shadows cast down one side of the building create a wavy serpent’s body, leading towards a carved serpent’s head at the base. The temple is believed to be at least one temple built on top of another. 


Juego de Pelota: The Ball Court

Juego de Pelota Ball Court in Chichen Itza
The Juego de Pelota, or Ball Court in Chichen Itza


The vast Ball Court of Chichen Itza was once an arena for playing ball games. It is the largest historical ball court in all the Americas, at 554 by 231 feet wide. Around its flat, open center are a series of walls featuring carvings outlining the rules of the game, while each end features a stone hoop, or ‘goal.’ In one particular carving, the brutal side of Mayan society is exposed, as one team captain is beheaded, presumably for losing the game. Mayans took ball games very seriously and were highly accomplished sportsmen. They played games with a heavy, dense ball made from chicle, the same raw material found in chewing gum, which players lifted with their hips, shoulders, knees and elbows, while playing with feet, hands and head was forbidden.


Xtoloc Cenote: The Sacred Well

The Sacred Xtoloc Cenote in Chichen Itza
The Sacred Xtoloc Cenote in Chichen Itza

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The Sacred Well, or Xtoloc Cenote, at Chichen Itza was the ancient civilization’s only water source, and it is from here that Chichen Itza takes its name, translated from Mayan as ‘Mouth of the well of the Itza.’ Because it was a vital source of water for farmers, the well had special, sacred significance for the Mayans. During certain religious ceremonies, Mayans would even make human sacrifices to the God of Rain here. 


El Caracol: The Observatory

el caracol observatory
El Caracol Observatory Chichen Itza


The Mayans were fascinated by the stars, and spent many hours studying their intricate patterns, believing they held secrets about our existence. This large structure contains a circular tower with slits in its walls and a spiral staircase from where Mayans could watch the stars. The structure takes its name from the Spanish word for ‘snail,’ a reference to its spiral staircase. The building dates from around 906 CE, meaning it was most likely built during the Post Classic period of Mesoamerican history. Mayan people could view a series of significant astrological events from this tower, including equinoxes and solstices. 


The Tzompantli: Platform of the Skulls

Tzompantli Platform Skulls Chichen Itza
The Tzompantli Platform of the Skulls in Chichen Itza


The Platform of the Skulls, also known as the Wall of Skulls is a long rectangular platform which is 197 feet long by 12 meters wide. The entire structure is decorated with a series of decorations, including skulls carved in bas-relief, along with illustrations showing human sacrifice, skeletonized warriors and eagles eating all human hearts. It is likely that this platform was a site for human sacrifices carried out for religious or military means by Chichen Itza’s many different rulers.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.