What Is El Castillo and Why Is It So Famous?

El Castillo is an ancient Mayan Temple and historic landmark in the center of Chichen Itza, which attracts hundreds of tourists each year.

Mar 31, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what is el castillo and why is it famous


El Castillo is an ancient Mayan Temple situated in the Chichen Itza complex, in the Yucatan peninsula. Its name means ‘The Castle’ in Spanish, and it is also often known as ‘The Pyramid of Kulkulcan.’ The entire site of Chichen Itza is one of the modern seven wonders of the world, and the fascinating stepped pyramid temple of El Castillo in its center has played an important role in its popularity, attracting millions of tourists every year. But what is it about this ancient architectural monument that draws so many people from near and far? We examine a handful of the reasons why it is so famous today.


1. El Castillo Is 25 Meters High

el castillo chichen itza
El Castillo in Chichen Itza


The sheer, colossal scale of El Castillo is a sight to behold, and it is one of the key reasons why so many tourists make the trek to Chichen Itza to marvel in its monumental impact. Although El Castillo is not the tallest pyramid built by the ancient Mayans – that title belongs to Nohoch Mul in Coba, which is 42 meters high – it is one of the best-preserved, and its location, in the middle of a flat, grassy plaza makes it stand out from its surroundings.


2. It Is Very, Very Old!


El Castillo is one of the oldest temples in the world. It was built by Mayans from around 700-1300 CE throughout the Classic and Post-Classic eras, although some researchers suspect early parts of the temple might have been constructed as far back as 550 CE. Historians believe Mayans built the temple in honor of the serpent deity Kulkulkan, (it features carved snake heads) hence why it is also known as the Temple of Kulkulkan. However, it was the Spanish conquistadors who named the pyramid El Castillo (the Castle) after uncovering the abandoned ancient city. 


3. El Castillo Creates the Illusion of a Serpent

kukulkan el castillo pyramid serpent shadow equinox
El Castillo Pyramid of Kukulkan with the serpent shadow at the equinox

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Amazingly, El Castillo’s structure is designed to produce the illusion of a giant feathered serpent during every spring and autumn equinox. On the North side of the pyramid, two snakeheads made from stone sit at the base, while stairs leading towards them are positioned in line with the sun, so that their shadows create the illusion of a wavy, slithering serpent’s body leading down the steps. Thousands trek here every year to witness this rare and spectacular event, which demonstrates how the Mayans’ lives were closely attuned to the natural world


3. El Castillo Is a Giant Calendar

el castillo steps tourists chichen itza
Visitors climbing the steps up El Castillo, which are no longer open to tourists today for safety reasons


Mayans painstakingly designed the structure of El Castillo to resemble a huge, larger than life calendar, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the Mayan understanding of the world. The pyramid has four sides, each with a total of 91 steps. These, when added together with the top step of the pyramid, equal a total of 365, meaning a step for each day of the year. Meanwhile, there are 9 tiers, which, when split by staircases, makes 18, the number of months per year in the Mayan calendar. 52 decorative panels adorn each side of the pyramid, denoting the number of years in the Mayan’s calendar cycle. 


4. It Is Filled with Hidden Surprises

red jaguar throne chichen itza
Red Jaguar throne from the interior of El Castillo


Underneath its carved stone exterior, El Castillo hides some pretty remarkable surprises. In 2016, archaeologists discovered another smaller pyramid under its outer surface. Experts believe that Mayans built a larger pyramid over a smaller one to create this strange layering architectural effect. Even more surprisingly, many suspect there may be even more pyramids under these two layers. Within the smaller central pyramid, a series of rare treasures were found, including a carved stone sculpture of a Mayan figure, and a red jaguar throne adorned with eyes made from jade stone.

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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.