Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins
Jaguar Head Sculptures
Temple of Kukulcan
The History Of Chichen Itza
One thing that makes the Chichen Itza so intriguing, other than the giant stone pyramid, is the mysterious decline of the Maya people themselves.
By the time of the Spanish conquest of the Maya, this great city and others like it were virtually ghost towns.
Historians have several theories as to why. Overpopulation may have depleted environmental resources. A great drought or another catastrophe may have wiped out the civilization.
Competing city-states were constantly at war too — the Maya may have simply done themselves in.
In any case, Mexico’s most famous ruins are astonishingly well-restored site compared to other Mayan ruins in the region. Which is why it’s considered one of the New 7 Wonders Of The World.
El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza Highlights
El Castillo Pyramid
Once you enter Chichen Itza, you can’t miss the 98-foot tall pyramid
Temple Of Kukulkan (aka “El Castillo”) which dominates the northern part of the city. Not as large as the pyramids of Giza, but impressive nonetheless!
Kukulkan is a feathered snake deity in the Mayan religion. The pyramid is guarded by enormous carved serpent heads at the base of the stairs.
The Mesoamerican fascination with stars and planets mean the pyramid’s four stairways represent the four points of a compass. There are 365 steps too, one for each day in the solar calendar.
Nine terraces probably symbolize the Maya belief in a nine-level heaven too.
If you REALLY want a treat, visit El Castillo in March or September during the annual equinoxes. At sunset, a play of light and shadow creates the eerie effect of a snake gradually slithering down the staircase…
Scientists recently discovered this pyramid actually has two more pyramids inside it.
Clapping At The Pyramid
One cool trick to try in front of the temple is to clap as loud as you can. The sound echoes up the side of the structure, mimicking the sound of the local Quetzal bird, a spiritually important animal to the ancient Mayans.
This feature was engineered into the pyramid on purpose, which is pretty crazy to think about!
Hall Of A Thousand Columns
Temple Of The Warriors
Temple Of The Warriors
Temple Of The Warriors is another impressive structure at Chichen Itza. Some of the 200 columns on the south side depict warriors in bas-relief.
The columns once supported a roof system that is long gone.
Also known as the Hall of the Thousand Columns, this grand space might have been a meeting place or an indoor market.
A Chac Mool tops the broad staircase, distinctive statues found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. Reclining figures holding bowls with their heads turned at a 90-degree angle and propped on their elbows.
They might represent temple guardians or slain warriors bearing gifts to Chac, the god of rain.
In Maya religious ceremonies, stone dishes probably held offerings such as incense, tobacco, tamales or tortillas. In Aztec rituals,
they more likely held human hearts.
The Mesoamerican Ballgame
Score Up There Without Using Hands?!
The Maya Ball Court
Off to the left of the main pyramid, you’ll find the famed Maya ball court. While many sites include ball courts, the one at Chichen Itza is the largest in the world.
Maya athletes played a game where the object was to put a rubber ball (representing the sun) into a small stone circle perched very high on a wall, without using your hands OR feet.
Some carvings suggest that the winning team’s captain was decapitated, which was a sign of honor. The ball game is over 3,500 years old, making it the first organized game in the history of sports.
Some of the games were played to resolve arguments between rival cities or as an alternative to all-out war.
The Sacred Cenote
Cenote De Los Sacrificios
Chichen Itza means “mouth of the well of Itza” in the local Maya language. One possible translation of
Itza is “enchanted water.” The Yucatan is covered in cenotes — distinctive limestone sinkholes that form natural pools.
Cenotes have deep spiritual significance for the Maya. Many scholars believe Chichen Itza was built solely because of the large cenote located here, which provided people with fresh water.
Cenote de los Sacrificios (also known as the Sacred Cenote) measures about 200 feet across with sheer cliffs that drop to the water’s surface. During severe droughts, worshippers tried to appease their rain god Chac by sacrificing special items or people (!) they weren’t very fond of.
Dredging this cenote uncovered thousands of artifacts made of gold, jade and copper. Numerous human skeletons with sacrificial wounds littered the depths as well…
La Iglesia Structure
The Wall of Skulls
More Cool Archeological Structures
Tzompantli means “wall of skulls,” and this next attraction lives up to its name. The large platform supported stakes on which decapitated human heads were impaled on top of each other.
The unfortunate victims were enemies defeated in battle or prisoners of war sacrificed to the gods. Whimsical skull carvings around the base are a nice touch.
This exhibit would have scared the living daylights out of would-be enemies.
A more elaborate platform nearby is known as
House of the Eagles. Its motif is similarly creepy. Eagles and jaguars, symbolizing Toltec sacrificial warriors depicted clutching human hearts.
One of the most interesting structures is
El Caracol, which functioned as an observatory. There are many more fascinating stops at Chichen Itza, so plan to spend at least 3 – 4 hours to see it all.
Popular Cenote Ik Kil
Less Crowded Cenote Zaci
Cenotes Near Chichen Itza
While you can’t swim in the cenote at Chichen Itza itself (unless you want to join the skeletons at the bottom!) there are others nearby where you can.
The closest cenote, and most popular with tour buses, is called
Ik Kil. While it’s a pretty one, it’s always packed with people and feels like a tourist trap. I’d probably skip it.
If you want a more authentic cenote experience, I’d recommend cooling off in the cenotes near the town of Valladolid. These include
Cenote Zaci, Cenote Dzitnup, or Cenote Suytun , Selva Maya
Navigating the Local Vendors
Chichen Itza Tours
If you’re the type of person who prefers joining a tour, there are guided tours of the Chichen Itza Ruins, some of which begin from Cancun and include transportation.
Different View of the Pyramid
Chichen Itza Conservation Programs
A group of scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico(UNAM) has been researching the existence of a second structure located
insidethe Kukulkan pyramid. They found the pyramid-within-a-pyramid using three-dimensional electrical tomography.
It’s believed the current structure was built on top of the other one. Both sit on top of an underground cenote cave filled with water. Archaeologists continue studying the site, and you may be able to see some of their excavations as we did behind the main pyramid.
Tips For Visiting Chichen Itza
Tourists can no longer climb to the top of the Kukulkan Pyramid due to UNESCO status and a few deaths over the years from falling.
The sun is unrelenting. Wear a hat, apply sunscreen and take plenty of water. If possible, arrive as soon as the gates open in the morning.
Avoid the vendors selling souvenirs at the entrance. Yes, tourists support their livelihood
Chichen Itza Map
Getting Around the Ruins