Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and is probably the most popular tourist attraction amongst the millions of visitors to Cancun. It is undoubtedly the most impressive, largest and most extensively restored of the Maya ruins and, in 2007, it became one of the 7 New Wonders of the World after a worldwide vote.
The simplest way to get there is by an organised tour from your hotel although it is possible to go via public transport if you want a cheaper option and are feeling adventurous. The entrance fee is around £5 although it is worthwhile going on a guided tour if you want to learn something of the history of this impressive site.
The site is made up of a series of various structures and buildings, the most famous of which is the impressive El Castillo Pyramid. The pyramid is right in the centre of the site and is impressive in its stature. Once upon a time you could climb the stairs on the sides of the pyramid but in the interests of preserving the structure, you are no longer permitted to do so. Aside from the obvious benefits of this decision, I think it's a good idea as it means you can take good pictures without hordes of tourists blocking your view! The pyramid was built with the calendar very much in mind - there is one step for every day of the year and, supposedly, you can see the shadow of a serpent on the side of it at the spring and autumn Equinox, thanks to the way the light filters through the top.
The most interesting structure in my opinion was the Great Ball Court. It was the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica and stands at 166m by 68m, surrounding by imposing 12m high walls. The game was played in front of large crowds and had the sort of following that you found in the gladiator fights of Rome. The idea was that two opposing teams would try to score 'goals' by getting the ball through the small hoop at the top of the two side walls of the court without touching the ball with their hands. The tension was high in the game as there was a lot at stake - the captain of the losing team would be decapitated. Like the rest of the site, the Great Ball Court has been very well maintained and there are some excellent depictions of the game carved into the walls.
The Mayan people settled here at Chichen Itza because of the natural water holes (Cenotes) that can be found in the area. The name itself comes from the Maya words for 'at the mouth of the well of Itza'. The Cenote Sagrado within the site was an ancient place of pilgrimage. Many items have been found in the Cenote, including pottery, jewellery and even human remains, which are believed to have been sacrifices to the rain god, Chaac.
Chichen Itza is a fascinating place that allows you to immerse yourself in the history of the Maya civilisation. It is impressive to behold and wondering around the massive site is a belittling and intriguing experience. However, it is a tourist trap and evidence of this is there every step of the way. I was very surprised to find that souvenir sellers are allowed into the actual grounds of the site and you'll find every one of the ancient roads lined with stalls selling every kind of souvenir you can imagine. The sellers are fairly intrusive, plugging their wares as 'almost free' and 'cheaper than Walmart', and if you show any signs of interest at all they pounce straight on you. I personally didn't buy anything and thought that the fact they were there at all was more than a little distasteful.
Overall, Chichen Itza is a fascinating place that must feature on every visitor's 'to-do' list, after all, it isn't every day that you get to visit one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, but do be prepared for the fact that it does come with all the trappings of a popular tourist destination.
"At the mouth of the well of the Water Magicians"
Better known as Chichen Itza it may be, but the translation has a certain ring to it. As the name suggests, the ancient Mayan site is built around a revered body of water; the Sacred Cenote. This area of south-eastern Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, has an unusual relationship with the wet stuff; there is no fresh surface water anywhere across the land mass. Instead, it runs underground; a vast subterranean network linking up a series of pools hidden away in caves and sinkholes - Cenotes, such as that around which Chichen Itza was constructed.
The classic image of Chichen Itza (voted one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World" in 2007), however, is El Castillo, a great pyramid close to the entrance of the site. A striking structure aesthetically, it almost hides a number of secrets not immediately apparent - tally the steps (ninety-one on each of the four faces, plus the one on top) to get the number of days in the year; visit the pyramid at sunrise or sunset on either the Spring or Autumn equinox to see how the remains of the sun slither down the north face of El Castillo to join up with the carved serpent's head at the foot of the steps, creating for a moment a creature of light. There is also a second pyramid built inside the one you can see, accessed via a narrow doorway, at the top of which sits an ornately carved throne taking the form of a Jaguar. Sadly, INAH, the body which maintains the site, closed down climbing of both the inner and outer pyramid by tourists in 2006. Views from the top of El Castillo were good, but not unmissable - more of a shame is the lack of access to the inner sanctum; an experience that allowed you to get something of a behind-the-scenes view of Chichen Itza. Still, the site is a very large one, and there's no shortage of other nooks and crannies to explore.
Exploration of Chichen Itza is very easy; the site, in a large jungle clearing, is flat and well-maintained, and buses take tourists right up to the gate, making access easy for visitors of all ages. Pleasingly, though, a good balance has been struck - the ruins have been well enough looked-after to make visits and tours easy, but the powers-that-be have resisted the urge to meddle too greatly with the site, and the vast majority of it is free of overt signs of modern interference. For the most part, you can explore at your leisure, and enjoy a refreshing level of freedom.
Visitors come from all over Mexico, perhaps most of them ferried in from Cancun and its busy international airport, some two or three hours away to the east. Merida is the nearest big city, around an hour and a half north-west of Chichen Itza. There's also accommodation at and around the site itself for those who want to miss the mid-morning rush as the tour buses arrive.
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A Walking Tour: Going Clockwise
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El Castillo looms in the centre of the clearing the entrance leads into, and makes a logical place to explore first. Perhaps a good way of getting one's bearings and ensuring you see the key parts of the ruins is to imagine Chichen Itza as a clock face, with the pyramid in the centre. If the entrance is behind you at six o'clock, head for seven/eight o'clock and walk through the Ball Court (Juego de Pelota). A flat, grassed area perhaps half the size of a football pitch with two high, slightly curved walls along either side, this served as the arena in which the Mesoamerican Ball Game took place. The exact rules are not known, but the basic goal was to force a ball through the stone rings built into the tops of the walls, which remain intact today - ritual sacrifice was thought to often be a part of the game, although it was also likely played simply for entertainment.
Walking towards the nine o'clock end of the site, you'll come across a path leading to the Sacred Cenote, into which the inhabitants of Chichen Itza would throw offerings in times of drought, attempting to summon rain. Initially the Cenote was thought to receive only valuable items such as gold, precious stones and wooden objects, but the discovery of human remains in the waters suggested a sacrificial purpose.
Further towards twelve, the Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns are well-preserved ruins which give an impression of the great structure which once stood here. The Temple of the Warriors (Templo de los Guerreros) is out of bounds to visitors, but one can see the Chac-Mool (a finely carved stone reclining figure) atop the stairway. For closer exploration, the Group of the Thousand Columns allows freer, extensive wandering - some of the smaller, enclosed areas emerging from the surrounding jungle are especially interesting, firing the imagination.
The remaining half of the "clock" features ruins typically less well-preserved than the newer structures. Perhaps the most impressive of these is El Caracol (literally, "the Snail", but often referred to as the Observatory, its presumed purpose), a slightly worse-for-wear but nonetheless imposing building.
Chichen Itza is a site with plenty of inherent beauty and spectacle, and can be explored independently, but such is the wealth of history and blend of fact and speculation behind the ruins, this is one excursion to which a guide can really make a difference (and I say this as someone with a substantial dislike of guided tours). Perhaps tag along with a tour for the first few sites of interest then wander off to explore at your leisure - three hours of listening to a guide, however good they are, can be a rather wilting experience in the hot sun (another reason to arrive early).
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A body such as INAH is always faced with a difficult task in trying to appease two equally persuasive parties; those who would regard preservation and further excavation of the site as paramount being one of the influential voices, those catering for the needs of the tourist and the money they bring the other. On the whole, a good job is done of finding an adequate middle-ground at Chichen Itza. It's a shame that El Castillo is effectively now a look-don't-touch piece, but the change was doubtless made for good reason. The tourist generally has plenty of freedom around the site, and isn't herded around in the controlled manner of a few other sites. It's testament to the sensitive management of Chichen Itza that it is at once extremely accessible and relatively untainted. A beautiful site with a fascinating, often mysterious history and a wealth of secrets, Chichen Itza deserves its place as a wonder of the world, and is one of Latin America's premier attractions.
I visited Chichen Itza in July 2003 as part of a two week stay in Playa Del Carmen. Chichen Itza is located around 120 miles to the west of Playa Del Carmen. Having already visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum, I was really keen to see what is considered the crown jewels of Mexico's Mayan sites. The trip I took was organised through Kuoni and the cost for both transportation and the entrance to the site with a guide was $60 US Dollars. The guide went by the name (I kid you not) Duran Duran!
The journey from my hotel, the Riu Tequilla, to Chichen Itza took around 3 hours and involved an early start. The drive intially along the Mexican highway 307 was a comfortable one until the turn off from near Tulum onto a Mexican A road which wasn't built for bus transport. This route though does get you right off the tourist track and gives a taste of the real Yucatan lifestyle of the locals. Our bus also stopped for 3o minutes in the busy bustling city of Valladolid.
From Valladolid it is just another 15 miles to the great Mayan site of Chichen Itza. The first thing that you notice even when we pulled up at 10 o clock in the morning is the number of tour coaches already parked up at the site. Chichen Itza is one of the most visited sites in all of Mexico. With this in mind if you are on a tour, it is a good plan to remember either your buses pick up site or at least a few features of it to help you find it again.
Chichen Itza then is a huge Mayan site which has the massive iconic Pyramid of Kukulucan at its heart. The Mayan translation is loosely 'at the mouth of the well of itza' and it is a massive site spread over a half mile square. It was first established, it is believed, around the later part of the 9th century during the Classic Mayan period. Established in the Northern Mayan lowlands is was an important site in terms of its location and was a major trading city.
Amazingly the site itself was only re-discovered in the late 19th century by an American explorer who on a trip through the jungle stumbled on the massive pyramid. The whole site was bought for $75 by Edward Thompson, a Harvard professor who got to work with machinery and assitance to fully explore the site and open it up from the jungle to the site we have today.
A few quick tips for you. Firstly as with any trip in the Mexican sun that isn't to a local bar, make sure you take loads of drinking water as the heat of sun is intense. Secondly at Chichen Itza try and make sure you get a good guide. Duran Duran was great and really bought the place to life.
We entered through the Western entrance and the first massive ruin we came across was the Major Ball Court. The Mayans played an ancient ball game where the participants used their elbows, hips and knees to knock a rubber ball around, with the aim being to get the ball through a small hole varying in height from the floor depending on the ball court. This can be observed being played at Xcaret near Playa Del Carmen and seeing it was a great spectacle. The ball game was a team sport with the winning team all being sacrificed to the Gods after the game! This I believe is still present in Mexican football today. Can anyone name a great Mexican centre forward!!
The ball court in Chichen Itza is the biggest in all of Mexico at around 120 meters in length. Around the court are massive stadium seating areas that surround the court which at the southern end have statues engraved into them. The Mayan rulers had their own Royal box area sectioned away from the hoi polloi. Duran Duran, our guide and not the 80's pop group, also demonstrated the incredible accoustics of the ball court with his voice from one end travelliing the full length of the ball court.
On exiting the ball court we got our first sight on the amazing El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcan). At 25 meters tall this would have been an amazing discovery when someone walking through dense jungle stumbled across the it. At the time of our visit it was still possible to climb to the top of the tower up two of the sides. Duran Duran advised us that the year we were to be there was to be the last year that it would be possible to climb the pyyramid so I feel really priveledge to have made the climb. From a distance the pyramid doesn't look steep but take my word for it it really is steep. I am a good and confident climber but hate coming down and the severity of the descent is quiet scary. Being Mexico there are no ropes or safety rails to assit you in the climb or at the top. The top of the pyramid gets very crowded and it can be quite disconcerting trying to take photos with people joslting and pushing you nearer the edge. On top of the pyramid is another temple but the best thing about the top is the un-believable view.
For 360 degrees all you can see is tropical jungle with the incredible ruins of Chichen Itza in the foreground. With the heat and humidity and the stunning blue sky, standing on top of the great pyramid, it makes the Western world and work seems a different life ago. This is an amazing never to be forgotten sight and experience. Even writing it now, 5 years later, I can remember the heat, the view and the beauty of Mexico. The phots I have from the top are amazing. You get great views of the Temple of Los Guerreros and Chac Mool seemingly guarded by the hundreds of stone columns which seem to act as stone warriors.
The pyramid then and some amazing facts about it. Firstly the design of the pyramid. Nothing is chance or fluke, this is an incredible piece of architecture and mathematics. Firstly the pyramid is a reflection of the Mayan calender. The four stairways of the pyramid have 91 steps equalling (I'll do the maths) 364 with the top platform being the last step 365. Days in the Mayan calender = 365! The Mayan months, 18-20 months are also reflected in the number of separate platforms that descend the stairs. However the most amazing is yet to come. If you visit the pyramid around the equinoxes (March 20th or September 21st (ish)) the pyramid comes alive. The pyramid was built in such away the the shadow cast by the sun on the days of the equinox makes it appear that a masssive snake is climbing up the corners of the pyramid. How impressive it is that the ancient Mayans were able to build such a massive structure with such refinement and science at a time when, in Europe, basic maths was an issue.
Oh and theres more. Inside the pyramid is another pyramid which it is possible to enter. There are always massive queues to get in and the route to the centre is not for those who dislike cramped spaces. However it is well worth the time and the queue to get in. Inside is the amazing Jaguar Throne with eyes of jade that looks like it has just been left a few hours before. The pyramid and the throne are absolute wonders and no visit to Mexico is complete with seeing the great pyramid.
Their are numerous other smaller ball courts, pyramids and temples around the site and I would suggest that with long travelling time you give yourselves at least 4 hours at the site to have a wonder. The other great site our guide took us to the was the Sacred Cenote (the well). The well itself is a short walk of about half a mile north from the pyramid. In itself it is just a well but the guides story of the virgins that were sacrificed into the well bring the place to life. in 1923 divers exploring the site and the Cenote did indeed bring back skeletons of numerous men, women and children!
The only problem with any visit to this incredible site is the lack of decent eateries either on the site or around. I suppose being ruthless and business like the restaurant owners around the site are not looking to build up a loyal and returning customer base and to this effect the food is not of any great standard. It is very much tourist scran quickly prepared and cooked and quickly forgotten. This however is just a minor quibble being in such an incredible place.
Chichen Itza is an absolute must see on any visit to Mexico and anyone with an interest in the Mayan people will be in absolute heaven wondering around in the footsteps of an amazing civilisation.
The only thing better than an early morning start to a tour is when your allocated time passes and you're still waiting and waiting at the pick-up point. Luckily for me, one of the guys who works at the tour place turned up early for work and called the company to see where they were. They thought they were meeting me in Playacar, but somehow they were still there within 5 minutes which is weird since Playacar is further away than that. We set off eventually about 8am with a guide called Gerry, a Dutch couple and 3 Spanish families. First stop is barely an hour down the road in Tulum where we have a pit stop to use some lovely broken toilets with even more broken doors. I buy a fancy-ass Magnum (as eaten by Eva Longoria) and promptly drop half the chocolate down my top (the turquoise Tesco tank which exactly matches by fancy-ass rucksack).
2 hours and some interesting Mexican music later we are at Chichén Itzá. Gerry meets up with another tour leader and the groups combine and then split up by language. Somehow I end up going with the Spanish speaking lot because "it will be good for me". Still, I assume I'll understand as much of that as I will of the English tour given my distinct lack of knowledge about all things archaeological. The tour turns out to be quite interesting -Gerry uses the minibus keys to draw us diagrams in the dirt, and we learn how everything (literally everything) about Chichén Itzá is precise - how many pillars over there? 7...like 7 days. How many walls? 2....because the Mayan people liked balance. How many levels to the pyramid? 9....like 9 months' gestation. What is 7+2? 9. It all seems a little too thought up after the event, but it's an interesting theory. We wander round in the baking sun for 2 hours. You can't climb El Castillo anymore, but it's the focal point and everyone has their picture taken in-front of it. I snap a few shots of some interesting fashion choices for visiting an ancient, supposedly sacred, ground. In the ball court we count headless bodies play tennis, baseball and basketball (don't ask) and like every other tour group there, we clap and listen to the echos.
The rain starts just as we are leaving. There are two main options to a tour like this - lunch first, culture second, or culture first, lunch second. We're doing the latter so now we're leaving for a lukewarm lunch while the groups who got the hot food are now going to get soaking wet exploring the site. Lunch is just up the road and is buffet style. The biggest of the Spanish families (who I take as parents, daughters and one daughter's Italian boyfriend) invite me to sit with them and buy me drinks, I tell myself in return for a little light lunch entertainment in the form of me speaking Spanish. We go up to the buffet which includes bilingual signs that include the food name and then a spicy / non-spicy label. I guess they've had some shocked taste-buds before, though you wonder why since this is Mexico. In between the refried beans and nachos, they have PLAIN BREAD (with no icky seeds) and GARLIC SPAGHETTI. Afterwards they come out with mini fairy cakes, icing and sprinkles. It's the best buffet ever, and much more edible than I expected for £23 for the whole day. While we eat some of the staff dance for us. It starts off the sort of dance we'd have done at Lowther back in the day (lots of stamping and step-turn-pivot) but soon progresses to them dancing with first individual bottles then trays of bottles on their heads. It's a little odd.
Despite the internationally accepted guidance to the contrary (we discuss it in 3 languages) we follow the large lunch with swimming in a cenote, an underground freshwater pool. This one is stunning, and not too crowded despite the number of tour busses at the entrance, but it is also freezing and full of massive black hungry looking fish which you can see due to the wonderful clarity of the water. Needless to say, I admire from the edge without feeling the need to plunge in.
Back above ground / on dry land, we head off to our final stop of the trip, Valladolid where we find the oldest church in (?the state, ?the country, ?the world). It's old, anyway, dating from 1552, and it's the main reason people stop in the town. In front of the church is the town's main square which has ace twin seats, apparently for courting couples, as well as benches bearing local women selling embroidered hankies and Dora the Explorer balloons. Inside the church is nothing like the grand cathedrals of European capitals, but it's nice in a sweet, subdued way. At 4.45pm we set off back towards the coast, once again going through a military checkpoint which is a kinda weird thing to find in the middle of an otherwise barren landscape. I get a tour of Playacar (which I absolutely, positively did not sneak into yesterday) as we drop off the other guests. It's been a good day.