History of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. This Mayan city is located in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and is quite easy to reach from Quintana Roo. The name Chichen Itza means “a the mouth of the well of the Itza”. The well refers to the underground rivers that pass under the site, providing water to the city. Itza is said to mean “enchanter or sorcerer of the water”.
This ancient Mayan city had an area of 4 square miles (10 square kilometers). It is unclear when the area was first inhabited, but estimates place somewhere in the 5th century AD. As previously mentioned, the location was picked because of the underground rivers which formed four cenotes. This part of Mexico is very arid, so having a source of water meant survival.
By the 7th century, this place was an important political and economical center. Chichen Itza became the regional capital of most of the Yucatan peninsula by the 9th century. Isla Cerritos, its port on the northern coast, allowed the city to trade goods with other cities in the Americas. It is believed that as many as 50,000 people lived in this place, with a population of immigrants that would come as far as Central America.
The reasons behind the demise of Chichen Itza are unknown. Most would think the fall of this Mayan city had to do with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, but this was not the case. This was a prosperous city and a trading hub until the 1400 or before when its inhabitants left. There are several theories, including drought or that it was looted.
Historians believe that city of Mayapan took over the place of Chichen Itza around the mid-1200s. By the time of the arrival of the conquistadores most Mayan cities were abandoned and people were living in small towns. Excavations of the site began in the 19th century, after it had been taken over by the jungle.
What to see in Chichen Itza?
The archeological site is divided in two halves: the south zone from the 7th century and the central zone from the 10th century. Earlier structures include the Iglesia (Church), Casa de las Monjas (Nuns House), the Observatory (El Caracol), Chichanchob (Red House) and Akabtzib (House of the Dark Writing).
The most impressive structures are in the central zone which was built with the help of the Toltecs, another indigenous group. These structures have a fusion of architectural styles which include Puuc and central Mexican.
The terrain had to be leveled to be able to build some of the biggest structures, like the Pyramid of Kukulkan or Las Monjas (a government building). All buildings were connect by a network of paved roads or sidewalks called “sacbeob”. Archeologists believe that the buildings in Chichen Itza were painted in bright colors such as red, green and blue.
Pyramid of Kukulkan or El Castillo
When the Toltec warriors arrived at Chichen Itza they found the Itzaes, who were very cultured, but were not ready for war. They took over the city easily and shared their deities. Quetzalcoalt was their main god, which the Mayans called Kukulcan.
Kukulkan is a feather snake deity which climbs across the pyramid on the spring and fall equinox. It is possible to see it two or three days before and after starting at 3:45 p.m. This effect is caused by the sun casting a shadow on the stairway that resembles the body of the snake. At the bottom of the staircase is the serpent’s head which is the only part that has sunlight.
The Pyramid of Kukulkan is also called El Castillo because it is such an enormous temple with a height of 79 feet (24 meters). This building has four sides facing a cardinal direction. The pyramid will be the first building you will see when you enter Chichen Itza. In 2015, scientists discovered there is a hidden cenote under the Pyramid of Kukulkan, which hasn’t been examined by archeologists. They also discovered that was another pyramid built before which had a red jaguar throne with jade studs.
Chichen Itza has the largest ball court ever found in Mesoamerica, with 545 feet (166 meters) long and 223 feet (68 meters) wide. However, there were at least 13 courts in the entire complex. All Mayan cities had ball courts where bloody and sacred games were played. Hoops were carved with images of plumed serpents on both sides of the long walls. The ball court is U-shaped. To the east, the Temple of Jaguars and Shields presents processions of dignitaries and battle scenes.
Temple of Warriors
Sitting across the Pyramid of Kukulkan is the Temple of Warriors. It has a stone where human hearts were left as offering to the gods. This temple is one of the largest within the complex. Its entrance has several hundred tall stone pillars that surround the sides and the entrance. Statues of warriors and soldiers adorn the temple where they were worshiped.
The Observatory or El Caracol
Mayans followed the planet Venus, so they built an observatory to trace its orbit across the skies. On top of a tall temple mound sits a circular building that is partially collapsed. Mayans used this temple to keep their calendars up to date. The Spanish called this temple El Caracol, meaning the snail, because of the spiral stair case or the shape of the building.
The sacred cenote is located at the northern end of the archeological complex. This cenote was where the Mayans sacrificed humans (killed before being thrown according to wounds and marks found in the bones) and objects to worship the rain god Chaac.
At the entrance of the archeological site you will find a machine and a plaque that tells the story of Edward Herbert Thompson who bought the Chichen hacienda and dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910. An interesting fact to note is that Chichen Itza was privately owned until 2010. Edward used a special dredging machine and a professional diving suit to extract the treasures found under water. He took out thousands of artifacts and fragments from offerings.
It is not clear what he found, since a lot was damaged and there were no records. Objects were most likely made of ceramic, metal, stone, wood, shell, human and animal bones, gold, turquoise, jade and incense. Most objects were taken out of Mexico illegally and were donated to the Peabody Museum in the University of Harvard. Just a few were returned and can be seen in museums in Mexico City and Merida. In 1960-61 and 1967-68 new attempts were done to try to remove the rest of the offerings, but it was not possible even with more modern techniques.
How to get to Chichen Itza?
We drove from Tulum since it was faster than the other places we visited. Renting a car in this part of Mexico was very complicated and expensive, as we had found when we flew into Cancun airport. Some of the rental companies give cheap prices online and when you arrive they want to charge triple the amount claiming that you have to pay for your insurance costs. Many credit cards cover car rental insurance, but they would not seem to accept this without putting the total value of the car on your credit card as deposit. Seriously, who can put 10,000 as a deposit?
Quintana Roo was pretty much the only place open for tourism in the world in January and February of 2021. Because of the high demand so many of the car rental places were sold out or simply had crazy prices. We had to go to several rental companies until we finally found one that was reasonable and I still had to put quite a high deposit amount on my card.
The drive from Tulum to Chichen Itza is about 2 hours using an extremely expensive toll road 180D. When visiting Mexico you will soon discover how expensive it is to drive there. This single lane road (one for each side) cost about $20 extra. Gasoline is also super expensive, like the most countries in Europe. On this highway you can go as fast as you like since there are no cops, which is a good thing.
After the highway you go from Quintana Roo into the Yucatan province. There will be a small kiosk that tries to force you stop in order to sell tourist activities. When you change provinces, you actually change time zones, so make sure to turn your clock one hour backwards.
On the way back we did not take the toll road and it took us about 30 minutes more to return to Tulum. We stopped in Valladolid, a charming town, to have dinner at Yakunaj Cocina Mexicana. This restaurant is delicious and very inexpensive.
It is also possible to go from Playa del Carmen or Cancun to Chichen Itza using the same toll highway 180D. This will take 2:30 hours and if you use the free highway 180 it will take you 3 hours. Those going from Merida will get there in 1:30 hours.
Those that don’t want to drive can take an ADO bus (best to book tickets in advance) or book a tour.
General Info about your Visit
When we reached Chichen Itza we actually got a bit lost trying to find the entrance and ended up in a hotel. There is paid parking in the historical site, but you can also park outside and walk about 10 minutes.
One day in Chichen Itza is enough, but there are beautiful cenotes around the area and other archeological sites to explore like Ek Balam. So those who want more time can sleep in a hotel in Valladolid. The advantage is being able to take a 45 minute colectivo (public bus) to the archeological site. Doing so will allow you to beat the crowds since they start as early as 7 a.m.
Admission costs were raised recently, so there is a big difference between what foreigners and Mexicans pay. There are two entrance fees, one is for the Institute of History and Anthropology of Mexico (INAH) and another for the Ministry of Culture of Yucatán (Cultur). There is a light and sound show called Kukulkan Nights that starts at 7 p.m.
When is the Best Time to Visit Chichen Itza?
Keep in mind that this “New Seven Wonder of the World” is the most visited archeological site in Mexico, surpassing Teotihuacán since 2019 when Chichen Itza received 3.46 million visitors. Numbers have gone down since the pandemic because of restrictions, but it is still quite crowded.
November through April are the busiest months. May, June, September and October are slower months, but the weather may not be as good. If you are going during crowded months it is best to go early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Chichen Itza is open from 8 a..m. to 5 p.m. Tours come closer to noon, because of the distance.
Many areas of the park have open fields, so the sun may be very strong for those who are not used to it. Make sure to bring a hat and sunscreen, as well as water. Most people will spend about 2 to 4 hours in Chichen Itza. This arqueological site could be as mystical as Tikal in Guatemala, except it is full of people who sell souvenirs and harass tourists.