Chichén Itzá, arguably the most impressive Maya site on the Yucatán peninsula, lies about three hours from Playa del Carmen. Its famous pyramid offers a challenging climb and a breathtaking view over the jungle. This ruined city has several hundred buildings, of which about 30 have been fully restored. Some have been partially restored and others are still covered with the vines and bushes of the jungle. In this article you will get a short presentation of the history and some of the buildings of Chichén Itzá and practical facts and tips for your visit. Also check out our suggested day trip and companion travel description.
The city was founded around 850 AD and it flourished during the following two or three centuries. You will hear and read many old legends about Chichén Itzá, still passed on as truths, but here's what we know now. Chichén Itzá was the most cosmopolitan of Mayan capitals. During the few centuries that this city was at its height, the Mayan built temples with influences from Puuc, Toltec and Mixtecan architecture. An all over Mexicanization can be seen also in art and ceramics throughout Chichén Itzá, proving international trade and cultural exchange. The Itzaes, rulers of Chichén Itzá, were a Maya-speaking tribe from Central Mexico - the periphery of the Mayan realm.
You may hear that the Toltecs invaded Chichén Itzá, but this theory is considered old and incorrect. It's true that there is evidence of Toltec influence in Chichén Itzá, but there are also plenty of evidence of other cultures. The Group of the Thousand Columns is an example of influence from the Toltec capital Tula, but there are Mayan features in Tula also. So who influenced who? Most likely there was a constant interchange between the peoples of Mesoamerica. Because of Chichén Itzá's great power and importance, many other cultures are represented in this site. The Toltec god Quetzalcóatl is also said to have been introduced to the Mayan at Chichén Itzá, as seen at the bottom of the staircase of El Castillo. However, the same feathered serpent god was worshipped by the Mayans, but under the name Kukulkan. Either culture can claim him as theirs. Again, a sign of extensive international exchange throughout Mesoamerica.
In the late 12th century the Itzaes were driven away from Chichén Itzá by rivals and ended up in Tayasal in Guatemala, which is today known as Flores, near the Mayan ruin Tikal. They kept their traditions alive there on their island on the Lake Peten Itza for centuries and were eventually joined by other Mayans fleeing the Spanish. They continued the practice of human sacrifice, a fate bestowed on many Spanish soldiers and priests venturing that far inland. They finally surrendered in 1697, as the last independent Mayan city. After Chichén Itzá lost its importance around 1100 AD, it remained somewhat inhabited until shortly before the Spanish invasion. In the mid-16th century, the conquistador Francisco de Montejo used the site as his headquarters in his attempt to conquer the Yucatán peninsula. Again it was laid to rest until the late 19th century, when excavations begin. At the museum by the the entrance, there are some interesting photos of what the ruin looked like at that time.
Once you make it past the turnstiles at the entrance, you won't have far to walk until flattened by the view of the main pyramid. El Castillo, or The Castle, is probably the most well-known Mayan structure in the Yucatán Peninsula. This four-sided 23 meter/75 foot high pyramid is a truly impressive building. It must have been absolutely amazing to see it with its walls covered with the original stucco, painted in yellow, red, green and blue. The Mayans decorated their temples elaborately with murals and hieroglyphs. El Castillo stands as testimony to the Maya’s superiority as builders and mathematicians. The surfaces are massive, detailed, and sharp. The sophisticated Mayan calendar is incorporated in the architecture of this pyramid. One example of this is that the number of steps on each of the four sides is 91, adding up to 364, which together with the top platform equals the number of days in a year. On the days of spring and fall equinox, the edge of the shadow from the sun, falls exactly on the corner of the pyramid, leaving one side in total sunlight and the other in total shadow. Furthermore there is a shadow running down the north staircase taking the form of a snake; hence the carved snakeheads at the bottom of the staircase as well as the pyramid’s Mayan name Kukulkán, the plumed serpent god.
El Castillo was originally built before 900 AD. The monument you see today is somewhat younger, though. This grand structure holds an amazing surprise - the older original pyramid can be visited from inside. It can be entered from the north side, where there's a small door. Having reached the top of the narrow damp staircase, you will be rewarded with a sight of a Chac Mool and a red jaguar statue, intact with jade spots and inlaid eyes. The interior can be accessed starting at 11 am, and it gets hotter and damper throughout the day, so be there first. The outside can be climbed at any time, and if you're up for the challenge, don't miss out on this opportunity! You will never forget the feeling of standing on this ancient ceremonial center and and see only ruins and jungle around you. About twenty meters in front of the staircase facing the ball court is a 'clap zone.' There are several places throughout the ruin complex where an echo effect is heard. Whistle, clap, or, our favorite, yodel.
Other interesting structures in this part of Chichén Itzá include The Temple of the Warriors, with its famous Chac Mool statue, which is adjacent to the unique Group of the Thousand Columns - one of a kind in the Mayan World. The temple has been closed to visitors for its protection, but feel free to slalom around the many columns. This is the most obvious evidence of the Toltec influence, as it has many features in common with the Toltec's ancient capital of Tula, situated close to Mexico City - a whole different part of Mexico. The columns are amazingly straight and aligned, one to another. This is a great place to snap the classic 'head poking out from behind the column' shot. Another supporting vistage is the Temple of the Skulls, covered with carvings of, you guessed it, human skulls. This platform shaped structure is believed to have been used to display the heads of captured warriors and human sacrifices. This habit of displaying heads, sometimes on poles, was still in use when the Spaniards arrived, leading them to judge the Mayans as savages. Which, if you look at it in the light of the Spanish Inquisition, is as much a double standard as you can get.
Chichén Itzá also boasts the biggest Mayan ball court in all of Mesoamerica. It has plenty of carvings showing the violent end of game, which included human sacrifice. It's not clear, however, whether it was the losing or the winning team that had to join the gods after the game. The ball game played an important ceremonial role in the Mayan society. It seems as if it had special significance in Chichén Itzá, since there are 13 ball courts throughout the site. Judging from carvings and other art, it was played with a rubber ball, using only hips and elbows. To really appreciate this part of the complex, imagine yourself playing to the death, trying to bang a ball through the hoops way up there, using your hip! It seems almost impossible to score at the ball court in Chichén Itzá, so maybe only the most skilled players were allowed to play at this important religious center. The ball court is another example of the Mayans highly evolved building skills. The acoustics are spooky. You can hear someone talking in a normal voice from one end of the 168 meter long court to the other. If you’re by the hoops the echo of a clap will sound seven times. Just outside the Ball Court, you'll find the Lower Temple of the Jaguars, where it's still possible to make out some of the colors on the walls.
Only a short walk from El Castillo is the southern section, sometimes wrongly referred to as Old Chichén. On your walk you'll pass several buildings, some them unexcavated, helping you to appreciate the work involved in restoring giant structures. The buildings in this section are mostly Puuc style, with exquisitely carved facades of animals and flowers. An interesting feature in this part of Chichén Itzá is the Observatory, also called El Caracol. The building is named after the Spanish word for conch, due to its interior winding staircase leading up to the top. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb around on this building. The 10th century observatory is quite unique in Mayan architecture and one of Chichén Itzá's most important buildings. Stones could be removed from the dome, enabling the Mayans to better isolate and study the stars. The Observatory was built over several centuries and is more Toltec, although the base is originally Mayan.
Also in the southern section of the city lies the Nunnery (Casa de las Monjas) and the Church (La Iglesia), both being spectacular examples of Mayan architecture and art. Despite the names of these buildings, their usage is still unknown. Some archaeologists believe that the Nunnery, with its many rooms, was a palace for royalty. For the conquistadors it resembled a European convent and so it got its name. The Church has some interesting carving on the façade, alternating the god Chuc with images of animal gods. You can make out a turtle, a crab, a snail and a armadillo. Also next to the Nunnery lies Akab-Dzib, which is believed to be the oldest building in Chichén Itzá. In some of the interior rooms there are still faint traces of red hand paint.
Buildings are not the only interesting features of Chichén Itzá. Highly important in this Mayan society was the Sacred Cenote, that gave the city its name. Heading north from El Castillo, it's only a short and easy walk to the cenote, which is a 60 meter/190-foot wide, almost perfectly round pit. Human skeletons of men, women and children, possibly sacrificed to appease the rain god Chac, have been found. Many, however, may have just fallen in and drowned. Apart from that, a large number of artifacts have been found, such as idols, jewelry and jade. Some object are from other parts of Mexico, leading archaeologists to believe that pilgrimages were made to the Sacred Cenote long after Chichén Itzá was abandoned. To get there you’ll actually walk on an ancient Sacbé, which means White Road. The Mayans built roads through the jungle, connecting the big cities. These roads were built in perfectly straight lines, some short and some as long as 100 km. They were wide and built up on platforms for a majestic travel experience. These roads are another proof of the advancement of Mayan engineering, as they hardly had any elevation points where to get their bearings, yet the roads are flawlessly straight. There is another cenote, Xtoloc, which is situated between the northern and southern part of the city. This cenote supplied drinking water for the city.
Another part of the complex, Old Chichén, is reached via a dirt path starting to right of the Nunnery. It's a 20-30 minute walk to get there and there are some more buildings, most of them are not excavated. Most people give a pass on this section, sometimes feeling ruined out by this point. You should have a keen interest in Mayan architecture to make it worth while, along with a good supply of bug repellent and a local guide.
Chichén Itzá is open 8 to 5:30, 365 days a year. Get there early, so that you avoid the biggest crowds as well as the worst heat. During high season, tour buses from Cancun fill the place with, eh, tourists from Cancun. If you leave early, you can beat them there, and greatly increase the enjoyment of your day. There, we said it twice. Leave early! The entrance fee is 88 pesos per person, which is about 8 dollars. Kids under 13 get in for free. Every night at 8pm there's a sound and light show, when the buildings are bathed in colored light and the history and legends of Chichén Itzá are narrated. Double check at the entrance, sometimes the machinery doesn't work. The bookstore by the entrance has a good selection of guide books and other books about the Mayans. Throughout the ruin there are plaques giving you information on the individual buildings in three languages, English, Spanish and Mayan. Do consider hiring a local guide. Usually they are quite knowledgeable, though you may hear a few old myths being passed on as facts. There are guides that speak English, Italian, German and of course Spanish. The price is fixed, 250 pesos for a one-hour tour and 350 pesos for two hours. There is a free article check service by the main entrance where you can leave your belongings while exploring the ruin. Apart from the big restrooms at the main entrance, there are two other places on the site where you can use the restroom and buy some refreshments.
Do be careful when climbing the pyramid! There's an ambulance standing by all day, but there are not a lot of accidents. Their most frequent tasks are helping people that suffer from heat stoke or lowering people down from the pyramid when finding themselves dizzy on top. On our last trip to the site, we asked the paramedic about accidents climbing up the Castle. In five years working there, he has taken care of three people that fell down the steps. Remember, among others uses, the pyramids are believed to be have been used for swift sacrificing. Watch your step. Bring water, a snack, a hat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and wear comfortable shoes.
Chichén Itzá can be reached easily from Playa del Carmen. Most tours operators have trips to Chichén Itzá, with guide included, and some of them include the visit to Valladolid and Dzitnup cenote. The price varies widely, as does the quality of the transport, guide, and included lunch. As is often the case, if you book this tour from your friendly all-inclusive hotel travel rep, you may be charged upwards of 60 dollars per person. We've seen the package go for as little as 30 dollars, for a Sunday visit, booked through one of the many 'Hey amigo, I got what you looking for' kiosks on Fifth Ave. The service normally runs every day, and you usually don't have to book it until the day before. It's nice to be taken there effortlessly, but you will probably get there just in time for all the other tour buses to come in. Even if you are in a smaller bus or a van, they may wait for other vans and you will end up being in a big group after all. If you rent a car, you can go at your own pace, arrive earlier at the ruins, beat the crowds (during high season), and meander as you wish. Plus we think that it's tastier to eat antojitos in the Zocalo in Valladolid than the buffets in Pisté included in most of the tour packages. Of course, someone will have to drive. Unless there are three people in your group, renting a car and going it on your own is a little more expensive, once you figure in fuel and tolls, but freedom doesn't always come cheaply. It's an easy drive in any case.
You can also take the local bus to Pisté and swing it yourself. There's no problem getting from Playa to Chichén Itzá on the bus and there's even a little bus station at the site, so you can go directly between the ruins and Playa del Carmen! Bus schedules are subject to change. Check the terminal at Juarez and Fifth Ave.
You will get the most out of your visit to the ruins and the day in general if you rent a car and drive yourself. It will take you about 2˝ to 3 hours to get there. Please read about driving in Mexico in our section Getting Around. From Playa del Carmen, there are two ways to get to Chichén Itzá, both take about the same time. The highway is slightly longer, but easier and safer, so you can drive faster. It will also cost you money. There are two toll booths on your way to Chichén Itzá, which will cost you 185 pesos (about 18 usd) in total. If you decide to drive, please read our detailed description.
We suggest leaving early, so that you can combine the visit to Chichén Itzá with a stop in the colonial town of Valladolid. It is a interesting little town with a quaint main square, which in Mexico is called El Zócalo. Just outside the town you will find the magnificent cenote Dzitnup, which should not be missed. Read more about Valladolid. A really nice way to do it is to take the highway to Chichén Itzá and the local road back, via Valladolid. That way you get to Chichén Itzá quick and easy in the morning and the day will give you a Mayan ruin, a fantastic cenote, a little colonial town and drive through villages in the Yucatecan countryside. A great day!
Go north on the highway, leaving Playa. After about 20-25 minutes you’ll get to Puerto Morelos, where you should fill up on gas if needed. You won't pass another gas station for almost 200 kilometers. Keep going towards Cancun and about 20 minutes later you'll get to the exit. Turn towards Mérida and Chichén Itzá. You're now on the cuota highway, which means you'll have to pay to use it. Once you're on it, get used to the view, as it will not change during your trip. Jungle, jungle and more jungle, interrupted only by little houses in the middle of nowhere, often marked by a tire or a bottle hanging in a tree. After 90 kilometers you get to the border between the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán, where there's a toll booth. There are also restrooms and a kiosk. And customs, but very rarely do they stop anyone. The toll for the car is 145 pesos, about 14 dollars. After the border keep going for another 105 kilometers. About halfway there's a gas station. By the next toll booth, follow signs to Chichén Itzá/Pisté to the right. The toll here is 40 pesos, 4 dollars. After about 10 minutes you get to Pisté, a little town right next to Chichén Itzá and a good place to eat some brunch to get your strength up for the visit to the ruin. In Pisté you go left to reach the ruin, there's a sign. It's only a few minutes to the ruin; keep right in the Y-crossing. And you're there! Parking is 10 pesos, about a buck. From Playa to Chichén Itzá, it's about 280 kilometers.
On the way out of the ruin, make your first right after you leave the driveway up to the ruin at the Y-crossing, towards Valladolid. Keep going on this pretty country road for 40 smooth kilometers, until you see the sign for Dzitnup heading right. Follow this turn-off for a few minutes and you'll find cenotes X'keken on the left, and Samula on the right. After the visit go back to the road and head right, towards Valladolid. After 2 kilometers there’s a sign for the old convent of San Bernardino and after yet another kilometer you have reached Valladolid. Entering town, you'll pass two gas stations. You are now driving on Calle 41, which will take you to the Zocalo, the main square. Park here and walk around a little. Have antojitos in the market place on the north side of the Zocalo.
To go back on the paying highway, follow sign that says Cancun cuota. It is actually a longer trip via the pay road, but if you like to drive really fast in a straight line, its the way to go. We prefer the more interesting route continuing on the free road, especially if you are not driving at night. To continue on the free road, get back on Calle 41 in the direction you were heading when getting in to town. After about 2 kilometers there's a sign saying Cancun libre. Ignore it! Keep going for another 25 kilometers or so (passing a village, so look out for topes, speed bumps), when you reach a big crossing (just after passing a road sign stating you're by KM186). Take a right towards Tulum. After about 30 kilometers you get to an intersection where there's a sign to the right saying Cobá 2 km. This crossing is kind of odd looking. The road circumnavigates a large depression in the middle of the round-about style crossing. This is actually an improvement over the old switch-back style that used to cause a lot of people to get confused here. You'll want to head straight through the crossing. The road to the right leads to Cobá and the road to the left to Cancun. If you get confused, there is a small inspection station right there. They are used to pointing people in the way of Tulum. That is where you are headed! After 11 kilometers you pass a village. If you don't, turn back, ‘cause you're taking the long route home. Don't be afraid to ask people to make sure, Mexicans are helpful and friendly. Entering and leaving villages, be prepared for marked or unmarked topes, speed bumps. They can seriously damage your car, so please invite everyone in the car to play the popular Mexican car game 'Spot the Tope'. After a further 33 kilometers and another village, you get to a crossing with a traffic light. You're in Tulum. Turn left. You'll pass the Archaeological Zone and a gas station, then, and after about 50 minutes on the highway, you're back in Playa del Carmen.