Chichen Itza Travel Guide: Mexico’s Wonder Of The World!

Chichen Itza Mayan Temple Mexico
The Ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, Mexico

The history of Chichén Itzá is not for the faint of heart. These ancient Mayan temple ruins in Mexico are shrouded in mystery and have a way of haunting you long after returning.

Once you finally get past an army of local vendors at the entrance, the ancient stone carvings of fearsome creatures and bloodthirsty warriors at Chichen Itza inspire awe and trigger unease at the same time.

This pre-Hispanic city (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) has a fascinating 1,000-year-old history. It is the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico, partly due to its close proximity to Cancun.

Located in the Yucatan Penninsula, the ruins are extensive and cover 740 acres. Many sections have still never been excavated.

While wandering around this massive archaeological site in Mexico, I kept wondering what hidden treasures lay undiscovered beneath my feet.

In this travel guide, you’ll learn tips for visiting Chichen Itza, along with some interesting history about the most popular Mayan ruins in Mexico.

My Chichen Itza Travel Guide

Chichen Itza Sculpture
Jaguar Head Sculptures
Temple of Kukulcan
Temple of Kukulcan

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.

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El Castillo the Temple of Kukulcan
El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza

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.

Stone Columns
Hall Of A Thousand Columns
Warrior Temple at Chichen Itza
Temple Of The Warriors

Temple Of The Warriors

The 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.

Ball Court at Chichen Itza
The Mesoamerican Ballgame
Mayan Ball Game
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.

Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza
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…

Chichen Itza Temples
La Iglesia Structure
Chichen Itza Stone Carvings
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.

Chichen Itza Cenote Ik Kil
Popular Cenote Ik Kil
Cenote Zaci in Valladolid
Less Crowded Cenote Zaci

Swimming In Cenotes Nearby

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.

Entrance Vendors Selling Trinkets
Navigating the Local Vendors

How To Get To Chichen Itza

Rental Car

The best site to book your car is Discover Cars. They search both local and international car rental companies to help you find the best possible price. This is the easiest way to rent a car in Mexico.

CANCUN – Chichen Itza is 197 km (2.5 hours) from Cancun by car.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN – The ruins are 181 km (2 hours) from Playa del Carmen.
MERIDA – Chichen Itza is 119 km (1.5 hours) from Merida by car.
VALLADOLID – Chichen Itza is 45 km (45 minutes) from Valladolid by car.

If you’re looking for a more adventurous route from Cancun, the “libre” road runs parallel to the main toll highway and goes through a bunch of smaller villages for a more authentic feel of Mexico.

Parking your own rental car at Chichen Itza costs $30 MXN ($1.50 USD) per day.

By Bus

Mexican ADO Bus Service from Cancun to Chichen Itza costs about $202 MXN ($9) one way and takes 3 hours. From Valladolid, there’s bus service every 30 minutes for about $26 MXN.

Collectivo Taxi

Colectivos (shared taxis) leave the town of Valladolid from a lot just east of the bus station and cost about $35 MXN ($2 USD).

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.

Chichen Itza Pyramid
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 inside the 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

  • Chichen Itza Tickets cost $242 MXN ($11 USD). If you pay in cash, only pesos are accepted, but you’ll save 10% because credit cards cost extra.
  • You can rent a luggage locker at Chichen Itza for $40 MXN to hold large bags or valuables.
  • Chichen Itza has a “light & sound show” that starts at 7pm in the fall and winter or 8pm in the spring and summer. It’s included in the price of admission.
  • Try to visit first thing in the morning when they open, or late in the afternoon to avoid the huge tour-bus crowds.
  • Consider splurging on a guided tour. There are information plaques at each attraction, but nothing like the insight you’ll get from a local guide.
  • 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.
  • The mediocre food on-site is expensive. You can get much better stuff down the street at the village of Pisté for a lot less.
  • Avoid the vendors selling souvenirs at the entrance. Yes, tourists support their livelihood, but many of them sneak in without authorization, and it’s become a bit of a circus.

Chichen Itza Map

Chichen Itza Map
Getting Around the Ruins
Travel Planning Resources For Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza Entry Fee: $242 MXN ($11 USD)
Opening Hours: 8am – 4:30pm

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Book cheap flights on Skyscanner, my favorite airline search engine to find deals. Also read my tips for how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Cars is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent local apartments on Airbnb ($35 discount!). Read my post for tips on booking cheap hotels.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Yucatan
Suggested Reading: The Maya: Ancient Peoples & Places

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Here's everything you need to know before visiting Mexico's Chichen Itza archeological site! One of the 7 Wonders of the World. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Here's everything you need to know before visiting Mexico's Chichen Itza archeological site! One of the 7 Wonders of the World. More at ExpertVagabond.com

READ MORE MEXICO TRAVEL TIPS

I hope you enjoyed my guide to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

Have any questions about the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

THANKS FOR READING

Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
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Comments (12)

  1. We are getting married in Mexico in November and really wanted to see Mexico as part of our wedding/honeymoon so your guides and advice are so helpful! Thank you for sharing your tips!

  2. This definitely makes me want to put Mexico even higher on my bucket list! Love these photos and I’m going to share this on my blog!

  3. Love the photos. We went in 2016. Really looking forward to going back in 2019. We loved the village of Piste. The street flooded calf-deep when we were there. We sat in the red plastic lawn chairs, eating our panuchas and watching the world go by like the water was no big deal.

  4. Great article! I have always wanted to visit a cenote, so I appreciate the advice on the less populated ones, I would be a bit sad to go visit one and feel like I am in a tourist trap!

  5. COOOOOOOOL!! I have only been to Mexico once in 2012 but have been DYING to go back ever since. Reading this makes me want to buy my tickets right now LOL!

    • Well, the winter solstice is only a few weeks away on December 21st! You could be down there for the famous serpent shadow on the pyramid… :)

  6. Historic sites like these with scientists still uncovering fascinating facts (pyramids inside of pyramids?!) are my favorites. It’s just more proof that we never know everything, and there’s always more to explore!

  7. Excellent write-up, Matt! You did not just write a guide, but also add facts and showing historical points that make us readers even more interested in visiting Chichen Itza. I’m a sucker for places with haunting histories and this page will surely come in handy when I finally make it to Yucatan, Mexico!

    Keep up the great work!

    • Hey Pete, glad you enjoyed it! The history at Chichen Itza is pretty fascinating and really adds to the visit. Apparently, there’s a red & jade Jaguar throne at the top of the pyramid too! Wish we could have seen that…

  8. Thanks for sharing! we are planning a trip to Chichen Itza by plane from our cruise port in Cozumel. We were going to take a bus there but learned that we would only get 45 min there….

    • Oh no! Yeah 45 minutes is definitely not enough time to explore this huge Maya site. And there’s so much to do nearby too, I’d recommend a dedicated trip via rental car if possible.