Chichen Itza is a Mayan archeological site located in the eastern part of the state of Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. With over one million visitors year it is it one of the most visited archaeological sites in the country.
In 1988 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 it was voted in a global survey as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But why is it so popular?
Chichen Itza was one of the largest of the ancient Mayan cities and despite being thousands of years old, the ruins have been well maintained by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History – to the point that you can build a picture of what happened here as you walk through the site.Chichen Itza was a center of pilgrimage for the ancient Maya for over 1,000 years.
The Mayas inhabited the city from 500 AD to 900 AD and later became a center for worship of Kukulcan. During the Equinox, thousands of visitors flock to see the infamous spectacle of light and shadow where it is said you can see the feathered serpent-god, Kulkulcan, crawling down the temple steps.
A fun fact – the main pyramid has 365 steps, the same number as days in a year and a testament to the Mayan’s astronomical knowledge.
Approximately 1.2 million people visit the ruins of Chichen Itza every year.
Despite its age, the incredible mix of architectural styles in its buildings and plazas includes more than ten vast temples and the unique Group of a Thousand Columns. El Castillo Pyramid towers in the centre of the site but there are hundreds of other buildings and causeways to explore.
For a one day tour it’s relatively pricey, with a tour out of Cancun to and around Chichen Itza ranging in price anywhere from $90 (£75) to $150 (£125).
- Soaring buildings and stunning colonnaded streets offer a relatively intact view of what ancient Mayan life could have looked like.
- The ancient El Castilo, spanish for The Castle, was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
There are direct flights to Cancun from the USA and Europe, and it is the perfect base to explore the Yucatan Peninsula.
Chichen Itza is often booked as a tour from Cancun or Valladolid, a town nearer by, in which case all of your travel will be arranged for you.
If opting to travel by public transport without a tour, you can either take a three-hour bus ride from the ADO bus terminal in Cancun or take a pre-organised taxi, but this is relatively pricey, given that the journey time is about 2.5 hours.
Most tours will stop off in other places of interest either en route to Chichen Itza or on the way back, so factor this in if you have other plans.
If you choose to go from the smaller nearby town of Valladolid, head to the ADO terminal and purchase a ticket (around 85 pesos) the day before or buy your ticket online.
Return buses leave the site at about 4.30pm and drop you back in town. Another option is to take a colectivo – which is a pre-organised minibus that takes you and a wider group to the site and waits there to bring you back.
Chichen Itza sprawls across a vast site.
The complex of ruins expands 6.5 kilometres, so be prepared to get your steps in, particularly if you want to cover every corner of the grounds.
Going with a tour will certainly be a slower event, and you won’t get to dictate your arrival or departure time.
Either way, you should bank on being at the site for at least four hours to really see everything and soak it up.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
Despite the stories that guides tell of the days when you could climb the steep pyramids and look out over the site, you can no longer able to climb the ruins at Chichen Itza and have not been able to for several years now.
This is to preserve the site and once you see how steep the pyramids are, you may be relieved. The site is flat so the difficulty in that sense is minimal.
However, walking anywhere in Mexico can be tough, with humid conditions and little shelter on the site from hot sun – so, come prepared. You are still able to climb Coba and Ek Balam, both of which are only partially excavated and worth visiting.
The site is primarily flat and open, so no trekking experience is needed.
Just wear comfortable shoes and consider bringing an umbrella to shelter from the midday sun if you don’t favour the heat!
The Chichen Itza entrance fee is 232 pesos for adults (about £10), paid on arrival if doing it yourself or taken care of by the tour company.
Guided or Self-Guided
Despite the size of the temple complex and the array of guided tours to choose from (either ahead of time or on arrival), it’s not crucial to pay for those to properly see the site and learn about its history.
The ruins are well identified by signs and their respective information is written in front of them with plenty of background information available for purchase or online.
Getting to Chichen Itza from either Vallodolid or Cancun is pretty straightforward, even if you don’t speak Spanish, and also significantly cheaper but going with a guide will take the hassle out of transport and entry and allows you to ask questions as you go.
If you do decide to opt for a guide, think carefully about whether you’d like a small and intimate group or 1-on-1 or whether you’d like to go as part of a larger tour. An insider’s tip is that because Chichen Itza is so crowded, it’s very doable to just eavesdrop on any guided tour.
Another bonus of going without a guide is that you can opt out before the complex starts overflowing with tourists and the sun hits its midday peak.
In terms of the site itself, there is no specifically better or worse time to walk Chichen Itza and it is open to the public year round.
The deal-breaker is the weather in Yucatan. For the best prices with reasonably low crowds, November and early December are perhaps the best times to visit the area.
Prices increase noticeably during the busy season of mid-December to April. As mentioned before, during the summer and spring equinoxes, Chichen Itza receives more visitors than ever – so it may be best avoided during these windows.
Bear in mind that Chichen Itza can get very crowded and hot, so it is recommended to go early in the morning to avoid these. The site opens at 9:30 a.m. and closes at 5:00 p.m.
As with many Mayan ruin complexes, you don’t need to follow a set itinerary and can just meander.
However, towards the centre you will find the highest concentration of structures and marvels and on the periphery you may see temple ruins in overgrown wilderness, with smaller structures and sites.
The most important buildings to see are:
- The Pyramid of Kukulcan or El Castillo – the most famous landmark and largest pyramid of Chichen Itza.
- Temple of the Warriors – a temple consisting of four platforms, flanked on the west and south sides by 200 round and square columns.
- The Great Ballcourt.
- The Temple of the Jaguars.
- Platform of the Skulls – where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed.
- Cenote of Sacrifice- a large limestone sinkhole that was used for sacrificial offerings.
Moving between these you will be drawn towards various other ruins and structures scattered around the site.
Accommodation options in Cancun range from five-star mega resorts to local B&B style housings run by local families.
For budget travellers and backpackers there are plenty of hostels scattered in and around the city with kitchens and shared areas for self-catering and relaxing after a long day at the ruins.
Virtually wherever you stay will be able to help you arrange a tour or bus tickets to Chichen Itza.
If you want to beat the crowds to the site in the morning – both for the photo opportunities and to escape the afternoon heat – it is worth staying in the nearby colonial town of Valladolid, which is just 30 minutes by minivan or taxi from Chichen Itza.
Here there are more authentic accommodation options but also plenty of hotels, hostels and apartments. Even in peak season there are plenty of places to stay across either area.
The Yucatan Peninsula is famous for its spectacular scenery and rich culture. From the architecture, to the people and their passion for dancing, to the outstanding food.
Those who visit Mexico are rightly drawn to the variety of its cuisine, with all its ingredients and flavors – whether you’re a vegetarian or meat-eater, a spice lover or not.
As well as Chichen Itza, other Mayan sites include Uxmal, Tulum and Coba Tulum in particular, though smaller than Chichen Itza and Uxmal, is a great stop for its location, right in front of the Caribbean Sea on a cliff top.
Cool off with a swim in the cenotes (natural sinkholes) and wear a pair of goggles to make sure you see the cave that extends well below the surface of the water.
If you like swimming, then head to any of the incredible beaches along the coast for oustanding diving and snorkeling. From coral reefs to the marine landscapes of Isla Holbox or the abundance of turtles in Akumal.
Merida, to the north, is one of Yucatan’s must see towns thanks to its colonial style architecture and bright colours and nearby white sands.
Wherever you choose to go, bear in mind the time of year so that you don’t get baked by the hot and humid summer temperatures or get squeezed out by the crowds of Americans who often fly south during the holidays.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
Chichén-Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
(shuttle bus from Cancun or Vallodolid)
|Finishes at||Chichén-Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico|
|Length of route||6.5 Km|
|Average time to complete||1 - Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||30 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, walking boots|