2014 has been such an incredible year for me to explore two of the greatest lost civilizations of the Americas: the Inca in Peru and the Mayas in Mexico. The history of these cultures usually isn’t highlighted very much in the traditional American education system, so most of what I learned about them were from documentaries or the Internet.
We made a very last minute, spontaneous trip to Peru to visit Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lima (see Cusco: Heart of the Inca Empire and How To Get To Machu Picchu) and that trip definitely made up for lessons missed. It also inspired me to visit ancient sites of another civilization I’d been wanting to learn more about: the Mayas.
History of Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá is one of the most recognized sites that showcases the magnificence of the Maya Empire. Once the bustling center of Maya civilization, the city was occupied from A.D. 750 – 1200 and boasts spectacular stepped pyramids and temples. The Maya originated in modern-day Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico about 3,000 years ago and were skilled farmers, created a sophisticated language, and possessed advance mathematical and astronomical knowledge (as shown by the Maya Calendar).
The most well known structure of Chichén Itzá, the Temple of Kukulkan, depicts in the importance and accuracy of Maya astronomy. The temple has 365 steps to represent each day of the year and during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadow that falls on the pyramid takes the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, a shadowy snake (along the humps of the stone steps) takes form to join the stone serpent head at the base of the pyramid.
Every major Maya site also has a ball court; the one at Chichén Itzá is the largest found in the Americas. It’s not entirely known how the game was played, but it’s believed to have some similarities to modern day soccer and basketball. Competitions had high stakes – losers (and sometimes the winners) were put to death.
The Yucatán has thousands of gorgeous cenotes (sinkholes) that attracts countless visitors every year and the Maya were no exception; they were mesmerized by them as well (see The Cenotes of The Yucatán & Quintana Roo Are Purely Magical). They viewed them as being sacred sites, some of them portals to the underworld. Live sacrifices to the Maya rain god were done at a few of the cenotes close to Chichén Itzá as archaeologists have found bones, jewelry, pottery and other precious objects within them.
Despite the magnificence of the Maya Empire, their downfall is still a mystery. Whether it was drought, Spanish invasion, disease, or they just simply abandoned their incredible cities, there is no known record of why they left.
With all its intrigue, mystery, astounding architecture, impressive understanding of astronomy, and rich cultural history, Chichén Itzá is well-deserved in being named one of the New Wonders of the World.
How to Get to Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá is located near the small town of Pisté. Bus services are frequent and connect to the international airports at Mérida (2 hours) and Cancún (2 1/2 hours) and the city of Tulum (2 1/2 hours). Tours are available from these cities as well. You can rent a car and drive yourself if you wish; parking costs 10 pesos at the site.
When to Visit Chichén Itzá
The ruins are open daily. Chichén Itzá’s climate is tropical with average temperatures around 93ºF (34ºC). You can see the shadow serpent of the Temple of Kukulkan if you visit during the spring and autumn equinoxes, but keep in mind the site will be completely packed during these times. If you’re visiting Chichén Itzá on your own without a tour, it’s recommended to get there early before the tour buses arrive.
What to Bring to Chichén Itzá
Make sure to bring plenty of water and a hat if possible. Wear sunscreen – the sun can be brutal – and wear comfortable shoes as there is a considerable amount of walking. There is a museum, restaurants, restrooms, gift shops and local vendor stands at the site, so be sure to bring cash if you’d like to do some shopping.
Negotiating prices is expected, but I usually don’t like to push too much (call me soft if you will!) – tourism supports the local economy and the people work hard for a living. Obviously pay a fair price and don’t get screwed over!
- Climbing to the top of the pyramid is not allowed.
- The site is open to visit every day of the year between 9am – 5pm.
- Entrance fee is 111 pesos per person and includes a light and sound show in the evening. The show is at 7pm during fall and winter, 8pm during spring and summer.
- Head phones for translations are available and costs 25 pesos.
- Lockers for bags and suitcases are available at the entrance.
Chichén Itzá has rapidly become a more popular tourist site in recent years and I’d consider it a must-see at some point in your life. So many people seem to prefer Cancún, Cozumel or Tulum (which has its very own Maya ruins to check out) for their beautiful beaches, but with Chichén Itzá only a bus ride away, it would be a shame to miss! It truly is a mysterious, interesting, and culturally humbling place to experience.