On the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico

Chichen Itza, Mayan Metropolis

by | Apr 19, 2016


It’s awe inspiring to soak in the beautiful Yucatán archaeological site of Chichén Itzá, which is a universally recognized symbol for all things Mayan and indigenous in Mexico.  It is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, and serves as an enduring symbol of cultural pride for both modern Mexico as a nation and millions of people of indigenous descent in the Yucatán today.  Chichén Itzá is certainly one of the greatest cities and centers for technological achievement in the pre-Columbian Americas. 

El Castillo, 10 story tall pyramid at Chichen Itza

El Castillo, 10 story tall pyramid at Chichen Itza

This supercity was a Mayan urban center for nearly 500 years starting about 750 AD.  Although internal strife initiated a slow decline in the mid-1400’s, Chichén Itzá never left the consciousness of Maya peoples of the Yucatán.  It was first investigated by westerners in 1842, capturing the public imagination and beginning a long series of archaeological excavations that continue to this day.  It was designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. 

Kukulcan the Feathered Serpent, at Chichen Itza

Kukulcan the Feathered Serpent, at Chichen Itza


Drawbacks to visiting are the incredible heat and humidity you must endure most days. Also, be aware that the Mexican tourist industry holds a closely guarded secret.  Inside the park, lining all the paths are a thousand or more (NOT an exaggeration) aggressive vendors.  More on this issue below in the section “Current Socio-Economic Stalemate”.  These trinket vendors are mostly local residents and descendants of the Mayans, yet many of the products they sell are made in China.

Chichen Itza Vendors Before the Crowds

Chichen Itza Vendors Before the Crowds


Despite the situation mentioned above, it is still possible to have a wondrous visit to this step backward in time. Here are two ways to manage your visit, plus a third option.

  1. Stay near the site. There are several nice hotels and B&B’s. The advantage to this strategy is that you can be in the park first thing when it opens several hours before the vendors arrive, set up and begin trolling for the multitudinous tour bus traffic. We highly recommend hiring a personal guide, who your hotel will be happy to recommend. These guides are very knowledgeable, take time to explain everything in detail, and will be very responsive to your questions. This makes for a high quality experience. The park also has a light show after dark, which the tour bus folks never even hear about, because they are long gone before it begins. A further advantage is that during the heat of the day when the crowds are thickest and the vendors most obnoxious, you can drive to one of several near-by cenotes for a refreshing swim.
One of Several Cenotes Near Chichen Itza. Cool off after a hot visit!

One of Several Cenotes Near Chichen Itza. Cool off after a hot visit!


2.  Rent a car and drive yourself. All the considerations above apply. It’s about 2-2.5 hours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, so that would make for a long day trip. If you don’t stay on site, consider the vicinity of Valladolid for lodging to shorten your drive. There are also good restaurant options there.

3.  Forget Chichen Itza and visit the ruins at Coba instead. The ruins at Coba are very impressive, considerably less well known and make for a really enjoyable experience. It’s much more mellow and laid-back. Up until 2016, visitors were allowed to climb the large pyramid there for the spectacular view over the jungle, but they have now halted that practice in favor of site preservation. This is about 1.5 hours drive from Tulum, further south on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Coba - Less Well-Known Cousin of Chichen Itza Mayan Archaeological Site.

Coba – Less Well-Known Cousin of Chichen Itza Mayan Archaeological Site.



Chichén Itzá translates as “At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza” from Yucatec Mayan, a reference to the on-site Sacred Cenote where offerings were made to ruling deities and from which the city derived much of its water supply. Look skyward at a multistory pyramid and feel centuries peel away to experience awe for your priestly class and aristocratic rulers.  Sense the pride of being a citizen of the most progressive empire in the world, centered in the magnificent white limestone city of Chichén Itzá.

Nightfall at the Mystical Pyramid of Kulkukan at Chichen Itza

Nightfall at the Mystical Pyramid of Kulkukan at Chichen Itza


To the plaza’s west side is the largest Ball Court in all of Mesoamerica. It’s almost 2 football fields long, surrounded by walls 30 feet high.  Guess they didn’t want the players running off.   The acoustics there are still so good that a spoken word from the seating area at one end is clearly heard at the opposite end, almost 200 yards away.  Imagine that – outstanding acoustic engineering before the discipline was even recognized!

Tour Group Learning About the Incredible Acoustics at the Largest Ball Court in the Americas - Chichen Itza

Tour Group Learning About the Incredible Acoustics at the Largest Ball Court in the Americas – Chichen Itza


The ceremonial monuments of Chichén Itzá’s Great Plaza are primarily dedicated to the worship of Kukulkan. It is interesting that the same deity was known as Quetzalcoatl among the Aztec peoples to the north.  The Plaza is dominated by the 10 story tall Pyramid of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo) with an 18-story-wide base.

The Feathered Serpent, Kulkulkan, Descends the Pyramid at Chichen Itza

The Feathered Serpent, Kulkulkan, Descends the Pyramid at Chichen Itza


Off to the side, the equally impressive Temple of the Warriors is a four-platform structure surrounded by 200 round and square columns with bas-relief carvings depicting individual warriors. Interesting to speculate on what greatness resulted in being memorialized in a column.   Atop the Temple Ruins is a statue known as Chac Mool.  In fact, ruins on the south side of the Great Plaza are mainly dedicated to the Maya deity Chaak (or Chac), a curl-nosed divinity primarily associated with the bringing of rain.  This illustrates the value of water to Chichén Itzá, located in a dry tropical forest environment where drought could easily bring widespread famine.

Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza is Dedicated to the Mayan God Chac, Known as the Bringer of Rain

Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza is Dedicated to the Mayan God Chac, Known as the Bringer of Rain


Most intriguing is the unusual structure known as the Caracol, a cylindrical stone structure with a domed roof. The Caracol is one of the oldest standing observatories in the Americas, and highlights the great importance that astrological phenomena held for the people of Chichén Itzá.  A 13-century-old observatory, and we consider the Maya to be a “primitive” people!

Observatory of El Caracol at Chichen Itza

Observatory of El Caracol at Chichen Itza


Towards the beginning of the 7th century, this Maya agricultural region saw increasing population density and the construction of some permanent structures. It was during the 9th century, however, that the settlement began to turn into a city, and by the early 10th century, Chichén Itzá was a regional powerhouse. Small-scale warfare and political intrigue were commonplace during the city’s long and powerful reign as a center of culture, commerce, and military might unparalleled in the Maya world.

Centuries-Old Frescos by the Maya at Chichen Itza

Centuries-Old Frescos by the Maya at Chichen Itza

Civil wars began in the mid-1400’s. Throughout its decline, Chichén Itzá (particularly the Sacred Cenote) continued to be a place of pilgrimage for all Mayan lineages, even while it lay mostly uninhabited. The civil wars continued for almost a hundred years, fracturing potential Maya alliances against the Spanish, who subjugated the peoples of the Yucatán in 1546.

Columns at Chichen Itza the May Have Supported a Marketplace Roof

Columns at Chichen Itza the May Have Supported a Marketplace Roof


The peaceful intermingling of multiple culturally-differentiated tribes of Maya peoples is wonderfully evident throughout Chichén Itzá. This integration was encouraged by the cult of plumed/feathered serpent, Kukulcan, who promoted communication and peaceful trade.  Somehow, over time, this function morphed into that of War Serpent, to whom sacrifices were made.

Kukulkan to the Maya and Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec of Mexico

Kukulkan to the Maya and Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec of Mexico


The site’s core has sustained considerable wear, suffering years of over a million visitors annually scaling monuments that in the pre-Columbian past likely saw only the footprints of a small cadre of social and religious elite. Public access to climb the monuments was revoked in 2007.

Carvings Dedicated to Curl-Nosed Deity Chac at Chichen Itza

Carvings Dedicated to Curl-Nosed Deity Chac at Chichen Itza

Beyond the fully restored 3 mi2 core area of Chichén Itzá, the actual ruins of the city and overall archaeological zone extend over 16 miles and hold many unexcavated ruins and areas of high historical/archaeological significance.  Both the core and the overall archaeological zone actually occur on private land.  Though the core area is under the official stewardship and protection of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), the surrounding areas are not under any state protections and are primarily utilized for agricultural purposes by village cooperatives and individual landowners. All these issues together make for a site with a well-maintained core, in danger of being overwhelmed by tourism, which may render the site unsustainable.

Jaguar throne of the Mayan Ruler at Chichen Itza

Jaguar Throne of the Mayan Ruler at Chichen Itza



The din of a thousand vendors yelling, “One dollar for you pretty lady!” or “Cheaper than Wal-Mart!” can cause enough distress to make some forget all about their enthusiasm for history.  Being an elementary school teacher, my blog partner was able to draw upon her superhuman powers to tune out.  As a photographer having my arm grabbed, I wasn’t able to do as well, resulting in what I consider substandard photos for this post.  Sorry.  

One of my photos gone awry when the vendors grabbed my arm. Nice tree, though...

One of my photos gone awry when the vendors grabbed my arm. Nice tree, though…

These local people live in extreme poverty and need to be able to eke out a living.  The government of Mexico collects fees from 1.5 million visitors each year.  Hopefully a solution will be reached about the vendor problem.

Decapitation Frieze Following the Mayan Ball Game at Chichen Itza

Decapitation Frieze Following the Mayan Ball Game at Chichen Itza


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Kukulkan Nights Light and Sound Show at Chichen Itza

Kukulkan Nights Light and Sound Show at Chichen Itza After Dark

Have you been to Chichen Itza recently? We’d love to get your impressions.  Just leave a comment in the form below to get the discussion started.

Small Ball Court at Chichen Itza. Equivalent of Spring Training?

Small Ball Court at Chichen Itza. Equivalent of Spring Training?

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