One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza—meaning "at the mouth of the well of the Itza"—is Mexico's most-visited archaeological site, a magnificent display of the advanced civilization of the Maya people and the ceremonial center of the Yucatan.
Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage site, made up of many stone buildings in various states of preservation, all connected by a network of roads called sacbeob. The three most well-known of these monument complexes are El Castillo, the Temple of Warriors, and the Great Ball Court.
The highlight of Chichen Itza's Mayan ruins is the Kukulcan Pyramid, known as El Castillo. Mesoamerican cultures occasionally built larger pyramids on top of smaller ones, and this is the case for the 79-foot (24-meter) step pyramid of El Castillo, where an excavation discovered a temple with an elaborate jaguar throne. History and archaeology buffs would do well to choose a tour that combines a visit to Chichen Itza with the ruins at Ek Balam, Coba, and Valladolid. Alternatively, choose a tour with access to the Mayaland Resort and a buffet lunch.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Many tours are led by archaeologist tour guides, who are well-versed in Mayan culture.
- The Ossario group and Central group are open to everyone; Chichen Viejo (Old Chichen) is only open to archaeologists.
- Come prepared for the heat with light clothing, sunscreen, bottled water, and a hat.
- This popular site can get extremely crowded—book an early-access tour to beat the crowds.
How To Get There
Chichen Itza is roughly two hours from Cancun, Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, Quintana Roo by car. Visitors to those coastal resorts will have plenty of options for day trips to the archaeological site. Departures are also available from Cozumel and Merida.
When to Get There
The best time to get to Chichen Itza is at opening time, before the crowds arrive and the sun is high in the sky. Some private tours and small-group tours offer early access to the ancient ruins. At sunrise and sunset on the spring and fall equinoxes, the corner of the pyramid casts a shadow of Kukulkan, a feathered serpent god, creating the illusion of a snake slithering down the north side with the sun's movement.
The Cenote Sagrado is also an impressive natural site at Chichen Itza, featuring a sinkhole gateway into an underground body of water 197 feet (60 meters) in diameter. Another nearby cenote is Ik Kil, and some Chichen Itza day trips combine visits to these freshwater sinkholes on the Yucatan Peninsula with a stop at the ruins.