Chichen Itza travel guide - Must see sightseeing, things to do, top 5 tips, food review, photography inspiration, advice and information

Chichen Itza travel guide – Must see sightseeing, things to do, top 5 tips, food review, photography inspiration, advice and information

Marvels of the Mayan world

Whilst staying near Tulum we took a guided tour to the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, set deep in the rainforest of the Yucatan peninsular. It’s 95 miles from Tulum and took us 2 hours by bus, if you’re going from Cancun it’s 122 miles. We were very excited as it was our chance to see our first ancient pyramid and we’ve never been to Egypt.

Chichen Itza is over 1,500 years old and unsurprisingly a UNESCO World heritage site it was also voted one of the 7 Wonders of the New World. Rich in stone architecture Chichen Itza comprises pyramids, temples, palaces, a ball court and cenotes (natural sinkholes) It’s arguably Mexico’s best known Mayan site and easily the best restored site of Mexico’s Mayan ruins where feathered serpents and skulls are a running theme. There was never a Mayan Empire instead the Mayan civilisation was interconnected by a large number of cites like Chichen Itza with individual rulers and their own governments built across Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, then called Mesoamerica.

 

El Castillo

The highlight of Chichen Itza - The Pyramid of Kukulkán

The highlight of Chichen Itza – The Pyramid of Kukulkán

The main attraction of Chichen Itza is the magnificent El Castillo also known as The Pyramid of Kukulkán, it was a religious temple dedicated to the Mayan feathered serpent god – Kukulkán.

As we entered the site, we were both excited to witness another of the world’s architectural wonders close up.  El Castillo dominates Chichen Itza standing at 24 metres tall with another 9 metres on top for the temple, El Castillo is a perfectly hand made pyramid with 9 levels and 4 faces, this gigantic pyramid symbolised nine heavens and the four points of a compass. Each side has 91 stone steps, together with the temple platform makes 365 – a significant number which matches the number of days in the year, no coincidence as the Mayans were advanced in mathematics, astrology and architecture.

The Temple of Kukulkán

The Temple of Kukulkán

El Castillo’s main purpose was for religious ceremonies and human sacrifices at the Temple of Kukulkán at the top, which if you look closely is not symmetrical it’s actually positioned slightly off centre as the Mayans believed only the gods were perfect.

The serpent head of Kukulkán

The serpent head of Kukulkán

The North face has two serpent heads of Kukulkán at the bottom of the steps, they look towards where the Mayans believed the gods lived in the sky, while South is where the underworld gods lived.

El Castillo was an impressive sight soaring into the sky, you can imagine how the Mayan population would have been in awe of this towering pyramid. we loved it’s simplicity and thought it looked best viewed from a distance. Visitors are not allowed to climb El Castillo or visit the temple chamber anymore after a tourist fell and died in 2006.

 

El Castillo’s secrets…

El Castillo has many secrets

El Castillo has many secrets

In the 1930s archeologists found another smaller pyramid within El Castillo containing a chamber with a throne in the shape of jaguar, painted in red, and spots made of jade, we wondered what it was used for?

Another secret is revealed twice a year on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, when late afternoon a long shadow is cast from the corner which resembles a snake slithering down the pyramid to the serpents head at the base.  Wow! what an incredible illusion and a feat of precision engineering, testament to the Mayans astronomy skill, even Phil being an engineer was impressed!

Clapping hands to hear the Mexican quetzal bird

Clapping hands to hear the Mexican quetzal bird

The other secret is the acoustics and sound design. Stand halfway between the North face and The Platform of Venus and clap your hands, amazingly the sound reflected back sounds just like a chirping bird, it’s supposed to replicate the Mexican Quetzal bird.

The Platform of Venus - where iguanas are the latest residents of Chichen Itza

The Platform of Venus – where iguanas are the latest residents of Chichen Itza

Clues to the past - paint on some of the walls

Clues to the past – paint on some of the walls

Look closely around Chichen Itza as Garth did and you will find some of the original paint on the walls – clues to the past that walls were covered in plaster and painted red and turquoise.

 

Battle to death at The Great Ballcourt

This is the largest Mayan ballcourt ever discovered

This is the largest Mayan ballcourt ever discovered

The other main sight of Chichen Itza is the ancient Great Ballcourt with its imposing parallel 9 metre high walls. Players had to hit a hard rubber ball through 2 stone goal rings set high up on each wall. The ball game was called Pitz and was played across the region where each Mayan site had its own ball court. Chichen Itza’s is the biggest court discovered in the whole of ancient Mesoamerica.

Goal! - the stone ring decorated with snakes and monkeys

Goal! – the stone ring decorated with snakes and monkeys

Players were only allowed to use their elbow, knee or hip and the ball was not allowed to hit the ground. The high priests would have sat and watched from the throne chambers at either end. But it was a deadly game where the losing team’s captain was beheaded! or was it the whole team? historians are not 100% sure, high stakes or what?!

A Jaguar head inside the Great Ballcourt

A Jaguar head inside the Great Ballcourt

Mayan hieroglyphics along the benches of the Great Ballcourt

Mayan hieroglyphics along the benches of the Great Ballcourt

On each side are angled benches that run the length of the court, they are richly decorated with carvings – Mayan hieroglyphics depicting various scenes of the games. We wondered if the ball court is where J.K. Rowling got her inspiration for Quidditch?

 

The grizzly Wall of Skulls

The Wall of Skulls

The Wall of Skulls

Tzompantli also known as the Wall of Skulls is a large platform where the sides have bas relief carvings of skulls pierced by stakes. It’s believed people were sacrificed here and their heads put on display on horizontal racks. Our guide told us distinguished people were also sacrificed so the population didn’t rebel.

 

The Temple of Warriors

Temple of Warriors

Temple of Warriors

The Temple of the Warriors pillars with carvings of soldiers

The Temple of the Warriors pillars with carvings of soldiers

More rows of pillars that may have held up a roof

More rows of pillars that may have held up a roof

The Temple of Warriors is another stepped pyramid temple, with rows and rows of columns to the side which may have housed a roof. Historians are not 100% sure if its purpose but think it was used probably used as a meeting hall. Some of the square columns have carvings of warriors, sadly you can’t get up close to see them.

At the top of the temple is a reclining statue called Chac Mool.  The statue has a flat stomach where sacrificial human body parts would have been placed for the gods in the sky.

 

Tomb of the High Priest

Tomb of the High Priest

Tomb of the High Priest

More serpent heads

More serpent heads

There’s plenty of other ruins in Chichen Itza to explore, walk towards the Observatory and you will come across the El Osario Temple or Tomb of the High Priest. Basically a smaller version of El Castillo, standing 10 metres tall. This was a burial tomb where archaeologists found 7 tombs, there’s also plenty more carvings of the feathered serpent.

 

Excellent Time Keepers

El Caracol - the observatory

El Caracol – the observatory

Another walk will bring you to the crumbling ruin of El Caracol.  This was an observatory where the the Mayans would take in a 360 degree view of the stars.

Close up the upper 3 windows

Close up the upper 3 windows

The upper 3 windows were specifically designed to track Venus appearing and disappearing in the night sky. Their astronomical skills we so good, they could even predict solar eclipses. We thought it was interesting how the circular design looks pretty similar to a modern observatory.

The Mayans are famous for developing a 365 day calendar by closely watching and mapping the stars. It was actually 3 calendars that worked together to keep track of time, the moon and the sun. Only the rulers had full knowledge of the calendar as it was considered a great source of power. When you think of it’s age, it’s amazing that our calendar is based on theirs.

It’s not really known how Chichen Itza came to and end, its downfall was most likely down to drought, which reminded us of our visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia which was abandoned for this reason.

 

Other Chichen Itza sights

  • Las Monjas – was the government ’s palace. It’s richly decorated with geometric patterns and images of the rain god, Chaac.
  • Ceynotes – there are 2 large cenotes, these were a source of water. Cenote Sagrado also called The Sacred Cenote has a grizzly past where female victims were sacrificed to the rain god, Chaac who they believed lived in the well, other offerings included gold and jade. Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the Itza’s well”

 

Souvenir central!

Souvenir central at Chichen Itza

Souvenir central at Chichen Itza

What surprised us was the amount of souvenir stalls which line the pathways between the various ruins – handicrafts, textiles, skulls, t-shirts you name it!  But we’ll warn you now – some of the vendors take great delight scaring the tourists with a small pottery item which when blown into makes the sound of a pack of wolves, Phil got the fright of his life walking past one stall! haha!

Souvenirs for sale at Chichen Itza

Souvenirs for sale at Chichen Itza

Our guide told us even thought they have no licence to sell at Chichen Itza, the government ignores them, so you’ve been warned get ready for those hawkers all eager to catch your attention, a simple ‘no gracias’ does the trick.  And if you were wondering what happened to all the trees at Chichen Itza? apparently it was wood termites – contained within wooden souvenirs brought in from China, you’ll noticed many trees in the area have their trunks painted white to show they have been treated.

Chichen Itza’s popularity means you need to get here early in the morning, as soon as it opens if you can to avoid the hoards of crowds who arrive from 12 noon and into the afternoon. If like us you’ll probably take a day trip from your hotel, it’s worth paying a bit more for the tour operator that leaves the earliest. The good thing is you actually go back in time, by an hour as the government set a different time zone for tourism in Cancun and the Riviera Maya to the rest of Mexico, so there’s more daylight time to top up your tan!

You can of course stay nearby to appreciate Chichen Itza fully, there’s some retro looking motels nearby which look like they are straight from the 1950s. Then you can then take advantage of the nightly sound and light show on the site at 8pm or 7pm in the winter.

 

Cenotes

Cenote Hubiku - a magical underground sinkhole

Cenote Hubiku – a magical underground sinkhole

When you are looking for a day tour, look for ones that stop off at a cenote, which are natural sinkholes, there are lots of cenotes all over the Yucatan peninsula. After visiting Chichen Itza we stopped off at the Hubiku Ceynote where you can go swimming, and yes the water is cold! Seeing it was unlike anything we’ve ever seen, like a magical underground world!

 

Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Chichen Itza Tips

Phil and Garth and El Castillo

Phil and Garth and El Castillo

  • Tip #1: Average temperature is 35ºC so take bottled water and an umbrella is a must, as there’s very little shade.
  • Tip #2: Hoards of tourists arrive around 12 noon, so get here early as soon as it opens to avoid them and the fierce daytime sun.
  • Tip #3: Considering hiring a guide who will bring Chichen Itza to life, our guide Sergio was excellent.
  • Tip #4: You’re not allowed camera tripods – so don’t bother taking one.
  • Tip #5: You don’t get a map with your ticket, and there’s only a couple on site, so photograph the map at the Ballcourt to refer to.

How we did it:

  • We paid for an all-inclusive beach holiday with Thomson staying at the Sensimar Seaside Suites. From here we took a day trip with Chichen Itza Sightseeing with superb host and guide Sergio, who was very entertaining and knowledgeable. The tour also included a stop at the Hubiku Cenote plus a chance to see the historic city of Valladolid. Costs were approx £100 per person.

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Chichen Itza day trip and travel guide

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16 Comments

  1. Agness of Fit Travelling
    4th June 2017

    I keep replaying the video again and again! Awesome post!

    Reply
  2. Siddharth and Shruti
    21st April 2017

    For history buffs like us, this seems like such a dream! Definitely will visit Chichen Itza some day. Your photography is so amazing! Love all your posts. Hubiku Ceynote also looks like something we would enjoy. Thanks for the tips.

    Reply
  3. Only By Land
    21st April 2017

    I first visited Chichen Itza about 20 years ago and you could ascend the pyramid back then, in fact Pavarotti had just made a concert from on top of the pyramid. I do have my picture at the top of the pyramid but unfortunately the camera technology was not so good back then so it’s not a clear image. The images you guys have taken are magical and so detailed. I didn’t know about the sinkhole, does it look as good in real life as your image?

    Reply
  4. Carmen Baguio
    20th April 2017

    I teach ancient civilizations, so I would love to see this in person. It fascinates me how advanced the Mayan were with their engineering and how they were able to move all of the stone into place with such precision!

    Reply
  5. Shona @ paraphernalia.co
    20th April 2017

    I’m heading to Mexico this year so have pinned for reference. Great info & stunning pics as always! 🙂

    Reply
  6. Jen
    18th April 2017

    Your photos look amazing, as usual! I always want to visit the places you post. Now, I’m adding this to our must-see places, especially the Cenotes!

    Reply
  7. D of Love C and D
    17th April 2017

    Great post guys. The photos are beautiful and love the video. This is on my bucket list of places to visit so have pinned this post! The cenote looks magical too so would definitely like to see that. Thanks for sharing and for the handy hints.

    Reply
  8. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler)
    17th April 2017

    This is one of my bucket-list adventures to visit Chichen Itza. Love you hotel arrangements and you booked a day trip which had a hired a guide to take you to both the pyramid and the cenote. How fun and exciting. Great historical information with stunning photos and video as always! I pinned this for my later use. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Reply
  9. Anna
    17th April 2017

    Wow, this is truly a fascinating post with such interesting facts about the ancient Mayan culture. This is what that Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypse, is based on, right? I remember being super traumatized watching the movie at the human sacrifice part. So cool to see your photos of the ancient temple where it happened in real life. And that ballgame sounds crazy! How are you supposed to get it into the hoops and without it touching the ground, without using your hands?!

    Reply
  10. Sandy N Vyjay
    17th April 2017

    Always been fascinated by Mayan civilization. The Pyramid of Kukulkán is really magnificent and looks so intriguing. No wonder it has so many secrets within it. The phenomenon of the shadow is also very fascinating. Hope to get there someday.

    Reply
  11. Helena
    16th April 2017

    This is amazing. Mexico is quite high on my bucket list. I love the Mayan history, culture and the architecture they left behind. Great shots and info for this post!

    Reply
  12. Travel Lexx
    15th April 2017

    Absolutely love this post as this is somewhere I have always wanted to visit. The Mayan civilisation is absolutely fascinating and there is so much history here. Incredible architecture and I am glad you covered the ball court – I have read about this when I was a young kid and have always wanted to check it out and maybe try the game for myself! Sounds like you had a great time!

    Reply
  13. Paul and Carole
    15th April 2017

    I visited Chichen Itza many years ago when I worked as nurse on the cruise ship, you are right to advise to get there early as it gets so busy. Good tip about the water too as its gets so hot too. Excellent post and video as always! ~ Carole

    Reply
  14. Angie (FeetDoTravel)
    15th April 2017

    Chichen Itza and the Cenotes are both on my bucket list and I can’t wait to visit Mexico. I love the Mayan history and the story behind this wonder, it’s fascinating. I have to confess, I did find it rather amusing that Phil was scared by the hawker’s object which sounds like a pack of wolves – was it the noise or because he doesn’t like wolves? Pinned this for when we visit Mexico on our travels! #feetdotravel

    Reply
  15. Tracy
    14th April 2017

    I love your posts – even Mexico which has had little appeal to me and now looks tempting!!! Chichen Itza is a must see but I had no idea about the cenotes! They look amazing – would love to take a dip in one of those! Will pin!

    Reply
  16. Viktoria Kuzmenko
    14th April 2017

    Marvelous indeed!

    Reply

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