Chichen Itza was one of the most powerful cities during Mayan civilization. Sophisticated and highly decorative architecture built with mathematical and astronomical brilliance by the Maya, without any of the modern technology or tools at their disposal is simply astonishing. An estimated 1.5 million people visit this city of ancient Mayan ruins every year, which makes it a popular and busiest archeological sites in Mexico. It was elected one of the New seven wonders of the world in the year 2007.
It was a 2hr drive from our hotel in Playa Paraiso. Traffic on toll roads was smooth and road signs clearly posted all the way to Chichen Itza. The drive itself was bland and boring though. When we arrived at Chichen Itza (at 9:30am), we thought we made it fairly early but there was already a line at the ticket counter moving at snail's pace, and many inside the site already.
Chichen Itza is a vast area with many ruins scattered across that could only be covered by foot, no bicycles or bicycle carts were available or allowed like some of the other ruins. And all the ruins were roped off no longer allowing visitors to climb on them or enter the chambers.
First structure we saw as we entered the site was The Temple of Kukulkan. It is also referred to as El Castillo (the castle) and is the most prominent building in Chichen Itza. This step pyramid was built over a smaller structure known as the Temple of the Red Jaguar which is perfectly preserved inside till date, unfortunately no longer allowed to see. The pyramid consists of temples on the top with stairways on all four sides, each step representing one day of the year.
Sculptures of plumed serpents run down the sides of the northern stairway. During each vernal equinoxes the sun castes a shadow that appears of a serpent wriggling down the staircase. Legends say that the Maya believed that their serpent god "Kukulkan" came to earth to bless the worshippers with good fortune. A handclap near the base of the pyramid resulted in an echo, which many tourists had fun trying out.
Just opposite to the west is The Great Ball Court which is a large playground where the Maya played a sport believed to have religious significance. It involved passing a large rubber ball through a stone hoop several feet high, only with the use of knees, elbows and hips. Carvings on the walls depict a beheaded man, who is believed to be the losing captain in the game. It is also believed that the winning captain offered himself to be beheaded by the losing captain as a sacrifice to the gods, considering it to be the highest honor.
Each end of the ball court has raised temples, one of which is more wrecked than the other. High lords probably sat there and watched the sport.
There are chapters in Mayan history than can be daunting and horrifying. The Platform of the Skulls is a platform where carvings of skulls depicting the display of transfixed human heads can be seen, that could have been of sacrificial victims or defeated enemies. There were also relief carvings of warriors holding severed heads, eagles holding human hearts and also carvings of serpents across other ruins.
Yucatan being a limestone plain, cenotes (sinkholes exposing underground water) were the primary water sources for the Maya. The Sacred Cenote also know as the "Well of Sacrifice" located in the north end of Chichen Itza was used for worship and sacrifice. Maya believed that they could communicate with the gods by sacrificing humans - male, female and infants, the remains and other evidences like idols, jewelry, weapons etc were later discovered from the bottom of the cenote.
There is another cenote to the south called Xtoloc cenote, which is believed to have served as a water reservoir for utilitarian purposes, now looking like a dirty pond.
The Temple of the Warriors is another interesting structure. Like El Castillo, it is a large pyramid that was constructed over an older temple and flanked by columns depicting warriors at its base. Square columns have carvings of the warriors which were once painted in bright colors. There are a series of columns also depicting warriors, to the west and north side of the temple, that may have supported a roof when the city was inhabited.
As we were there fairly early, we saw vendors push around carts of goods to their spot on the grounds. They were setting up stalls on both side of the trails all across the site.
Ancient tic-tac-toe - is what many call this display of two identical carvings, which shows an impossible results of the game. I searched the internet for a proper name or explanation to this but in vain. Some say it could just be the game or it could be math or a complicated map. I am not a history buff or anything but I am a little curious to know.
By the end of our tour all the stalls were fully up and vendors invited tourists to their shops with great enthusiasm. They sold souvenirs, jewelry, beautiful wooden artifacts and even clothing.
It took us around 2 hours to tour the site under the scorching sun. On our way out, the entrance was so congested with tourists and more kept coming. The parking lot was full and cars were circling around for spots. We were glad we arrived when we did, otherwise we could have been one of those cars.
I want to conclude this post by saying that we were happy we didn't let the distance to Chichen Itza turn us down on our short trip to Mexico. This world wonder is not something to miss.
Read Next: Exploring Ek' Balam and X'canche Cenote
Where to stay: We stayed just north of Playa del Carmen as it is a good center for multiple attractions in the surrounding area. We stayed in Senses Riviera Maya by Artisan. Other best rated hotels in that area: Hotels in Playa del Carmen.
Getting there: We had rented a car. Driving is relatively straight forward if you are coming from US. This site is 185km/2hrs from Playa Del Carmen and 215km/2.30hrs from Cancun airport. Take highway 307 south towards Playa Del Carmen and follow signs to 305D and then onto 180D. Exit off 79 to a town named Piste. Follow signs to the ruins.
Toll: 4 tolls in and out. Total of $594 pesos ($28 USD). Toll roads are marked as “cuota” and have a letter suffix “D” (305D and 180D). Free roads are marked as “libre”. Free roads may mean slower traffic through towns and more speed bumps.
Hours and Cost: Open from 8am to 4:30pm
For ruins - $70 pesos (INAH) + $167 pesos (general) per person ($11 USD).
For parking - $30 pesos ($1.50 USD).
Trails: Rugged but flat for the most part.
Time to spend: 2-4 hrs.
In you bag: Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, plenty of water and a camera.