One of the amazing things we wanted to do on our vacation in Cancun was to tour Chichen Itza. It was such an amazing experience, and I’m so glad we did it!
Chichen Itza is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, named in 2007 after a worldwide vote! It should definitely be on your must-see list when you visit Mexico!
Here’s what you need to know before your visit to Chichen Itza!
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Our Tour to Chichen Itza
We arranged our tour to Chichen Itza at our hotel, the JW Marriott. The lobby had a desk staffed by people that were knowledgeable about all of the local tours that were available for guests. Our tour included a visit to Valladolid as well as lunch and swimming at a cenote. We were told that the 3 hour journey to Chichen Itza would be a comfortable journey on a large highway coach, which was complete with restroom facilities.
The bus picked us up at our hotel at 7:45am, and after stopping at Valladolid (a charming place!), relaxing in a hammock and having lunch at a Mayan village, we arrived at Chichen Itza in the early afternoon. We stayed at Chichen Itza for a total of 2 and 1/2 hours.
I was initially concerned about spending so much time on a bus full of strangers. But, the tour staff were very friendly and welcoming and did everything they could to make the bus ride fun. We ate a simple breakfast on the bus and were offered a variety of drinks throughout the ride, including cerveza and tequila!
What is Chichen Itza?
Chichen Itza is a large, pre-Columbian city built by the Mayan people from approximately 600-900 A.D. It was occupied by Mayans until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500’s. The city is approximately five square kilometres in size! Chichen Itza has the largest and most spectacular Mayan ruins in Mexico. More than 30 buildings are still standing at Chichen Itza, although there was likely hundreds of buildings in its prime.
The site is located in the eastern Yucatan state, approximately 220 kilometres west of Cancun, directly inland. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and was a major economic power during its prime. The Mayan people of Chichen Itza traded with distant peoples for resources such as obsidian and gold. Chichen Itza is now federal property in Mexico. Stewardship of the site is maintained by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Chichen Itza sees more than 2.6 million tourists each year! It is one of the most visited places in Mexico.
Touring Chichen Itza
When we arrived on our bus, the driver parked in a large parking lot that was full of tour buses. I noticed that there was also extensive parking for cars. Aggressive souvenir sellers greeted us immediately upon exiting the bus. We paid attention to warnings ahead of time from the tour staff that most of the souvenirs available at Chichen Itza were poor quality so we simply said no thank you and felt fine doing so. I have to agree that most of them were of poor quality and priced higher than you will want to pay.
It was a short walk to the entrance of the site and we had to run the gauntlet of souvenir sellers all the way!
Inside the entrance building there were souvenirs for sale as well as restroom facilities, a restaurant, small stores selling ice cream and drinks and administration offices. This area was in the shade and was quite a bit cooler than outside.
Our group was ushered through the crowds by the tour staff to the turnstile entrances, and on the other side were met by our Chichen Itza tour guides. We were divided into English and Spanish speakers and each assigned to the appropriate tour guide.
Our first view of the Pyramid
Our first view of Kukulkan’s pyramid was amazing! It was incredible to see it in person after seeing so many photos over the years! One of my favourite things about traveling is to finally see things in person that you’ve only seen in media like television or movies. This pyramid does not disappoint in person!
Known as El Castillo, the pyramid is a square-based, stepped pyramid approximately 79 feet tall. Apparently, it was built for astronomical purposes as a special effect occurs each vernal equinox (March 20) and autumnal equinox (September 21). At approximately 3pm on the Equinoxes, sunlight covers the western balustrade of the pyramid’s main stairway, causing seven isosceles triangles to form. These triangles look like the body of a 37 foot long snake. It creeps down the pyramid steps until it joins the huge snake’s head that is carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway!
I wish we had been there on one of the Equinoxes! There are huge celebrations and events on every Equinox. I can imagine that it’s quite a sight to see!
One of the most fascinating things about the Pyramid is the Chirp! If you stand near the base of the pyramid and clap your hands , you hear the song of a sacred Mayan bird, the quetzal. It’s not an echo but more like a chorus of chirps that crescendos and then fades into silence. It is believed that the ancient Mayans evoked this sound during religious events. Our guide demonstrated the chirp for us and we all were able to replicate the Chirp. It was an amazing sound!
In keeping with preservation efforts, visitors may not climb the pyramid.
Other Points of Interest on our Chichen Itza Tour
Our excellent guide gave us lots of detail about the other buildings at Chichen Itza. There are many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation. Some buildings are restored. Many of the buildings are connected by paved walkways. Our guide explained that many of the buildings had originally been painted in bright colours of red, green, blue and purple and pointed out stones where some traces of colour remained.
One of the most fascinating buildings on the site is the Great Ball Court. This building is very impressive and measures 168 by 70 metres. It is the best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. There are many ancient carvings visible in the stones including depictions of teams and players. There are even depictions of decapitated players with streams of blood! Still visible are stone rings located 30 feet above the floor of the court
The Temple of the Jaquar overlooks the Great Ball Court with an entrance guarded by two large columns carved with a feathered serpent motif. Our guide told us stories of how the winning team in the Mayan ball games often sacrificed their best players after the games. That’s certainly not my idea of how a winning team ought to be treated!
Group of a Thousand Columns
At the southern end of the Chichen Itza site is the Group of a Thousand Columns. Formerly the Temple of Warriors, it is now thousands of exposed columns which would have supported a large roof. Seeing row after row of ancient columns no longer holding up anything really gives a sense of perspective!
There are three distinct sections of columns: a west group, a north group and a northeast group. Each group originally formed separate buildlings. A column in the northeast group is an engineering marvel, as it funnels all the rainwater from the complex 40 feet away to a former cenote.
El Caracol – Observatory
This building was a Mayan astronomical observatory. El Caracol is translated as “spiral-shaped” or snail, and is named after the winding staircase that climbs up the central tower.
The tower of El Caracol allowed the ancient Mayan astronomers to view the sky in 360 degrees and to track astronomical events like solstices, equinoxes and eclipses. Scholars say that the viewing windows in El Caracol were designed specifically to track the appearance and disappearance of Venus in the night sky!
Know Before you go – Chichen Itza Tour Essentials
Chichen Itza is more than 200 kilometres inland from the Atlantic Ocean and therefore does not benefit from the warm ocean breezes prevalent in other parts of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is hot hot hot there!
We toured Chichen Itza in February, which is a relatively cool time of year for Mexico. Even so, it was above 30 degrees C or 86 degrees F! It gets considerably hotter from April to September.
No matter what method you use to tour Chichen Itza, you will need some essentials on your packing list to make sure you enjoy the visit and don’t make yourself ill or worse!
Chichen Itza Essentials:
- Good suncreen – re-apply often
- Purified water
- A hat to keep the sun off
- a sun umbrella – if you feel comfortable using one
- Camera – to get those amazing photos!
- Bug spray
This sunscreen is an excellent choice. It is reef safe, which is important in Mexico It blends easily and isn’t tacky when it dries. I used this sunscreen every day during our visit and loved it.
Another excellent choice is this one. It is water resistant which is great if you perspire a lot.
Make sure you bring A LOT of water with you to Chichen Itza. Bring more than you think you’ll need as the site is very large and you’ll be walking more than you realize. This water bottle is a good choice as it will keep your water cold and is easy to carry. You can refill it from purified water that you purchase so you always have cool water on hand.
I used and wore these sunglasses every day in Cancun and throughout our Chichen Itza tour. There aren’t enough good things to say about them! I feel that I actually see better with them on, and of course, they look great too 🙂 These sunglasses don’t obscure detail like some sunglasses can, but actually enhance visual acuity. Ross loves his sunglasses too.
There are thousands of hats for sale at Chichen Itza, most of which are cheaply made and uncomfortable to wear. Don’t buy one there!
Ross and I swear by our Panama hats:
Panama hats are of Ecuadorian origin and are traditionally made from the toquilla palm or jipijapa palm. Panama hats are light-colored, lightweight, and breathable, a winning combination in the heat of Chichen Itza or any tropical climate. I normally loathe wearing hats but the exception is definitely my Panama hat.
This is a great example. As a bonus it’s also foldable! Very handy for packing your carry-on.
The hotel staff and every staff member on our tour warned us that we would need to use bug spray at Chichen Itza. I’m very glad we listened! I’m not sure what kind of bugs make Chichen Itza their home but they’re small and they tend to bite!
Consumer Reports has rated this product as the most effective insect repellant with this product a close second. Don’t forget to spray it on yourself before you begin your Chichen Itza tour!
I’ve recently bought an iPhone XS and have been AMAZED at the quality of photos I’m able to produce! I really wish I’d had it when we toured Chichen Itza.
I was thinking about purchasing a new point & shoot camera in the $500-$800 range. When talking about it with my daughter, she pointed out that the camera on the iPhone XS was likely better than anything I could buy in that price range. I had thought about getting a new phone anyway so I decided to go ahead and get it.
I took this photo of Ross on the day I bought the new iPhone XS:
Isn’t it amazing?!?!? No special lighting or effects at all. I just snapped it.
I couldn’t believe that I could produce a photo like this with very little fiddling. All I did was make it black & white and remove the background, both very easy functions in the editing mode. I’m feeling pretty good about myself as a budding photographer now 😉
Make sure you have a great camera for your Chichen Itza tour. The iPhone XS is available unlocked on Amazon for a pretty good price!
Final thoughts on Chichen Itza
Visiting Chichen Itza was a really special experience. Connecting with ancient civilizations and appreciating the complexity of their traditions and culture was a real highlight of our trip to Cancun.
Chichen Itza is a true wonder of the world and an experience not to be missed when visiting Mexico.
Do you have a favourite vacation memory?