Background – The ruins at Chichen Itza are the second-most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites, drawing many visitors from the nearby resort of Cancun and from around the world. It is a huge complex of restored and unrestored structures easily accessible to the average traveler, the largest of the pre-Columbian Mayan cities in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Its amazing Mayan ruins have caused it to named one of Seven modern Wonders of the World, and also to be named a World Heritage Site, by UNESCO.
It was an important site in the Yucatan from about 600 A.D. to about 1000 A.D. The actual history of the area is a mystery, although ongoing research and excavations attempt to learn more of the history which was largely lost with the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan in the 1500′s. The structures at Chichen Itza represent a number of architectural styles indicating that the area had been under control of various native groups .The city collapsed and lost its population long before the Spanish arrived.
The site was made into a working cattle ranch by the Spanish, and eventually was owned by a variety of owners before and during restoration. The structures of Chichen Itza became overgrown with jungle and slowly decayed until major archaeological projects began in the 1920s. Since then, more of the ancient structures have been cleared and restored and more and more tourists come to visit. It is now owned by the government.
How to visit – Chichen Itza is easily accessible by the average tourist because of the numerous bus tours departing from Cancun, Merida and other cities. These all-inclusive bus tours provide transportation, food, admission and a guided tour. It is an all-day trip from Cancun, and such tours can be booked almost anywhere, but prices differ. You might want to shop for a good price. The classic tour begins in the morning at a downtown hotel where tourists are placed on the appropriate bus for the two and a half hour trip to Chichen Itza. A stop at a cenote (a limestone sink-hole) for swimming and a stop at a buffet lunch precede arrival at the ruins. A tour with a bilingual guide shows you around the central ruins area with a wealth of information about the Maya and the purpose of the buildings. Then you are free to wander the ruins before your return to Cancun. The site is filled with vendors selling native handcrafts and hawking their wares.
For those not wanting to take a tour, public transportation in the form of scheduled bus runs are available, and allow the tourist to visit the site earlier in the day before the extreme heat and the bulk of the tourists arrive around noon. The site is open every day and entrance fee is about US$10. Some say it is best to stay overnight at one of the local hotels. This way you can see the sound and light show at night (included in the price of admission) and return the next morning when it is cool and before the tour buses arrive.
It is a hot, sunny location, and you will be walking, so wear sunscreen, a hat, and comfortable shoes, and drink lots of water.
What to see – The site contains many amazing stone buildings in various states of preservation, connected by network of roads, called sacbeob.
- El Castillo – Dominating the center of Chichén is the giant Temple of Kukulkan often referred to as “El Castillo” (the castle). This huge step-pyramid served as a platform for the temple at the top where human sacrifices took place. It has staircases of 91 steps on each of the four sides (all these added together plus one more step to get to the temple makes 365, the number of days in a year.) Several thousand tourists show up during the spring equinox to see the light-and-shadow effect on the Temple of Kukulcan in which a snake supposedly can be seen to crawl down the side of the pyramid. Climbing the pyramid is no longer permitted.
- Great Ball Court – Courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame have been found throughout the Maya region, and the largest is at Chichen Itza, measuring 545 feet long by 223 feet with 39 feet high walls, often with intricate carvings. The game used a solid rubber ball and may have ended with a human sacrifice. At the ends of the ball court are located two temples, also possessing intricate carvings or bas-reliefs.
- Sacbe number one – This sacbe (road) is the largest at Chichen Itza (It is 890 feet long with an average width of 30 feet) and leads to the Cenote Sagrado.
- Cenote Sagrado – The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone plain, with no ground-level rivers or streams. The rivers and streams run underground, and come to the surface occasionally in the form of natural sinkholes, called cenotes, which expose the water table. The Cenote Sagrado is 200 feet in diameter with sheer cliffs that drop to the water table about 90 feet below. It was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people who would conduct sacrificed humans there during times of drought. Archaeological investigations support this as thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the cenote, including material such as gold, jade, obsidian, shell, wood, cloth, as well as skeletons of children and men.
- Temple of the Warriors – The Temple of the Warriors consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. The archaeological expedition and restoration of this building was done by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in the 1920′s.
- Group of a Thousand Columns – Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of exposed columns which in former times would have supported an extensive roof system.
- El Mercado – This square structure is so named for the shelf of stone that surrounds a large gallery and patio that was once thought to be used to display wares as in a marketplace.
- El Caracol – Also called “The observatory,” this round building on a large square platform is nicknamed El Caracol (“the snail”) because of the stone spiral staircase inside. It is thought to be an observatory because its doors and windows are aligned to astronomical events, such as the path of Venus in the sky.
- Numerous Other Buildings