A Little History… Chichén Itzá Maya Ruins

Last updated on March 21, 2023

The ruins of Chichén Itzá were my first stop on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. As the first set of Maya ruins I had visited (way back in 2010 for the first time), I have to say, they’re quite a bit different from the temples architecture of Southeast Asia , which I had spent years exploring. Since that first visit to Chichen Itza, I’ve now tromped through the jungles around Tikal in Guatemala and peered at the Maya relics in Honduras’ Copan Ruins. Traveling through Mexico and Central America is a fascinating journey into Mesoamerican history and the ancient Maya civilization that left such an indelible imprint on the region.

Having road-tripped the Yucatan with kids, and visited the region—and the Chichen Itza ruins—a number of times, here’s everything you need to know about how to visit Chichen Itza from anywhere in the Yucatan, how to beat the crowds, and which ruins are worth your time once you’re in the complex.

Jumping Shot at Chichen Itza
A jumping shot in front of the main temple in Chichen Itza, Mexico—this was taken in the last hours of the day, when the crowds and tour buses had departed for the day.

The History of Chichen Itza

Maya ruins represent a fascinating alternative to visiting ruins in areas like Asia, mostly because the cultures were so wildly different. The history behind the temples, sacrifices, and religious ceremonies held at Chichén Itzá are one of the most unique reasons to visit—this ancient Mayan city is a true marvel of human engineering and architecture, and its history is as fascinating as it is mysterious. Throughout the complex are living representations of each facet of culture that still boggle the mind today.

Let’s step back in time. For centuries, Chichen Itza was a thriving center of Mayan civilization, with a population of up to 50,000 people at its peak. The city was built over several centuries, starting in the 6th century AD, and its iconic structures, like the towering El Castillo pyramid and the grand Temple of the Warriors, are a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the Mayan people.

But Chichen Itza’s history is not without its dark chapters. The city was conquered by the Toltecs in the 10th century, and their influence can be seen in the architectural style of some of the later buildings, like the Temple of the Warriors. Human sacrifice was also a part of Mayan religious practice, and the remains of sacrificial victims have been found at Chichen Itza.

In the centuries that followed, Chichen Itza fell into decline and was eventually abandoned by the 15th century. The reasons for its decline are still a matter of debate among historians, but some theories suggest that environmental factors like drought and overuse of resources may have played a role.

Temple Ruins at Chichen Itza
Some of the incredible temple ruins populating the grounds of Chichen Itza.
Maya God at Chichén Itzá
A Maya God depicted on the ruins of Chichén Itzá.

Should You Hire a Guide at Chichen Itza?

I hired a guide to tour the ruins—something unnecessary at some historic sites and pivotal at others. Using a guide is a hard trade off. On the one hand, I love learning all of the nitty-gritty details and the deep contextual information. On the other hand, private guides are pricey and en masse touring through a place with a dozen or so other English speaking tourists isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.

So, should you hire a guide at Chichen Itza? Well, that depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. If you’re a history buff or just really interested in learning more about the ancient Mayan civilization, then hiring a guide is definitely worth considering.

If you’re more of a solo explorer who likes to take their time and explore at their own pace, then a guide might not be necessary. It’s definitely possible to navigate the site on your own and appreciate its beauty and history without a guide.

What Do Guided Tours Offer at Chichen Itza?

A good guide provides a wealth of information about the site’s history and significance, and helps you better understand the complex layout and design of the various structures. Plus, they can answer any questions you might have and provide interesting tidbits and anecdotes that you wouldn’t get from a guidebook.

I’m thankful that I sucked it up and tottered around the grounds with my tour group, learning the many theories and history surrounding Chichén Itzá. As the tour guide explained the ritual sacrifices that took place at the various temples at Chichén Itzá, it was a fascinating reality check to my deeply Christian upbringing.

I remember the hullabaloo surrounding the animal sacrifices in South Africa in preparation for the World Cup there—and it was like that for me. It’s a completely foreign concept to imagine this as part of religious rites, and I have to actively work not to judgment the civilization based on my own upbringing and Western ideals.

Best Things to Visit at Chichén Itzá

Holger Behr (Public Domain)

Clearly you’re going to be visiting the Maya ruins when you’re at Chichén Itzá, but it’s a fairly large complex, with a lot of different structures. For that reason, if you’re not on a guided tour of the highlights, there are few things that should be on your “must visit” list during your time at Chichén Itzá.

A few of these are even more important to do at the beginning or end of your visit, depending on when you arrive, so that you can beat the crowds. (More on how to visit without the crowds in the tips at the end.)

1. Great Ball Court (Gran Juego de Pelota)

Chichen Itza Ball Court
The long serpent details built into Chichen Itza demarcate the edges of the main ball court in the complex.

The ball court is the coolest part of the whole compound, in my opinion. Just north of the iconic pyramid temple of Chichén Itzá is a huge Mesoamerican ball court—the largest in all of Mesoameria. The game was incredibly difficult to play—the hard rubber ball weighed as much as 20 lbs—and a single game could last days, or even weeks, according to archeologists. “The ball court itself was a focal point of Maya cities and symbolized the city’s wealth and power,” according to the Hudson Museum.

Although the existing information is primarily based on what archeologists have gleaned from the reliefs carved into the stone, there’s a strong working theory in place. While a popular (and fun) myth exists that the captain of the winning team was decapitated upon his win as an honor to the gods, scholars believe it’s more likely that this treatment was reserved for the losing team. That said, they really don’t know one way or the other! It would be completely in the wheelhouse of the Maya religion to believe a self-sacrifice to the gods was a honorable end to the game.

If all of that wasn’t cool enough, the court was built with specific acoustics in mind. No matter the time of day or wind pattern, “a whisper from end can be heard clearly enough at the other end 500 feet far away and through the length and breath of the court.” And a clap echoes beautifully throughout the court. If you go on a guided tour, the tour guide will help you clearly demonstrate this amazing feat of ancient engineering.

  • Tzompantli: Located near the Great Ball Court, look for a large platform of a skull rack, and the Platform of the Eagles, which features relief carvings of jaguars and eagles eating human hearts. This is worth a quick look on your tour of the grounds.

2. Pyramid of Kukulcán (El Castillo)

Chichen Itza Maya Temple
The temple of Kukulcán without crowds, taken in the last hours of the day as all of the other tourists were departing.

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza is the most iconic image of the site and likely where most travelers will want to get a shot of themselves before the hordes of crowds descend on the site.

The pyramid-shaped structure stands 30 meters tall and is adorned with intricate carvings and sculptures. It’s truly a remarkable feat of engineering and artistry. But the Temple of Kukulcán is more than just a pretty face. It also holds significant cultural and historical importance. The temple was built by the ancient Maya civilization and was dedicated to Kukulcán, the feathered serpent god. It was used for religious ceremonies and rituals, including human sacrifices.

3. Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado)

Historians believe that this sacred sinkhole gave the entire site it’s name: Chichen Itza means “mouth of the well of the Itza,” with “Itza” likely meaning something along the lines of “enchanted water.” The Maya threw gold, jade, and sacrifices into this well. It’s a quick stop on your tour of the complex, but worth a look.

4. Temple of Warriors

This stunning a three-level pyramid has about 200 colonnades of carved warrior and female gift bearer columns on two sides. It would have featured a roof during the Maya times, and the “interior walls of the temple were decorated with wall paintings showing scenes of warriors with captives, a lake, and thatched houses.”

When at this structure, pop over to the Mercado, which has a small ball court and its own 36-column gallery.

5. The Caracol Observatory

Among the most historically impressive sites, this was used as an astronomical observatory that featured a spiral staircase and a 10 meter high vault. Astrology was important to the Maya and they had a lot of the astrological calendar figured out, and embodied that information in the design of various temples at the site. Some elements are built to align perfectly with the solstices and movement of the sun, and strategic echo chambers bounce sound off of the buildings and send the sound traveling around the complex—one of those things you just have to witness to really understand. To really get a feel for the magic of this site, stop here.

How to Get the Most Out of Visiting Chichen Itza

This Maya site is amazing no matter how you slice it, so you’re going to have a great time. But a little planning can be the difference between a good visit and a great one. Use these tips to determine how to get to Chichen Itza, how to beat the crowds, what you should bring, and more.

Know What Time It is in Chichen Itza

Between October and April, there is a one-hour time difference between Cancun and Quintana Roo state and Chichen Itza, as well as the rest of the country. It’s crucial to keep in mind the correct time in Chichen Itza on the day of your visit.

How to Beat the Crowds at Chichen Itza

Chichen itza is open every day from Monday to Sunday from 8 am to 5 pm, but note that the last entrance is at 4 pm. For the best chance of no crowds, you need to arrive as early as possible. The site opens at 8 am, so aim to be there before then so you’re walking in as the doors open. This way, you can avoid the large tour groups that tend to arrive around midday. If that’s not feasible, here are some other options:

  • Arrive by 3 pm and plan on being the last out the door—then you can save the pyramid and the ball court for the end of your tour (these are the most popular spots).
  • Another great strategy is to visit the site during the low season, which is typically from May to September. This is because the weather can be quite hot and humid during these months, so many tourists tend to avoid it.
  • If you’re looking to beat the crowds and get some great photo opportunities, head straight to the iconic pyramid, El Castillo. Most tourists tend to start their visit there, so if you can get there first, you’ll have the place to yourself.
  • Avoid visiting on weekends and public holidays when the crowds are at their peak. Instead, aim to visit on weekdays, when the site tends to be quieter.
  • Consider hiring a private guide who can take you on a more personalized tour. They will show you around the site while avoiding the large groups of tourists.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used IMG Global for more than a decade highly recommend it!

How to Get to Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is a popular day trip from anywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula, but it’s most easily visited by those staying the night in Valladolid. I’ve done it both ways—as a Cancun day trip and from Valladolid during my road trip of the Yucatan with my nephews. It’s more enjoyable if you stop in Valladolid for a night or two and visit both Chichen Itza and some cenotes—and stop at Ek Balam, which are more impressive ruins in some ways (and you can still climb the ruins of Ek Balam).

So, there are a number of ways to get to Chichen Itza, depending on your budget, travel preferences, and where you’re staying. Here are some of the most common options:

  1. By car: If you’re staying in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Merida, renting a car is a popular option. The drive from Cancun takes about 2.5 hours, while the drive from Playa del Carmen takes about 3 hours. The advantage of driving yourself is that you can set your own schedule and stop at other attractions along the way. It also means you can easily arrive when the doors open at 8 am if you’re staying the night in Valladoid.
  2. By bus: Several bus companies—ADO being the best choice—operate daily services to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Merida. The buses are comfortable and air-conditioned, and some even offer a guided tour of the site.
  3. By tour: Many tour companies offer day trips to Chichen Itza, which usually include transportation, a guide, and entrance fees. This is a convenient option if you don’t want to worry about transportation or navigating the site on your own. That said, you will have no way to avoid the crowds since it’s these very types of tours that make the site a maze of tourists from about 10 am-3 pm every day.
  4. By private transfer: If you prefer a more luxurious option, arrange a private transfer from your hotel or airport directly to Chichen Itza. This is a more expensive option, but it allows you to travel in comfort and avoid the crowds. And given that you’re in Mexico, so things are affordable, it might be more economical than you think if you’re a group of four or five people.

What to Bring on a Chichen Itza Day Trip

Expect a long day if you’re visiting from anywhere except Valladolid. And the weather in Mexico is pretty reliably hot, humid, and sunny. Here are a few things you should be sure to have before you leave for the day.

  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Breathable clothing, like cotton or linen
  • Hat or cap to protect your face from the sun
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Small backpack or bag to carry your essentials
  • Refillable water bottle and snacks
  • Cash for souvenirs or snacks
  • Camera or phone with enough storage space

Where to Stay to Visit Chichen Itza

Valladolid is the best place from which to organize your visit to Chichen Itza and the many sites and cenotes in this area. That said, you can easily visit from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Merida. Here are my favorite places to stay in each.

  • Valladolid: La Candelaria Hostel is highly recommended for backpackers. They don’t accept children, so it’s not ideal for families. La Aurora Hotel Colonial is a good midrange option. If you’re looking for something more high-end book the Hotel Posada San Juan.
  • Cancun: Hostel Ka’beh has a nice vibe, though a definite party backpacker atmosphere. I’ve stayed here several times over the years for a cheap bed and good company. It wasn’t great for families though. Cancun International Suites is a good midrange option located near the city centre. If you’re looking for a high-end hotel near the beach try Beachscape Kin Ha Villas & Suites.
  • Playa del Carmen: Vainilla Bed and Breakfast in Playa del Carmen. We just loved this little spot. It’s in a non-touristy area with food and shops walkable, and a longer walk to the beach is possible. We had a rental car so it was nice to have a spot away from the hustle. Highly recommended, the woman who runs it is delightful and the homemade jams at breakfast were delicious.
  • Tulum: Hotel & Cabanas Zazil Kin in Tulum. We spent a night here and it was affordable and directly on the beach. You’ll have to splurge for A/C, but it’s an easy walk to the ruins and makes for a nice spot with kids. My nephews played in the sand right outside our bungalow door.
  • Merida: Hotel Santa Maria worked out perfectly, it was affordable and close to everything. The rooms were basic but clean and had A/C. They also have a pool and free parking. I’d stay there again.

3 thoughts on “A Little History… Chichén Itzá Maya Ruins”

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  2. Mexico is absolutely on my list! I love those ancient historic places- ????
    Lovely post, really enjoyed reading this! The history behind chichen itza is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing this post ????


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