Exploring the ruins of the Pre-Hispanic city Chichén Itzá and the spectacular Temple of Kukulcan
The ancient Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are truly amazing and should be on everyone’s “must see” list when visiting this area of Mexico. The center piece of this complex of ruins is a massive step pyramid, known as El Castillo or Temple of Kukulcan, which dominated the ancient city. This temple is often listed as one of the 7 modern day wonders of the world. Chichén Itzá is listed as a site of historical importance by UNESCO.
The first Mayan settlers were drawn to this location, around 415 A.D., as it sits between two natural cenotes (water holes). Sometime around 970 A.D. the settlement was captured by the Toltecs, and it was after this that the city expanded rapidly and most of the major structures we see today were built. After the 13th century no major monuments seem to have been constructed at Chichén Itzá and the city rapidly declined after around 1440 A.D. The ruins were not excavated until 1841 A.D.
Beyond the Temple of Kukulcan there are many other ruins and structures that we significantly important such as the Great Ball Court, Tzompantli or the Skull Wall, the temple known as the Jaguar Temple, the House of Eagles and the Temple of the Warriors.
The best way to explore the ruins are with a guide. Whether you go as a tour party or on your own there are plenty of guides available at the entrance to the Chichén Itzá site. If you are traveling independently I recommend getting there early before the tour buses arrive in the late morning, that way you don’t have to compete with the hoards of camera toting tourists. We have always used a tour guide for our visits they have wonderful little tidbits of information about the history and culture of the Mayan and Toltec peoples and the idiosyncrasies of the ancient city at Chichén Itzá. My favorite is the stories around the “Ball Game”, which for any Harry Potter fans out there has the feel of the Qudditch World cup, except the winners were treated to the honor of their sacrifice to the gods!
Another thing to be aware of is large number of sellers of souvenirs that station themselves around the complex of ruins. There are literally dozens and dozens of them. As you move around the path system you have to run the gauntlet of these vendors and they can be quite insistent so you have to be pretty firm with them and move on. Trying not to make eye contact can make this a little easier but it is hard knowing the poverty levels of these local people.
Most journey to Chichén Itzá from somewhere on the Riviera Maya. The distance from Cancún is about 200km or about 125 miles, and is a drive of about 2 1/4 hours. The road is good for most of the journey, with fast modern highways, most of which are new. We have traveled to Chichén Itzá by tour bus and driven a rental car there. The tour bus trip will likely include a couple of stops on the way, one of which is lunch. For example on our tours we stopped at a yucca farm where they make tequila. Here we got to swim in a cenote (which was fun) and spend some money in the farm shop, where they had a myriad of variations of plain and flavored tequila. Driving yourself to Chichén Itzá is a good option as you can come and go as you please, and if you can set out early you” be able visit the ruins before the tour buses get there.
For me Chichén Itzá is one of the main highlights of a visit to the Yucatán Peninsula. We have been a few times and have always discovered something new on each visit. So, if you find yourself on the Riviera Maya for a vacation we strongly suggest making the journey out to see the marvelous ruins.