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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 centrepiece 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 term Chichen Itza means ‘the mouth at the well of Itza’. It is believed Itza means ‘water magicians’, deriving from the Mayan Itz for ‘magic’ and á for ‘water’.

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 were 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 is 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 travelling 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 favourite is the stories around the “Ball Game”, which for any Harry Potter fans out there has the feel of the Quidditch World cup, except the winners, who were treated to the honour of their sacrifice to the gods!

Another thing to be aware of is a 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.

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 marvellous ruins.

Temple of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá

The Ball Game is characteristic of Mesoamerican societies. The Ball Game was more a ceremonial ritual than a sport and probably represented the symbolic recreation of the mythical combat between night and day. There is a singular acoustic phenomenon peculiar to the Ball Game Court: if one speaks in the Temple in the Southern end the voice can be heard at the opposite end, as the sound reverberates along the walls of the North Temple.

The Great Ball Court

The Tzompantli. The structure is a large platform whose most notable details is the collocation of the skulls in the bas-relief decoration which gives the structure its name: The Platform of the Skulls. The base is sustained by three tableaux decorated with skulls and divided by mouldings.

This is the monument that gives the clearest testimony to the practice of human sacrifice, carried out for religious-military ends, by the rulers of Chichen Itza.

The Tzompantli - The Platform of Skulls

The Caracol is one of the few circular structures built by the Maya, is believed to have been used for astronomical observations, through openings in the top of the tower.

The so-called Caracol or Observatory is a structure built in the form of a larger circular tower set on a platform with a central staircase. The base is set on another rectangular platform, decorated with a cornice of rounded corners on the upper part. The Caracol is really built of three superimposed buildings.

The Caracol

In Summary …

  • The ruins are quite incredible and stretch over a huge area
  • Think about driving and getting the ruins when they open to avoid the crowds that come with the tour busses
  • Be prepared to haggle with the vendors and you should get a good deal or two
  • It gets hot here in the jungle so bring a hat, cool clothing and plenty of water. Also, a rain jacket is advisable as it can rain heavily just about anytime of year!

Planning your visit to Chichén Itzá

Most people 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 travelled 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 flavoured 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 to visit the ruins before the tour buses get there.

You can also reach Chichén Itzá from Mérida, which is 118 km (75 miles away). The journey will be about 1 1/2 hours.

Website:https://www.inah.gob.mx/zonas/146-zona-arqueologica-de-chichen-itza
Address:

Geographic coordinates:

88º 34’ 05’’ W

20º 40’ 56’’ N

Hours:Monday to Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m
Admission:539 Pesos ($26 US) per adult, Kids under 13 years are admitted free.

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Best time to visit the Yucatán Peninsula

The Yucatán has a tropical climate with daytime temperatures rarely dipping below 25°C. Weather-wise, the dry high season winter months of December to April are the best time to visit, when calm skies and clear, more predictable seas make for the best snorkelling, diving and fishing. However, accommodation rates are significantly higher, and you’ll pay a premium on airfares and hotel rooms. Bear in mind that March to early April is Spring Break territory – when hordes of US college students head for the Yucatán.
 
In July and August, it’s very hot and humid throughout the peninsula, and very busy too, with both Mexicans and Europeans flocking to coastal resorts. Mid-April to mid-July and September to November are low season, and much quieter, but be aware that the rainy season (with occasional accompanying hurricanes) runs from June to October. If you’re keen on swimming with whale sharks, the best time to go is from June to September, when they arrive in the waters to feed and mate.

Where to stay?

1. HOTEL POSADA SAN JUAN

Lying about halfway between Cancun and Chichen Itza, most people whiz past Valladolid, but this small town is worthy of a visit. 

The Hotel Posada San Juan is located right in the heart of Valladolid with great access to the town and its delightful shops, bars and restaurants. The hotel has a colonial feel. There is a small outdoor pool and exotic gardens to pass away the time,

On the practical side, there is air conditioning (much needed in the summer) and free Wi-Fi. 

The rooms have wooden furniture and feature ceiling fans, a safety deposit box, a hammock and free toiletries.

2. SUITES CORAZON, PLAYA DEL CARMEN

Mid-Range 

Next to Playa del Carmen’s popular 5th Avenue and a short walk from the city’s beaches, is the budget-friendly Suites Corazon. The hotel’s 14 studio-style rooms are clean and spacious with kitchenettes and balconies. With few on-site amenities, the self-catering rooms and location are the hotel’s main selling point. Sure, there’s a small rooftop pool, but the basic breakfast is offered off-site for a fee and there’s no gym (or any other major amenity). That’s okay for most guests, who just want a self-sufficient suite with a walkable location in the center of Playa del Carmen’s shopping and nightlife centre.

3. HOTEL MEDIOMUNDO, MERIDA

An enchanting ten-guestroom hotel with colonial architecture and tropical garden patios located in the historical centre of Mérida, México on the Yucatán Peninsula. Established in August 2001, MedioMundo is celebrating over 19 years of providing travellers from all over the world a welcoming, safe, and serene place to call home while in Merida. We have lovingly restored and maintained the property over the years, and our attention to detail creates an inviting urban oasis for the weary adventurer.

The hotel’s LoQueHay Café serves international vegan food inspired by different world cuisines using fresh local produce. “Lo Que Hay” (lo ke ´ai) translates to “what there is.” Some of the menus we serve include Lebanese, Japanese, Greek, Mexican, Raw Vegan, Caribbean, Indian, Thai, and Moroccan

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