Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá, Chichen Itza, Mexico (A)

Chichén Itzá is unique – a window into the world of the ancient Maya – and the number one daytrip on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for visitors to Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Mérida. Each year, over one million people travel to this ruined Mayan city and marvel at the genius of a lost civilization. Our tour begins at the Visitors Center and stops at 14 important sights, including El Castillo – the world-famous pyramid of the snake god Kukulkan.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Chichén Itzá
Guide Location: Mexico » Chichen Itza
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 15
Tour Duration: 3.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.2 Km or 2 Miles
Author: George Nunes
Author Bio: George Nunes first visited Chichén Itzá in 1997. In the process of discovering ancient Mexico, he fell in love with modern Mexico and now makes his home in Yucatán’s capital city, Mérida. His passion for Mayan archeology has taken him to over 50 sites, including Chichén Itzá, Calakmul, Palenque, Tikal, Caracol, and Copán. George worked as a tour guide in Washington, D.C. and has written about Yucatán, Campeche, Mexico City, and Acapulco.
Author Website: http://georgeinmexico.wordpress.com
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Visitors Center
  • Entrance to Main Plaza
  • El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan)
  • Great Ball Court
  • Platform of the Skulls
  • Platform of the Jaguar and Eagle Warriors
  • Sacbe One
  • Sacred Cenote
  • Platform of Venus
  • Temple of the Warriors
  • Group of the 1,000 Columns
  • Zona Sur: The South Zone
  • El Caracol (The Snail): The Observatory
  • Las Monjas (The Nunnery)
  • El Osario: The Ossuary (High Priest’s Grave)
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Visitors Center

1) Visitors Center

Welcome to Chichén Itzá! Our tour of the most famous Mayan ruins in the world begins at the Visitors Center. First, buy your ticket at the window on the right as you enter the building – the price includes the evening Sound and Light show.

Admission (2011): Foreign adults, 166 pesos (US$16). Mexican adults, 116 pesos (US$12). Children under 13, 5 pesos (US$.50)

Hours of Operation: Daily, 8 am to 5 pm. Sound and Light show: Winter, 7:00 pm. Summer, 8:00 pm.

Inside the Visitors Center you will find restrooms, lockers, a restaurant, money exchange, and souvenir shops by turning right at the courtyard. Just past the tour guide desk, turn left to visit the Dante bookstore, which has many interesting volumes about Chichén Itzá and general Mayan history for sale. On the other side of the bookstore is the ADO bus counter where you can buy tickets for hourly trips to Cancún, Mérida, and Valladolid. An ATM and espresso coffee kiosk are located on the left side of the courtyard as you walk to the site entrance.

After the turnstile and on the right, there’s a shop where you can purchase a pretty certificate commemorating any important date converted into the Mayan calendar. This is a fun souvenir to buy. If you order one when you arrive, it will be ready when you complete your tour.

Let’s begin our walking tour of Chichén Itzá by walking from the Visitors Center to the Main Plaza.
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Entrance to Main Plaza

2) Entrance to Main Plaza

The first stop on our tour of Chichén Itzá is the expansive Main Plaza. Directly ahead of you is El Castillo, the site’s iconic Pyramid of Kukulkan, a temple dedicated to the feathered snake god.

Chichén Itzá’s Main Plaza was the crossroads of the northern Mayan world from about 1000 to 1200 AD, when the ruling Itzá tribe dominated politics and commerce on the Yucatan Peninsula. The Itzáes expanded the city, which had first been urbanized in the 5th century AD and grown to house about 50,000 people, and added buildings that reflected the Toltec – or Central Mexico – style of architecture.

By 1220 AD, warriors from nearby Mayapan invaded Chichén Itzá and conquered the city. More than 300 years later, in 1533, their descendants fought the Spanish conquistadors and won bloody battles against an army commanded by Francisco de Montejo, The Younger. But, in fewer than 50 years the Spanish had prevailed and Chichén Itzá’s Main Plaza no longer teemed with warriors and priests, merchants and pilgrims. The site became a cattle ranch – Hacienda Chichén Itzá.

This archeological zone covers 2 ½ square miles and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988, when the United Nations recognized that the Mayan ruins possessed a “cultural and natural heritage having outstanding universal value.” In 2007, Internet voters worldwide selected Chichén Itzá as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – it’s easy to see why.

Let’s walk over to El Castillo in the center of the Main Plaza.
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El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan)

3) El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan)

Close your eyes and think of Mexico: the first image to enter your mind will likely be that of El Castillo, Chichén Itzá’s world famous and iconic pyramid. It is dedicated to the feathered serpent god, known by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl and by the Mayans as Kukulkan. He was the central god in the Mayan pantheon in the first centuries of the second millennium.

El Castillo is a step pyramid that teems with numerical symbolism: each of the four staircases has exactly 91 steps, which when added together and combined with the terrace at the top equal the 365 days of the solar year.

But, if you knew anything about Chichén Itzá before you arrived, it is probably the story of the optical illusion that occurs on El Castillo twice a year: the Descent of Kukulkan. At the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), astronomy and architecture come together in a wondrous moment. The shadows cast by the sun on El Castillo’s angular steps reveal Kukulkan himself slithering down the pyramid and returning to Chichén Itzá.

Test El Castillo’s famous acoustics by standing in the plaza in front of it and clap your hands – you should hear an echo that sounds marvelously like a bird chirping!

Sadly, it has not been possible to climb El Castillo since 2006 when an 80-year old woman slipped and fell to her death.

From El Castillo, walk to the Great Ball Court.
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Great Ball Court

4) Great Ball Court

Ancient Americans played some version of a ball game as long ago as 1400 BC. Over the centuries the game evolved, as all sports do. Chichén Itzá’s Great Ball Court represents the pinnacle of the sport and its architecture – think of it as the Mayan Superdome. It is the grandest of 1,300 ball courts uncovered in Mesoamerica, and at 545 feet long and 225 feet wide, it is far larger than today’s American football field.

Built sometime between 900 and 1200 AD, the Great Ball Court witnessed violent and bloody encounters between teams of two to six heavily padded players. They fought to see who could score the most points by propelling a rubber ball through stone rings extending from the walls about 18 feet above the ground.

Let’s look at the bench at ground level near the ring on the right side. Carved in stone is a depiction of a beheaded ball player whose blood spurts from his severed head in the form of seven snakes. Whether it was the loser or winner who had his head chopped off depends on which archeologist you believe.

The game’s purpose has been interpreted as a struggle between day and night or a re-enactment of the battle between the mythological Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and the Lords of the Underworld.

When you have finished exploring the Great Ball Court, exit at the far end near the Temple of the Bearded Man, and cross over to the Platform of the Skulls.
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Platform of the Skulls

5) Platform of the Skulls

The Platform of the Skulls is the first of three low structures that line the north side of Chichén Itzá’s Main Plaza across from El Castillo.

As the name implies, this building is where the Maya displayed the skulls of all sorts of unfortunate people: war captives, sacrificial victims, and the winners and losers of the ritual games played in the Great Ball Court next-door. Imagine the horror of approaching this stone building when it was covered with hundreds of rotting human heads – not to mention the stench!

The platform is also called a tzompantli, which is actually a Nahuatl word from Central Mexico meaning “skull rack” or “wall of skulls.” This name is used because in earlier times the severed heads were pierced and threaded onto wooden horizontal beams or piled one on top of the other on stakes. The tzompantli at Chichén Itzá is decorated with four rows of carved stone skulls encircling the platform. Those at the corners are particularly haunting.

If you think that only a barbaric people could be so gruesome as to display skulls in public, remember that it was a common practice in Medieval Europe to impale the decapitated heads of criminals or political enemies on pikes in public squares or hang them from bridges.

Walk to the next building in the row, the Platform of the Jaguars and the Eagles.
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Platform of the Jaguar and Eagle Warriors

6) Platform of the Jaguar and Eagle Warriors

The Platform of the Jaguar and Eagle Warriors is the center building in a triad of small ceremonial structures on Chichén Itzá’s Main Plaza.

Jaguars and eagles were considered to be extremely powerful creatures by the Maya. So important were the animals in the Mayan worldview that warriors adorned themselves in jaguar skins and eagle feathers to absorb their power when going into battle. Eagle Warriors made the first attack on enemies, showering them with piercing arrows. Jaguar Warriors were greatly feared because they of their skill at hand to hand combat, in which they fought viciously and tenaciously. Scholars also believe that the Jaguar Warriors captured human prisoners for sacrifice to the Mayan gods.

Access to this platform, which honors the two groups, was gained in ancient times via four identical staircases, one located on each side and topped by twin snakeheads. Bas-relief sculptures of spotted jaguars and sharp-clawed eagles adorn the wall recesses, showing the animals eating human hearts.

Climbing the platform nowadays is not permitted. Our tour continues at Sacbe One, a raised causeway that leads to the Sacred Cenote.
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Sacbe One

7) Sacbe One

Chichén Itzá’s Main Plaza is connected to the Sacred Cenote by a wide stone path called a sacbe, which in Yucatec Maya means “white road” (sac = white; be = road) These ancient connectors were raised above the jungle floor, constructed of layers of stone and rubble, and coated with white limestone stucco, hence the name.

Sacbe One at Chichén Itzá extends 886 feet and is 15 feet wide – wide enough, in fact to have accommodated large religious processions, both during the day and at night. The white stucco surface is said to have gleamed so brightly in the moonlight that the sacbe itself provided more than enough reflected light for celebrants to navigate it safely.

The Romans usually get all the recognition as the ancient world’s premier road builders but the Maya give them a run for their money, so to speak. The longest sacbe discovered up to now is 186 miles in length. It ran between what is now the city of Mérida and the Caribbean Sea at present-day Puerto Morelos.

You might feel a bit like you are running the gauntlet when you walk on Sacbe One. The presence of aggressive souvenir vendors at Chichén Itzá is controversial – considered a desecration by some and a distraction by almost all visitors. Nowhere else at the site are the in-your-face shouts of “One dollar! One dollar!” as annoying as when you are hemmed in on this narrow path.

Our next destination is the Sacred Cenote itself.
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Sacred Cenote

8) Sacred Cenote

At the northern end of Sacbe One lies an important sight at Chichén Itzá: the Sacred Cenote. Early in the 20th century, archeologists dredged the waterhole’s floor and uncovered over 4,000 ritual offerings – jade, gold, amber, ceramics, and human skeletons.

Cenotes are naturally occurring entrances into the Yucatán Peninsula’s underground rivers, which are its only source of fresh water. The cenote at Chichén Itzá impresses because of its vast size: it is 197 feet across and 121 feet from rim to bottom. So significant was the Sacred Cenote that the city was named after it: “Mouth of the Well of the Itzáes,” after the Mesoamerican people that brought the city to its greatest peak.

Equally important, the Sacred Cenote played a central role in the Mayan worldview. It was the entrance to the underworld, Xibalba, and the home of the rain god Chac, to whom the many offerings found here were made.

American archeologist Edward H. Thompson organized the dredging between 1904 and 1910 and sent the amazing finds to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. In 2008, the museum announced a plan to return 50 jade artifacts from the Sacred Cenote to Yucatan’s government.

On the left side of the Sacred Cenote is a snack bar with outdoor seating, a convenient and shady place to pause on our tour. We will retrace our steps along Sacbe One to the Platform of Venus in the Main Plaza.
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Platform of Venus

9) Platform of Venus

Near the entrance to Sacbe One stands the Main Plaza’s Platform of Venus. This low, square building was dedicated to the planet Venus, which was important in Mayan cosmology and closely tracked from the observatory at El Caracol. The Maya considered Venus a war god and coordinated their battle plans with the star’s movements.

Given its prominent location across from El Castillo, the Platform of Venus likely served as a stage for ritual ceremonies and dances. This is easy to imagine because the platform’s flat top would have been visible from all sides. Less easy to imagine is the colorful sight that the Platform of Venus must have presented: it was painted in deep shades of blue, red, green, and black.

When excavating the Platform of Venus, archeologists found some large stone cones; their purpose has not yet been explained. Later on the tour we will pass by a second platform dedicated to Venus, located across from El Osario, which reminds us how important the planet was to the Maya.

On your way to our next stop at the Temple of the Warriors, take some time to look at the sculpture of Chac Mool on the ground near the Platform of Venus, the new excavations of the Main Plaza east of El Castillo, and the small building called the Temple of the Large Tables in the northeast corner. A stone frieze of a parade of jaguars that used to decorate the temple roof is now displayed at ground level.
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Temple of the Warriors

10) Temple of the Warriors

Diagonally northeast of El Castillo rises a complex called the Temple of the Warriors, an essential stop on any tour of Chichén Itzá.

Exchange of ideas between the Maya and the Toltec people of central Mexico was strong – some historians even believe that the Toltecs resettled Post-Classic Era Chichén Itzá. The Temple of the Warriors is considered the peak of Mayan-Toltec architectural style, with the more refined attributes of the former strengthened and enlivened by the latter.

The temple received its name from the archeologists who discovered the carvings of Mayan warriors incised onto rows of ten-foot tall columns found here. Dating from between 1000 to 1200 AD, the support system of columns once supported an enormous roof covering the area, which might have been a market or audience hall. Whatever it was, the sheer size of it must have been remarkable.

At the top of the temple’s massive staircase lies a Chac Mool, the reclining stone figure that has become an iconic emblem of Chichén Itzá itself. He was a go-between man and the rain god Chac, and received offerings to him on his flat belly.

Take some time to examine the carvings of Mayan warriors, which remain detailed despite the passage of centuries. When you have finished, walk south to the entrance to the Group of the 1,000 Columns. If you didn’t stop earlier to peek into the new excavations on the Main Plaza near El Castillo, this would be a good time to do so.
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Group of the 1,000 Columns

11) Group of the 1,000 Columns

Next to the Temple of the Warriors and across from El Castillo, the Group of the 1,000 Columns endures as an interconnecting series of plazas, temples, and other structures. More than any place at Chichén Itzá – for me, at least – this complex gives the contemporary visitor the best idea of what daily life must have been like in the Mayan city.

Pass from the Main Plaza through the colonnade, enter the Plaza of 1,000 Columns, and stop at a weathered, four-sided pillar carved deeply with images of Mayan warriors. What is illuminating about this construction is that it demonstrates how the Mayans built columns, stacking smaller cubes one on top of the other and joining them with cement.

The Market – El Mercado – has several attention-grabbing features: an interior built in the “Gallery and Courtyard” style and an altar near the entrance that bears an incredibly detailed frieze portraying dignitaries wearing feather headdresses.

The Sweat House, or temezcal as it is commonly called today (although this is a Nahuatl word from central Mexico), was the sacred space where warriors endured intense, hot, steamy rituals to purify themselves before going into battle.

At your leisure, walk around the adjoining plazas. Visit the Northeast and Southeast Corner Colonnades, the Palace of the Sculptured Columns, the Temple of the Little Table, and Temple of Chac Mool.

Return to the Group of the 1,000 Columns entrance, turn left and walk to the path that leads to the Zona Sur.
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Zona Sur: The South Zone

12) Zona Sur: The South Zone

The Zona Sur is the section of Chichén Itzá that lies south of the Main Plaza. It is here that you will find the site’s second-most famous structure, El Caracol, which is the observatory where Mayan astronomers studied the cosmos.

At the intersection where we are now standing, the path heads in two directions. Walk straight ahead and in few minutes you will be at the archeological zone’s back entrance. It leads to the four properties of the Zona Hotelera: Hotel Hacienda Chichén Itzá, Mayaland Hotel, The Lodge, and Villa Arqueologica. If you want to take a break, this is the time to do it: you can have lunch and relax at one of the hotels. The Hacienda has the best food in the area, a spa, and gift shop, which donates its profits to support Mayan health and education projects.

Turn right at the intersection and you will enter the Zona Sur. On the way to El Caracol, we will walk along Sacbe Five and Fifteen and pass the Templo de Xtoloc and another cenote. The path emerges at the second Platform of Venus near El Osario. For the moment, keep walking to El Caracol – we will stop at El Osario on our way back.

At the far southern end of the Zona Sur lies the oldest part of the archeological zone, Chichén Viejo, which was still closed in early 2011 for reconstruction.
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El Caracol (The Snail): The Observatory

13) El Caracol (The Snail): The Observatory

El Caracol, or The Snail, is an observatory built in the 9th century AD from which Mayan astronomers observed the night sky. Here they developed a complex understanding of celestial events, unsurpassed until the development of modern telescopes and satellites. If you have any remaining doubts that the Maya were astronomical, mathematical, and architectural geniuses, El Caracol should dispel them.

From the outside, El Caracol appears to be just a large platform capped by a round tower, with a few narrow windows cut into the upper walls. It is on the inside – no longer accessible to tourists – that the observatory’s mesmerizing architecture and the source of its nickname is revealed: the chambers and staircase resemble the spiral of a snail’s shell.

The building’s central exterior staircase appears oddly misaligned with the north-south axis normally found in Mayan architecture. El Caracol points directly at the northernmost position in the sky of the planet Venus, the planet associated with their most important god, Kukulkan.

Look for the three remaining windows of the upper observation chamber. They align with compass points. Because the Mayans didn’t have telescopes, they used the windows to frame the appearance and movement of the planets, the sun, and other stars. They used this information to plant and harvest corn and to determine the best day to attack enemies.

Before going to our next destination, Las Monjas, visit the other buildings near El Caracol, the Casa Colorada and Casa del Venado. There is also a small snack bar on the plaza.
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Las Monjas (The Nunnery)

14) Las Monjas (The Nunnery)

When the Spanish arrived in what they would come to call the New World, they found monumental architecture that both amazed and baffled them. They named many structures in Mayan cities after buildings back home that looked somewhat similar. At Chichén Itzá, Edificio de Las Monjas got its name because the conquistadors thought it resembled a Spanish nunnery (monja means nun in English).

Actually, Las Monjas was probably a residential palace, a priest's house, or a council house – Popol Nah in Maya – and was built around 880 AD, according to a hieroglyph found here. Artist Frederick Catherwood drew the first well-known depiction of Las Monjas, published in 1843.

The north side of Las Monjas consists of a voluminous 30-foot high platform crowned by a second floor containing numerous rooms. On the left wing, look for the latticework stone façade. This pattern is frequently found on royal structures and refers to the woven reed mats upon which kings would sit.

La Iglesia, located in front of La Monjas, was thought by the Spanish to resemble a church. It is a religious structure. Numerous masks of the rain god Chac (with his distinctive elephant trunk-like nose) decorate the building. References to Mayan cosmology are seen on La Iglesia: the armadillo, snail, turtle and crab seen here are called bacabes, beings that supported the heavens.

Before walking to the last stop on the tour, El Osario, visit Las Monjas’ east and southeast patios, and the ball court.
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El Osario: The Ossuary (High Priest’s Grave)

15) El Osario: The Ossuary (High Priest’s Grave)

In the Zona Sur, El Osario is a pyramid at the center of a complex of buildings, plazas, platforms, and a cenote. Known in English as the Ossuary, because of the many human and animal bones found here, it is also called the High Priest’s Grave. El Osario is related to a dynasty known only as “the lords of Chichén Itzá.”

From the top of the pyramid a stone shaft descends through the center of the pyramid to its base, where a 36-foot deep cave begins, likely the reason a ceremonial edifice was constructed here in the first place. In the cave, human bones have been found as well as offerings of jade, shell, rock crystal, and copper bells.

In 2009, German archeologist Christopher Markus Götz discovered the remains of reptiles like turtles and snakes, and young deer and buzzards. This find supports the belief that the Maya buried these animals to accompany a human soul as it makes the journey over the river of the dead into the underworld called Xibalba.

On display in the plaza is one of the four corner structures, which used to decorate the building’s peak. They featured 16 carved stone heads, variously described as representing the rain god Chac, the creator god Itzamna, or Kukulkan.

We have now completed our tour of Chichén Itzá. Follow the pathway from El Osario to the Main Plaza. Turn left and you will return to the Visitors Center. I hope you have enjoyed the tour – come back soon!