Chichén Itzá is one of those sites that you just need to visit when you’re in the Yucatán Península. The ancient city – one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico today – is an important example of the Mayan-Toltec civilization in Yucatán. At one point in time, it was the political, economic, commercial, and military capital of the region. It was also the center of pilgrimage for the Mayans for over 1,000 years.
Chichén Itzá became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. And in 2007, it became one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It provides significant insights into the Mayan and Toltec civilizations. Even today, truths about their world are constantly being unearthed here.
Going to this Mayan archaeological site, will sure transport you back a few centuries – to a time when temple-pyramids and ball courts were… the main sights in the city. In this article, we weill review everything you need to know before heading to this amazing site.
A Brief History of Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá is a pre-Columbian city located in the state of Yucatán, it occupies an area of about four square kilometers. It is about 90 miles from Uxmal and 75 miles from Cancún. The word “Chichen” comes from the Mayan “Chí” (which means mouth) and “ch’en” (which means well). “Itza” was the name of a politically and economically affluent group of people in the northern peninsula. Together, “Chichen Itza” is Mayan for “at the mouth of the well of Itza.”
There is a lot of debate over when exactly the city of Chichén Itzá was founded. Accounts place the city’s beginning to sometime between 4th and 6th century C.E. However, what is certain is that Chichén Itzá was a major hub of economic and political activity by the 6th century. And by the 9th century, it was considered to be a regional capital – its rulers controlled much of central and northern Yucatán Península. It also became a commercial hub with the trading of precious goods such as gold taking place here. It is believed that, at its height, as many as 50,000 people lived in the city.
Why was Chichén Itzá built?
The city of Chichén Itzá was established during the Classic period. According to historians, the city was built because of its close proximity to underground sources of water (thus the name “at the mouth of the well of Itza”). There are four visible cenotes i.e. natural sinkholes that would’ve supplied Chichén Itzá with plenty of water year-round. “Cenote Sagrado” (the Sacred Cenote) is the most famous of the four. It is believed that this was the place of human sacrifices – men, women, and children would be thrown in the well as human sacrifices to Chaac, the Mayan God of rain and lightning, in order to end a drought.
Chichén Itza and Architecture
Many different kinds of architectural styles can be seen at Chichén Itzá due to its diverse population. These are a result of cultural diffusion. One can observe “Mexicanized” styles here similar to central Mexico cities, similar to the Puuc style found in the Northern Mayan lowlands. Millions of tourists visit this site every year – drawn by the brilliance and diversity of the architecture.
The Kukulkán Pyramid
The most famous pyramid in this area is the Kukulkán pyramid, also known as El Castillo. This is a 79-foot stone structure (nine levels in total) that sheds light on the way the Mayans interpreted the world. The temple-pyramid provides insights into Mayan mythology, astrology, and architecture.
The Kukulkán pyramid is thought to have been built by the Itza people sometime between the 9th and 12th century C.E. as a temple to worship the Mayan Serpent god, Kukulkán. The pyramid is designed like a calendar – it embodies the Mayan astronomical cycles. You can easily identify the pyramid in photos due to the four stairways on each side of the pyramid. These stairways lead to the top and each side has 91 steps. When you also add the top platform, the total comes to 365 i.e. the number of days in a Haab’ year. There are 18 terraces on each side of the stairway, which is the number of months in a Haab’ year (each month is 20 days long).
The pyramid has a carving of a plumed serpent at its top. During the spring and fall equinoxes, visitors can see a light show forming a series of seven triangles on each side of the stairway – it connects the top platform with the stone sculpture of a feathered serpent’s head at the bottom. The triangles create the illusion of a snake creeping. It is believed that during the equinoxes, Kukulkán returns to Earth to provide blessings for a full harvest and for the good health of those who worship him.
Read our article on the Mayan calendar system to learn more about Mayan astrology and how the Mayan culture interpreted time.
The Great Ball Court in Chichén Itzá
Ball courts were spaces where the Mayan game pok-ta-pok would be played. Players had to hit a rubber ball up to 12-pounds heavy. The game can be compared with present-day volleyball. The interesting part is that, in most versions of the game, the players were not allowed to use their hands and feet to strike the ball – mostly and mainly they could only use… their hips! Another interesting part of the game were the sacrifices – it was the winning team that was sacrificed. Being sacrificed was considered to be a matter of great honor. It was believed as sort of being a direct ticket to peaceful heaven.
There are a total of seventeen ball courts in Chichen Itza. The Great Ball Court here is also the largest one in all of the Americas. It is 545 feet by 223 feet large – double the size of the modern American football field! The ball court has been designed in the shape of a capital “I” with temples on the north and south side. Each side of the ball court consisted of a stone hoop. The ball court is acoustically perfect – this means that so much as a whisper from one end of the court travels to the other side. Experts have marveled over this for years but have yet to reach a definitive answer regarding how this is possible.
Whether a ballgame was ever played at the Great Ball Court is not fully certain given how large the area is. They did, however, serve for political purposes. Ball courts in Mesoamerica were used to represent the accession of a new kind, the growth of a city, and political change. They were also indicative of the wealth (of a city or an individual). Archeological evidence suggests that other sporting events and feasts may even have taken place in ball courts.
Read our article on the Mayan ballgame to learn about the fascinating game of Pok-ta-Pok.
Other Amazing Attractions
At the north side of the Great Ball Court is the Temple of the Bearded Men. It is perhaps the most well-preserved building in Chichén Itzá. A bearded man who seems to be heading the scene has been carved here. The temple was most likely used as one of the vantage points from where guests and nobility would view the game or other ceremonies.
El Caracol was an ancient Maya observatory with doors and windows aligned with the movement of the planet Venus. It is a round building that was constructed sometime around the ninth century C.E. One could clearly view the sky from here. It is known as El Caracol (“the snail” in Spanish) due to its spiral staircase.
The Temple of the Warriors is one of the most impressive structures in Chichén Itzá. The temple consists of some 200 columns and spacious patios and halls. It is one of its kind since it is the only known late Classic Mayan building that could accommodate large gatherings. There seems to be some kind of cultural contact between this temple at Chichén Itzá and Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula even though the one here is much larger.
Other structures that you should definitely check out at Chichén Itzá include The Temple of Jaguars, the Temple of Big Tables, Platform of Venus, the Market, and El Osario.
Visiting Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is open to visitors from 8 am to 4:30 pm every day. It takes about 2.5 hours to arrive at Chichen Itza from Cancún by road and a little over 2 hours when arriving from Playa del Carmen by road. There are also bus services running between the town of Piste (less than five minutes from Chichen Itza by taxi) and Cancún, and also between Piste and the international airport at Mérida. The ticket for one person is $481 MXN pesos (a little over $20 USD) as of 2020. You can buy tickets on various websites online. This website, for instance, provides various options – from skip-the-line tickets to resort stay inclusive tickets and all inclusive tours.
There is also a night show that we recommend you check out – after all, who wouldn’t want to see a fully lit up El Castillo? The show starts at around 8 pm but you’re going to have to reach Chichen Itza half an hour before it begins. The entire event is about 2 to 2.5 hours long. This is a tickets-only event and while you can buy them on-site itself, you’re most likely to get better seats if you buy your tickets online. You can purchase your tickets here. At the time of writing this article (September, 2020), the cost per ticket is 520 pesos (close to USD 25).
So what are you waiting for? Let the Mayan adventure begin!