Chichén Itzá – The most popular Maya site on the Yucatán peninsula

Chichén Itzá is by far the most famous archaeological site with ancient Maya temples and pyramids in Mexico. It is a popular destination for tourists who spend their holidays on the Riviera Maya. From Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulúm, Chichén Itzá can be easily reached within two to four hours by rental car or bus.

Chichén Itzá is a Maya settlement from the late classical period. However, the urban area shows traces of settlements between 600 BC and 1500 AD. The ruling group of Maya known as the “Itzá” is the origin of the city’s name.

In the Mayan language, Chichén Itzá means “At the edge of the fountain of Itzá.” A large cenote, the Cenote Sagrado, which was used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial ceremonies, can be seen on the site. The inscriptions found in Chichén Itzá, various Maya traditions and records of the Spanish conquerors, provide only incomplete and partly contradictory insights into the history of the city.

The construction work of most buildings visible today, began in the late classical period around 750 AD. But some of the monuments where constructed on top of older now hidden structures. Around 1500, at the end of the post-classical period, Chichén Itzá was gradually abandoned.

The architecture of Chichén Itzá is exceptional in that it combines the style prevailing in the Puuc region with a style variant known as “Toltec,” the origin of which is to be found in Central Mexico. Researchers discuss the theory that this could be due to the control of Toltec conquerors from Tula, north of Mexico City. Otherwise, some assume a diffusion model of artistic influence.

Initially, Ek Balam controlled the whole northern area. However, Chichén Itzá, which took control of the region replaced this influence. Following a confrontation with the city of Mayapán, Chichén Itzá was conquered and lost its power. The Itzá finally emigrated to the south and founded the city of Nojpetén, which means “big island,” on the site of today’s Flores in Lago Petén in Guatemala.

The first modern-day illustrations of Chichén Itzá have been painted by the British architect and painter Catherwood, who visited Yucatán in 1841 together with the American diplomat Stephens.


El Castillo in Chichén Itzá
El Castillo in Chichén Itzá

The most famous building in Chichén Itzá is undoubtedly the monument “El Castillo,” also known as the pyramid of Kukulcán. Twice a year at the time of the equinox, light, and shadow create, combined with the giant snakeheads at the foot of the stairs of the building, the illusion of a snake moving down the building. This spectacle is very popular with tourists, even if it is not clear whether the builders had planned the effect or whether coincidence played a role here.

The pyramid consists of nine levels and has 91 steps on each of the four sides, which together make up the number 364. If you add the base of the temple on the highest level, 365 steps result, which correspond to the number of days in a year. However, this calculation should be done with caution, because the steps were rebuilt during the reconstruction of the pyramid. It is not sure whether the monument in its original state had 91 steps on each side. There are also signs that there were no 91 levels.

The outer Kukulcán pyramid, visible today, was constructed around 1100 AD. Excavations have shown that it was built over an older nine level temple. This first pyramid is thought to have been made around 700 AD. There are indications that there is a further overbuilt pyramid structure hidden inside this second pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is the temple of Kukulcán. Unfortunately, the pyramid has been closed to visitors for many years, so you can’t climb it anymore.

The Balamkú Cave

There is a suspicion that the entire pyramid complex was built over a cenote or an underground watercourse. In search of access to this reservoir, archaeologists discovered access to an extensive cave system about 2 km away.

So far (2019) only a few 100 meters of this cave called “Balamkú” could be explored. The work is difficult because the corridors are sometimes only 40 centimetres high. Balamkú means “Temple of the Jaguar”, by the way.

Interesting are the numerous clay vessels, more than 100 of which have been found in very good condition. It is assumed that they were made between 700 and 1000 AD. Some vessels seem to show pictures of the rain god Tlaloc, worshipped in central Mexico, which is surprising because the Maya also worshipped Chaak, their own rain god. This also underlines the central Mexican influence, which can be seen in several places in Chichen Itza.


Temple of the Warriors – Chichén Itzá

The Warrior Temple is named after a series of columns on which the relief-engraved depictions of Maya warriors can be seen. The temple was built over an older structure, the temple of Chak Mol. The columns have a square cross-section and are sculptured. The pictures show Maya warriors, snakes, and birdmen – a mixture of warriors and birds.

This kind of figure is also found in Tula, north of Mexico City. Because of the similarity in architecture and art between Chichén Itzá and Tula, it is believed that a connection between the Maya people living here and the Toltecs from Tula can be established.


The Group of a Thousand Columns
The Group of a Thousand Columns

The group of a thousand columns is a large collection of stone columns that join the warrior temple to the south and east. In ancient time, these columns were the pillars of a massive vaulted roof, but it has not been preserved.


The temple of the sacrificial table is a small pyramid stump, the base of which consists of four levels. A temple building is found on the upper platform.


Snake Head at the ball court in Chichén Itzá
Snake Head at the ball court in Chichén Itzá

The big ball court is one of the twelve ball courts discovered in Chichén Itzá. And it is the largest ball court ever found in the Maya world. This one has a length of 168 meters and a width of 38 meters (6384 square meters). The side walls are eight meters high. By way of comparison, an international soccer pitch is only slightly larger. It measures 105 x 68 meters (7140 square meters). The way the ballplayers of the Maya managed to move the massive rubber ball, which they were only allowed to touch with hips, shoulders, and knees but not with their hands or feet, through the two rings just below the top of the side walls, will remain a mystery forever.

Due to the weight of the ball, violent injuries might have been common for ballplayers. The losers or the winners, as some historians assume, had the honor of being sacrificed on the pyramid of Kukulcán after the game.


Several temples were built around the large ball playground on the enclosure walls. The most striking of these is the Jaguar temple on the south side of the eastern wall.


Engraved Warriors and Eagles at the Tzompantli in Chichén Itzá
Engraved Warriors and Eagles at the Tzompantli in Chichén Itzá

The word Tzompantli, borrowed from the language of the Aztecs, the Nahuatl, originally refers to a platform on which the skulls of the ritual victims were exhibited, fastened to wooden frames. The base of the Tzompantli is decorated with relief skulls.


This structure is a small square-shaped platform. Snakeheads form the upper end of the stairs leading upwards on all four sides.


Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá
Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá

The Cenote Sagrado is located about 400 meters north of the Castello. The path leads through sparse forest and is lined by all kinds of stalls of artisans and traders. The cenote also served as a place for sacrifice. In addition to various objects of art, several human skeletons have been found on their bottom during dives.

The diameter of the cenote is about 60 meters. The distance from the upper edge to the water surface is about 15 meters. Like probably all cenotes, the Cenote Sagrada of Chichén Itzá is connected to the subterranean water system of northernYucatán.


The Snail - El Caracol in Chichén Itzá
The Snail – El Caracol in Chichén Itzá

The Caracol or snail tower is one of the most prominent buildings in Chichén Itzá. According to an inscription found on its surface, the construction time of this monument built for astronomical observation dates back to 906 AD. The tower got its name because of the spiral staircase that leads upwards inside. The builders erected the round tower on several superimposed platforms.

Archaeologists and historians assume that a total of 29 astronomical events were of interest to the Maya priesthood. These include the dayand-night equals, solstices and solar eclipses. For 20 of these events, the Caracol has established lines of sight for observation. Probably, the number of these lines of sight was initially even higher. However, due to the temporary deterioration of the building structure, they are no longer detectable today.


La Iglesia in Chichén Itzá
La Iglesia in Chichén Itzá

The building called Iglesia is relatively small and has only one doorway. It stands out for its façade decorations with several masks of the rain god Chaac.


Map of Chichen Itza
Map of Chichen Itza

Chichén Itzá is a very frequently visited place. The administration of the site opens at 8 am. By 12 noon, however, it is almost impossible to stand on the site, because it is teeming with people.

Shortly after the opening of the gates, it will fill up with tourists. Every day, masses of tourists rush in from the tourist centers of the Caribbean coast to Chichén Itzá. It is therefore advisable to plan this trip carefully to ensure that you arrive early in the morning before the stream of visitors floods the area. The weekend is not recommended for the visit. It is best to reach Chichén Itzá the day before the actual tour and stay overnight in the immediate vicinity. The name of the village next to Chichén Itzá is Pisté.

Therefore, I recommend that the you should arrive early before (!) 8 a.m. in front of the entrance to get a ticket. It’s best to plan several visitsdue to the size of the complex You won’t be able to visit all the buildings in one visit before the tourists set upon the ancient ruins.

Several times a day there are intercity buses that stop in Chichén Itzá from Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Cancún, Valladolid or Mérida. In the entrance area of the Maya site, there is a ticket counter and luggage storage. In the small town of Piste, only five minutes away by car, restaurants and overnight accommodation are available.

Christian Schoen

Christian Schoen is a globetrotter, travel writer and author of the very successful travel guide "The Maya Sites - Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest". He loves to visit temples, pyramids and any kind of ancient ruins. The SLR in his hand, he can be met on adventurous hiking tours in tropical jungle landscapes - sometimes - or just somewhere in his neighbourhood, the Black Forest Mountains in Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.