For jaw-dropping scale and breathtaking beauty a visit to Chichén Itzá is a must. Dating back to 750 AD, this former Maya city was the ceremonial centre of the ancient civilization. Today, it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and one of the most visited and impressive archaeological sites in Mexico.
The beautifully restored ruins of Chichén Itzá are one of Mexico’s main tourist attractions. Not only is this archaeological site UNESCO-listed, but the main pyramid, El Castillo, has also been declared as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A religious and ceremonial site, Chichén Itzá was also a sophisticated city centre, a hub for regional trade and a showcase for the Maya’s advanced astronomical skills. One of the most important scientific achievements of the Maya was devising a 365-day calendar and the temples on the site are laid out to represent time, like a huge calendar. A firm fixture on the tourist trail, Chichén Itzá gets busy and hot and we would advise any visit starts as early as possible to avoid the worst of the crowds and the heat. We’d also recommend taking a guided tour to get the most from your visit. Chichén Itzá is located near the small town of Piste, around a two-hour drive southeast from Mérida in the central region of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Chichén Itzá, means ‘the mouth of the well of the Itzá.’ Historians believe the Itzá people dominated the northern peninsula of Yucatán before the Spanish Conquest and their name derives from the Mayan word itz meaning magic and (h)á meaning water, combining to mean Water Magicians. This could reflect the fact that the site was constructed close to two huge cenotes into which the Maya threw sacrificial objects, including human beings as a form of worship to Chaac, the Maya rain god. Today, Cenote Sagrado is a popular draw and when it was dredged in the 1960s, archaeologists recovered jade carvings, pottery, gold, silver and human skeletons. But Chichén Itzá’s main attraction is Piramide de Kukullkan or El Castillo (the Castle), a stepped pyramid standing 27-metres tall, with 365 steps, one for each day of the year. During the spring and autumn equinox, as the sun sets it creates the shadow of what appears to be a moving serpent descending the steps of the great staircase.
Other highlights include the Juego de Pelota Principal (Great Ball Court), the largest known in the Americas, the game being to pass a rubber ball through stone hoops attached to the wall, using any body part except the hands. For amazing carvings of rattlesnakes and jaguars, head to Templo de los Jaguares (Temple of the Jaguars) and don’t miss El Caracol (the Snail), which is an ancient observatory used to measure and record important days in the astronomical calendar, such as the solstice. The oldest part of the city is found in Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén), which has some interesting structures that pre-date Toltec times and those with an interest in the macabre will want to see the Tzompantli, (Temple of Skulls), which was where the decapitated heads of those sacrificed to the gods were put on display.
During the 1400s, the Maya people abandoned Chichén Itzá to the jungle with no record as to why they left. While scientists speculate that the city’s downfall could be due to drought or exhausted soil, it is another mystery of the Maya that we will never know. A trip to Chichén Itzá is an unforgettable experience which we would highly recommend, not to mention a chance to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A guided tour will offer fascinating insights into Maya culture and deeply enrich your experience of these wonderfully restored ancient ruins.