The famous Maya pyramids of Chichén Itzá are over 1500 years old and are located only 75 miles from Mérida. The name Chichén Itzá is a Maya word: CHI (mouth) CHEN (well) and ITZA (of the Itza tribe). Some believe people were occasionally thrown into the nearby cenote as sacrifices, and those who survived were believed to be seers.
The site is divided into three sections. The north grouping of structures is distinctly Toltec in style. The central group appears to be from the early period. The southern group is known as “The Old Chichén.” All three can be seen comfortably in one day.
As the most famous of the Maya pyramids on the Yucatán peninsula, Chichén Itzá has been studied extensively and is the most popular Maya site in México. Much has been written about it. Try to visit Chichén Itzá early in the morning or late in the afternoon, as the sun can be punishing at midday.
The main attraction is the central pyramid, also known as El Castillo, the spectacular, massive Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the Chichén Itzá archaeological site. Today El Castillo is one of the most popular and recognized tourist sites of Mexico and as of 07/07/07, it is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Built by the Maya sometime between the 1000 and 1200 AD, El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkán and is believed to have served as a calendar. Each of the structure’s four stairways contains 91 steps. When counting the top platform as another step, in total El Castillo has 365 steps, one step for each day of the year. The structure is 24 meters tall (78 feet), plus an additional 6 m (20 feet) for the temple top for a total height of 30 meters (98 feet). The square base measures 55.3 meters (181 feet) across. Huge sculptures of plumed serpents’ heads sit at the base of the pyramid on the northern staircase. At sunset during the spring and autumn equinoxes triangle shadows are formed by the platforms making it appear as if a plumed serpent is descending the pyramid.
If you are up to the challenge, inside you will find a narrowly enclosed staircase that leads to a “chac mool”, an altar where offerings to the gods were placed. It is sometimes possible to visit the inside passageway of the pyramid, but we would encourage visitors who are claustrophobic to skip that part of the adventure. Climbing to the top of the pyramid is no longer allowed.
Just beyond El Castillo you will find a large ball court where Maya men played a game called Pok Ta Pok. Anthropologists believe that the object of the game was to hurl a ball through a ring that was mounted on a wall, seven meters above the ground.
Each team had six field players who would attempt to pass the ball – using any body part except their hands – to their captain who would attempt the shot using a racket of sorts. The captain of the team that made the first successful shot was then thought to have been decapitated as a sacrifice to the gods. This was seen as an honor and guaranteed entrance into heaven.
There is a certain mystical energy about the ball court that begs to be experienced first-hand. One fact worth noting is the repetition of the number seven, which was sacred to the Maya. There were seven players on a team, the rings were seven meters high and if you clap your hands or shout in the court, the sound will echo exactly seven times. There are carvings on the stone walls that depict the ball players (some of which are remarkably intact) and after the captain was beheaded, it is said that seven serpents grew out of his neck.
At the entrance to Chichén Itzá, there is an informative museum, a dining room, clean restrooms, a few gift shops, and vendor stands. If you didn’t bring a hat, it’s a good idea to buy one from one of the vendors outside before you go in.
NOT JUST A DAY TRIP
Most visitors to Mérida take a day tour to see the archaeological site, returning to Mérida the same day, an excellent option if your time is limited. But there is much more to Chichén Itzá than the incredible archeological site. Hacienda Chichén offers birding, eco-cultural experiences with the local Maya community, and Maya spa treatments (see contact info below). Yucatan Mayan Retreat offers Ecohotel & Camping services, in Yokdzonot village, 10 min. from Chichén Itzá.
How to get to Chichén Itzá:
You can travel to Chichén Itzá by daily travel agency tours, rental car, or public bus. If you drive yourself, parking is $22 pesos. You can easily do the trip and return to Mérida by the evening, or you can stay overnight. We recommend you read our article on Transportation in the Yucatan.
If you wish to take public transportation:
CAME bus station
Calle 70 x 69, Centro.
Departures for Chichén Itzá in the early morning. Cost 144 pesos. Takes 1 hour 45 min.
Check ado.com.mx for current schedules.
– Climbing to the top of the pyramid is no longer allowed.
– The site is open 365 days a year from 8 am to 5 pm.
– For the first months of inauguration, extended until October 31, 2015, “Las Noches de Kukulkán” light and sound show is only available with registration in advance, completely free. Click here for more info. Click here to see a short video about the show.
– Parking: Vehicles: 22 pesos. Buses: 33 pesos. Fee is for the duration of your visit, not per hour.
– New Seven Wonders of the World