You Are Here: Home > Mayan Ruins > Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous of the all the archaeological sites in the ancient Mayan world. Visitors come from all over the world to take in its breathtaking sights. The observatory, El Caracol (the snail), the great pyramid, El Castillo (the castle), and the largest ball court in Mesoamerica are just a few of the amazing sights at Chichen Itza. A trip to the Yucatan peninsula is not complete without a visit to Chichen Itza.

History of Chichen Itza

El Caracol, the Observatory at Chichen Itza

The Observatory, El Caracol

Chichen Itza reached the height of its glory during the Terminal Classic (800-925 ad) and the Early Post Classic (925-1200 ad) periods. While Maya civilization was in decline in other areas Chichen Itza was undergoing a building boom. At its height it is estimated that more than 50,000 people lived around Chichen Itza, this is similar to the number of people who lived at the ancient Mayan city of Coba.

Chichen Itza had two cultural peaks. The first occurred in the Terminal Classic period and was punctuated by the building of El Caracol, El Orario, the Nunnery and many other important buildings. The second came after the arrival of the Toltec, in the Early Post Classic, who brought new building and religious ideas to the people of Chichen Itza. The Early Post Classic period saw the completion of the great pyramid El Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors among others.

Chichen Itza has more than 300 ancient buildings; so far only 12 of them have been excavated and restored by archaeologists. These 12 were chosen for restoration based on their cultural importance.

Archaeological Highlights

The Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza

The Temple of the Warriors

El Orario

The Maya did not entomb their dead in buildings but they made an exception in El Orario (the Spanish verb orar means to pray or orate). Also called the Tomb of the Chief Priest, El Orario is actually the final resting place of 7 important Maya men. This building has been partly restored. The reconstruction of the very interesting cornices is not complete. One beautiful aspect of the building is the serpent heads that reside at the bottom of each staircase, another serpent head belongs at the top of each stairway and the bodies of the two snakes are entwined for the length of the staircase.

El Caracol

The Spanish named the observatory El Caracol because the spiral staircase has a snail shape; the Maya name for the building is not known. The observatory was used by the Maya to further their intense study of the heavens. The building was constructed so that 8 observers could work in ideal conditions to document different parts of the sky at the same time. The Maya used an intricate calendar and their measurement of time was linked to their religious understanding. The observatory was doubtless a very important building.

The Nunnery Complex

The Spanish called the main building of this complex the Nunnery because it has latticework decoration on the walls. In Spain at that time Nunneries commonly had a similar latticework. This is just another example of the lack of understanding that the Spanish had for the people here in Mexico, because the Maya never had any nuns. The main building of the Nunnery has many additions. The Maya understanding of time involved cycles, and in 52-year cycles they often added to existing buildings. This main building underwent 7 of these 52-year building cycles. The buildings in the Nunnery complex were originally covered in stucco that was painted bright colors. The Maya used vegetable, insect and mineral sources for their colors. The face of the Maya rain god Chaak is incorporated into each of the buildings in this complex, he is recognized by his elephant-trunk-like curling snout.

El Castillo - Kukulkan Pyramid at Chichen Itza

El Castillo, Kukulkan Pyramid

El Castillo

The construction of this great building was completed after the arrival of the Toltec. Also called El Templo de Kukulkan this great pyramid was dedicated to the Maya-Toltec version of the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Quetzalcoatl came to be known by the Maya as Kukulkan. Archaeologists have found evidence of two other temples encased within El Castillo. One can see part of one of these inner temples by making the journey up inside the temple, this area is open to the public for part of each day. El Castillo is revered for an amazing trick the Maya built into the building. On the equinoxes, twice per year, when the sun sets, one can see the body of a snake which is created by the shadow cast by the undulating corner of the edifice. The illusion is completed by the head of the snake at the bottom of the stairs. The snake appears to be slithering down the north stairway. El Castillo also holds an example of the first known sound ever recorded by humans. Ask your guide to clap when you are standing in front of the North staircase, if done from the proper spot you will hear the call of what is thought to be the Quetzal bird. The Quetzal never lived close to Chichen Itza, although it was certainly known by the Toltec.

Temple of the Warriors

This building was also completed in the Early Post Classic period, after the arrival of the Toltec. The building was used for the sacrifice of warriors. Their beating hearts were cut from their chests and were placed in the bowl on the lap of the Chac-mool statue at the top of the stairs. This was one of three forms of human sacrifice that were used at Chichen Itza. The temple contains colorful murals that depict the arrival of the Toltec army at Chichen Itza; unfortunately the temple had to be closed after visitors damaged the murals.

Detail from the Nunnery Complex at Chichen Itza

Detail from the Nunnery Complex

Sacred Cenote

One reaches the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza by way of a Sacbe, one of the “white roads” that the Maya are famous for. A cenote is a well and cenotes represent the only reliable water source in much of the Yucatan peninsula, which has no surface water. The sacred cenote at Chichen Itza is a mere 13 meters (45 feet) deep. The water is stagnant since it does not, unlike many cenotes, connect to an underground river. The Maya believed that their rain god Chaak lived beneath the water; and it is said that in times of drought offerings were made him. The offerings were often objects of value, but men, women and children were also thrown into the Sacred Cenote.

Great Ball Court

The great ball court at Chichen Itza is the largest in all of Mesoamerica. Its walls are 82 meters (270 feet) long and 8 meters high (27 feet). The walls are 30 meters apart (99 feet). The ball court boasts amazing acoustics and it is said that a conversation can be held, in a normal voice, between people who are at either end of the court. The ball game was played with a heavy rubber ball weighing up to 4 kilograms (almost 9 pounds). The ball would be sent through stone rings placed high on either side of the court. I have read that the captain of the losing team was beheaded upon the completion of the game. However the guides at Chichen Itza tell you that it was indeed the winning captain who was beheaded. The carvings, which appear at courtside, appear to back this version up. One might ask why anyone would ever try to win, knowing they would be beheaded if they won?


Mexicans and Mexican residents get into all Mexican Archaeological sites for free on Sundays.

Note You may freely reenter the archaeological area, so feel free to leave things in the car and go back for them later. We usually bring a cooler and return to the car when we get hungry.


Getting There

Chichen Itza is located in the town of Piste, in the state of Yucatan, along the Cancun – Merida highway. Chichen Itza is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the city of Merida. Chichen Itza is just over 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the center of the city of Cancún.

From Cancún

Take Avenida Lopez-Portillo going west, this becomes the Cancun-Merida Road. At the edge of the city decide between the Cuota (tollway) and Libre (freeway).

Cuota / Tollway

The Cuota charges high tolls, round trip from and back to Cancun will be over $400 pesos (around $40 USD). The advantage is that you can travel at high speed because the tollway bypasses the many small towns that the Libre goes through. The trip from Cancun takes just over 2 hours each way via the Cuota.

Libre / Freeway

The Libre is quite scenic but slower than the Cuota because it passes though many towns that the Cuota bypasses. The trip from Cancun takes nearly 3 hours each way via the Libre.


Parking is $10 pesos (less than $1 usd). If you get there late and the lot is full there is free parking along the road.

What To Bring


Tip For Women The big pyramid is quite steep which makes wearing a short skirt something which will gain you a lot of attention as you climb it. My first time at Chichen Itza I noticed an inordinate number of men standing at the bottom of the steps. A long skirt would make climbing the pyramid tricky. I now wear shorts when I visit Chichen Itza.

Tip For Parents Consider putting small children in backpacks. The terrain can be a little too rough for comfortable stroller use. Young girls should wear shorts and not dresses, there are many places where kids will want to climb the ruins and a dress with a long skirt will only get in the way.

What’s Nearby

Chichen Itza is located close to the Balancanche caves, which are sacred to the Maya. Chichen is just a half hour from the historic city of Valladolid which has some lovely restaurants.

Suggested Reading

Errors and Omissions

Our goal is to provide the most accurate information possible, please report mistakes or omissions to the Webmaster.

Save up to 30% on Cancun area Tours, 2 for 1 prices on participating restaurants. Click here for more...

Copyright 2008 | | All Rights Reserved Secrets of Cancun and the Riviera Maya

Comments and Questions: