The centuries-old ruins of Chichen Itza are undoubtedly one of the most visited archeological sites and tourist attractions in Mexico, but while the crowds can be daunting in peak season, the mysterious Mayan pyramids rarely fail to awe even the most experienced of travelers.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s listed as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, Chichen Itza is home to towering temples, sacred sinkholes, and curious Mayan ball game courts. Located within day-tripping distance of the Yucatan Peninsula’s Mayan Riviera, as well as the ever-popular city of Merida, there are lots of different ways to explore this epic site.
To help you to beat the crowds, and make the most of your time in Mexico, here’s our ultimate guide to visiting the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza!
A Brief History of Chichen Itza
Rising from the dense jungles of the Yucatan, Chichen Itza grew to prominence from the 6th century AD onwards. By the 10th century, Chichen Itza was a sprawling city with a dense trade network that reached as far as the Caribbean coastline. A center of religious fervor, the temples and sacred cenotes attracted pilgrims from across the Mayan world (although Chichen Itza never had the power or riches that other Mayan cities, such as Tikal or Palenque, could claim).
But today, all that remains of this city are the temples and ballcourts. Chichen Itza fell into ruin after the overthrow of the elite in the 12th century and the onset of the Mayan decline. By the time the Spanish conquistadors first laid eyes upon a long-abandoned Chichen Itza in the 16th century, there was little that hadn’t been swallowed by the forest.
From the mid 19th century onwards, Chichen Itza began to be slowly excavated and researched. As the temples emerged from the undergrowth, so too did the tourists. With its proximity to Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Chichen Itza has reached a new zenith as one of Mexico’s most popular tourist spots!
Map of Chichen Itza
To help you start planing your tour of Chichen Itza here is a nice map of all the ruins you can visit.
Best Time to Visit Chichen Itza
Located away from the coast, in the humid jungles of the Yucatan, it’s always going to be hot and sweaty when you visit Chichen Itza. Avoid the rain and the excessive summer heat by visiting in the dry season, which falls between November and April.
You’ll miss the rains and hurricane season, but temperatures can still rise to over 30 degrees celsius. In the wet, summer season, temperatures rise much higher, and it’s much, much more humid.
However, despite having the best weather, it’s best to avoid the peak months of December and January. This is when Mexico is always at its busiest, and you can expect to be joined by thousands of other tourists from the resorts at Cancun. Try to hit the shoulder months instead, such as November, February, and March, for a good balance between the crowds and the weather.
When planning a trip to Chichen Itza, always plan to arrive early. That way you miss the midday heat and the crowds.
How to Travel to Chichen Itza
Being one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, traveling to Chichen Itza in Mexico is easy, but you do need to get your timings right if you want to avoid the heat and the crowds.
Chichen Itza is located almost exactly in the center of the northern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. That means it’s halfway between the tourist resorts of Cancun (to the east), and Yucatan’s capital and largest city, Merida (to the west). Both of these destinations have airports, but Cancun has by far the best international flight connections.
The easiest way to visit is to join a tour to Chichen Itza. These depart from any and all hotels along the Riviera Maya, from Cancun down to Tulum. There are also lots of tours from Merida. Here are some Chichen Itza tour recommendations:
- From Cancun & Riviera Maya: Chichen Itza, Valladolid & Cenote Tour
- From Cancun & PDC: Chichen Itzá, Ik Kil and Coba Small Group Tour
- From Cancun & Riviera Maya: Chichén Itzá, Hubiku Cenote & Valladolid Tour
If you prefer independence, you can hire a rental car in Merida or Cancun and drive to Chichen Itza. It’s safe and the roads are good. Journey time from either city is between 2 and 3 hours.
From Cancun to Chichen Itza, you can also take an ADO bus (the region’s major bus company). These depart from the central bus station, rather than from the resort areas. There are also regular ADO buses from Merida central bus station to Chichen Itza.
These public buses drop people off by the main entrance, but you’re limited on departure times (the earliest bus from Cancun, for instance, usually departs around 8 or 9 am, getting you in quite late in the day). Be sure to book tickets in advance, to reserve your spot there and back if you are day tripping.
If you are wondering how to get to Chichen Itza independently, then a much better option is to take the public bus from Merida or Cancun to the town of Valladolid. Spend a night or two here (it’s a charming place) and use the local colectivos to get from Valladolid to Chichen Itza. Colectivos depart all through the day when full from as early as 7 am. The journey costs just a few pesos and takes only 45 minutes. The real advantage, though, is that you can get to the ruins early, long before the buses start arriving from Cancun and Merida.
How Long Do I Need to Visit Chichen Itza
The archaeological site of Chichen Itza is around 3 square miles in size. There are the outdoor temples, alongside a small visitor’s center with a museum. There are also a few restaurants in Chichen Itza to be found at the main entrance.
The vast majority of visitors find that a day trip to Chichen Itza is plenty of time to see the ruins themselves. In fact, at a brisk walk you can see all the temples within the archaeological site in under 3 hours. Nearby, there are also several cenotes which you can fit into the same day (some tours will stop at these, or you can reach them by car or colectivo).
If you’re basing yourself in Valladolid to visit Chichen Itza, then consider spending a few days here. The small city has several museums and a cenote to visit, while there are other (much less visited) Mayan ruins nearby, including Ek Balam.
Can I Spend the Night at Chichen Itza?
While most tourists visit Chichen Itza on a day trip, if you want to spend longer exploring the ruins or really want to be the first person inside the gates in the morning, then there are several hotels within walking distance.
These hotels are located on the road into the archeological area, but they are limited in number and won’t offer as good value as the hotels in nearby Valladolid. In terms of convenience, though, they can’t be beaten!
How Much Does the Entrance Fee to Chichen Itza Cost?
Ticket prices seem to go up every year at Chichen Itza, and adult entrance for the day now stands at 481 MEX (up from around 250 MEX just a year ago). In comparison, the ruins at Palenque cost just 75 MEX for entrance.
Still, 481 MEX is only around 25 USD to see a wonder of the ancient world. In addition, you’ll need to pay 80 MEX for access to Cenote Ik Kil, as this is privately owned and run separately from the archeological site.
Best Things to Do in Chichen Itza
1. Temple of Kukulcan
The Temple of Kukulcan is known in Spanish as ‘El Castillo’ (the castle) because this enormous temple is the most impressive sight to see at Chichen Itza. Dedicated to the Mayan serpent-deity Kukulcan, the temple was the centerpiece of the ancient Mayan city.
Standing almost 100 feet tall, the temple has been marvelously restored to its former glory and is the first major sight that you’ll see when you walk from the entrance into the archaeological area.
2. The Great Ball Court
The Mayans were famed for their great ball games, a sport that was both bloody and sacred. At Chichen Itza, at least 13 different ball courts have been uncovered, while every other Mayan city or town had its own arenas too.
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza was one of the largest in the Mayan world, and today the ruins still feature hoops and sacrificial inscriptions that give some idea of the epic game that was played here.
3. The Skull Platform
One of the more grizzly features of Chichen Itza is the Skull Platform. This was thought to have been a ritual, sacrificial platform, where the skulls of the decapitated would be displayed – perhaps after playing in the sacred ball games.
The Mayan reliefs carved into the side of the platform depict the heads and skulls of the victims who were put on display here centuries ago.
4. The Temple of the Warriors
The Temple of the Warriors, as you might expect it to be, is thought to have been dedicated to or a place of worship for Mayan warriors.
This is one of the largest temples in the complex, and it’s adorned with statues and reliefs of soldiers and warrior-like Mayans.
Just as impressive are the several hundred tall stone pillars that line the entranceway and the sides of the temple.
5. The Observatory
The Observatory is one of Chichen Itza’s most fascinating ruins. Atop a tall temple mound stands a circular, partially collapsed building that is thought to have been a Mayan observatory.
The Spanish name for the temple is El Caracol (or the snail), a reference either to the shape of the observatory or the spiral staircase inside that led to an observation area.
The Mayans used the temple to help keep their calendars up to date, by accurately recording which date it was!
6. The Sacred Cenote
Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water that are found across the unique Yucatan landscape. While tourists today visit cenotes for their natural beauty or for a freshwater swim, the Mayans saw them as sacred.
Mayan cities are always found built next to cenotes, which could be used as an important water source. Over time, the cenotes took on religious significance too, and the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza became a place of ceremonies.
Archeological work has even brought up human remains from the bottom of the Sacred Cenote, suggesting it could have been used for sacrificial purposes.
7. Cenote Ik Kil
After exploring Chichen Itza’s temples, take a colectivo back along the main road towards Valladolid and jump out at the entrance to Cenote Ik Kil.
Unlike the cenotes within the archeological area, this is a cenote that you can go swimming in. With long hanging vines reaching down to the Azul water, it’s not only magnificent to look at, but it’s absolutely refreshing in the Yucatan heat.
There are lockers and changing rooms on-site, as well as a restaurant where you can refuel with tacos!
Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza
To help you to plan your visit to the pyramids of Chichen Itza, here are a few of our top tips to make your day go smoother!
1. Chichen Itza opens at 8am
Chichen Itza opens its gates at 8 am. There can already be a queue forming at this time in peak season, so try to get here earlier than this if you want to see the ruins with as few other tourists as possible.
If you’ve read the rest of this Chichen Itza guide, then you’ll know that the buses and tours don’t leave Cancun until at least 8 am. Getting here at opening time gives you a few hours without the crowds if you’re independently minded!
2. There are limited ‘Early Access’ tickets available
It’s not well advertised, but it is possible to book early entrance tickets to Chichen Itza that get you in before the official 8 am opening time.
These are perfect for photographers looking to capture the temples at sunrise, with no one else around. They need to be booked in advance, or as part of a limited early morning sunrise tour.
3. There’s very little shade
Getting to Chichen Itza early doesn’t just help you to beat the crowds, but it helps you to beat the sun too.
4. Don’t bring a camera tripod
It’s not permitted to bring in camera tripods to the archaeological area, even small ones like a gorilla pod!
While cameras (even large DSLRs) are fine to have and to use when you’re touring Chichen Itza, tripods are seen as professional equipment. For this, you are expected to have pre-arranged (and expensive) permits.
The security acts fast when it comes to this, and will check for permits if you pull the tripod out for a shot. Leave the tripod at your hotel to avoid any questions.
5. Don’t climb the temples!
Different archaeological sites in Mexico have different rules when it comes to climbing the temples.
At Chichen Itza, there’s no climbing allowed, anywhere. Be a good traveler, and stick to the rules.
6. Bring your swimming gear!
Finally, don’t forget to bring your swimming gear.
After a tough morning of sightseeing around the temples of Chichen Itza, you’ll want to take the chance to cool off in the nearby cenotes.
With beautiful restorations and a wealth of Mayan history to explore, Chichen Itza has earned its rightful place as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World. And yes, while this might be one of the busiest and most popular archeological sites in Mexico, a first glimpse of the towering Temple of Kukulcan will leave you in instant awe.