The great thing about the Yucatan is that they have an abundance of Mayan sites scattered all across the peninsula. While I lived on Cozumel island, I had the opportunity to travel across the Yucatan peninsula whenever I got a break from work.
Consequently, I was lucky enough to visit three of the sites at least twice – and it never gets old. There’s so much to see and take in. And, if you are anything like me, you’ve been reading up about these places for so long. There’s nothing like finally getting to walk up to these magnificent structures after doing so much research on them.
I had the privilege of visiting the massive archeological site of Chichén Itzá on three separate occasions. The first time, I slipped away from work for a day. I took the 7 am ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen. The tour guide met us and took the group to Chichén Itzá by bus. The bus ride took about two hours.
After that, the guide got our tickets and then started taking us into this historical site. The tour started straight away with information on how they discovered and declared it a UNESCO site in 1988. You could feel the anticipation as we walked down the wide gravel pathway. As the pyramid revealed itself from behind the trees, I immediately started tearing up because I’ve wanted to come here for so long and was finally here!
The tour lasted for about two hours – keep in mind that the site stretches over more than 5 square kilometers. The guide was super entertaining and patiently answered all my questions, but there wasn’t enough time to really take it all in and see the entire site.
The second time, I went with a Mexican friend. We didn’t arrange for a guide and just took our time walking through, exploring, and experiencing the site.
The third time I visited Chichén Itzá, we also just took our time to explore the site without a guide. This time, I took my parents. They had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go abroad and I took it upon myself to arrange the entire trip and show them as much as I could.
My father was an avid reader with so much knowledge, especially of Mayan culture and ancient archaeological sites. Seeing the expression on his face, and hearing him excitedly talk about the structures made it worth every minute.
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Highlights of Chichén Itzá
Cenote Sagrado – The Sacred Cenote
Walking along the Mayan wall to the Sacred Cenote, you can feel the energy changing. There is something eerie and powerful about this place.
Legend has it that the cenote was used for human sacrifices to ward off drought. After running expeditions into the cenote, they discovered numerous artifacts and minerals including gold, obsidian, jade, and pottery. They also discovered several human skeletons with markings indicating that they’d been killed before being thrown in the cenote.
El Castillo – The Temple of Kukulcan
As I mentioned before, walking up to the pyramid made me tearful. And the second and third time was no different. It is truly a magnificent structure.
They don’t allow visitors to get too close to the pyramid anymore – it is barricaded and there are many tourists every day. It’s hard to get a photo with nobody else in the background. You can, however, get close enough to still appreciate the architecture and magnitude of the structure.
Some interesting facts about the pyramid: What you see is actually a pyramid built over another, older pyramid. Inside the structure, in the “Hall of offerings” is a “Chac Mool” statue. Later, in the “Chamber of Sacrifices,” they found a red jaguar statue that is believed to be a throne, along with two rows of human bones.
El Caracol (The Observatory)
Although not much is known about El Caracol, it is believed to have been the Observatory of Chichén Itzá. If this is true, Mayan astrologers would have observed the skies from here. Quite a realization considering how everyone was at a point obsessed with the Mayan calendar and astrological predictions.
Named by the Spanish, Las Monjas translates to “The Nunnery”, but it was actually a more official structure – probably the government palace. On my first visit to Chichén Itzá, we didn’t even get this far. The nunnery is located just beyond El Caracol. The buildings are very well preserved and detailed and are totally worth seeing when you visit Chichén Itzá.
The Tzompantili (also known as the skull platform) truly got my attention. The platform is surrounded by a wall carved with skulls. It is believed that the heads of enemies or sacrificed humans were placed on poles on top of this structure.
The Thousand Columns
Walking amongst the stretch of columns, there is a sense of mystery as to why they were actually built. According to the guide, there are about 200 columns and they used to support a massive, flat roof. It could have been a marketplace or a meeting place. Perhaps, something like a town hall.
The Temple of the Warriors
After walking past the thousand columns, you come to the Temple of the Warriors. In front of the Temple, there are square, upright carved columns depicting warriors, animals, serpents, and gods. On top of the well-preserved pyramid, is another Chac Mool and Serpents.
The Great Ball Court
Entering the ball court was another moment where I teared up. It is a huge structure with walls stretching on the sides. On top of the wall to your right, is a temple from where the leaders would observe the game.
The rings on the walls are still intact and the walls are carved with stories of the winning teams holding the head of the losing teams’ captain.
According to other legends, the captain of the winning team would be beheaded. It may seem like a very strange victory, but was apparently an honor that guaranteed him a one-way ticket to heaven.
The Downside of Chichén Itzá
There are literally hundreds of visitors at Chichén Itzá every day. Although it is an enormous archeological site, the mood is somewhat ruined by so many people wandering around.
Also, there is a long marketplace along all the walkways of the site. You have to pass through it and, in my opinion, this is not the place to set up shop. Having locals trying to negotiate souvenir prices completely ruins the experience and takes up valuable time that you could spend exploring the site.
How to Get to Chichén Itzá
There are a few ways to get to Chichén Itzá. You can take a day tour from just about anywhere on the peninsula, or get there by yourself. The site is, pretty much, in the center of the peninsula, so getting there from any coastline only takes a couple of hours.
Chichén Itzá is located just south of Pisté and west of Valladolid. Traveling from Merida city takes about 1.5 hours. From Pisté, it only takes 5 minutes by taxi. It is just under an hour’s travel time from Valladolid, and around 2 hours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
You can take a taxi, collectivo, or go by bus. The ADO bus service in Mexico is very reliable and affordable, and usually, my first choice when traveling across the Yucatan peninsula.
Where to Stay when visiting Chichén Itzá
Like I said before, you can quite easily get to Chichén Itzá from just about anywhere on the Yucatan peninsula. I would recommend staying overnight at a city or town closer to the site so that you can get there early in the morning before too many day visitors show up.
In Pisté, there is a wonderful little place called La Casa de las Lunas. The rooms are comfortable and clean. The property also has its own swimming pool and wifi.
The accommodation is right on the main street of Pisté and you don’t need to go far to find basic necessities. There are souvenir shops, small local restaurants, a pharmacy, and fruit stores all along the main road.
Pisté is quite small, but it’s perfect if you want to have a quiet stay and get to Chichén Itzá early. You can buy a whole, roasted chicken and marquesitas from streetside vendors, and relax in the town square.
Want to Know More?
Have you ever visited Chichén Itzá? What was your experience? I would love to hear your stories, so feel free to comment.