When you think of Mexico you will no doubt picture palm fringed white sand beaches so synonymous with the Mayan Rivera. Away from the beaches there are 2 attractions that may pop into your mind even if you aren’t sure of their names. Tulum is famous for its accessible beach front ruins, the only known site in the Mayan world, and the warrior city of Chichen Itza two hours inland.
Chichen Itza is the most popular tourist site in Mexico drawing 1.4 million visitors annually. If you are staying in one of the many all inclusive resorts dotted along the Mayan Rivera you won’t be able to escape the advertising from tour companies. But is a 4 hour round trip on a bus to walk round a large Mayan ruin in the sweltering heat of the Mexican jungle worth the effort and the cost?
The Yucatan Peninsular is a giant slab of porous limestone pushed up from the sea bed when the meteor that is widely regarded to have killed the dinosaurs struck millions of years ago. The area is naturally flat. Any hills or mounds are certainly of man made origin. The area is scattered with ancient structures but access is restricted because they sit on private land. The state of Yucatan purchased the land Chichen Itza sits on in 2010 ensuring that it can remain open to visitors.
Pulling into the car park finally after our very early morning start from Playa Del Carmen there was a palpable excitement in the air. It was still early, not even 9am, but the air was sticky as the sun burnt off the early morning cloud. The sounds of the jungle rumbled to life all around us.
Although Chichen Itza may be the most well know of all the thousands of Mayan ruins its not the largest. The main excavations cover an area of just 5 square kilometers (1.9 sq miles). Its a realtively compact layout. Perfect if you aren’t used to the oppressive heat in the tropics.
The number 1 rule of doing anything in the tropics, not just Chichen Itza, is go as early as you can. You can avoid the heat and generally the crowds but I was expecting a site as popular as this to be packed from opening. I was pleasantly surprised that it was so quiet at just gone 9am.
Chichen Itza’s Main Sites
Great North Platform
If you’re not very mobile the entrance is very near to the main temple. Just a 5 minute walk away. Chichen Itza is broken into 3 separate Architectural zones. The main plaza is in an area known as the Great North Platform. The Temple of Kukulkan (more well known as El Castillo, “The Castle”) is the focal point of the whole site.
Like many structures in ancient Maya it entombed an earlier temple. It was once open to the public but closed in 2006 after an American woman from San Diego fell to her death from the top of the temple.
To the northwest of the pyramid the Giant Ball Court is the largest and best persevered in Mesoamerica measuring in at 168m by 70m flanked by imposing vertical walls measuring in at 95 meters long and 8 meters high.
The Cenote Segrado is 300 meters west of El Castillo. Access is on a sacbe (a raised pathway) lined with local artisans. At 60 meters wide and 27 meters down to the water table, it is one of the the largest cenotes and one of the most revered sites in the ancient Mayan world. Dredging in the early 20th century discovered thousands of precious stones and gold. Wooden artefacts and clothing that would otherwise have rotted long ago have been preserved in the silty mud and water. Skeletal remains of sacrifices (male female and young aged 6-12) are also very numerous.
Behind the pyramid is the impressive Temple Of The Warriors and neighbouring Group Of A Thousand Columns. Combined these two easily rival El Castillo for striking beauty. The columns would once have supported a sprawling roof system interconnecting with a further 2 temples that are not open to the public.
To the south of the main section is a smaller platform in comparison to the Great North Platform. The Temple Of The High Priests was excavated in the 19th Century revealing a natural 12 meter deep cave underneath the structure.
The Temple Of Xtoloc has been recently restored. It overlooks Chichen Itza’s second large cenote that was used for drinking and bathing. The temple has good examples of carvings including people, birds and plants as well as mythological scenes.
(The Snail) is a striking structure on a raised platform. It is thought to have been used as an observatory with its doors and windows aligned to astronomical events.
Nearby, the Las Monjas Complex is one of the later buildings in the site. Although its name translates to The Nunnery it was actually a governmental palace. A small temple is decorated with masks and makes a striking photograph.
Is Chichen Itza Worth A Day Away From The Beach?
If you are on a tour around the Yucatan you will likely find that Chichen Itza is on your itinerary but if you are staying in an all inclusive resort on the Riviera should you peel yourself away from the relative luxury of the sun lounger and free booze?
The answer is going to depend on your penchant for ancient history. There’s no denying that the structures of the Mayan world that now lay scattered throughout Mesoamerica are wonderful to look at. Walking among towering symmetrical pyramids and giant structures thousands of years old ignites a curiosity in all of us. How much you are going to enjoy your experience depends on how well you deal with heat and in Chichen Itza’s case, crowds.
Still relatively local to the main tourist hub of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen yet totally isolated for hundreds of years while the jungle reclaimed the land, Chichen Itza has a special appeal to many people. If you can forgive the crowding and the heat for a few hours Chichen Itza will give you a brief highlight and understanding of the mysterious and sometimes barbaric world of the ancient Mayan people.
Travel enriches us but only if we get out and explore a little bit of the destinations we visit. In Mexico you can’t get more accessible than Chichen Itza.