If you’re to believe most online reports, Chichen Itza isn’t entirely deserving of its place among the 7 wonders of the world (which is really just an arbitrary list anyway). People say it’s too crowded, too commercialised and that it’s not even the best set of ruins in Mexico. Can that really be true, or is it just fashionable to claim that more off the beaten path, authentic sites are more worthy of your time? I set out today (how’s this for real time blogging) to find the truth.
El Castillo (The Big Pyramid)
After seeing a whole lot of ancient pyramids and ruins in Mexico, I was half expecting to be underwhelmed at the sight of El Castillo. It was exactly the opposite – it really is an amazing building and probably the most impressive single structure I’ve seen in Mexico. Sure, other sights might be more atmospheric and have better settings, but you’d really have to be trying (or be Karl Pilkington) not to be impressed by it. Are there hipper, less commercialised pyramids in Mexico? Sure, but I can’t imagine too many beating this for the sheer wow factor.
Further reading: Interested in big Mayan pyramids? I also wrote a post on Tikal, Guatemala!
The Finer Details
We visited Uxmal about a week before Chichen Itza and we really liked the detail there – the facades on some of the buildings really showed what fine craftsmen the Mayans were. I was surprised to see even more intricate detail at Chichen Itza, from snake heads to a wall of skulls, the carvings in the walls really are works of art.
The world’s first game of tic tac toe?
A huge ball court
The first (and pretty much only) time I heard of the Mesoamerican ball sport was in the movie El Dorado – basically the players had to get the ball through a small hoop using their hips (this is just one version of the game though). We saw a nice little ball court at Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, but the one at Chichen Itza was huge in comparison. You can imagine some pretty intense games of ball going on here, with the losing team probably on their way to an early sacrificial grave.
The outer limits
The Chichen Itza complex is surprisingly big and it’s hard work seeing it all in the searing heat. There is some shade around thankfully and it is worth it see some small pyramids and other buildings in various states of decay. There are rows and rows of columns (I saw an almost identical scene at an old temple complex in Sri Lanka), some statues and even a sacred cenote (Cenote Segrado) to explore. Cenotes are flooded sinkholes and are awesome places to swim, but unfortunately you can’t at this one (which might actually be a good thing because the water didn’t look great, possibly due to the fact they used to sacrifice people in there!).
Death and destruction
No one knows exactly why Chichen Itza was abandoned and left to decay for centuries, but one thing we do know is that death was a big part of life for the ancient Mesoamericans. Human sacrifices were common place – people were thrown off pyramids, (and other things I’m sure) and into cenotes in huge numbers – I reckon you’d be wanting to avoid places of worship (or just anything tall) back then for fear of being thrown off it.
A cenote you can swim in
Around 7 km from Chichen Itza lies a little natural wonder known as Ik Kil. It’s a great place to swim if the heat is getting you down but it’s definitely not relaxing. Tour buses stop by regularly, but don’t let that put you off – this big hole in the ground, with tree roots cascading down into cool, clear water is something you need to see. If you’re not a strong swimmer you can rent a life jacket but still check it out even if you’re not keen on getting in the water.
Further reading: Love cenotes? Check out Centoe Calavera near Tulum
Chichen Itza: How to explore this wonder of the world
The key to having a good experience at Chichen Itza is to get there early. It opens at 9 am and we arrived about 9.15 am – it was really quiet and we were able to breathe in the atmosphere of the place without being bothered by too many people. If we had arrived at lunchtime I might not be singing Chichen Itza’s praise quite as much. In order to get there early it’s best to spend the previous night in Valladolid – it’s a pleasant enough town and apparently there are quite a few cenotes within cycling distance. We’ll be visiting them tomorrow so I’ll keep you posted (update – we visited them and they are amazing, I’ll be writing a post about them soon). If you’re visiting Chichen Itza from Merida, Tulum or Cancun (or anywhere else) you’ll have to deal with the crowds but it’d still be worth it. The entry ticket to Chichen Itza is $220 pesos (around $15 USD) and you can get a one way ticket there (which takes around 45 minutes) on the bus for only $26 pesos. A lot of people visit Chichen Itza as part of a tour but it’s so easy (and cheap) to do independently. Ik Kil cenote was $70 pesos and you’ll probably need to hire a locker for $30 pesos. You can get a taxi there from Chichen Itza for around $60 pesos.
Further reading: Looking for more information on Chichen Itza? Check out Unesco’s page on this awesome wonder of the world
Have you been to Chichen Itza or any other wonders of the world? Let me know!
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Saturday 8th of April 2017
Just toured the Chichen Itza ruins with a group of colleagues and it was amazing. You've done a really good job of putting it all together with photos and all. Thanks for sharing!
Monday 10th of April 2017
Thanks Nadine, glad you enjoyed Chichen Itza!
Sunday 5th of March 2017
Visited in September 2003 and then in March 2017. The difference is quite startling. With around 300 market stalls on site, in and around the various monuments, selling the usual mass-produced trinkets, and many more hotels in the immediate vicinity, the site is already quite busy by 9am (it opens at 8am). All of the monuments and several other areas are completely roped off. In some areas, such as the cenote at the top of the site, man made platforms and railings have been put in for safety.
More like a Disney park than a remote ruin... I count myself lucky to have seen it before it was spoiled.
Monday 6th of March 2017
Hey RC, thanks for the comment. It's definitely important to get there when it opens, we had a great time and had some areas almost entirely to ourselves. Things change obviously, and I understand locals wanting to cash in on all the tourists, but it's good that even these days you can see a place like this without massive crowds.
Friday 4th of September 2015
We went to Chichen Itza in maybe 2000. We took at jeep from Cancun to the ruins. What a trip that was being the only vehicle on the freeway. Scary to say the least. The most amazing thing to me was how beautiful the weather was before we entered into the ruins. Then the weather turned dark and cold and a harsh rain. It was truly unusual. The tic-tac-toe structure was one thing that struck me as being without any explanation. I have never heard anyone anywhere give any explanation regarding it. I would not believe their explanation anyway since everything regarding the whole place is pure speculation just like all history is. Its just His Story.
Tuesday 8th of September 2015
Sounds like a great trip Warren! I was confused about the tic-tac-toe as well, no idea what that's all about!
Sunday 3rd of May 2015
I went there in 2007 and didnt know about the Cenote....Looks amazing, I wish I went there :(
Thursday 7th of May 2015
It was awesome!
Thursday 30th of April 2015
Great post. I loved visiting this jewel and had several friends swimming in those cenotes (as well as Tulum) earlier this week. Nice job on capturing the details of the carvings.
Friday 1st of May 2015
Thanks Melody, we loved the cenotes too!