You may not know the name Chichen Itza when mentioned but once you see the pictures of the impressive pyramid then you know exactly what they are talking about. This huge stone pyramid reaching for sky was built as a symbol of power and where the gruesome gifts to the Gods were given. The Chichen Itza complex is one of the internet poles ‘new 7 wonders of the world’ and shows the ancient power and technology of the Mayan civilization with the pyramid the jewel in the crown and is one of the reasons so many people visit Mexico. The pole was more of a patriotic and advertising event than anything else but it still made the final 7 at the same time and there is no doubt that it is a wonder of engineering considering it was built over 1,000 years ago. The famous pyramid, El Castillo, is actually a giant calendar standing 30mtrs high. The number of steps on the pyramid is 365 and on each of the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun cast a shadow on the steps of the pyramid to give the impression of a serpent crawling down the pyramid! Unbelievable engineering so long ago. This was recreated in the light and sound show but from August 2012 it was cancelled. The show is to resume at some stage in 2014.
Despite the wonderful structures, are they any more wonderful in Chichen Itza than they are at all the other Mayan sites in the Yucatan peninsula, of which there are plenty? The world renowned El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcan) in Chichen Itza is on everybody’s things to do list but it is not the biggest or tallest of the Mayan pyramids in Mexico so why is it so famous? Is Chichen Itza worth the hassle of the crowds and hawkers? Is Chichen Itza worth the hype?
Visit Chichen Itza?
Chichen Itza is far more than just the El Castillo Pyramid. This is a big historical attraction and contains a ball court, several platforms, temples with thousands of columns, many other temples and another pyramid that is spreads over 5 square kilometres. During the Mayan heyday this was the main centre from which trade flowed to from the edges of the empire. Nowadays there is a comparison with the tourists visiting from all over the globe (1.2million visit the attraction) to take a snap in front of the iconic pyramid. This of course means that it is almost impossible to get a stranger free picture and also means that most places are full of stalls selling you masks, bracelets, table cloths, magnets and anything else you can think of. There is a constant ring of ‘jaguars’ echoing around the site from a little wooden toy that you blow into and gives a surprisingly load roar.
There are several other Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula such as Ek Balam, Coba, Tulum and Uxmal among hundreds of others. These other sites are also fascinating as the styles vary due to the era in which they were built. These sites don’t have the tourists but yet are just as fascinating. Ek Balam only 40min away from Chichen Itza has one of the biggest Mayan structures in the Yucatan being 30mtrs (90ft) tall and 150mtrs long (450ft). Coba has the tallest pyramid at 48mtrs (145ft) but yet almost nobody has seen postcards of it. One major difference between Chichen Itza and the rest is that it is almost all restored. This means that the jungle has been kept back and the full glory of the whole site is enjoyed. You can nearly picture in your mind’s eye the hoards of peasants at the foot of the 91steps and the priests at the top cutting out somebody’s heart with blood dripping slowly downwards. Nowadays you are not allowed to climb up to the top of El Castillo to view the rest of the empire from above whereas on most other sites you are which gives a great perspective and sightseeing view of the scale of these ancient towns.
Bigger sites like Ek Balam, Calakmul and Uxmal (all in Mexico) give a different perspective on the ancient sites and you don’t realise what work has gone into restoring Chichen Itza until you visit these sites and discover some of the pyramids and structures are still completely covered in jungle. You can make out that there some sort of a temple made out of stone in there but it is just covered in trees and bushes. My favourite was in Uxmal where on a very large 35mtr high pyramid (which was ridiculously steep) they restored one side but left the other 3 as they found them. This brings it home that the glorious temples you enjoy in Chichen Itza weren’t discovered as they are today but took years of restoration to bring them to their present glory. These sites have both sides of the coin with some structures restored and some not and some open spaces cleared for clarity and some left idle giving shade for the iguanas.
So was it worth the hype? Should you visit? Personally I think the answer is yes. I would highly recommend to anybody going to Yucatan to head to at least one other Mayan site to enjoy a quieter more wholesome environment where stalls aren’t lurking around every corner. I think that the Mayan temples should be world renowned as the scale of the sites, the buildings and the carvings on the walls are superb. Although Chichen Itza wasn’t my favourite site and the ‘roar’ of the jaguars and tourists can get on your nerves, if it means that Chichen Itza must be promoted and is the main attraction so that the rest of temples and the Mayans get more coverage then it is worth the hype.
Need to Know, About Chichen Itza in Mexico
First thing to know is that tourist buses arrive around 10-11am so if you can make your own way there then go early so you can get some pics without the randomers. When you go to any of the archaeological sites you need to buy two tickets. One for the site itself and then one for INAH (Government Authority that looks after the sites). There is no scam going on!
- Currency – €1 = $17.7 Mexican Pesos, US$1 = $13.4 Mxn
- Date, when to go – The best time to visit would be the spring and autumn equinoxes but of course these are some of the busiest days for tourists when the serpent crawls down the steps. You can see this phenomenon for around a week each side of the equinox and you will avoid the tourists if you go then. In the summertime the weather can get very hot (bring water) and there can be thunderstorms in the afternoon. They are never so bad though when you know they are coming are they?? The light and sound show was cancelled in August 2012 and is set to return at an unspecified date in 2014.
- Location, How to get there – Chichen Itza is located just west of Valladolid beside a town called Piste. There are signs from 100km away to Chichen Itza so it is not difficult to find. It is important to know that there is a toll road (motorway) from Cancun to west of Valladolid and is very expensive. Follow the ‘libre’ (free) signs and avoid the ‘cuota’ (tolled) roads if you don’t want to pay the toll. Obviously it takes longer and there are speed bumps in every village but it is cheaper.
- An ADO bus (www.ado.com.mx) goes from Cancun (3hrs,$ 210Mxn) for the fast or 4hrs, 130Mxn for the slow bus. The ADO bus station is on Calle Pino just off Avenida Uxmal
- From Valladolid take an Oriente bus from the bus station. Starts at 7.15am and leave every 30min. The journey takes about 45min and costs $20Mxn
- What to Bring and do – Suncream, camera, sunglasses, walking shoes and pesos if you intend to buy something from the many stalls. Many tours stop at a cenote (cave) on the way so bring your swimming togs and a towel.
- Language – Spanish but English is widely spoken on the tours. All tour companies have guides that speak Spanish and English and most tour companies have tours in French, German, Japanese etc.
- Where can you get a tour from? – Almost any town on the east coast of Yucatan/Quintana Roo or otherwise known as the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. Most tourists visit Chichen Itza on day tours. From Cancun tours start around 7am and cost from approx US$70 for a 12hr round trip tour including lunch and 2hr guided tour but don’t include the entrance fee. Second only to sunbathing, Chichen Itza along with swimming with whale sharks are the main attraction in the area and every hotel can book a tour for you.
- Price and what is Included – Open from 08:00-17:30 in the winter and 08:00-18:00 in the summer. Admission to the Chichen Itza complex is $125Mx plus $57 Mx for INAH. Taking photos are free but it costs $50Mxn to use a video camera. Parking in the site costs $20Mx per car. Guides cost approximately $500-$600Mxn
- About Chichen Itza, Mexico – The most visited archaeological site in Mexico and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site was a Mayan focal point from around 600AD on. In the 10th century the Toltecs and Mayans founded the city as we know it and made it the most important in the Yucatan Peninsula and one of the largest in the Mayan world. The site had a sacred cenote or sinkhole dedicated to the rain god Chac and the main temple to the serpent Diety, Kukulcan or the more difficult to pronounce Quetzalcoatl. Its influence extended to the important trading routes along the coast and into present day Belize and Guatemala. In the 13th century the Mayans revolted against the powerful rulers in Chichen Itza and because of this the power shifted and the site became less important as a trading centre. It was still used as a place of worship until the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. Over the next 500 years the site became overgrown until the 1920’s when restoration projects began.