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Chichen Itza: Our Expert Visitor's Guide

Everyone has heard of Chichen Itza - it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, after all. It’s one of the region’s best-loved attractions and the most visited Mayan archaeological site in Mexico. But, despite eye-watering visitor numbers, once you step inside, you still feel that sense of wonder as you catch your first glimpse.

Chichen Itza is steeped in legend, mystery…and a generous dose of gore. If you want to explore the often brutal history of the Yucatan region and the Mayan people who originated here, then Chichen Itza is a great place to start.

In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know, including what’s so special about the Chichen Itza UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the best time to visit, how to get there, and what you’ll see when you arrive.

Chichen Itza: What Makes It So Special

A beautiful view of the temple There are clearly a lot of reasons to love Chichen Itza - here are just a few.

Architecture

Because Chichen Itza was developed over many centuries, it showcases varied architectural styles ranging from the distinctive Puuc to the colorful Toltec. Many structures that were pivotal to Mayan life - such as the ball court and central temples - also remain intact at Chichen Itza, giving you a sense of exploring a real city that was once filled with people and life.

Location

Chichen Itza is located in the heart of the Yucatan, around two and a half hours west of Cancun and an hour and a half east of Merida. This makes it an ideal day trip from many of the region’s most popular vacation destinations.

The Equinox Serpent

Twice a year, at the spring and fall equinox, something special happens at Chichen Itza. As the sun sets, it casts a shadow on the famous El Castillo pyramid, creating a feathered serpent that appears to wind its way down the length of the structure’s famous staircase. Huge crowds come to see this phenomenon, which is all the more impressive when you learn it was likely a deliberate design feature of the city’s astrologically wise creators.

Find out what other travelers think of Chichen Itza in our article Chichen Itza Reviews: Honest Perspectives From Fellow Travelers.

Where is Chichen Itza?

Temple Chichen Itza is located east of Yucatan state’s capital city, Merida, and west of Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Valladolid. It’s accessible from all the cities in the table below - and you can easily make a Chichen Itza day trip from any of them.

City How far from Chichen Itza? How long to travel?
Cancun 120 miles 2.5 hours
Playa del Carmen 110 miles 2 hours
Tulum 95 miles 2 hours
Merida 75 miles 1.5 hours
Valladolid 28 miles 45 mins

Chichen Itza is in a different state to Cancun, which is located in Quintana Roo. That wouldn’t matter, except there’s a 1-hour time difference between the two states - so do be aware of the correct time if you’re on a tour or are taking a public bus where you’re running on a schedule.

The History of Chichen Itza

A historical place Chichen Itza is truly ancient, with some experts claiming it dates back as far as 400 AD. By the 7th century, it had expanded to become an important political and trade center, and by the 10th century, it had reached its peak of 50,000 citizens. At this time, Chichen Itza was the most important Mayan city in existence, ruling practically all of southern Mexico.

However, by the 12th century, Mayapan - another Mayan city around 60 miles to the west - became more influential than Chichen Itza, and the powerful metropolis began to decline. Once European colonizers arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries, bringing with them foreign diseases and weapons, the final fall of Chichen Itza was complete.

The abandoned site was taken back by the jungle until the mid-19th century when it was rediscovered and a period of intense excavation began. A trickle of tourists soon became a steady stream, and now the popularity of these incredible ruins continues to grow year by year.

Visiting Chichen Itza Today

Tourist are enjoying Visiting Chichen Itza nowadays is pretty much effortless, wherever in the Yucatan you’re located. Taking time away from Cancun’s beaches and nightlife is worth the effort, allowing you a glimpse into Mexican history, and an understanding of the influence of the region’s Mayan people.

While it’s easy to see why so many people want to visit this amazing Mayan ruins site, Chichen Itza can feel overcrowded at times. And, although you’ll love the countless souvenir hawkers if you want to shop during your visit, if you’re hoping for somewhere quiet and contemplative, Chichen Itza is probably not the place. But if you can accept that Chichen Itza is going to be busy, then you can’t help but be wowed by the former region-leading Mayan city.

When to Visit Chichen Itza

The best time of year to visit Chichen Itza is during the shoulder season - November, February, and March - when the weather is at its best and the crowds have (minimally at least) thinned out from the peak winter season.

Another important consideration is which part of the day to visit. If you can, we’d recommend visiting first thing in the morning. This is before the bulk of tour groups arrive and before the searing Mexican sun hits its apex.

As a one-off event, if you can time your visit to the spring or fall equinox, seeing that ‘serpent shadow’ will also be an unforgettable experience.

What You'll See When You Arrive at Chichen Itza

A couple is having fun Arrival at Chichen Itza is like a finely tuned machine. The parking lots are split between cars and buses, all funneling vehicles to exactly where they need to be. Once parked up, it’s easy to spot where to buy your tickets, if only because of the enormous lines. If possible, buy your tickets in advance, or have them included in your tour, as those lines are fun for nobody.

In 2024, tickets cost 614 pesos for non-Mexican adults (aged 13+) and the park is open from 8 am to 5 pm, with the last entry at 4 pm. Prices frequently rise, so make sure you check the cost before your visit.

Once you’re ticketed and through the entrance, you’ll see the first of many Chichen Itza vendors you’ll encounter during your visit. They line the walkway from the entrance to the first structures and they’ll be trying hard to get your attention. If you’re in the market for shopping, then get stuck in, otherwise, a friendly ‘no, gracias’ is fine.

El Castillo / Temple of Kukulkan

The first, and most famous, building you’ll see is El Castillo, also called the Temple of Kukulkan. This is the most photographed pyramid in the Yucatan, so even if you haven’t visited the Chichen Itza archaeological site before, it will look familiar. But nothing prepares you for the dominance of the structure which stands at an impressive 100 feet tall. It comes as no surprise it was once the centerpiece of the whole Mayan metropolis.

The Ball Court

Another must-see structure is the ball court where the sport of Pok Ta Pok was played. Although a ball game sounds harmless enough, this ancient contest was a little different. If you lose a modern-day match, your pride may be hurt, but the Mayans took it to the extreme, sometimes sacrificing the leader of the losing team to the gods!

Skull Platform

As you explore the Chichen Itza compound, you may notice a platform intricately carved with skulls. While you admire the craftsmanship, spare a moment to imagine the decapitated heads that were frequently displayed there.

The Observatory / Caracol

The Observatory, or Caracol (snail in Spanish), is another noteworthy building that was hugely important to Chichen Itza. From its circular tower, highly skilled priests would monitor the skies, using their ahead-of-its-time knowledge of astrology to develop the unique Mayan calendar system that was guided by the stars.

Temple of the Warriors

The Temple of the Warriors structure was elaborately decorated to impress visitors who attended Chichen Itza’s large gatherings over a thousand years ago - and its intricate carvings are still impressing visitors today. Check out the warriors, jaguars, and Mayan Gods depicted along the length of the 133-foot-wide building.

Staying Safe & Fitting In While Visiting Chichen Itza

Safety shouldn’t be too much of a concern when visiting Chichen Itza. The only real crime that’s encountered here is petty theft - pickpocketing usually - so do keep a close hold on your belongings. Other than that, you’re good to go.

Health-wise, you’ll need to take the heat at Chichen Itza seriously. The site is largely open with very few shaded spots to be found. Couple that with high temperatures, plus the humidity of summer or fall and you’ve got a recipe for sunburn and heat exhaustion. So, we recommend you bring plenty of water, a hat, and potentially even an umbrella to make your own patch of shade as you explore.

As the majority of Chichen Itza visitors are international tourists, there’s no need to worry about standing out from the crowd (unless you want to!). Just be courteous to the vendors, remain patient with other visitors, tip your guide, and everyone will be happy.

Chichen Itza Weather & Climate

Temple As I mentioned earlier, Chichen Itza’s climate can be extreme. Because it’s located inland, these Mayan ruins don’t usually get the cooling breezes you’ll experience in Cancun and other coastal cities.

Temperatures can reach 100 degrees in April and May, which can make exploring the ruins tiring. And during September and October, you’ll find it oppressively muggy all day, every day. Added to the heat, this is a particularly unpleasant combination.

To avoid a rainy day at Chichen Itza, you’re best scheduling your visit during the winter months of December to March when there’s only around a 10% chance of rain. This time of year also offers the most pleasant temperatures and the least humidity - a perfect combination for sightseeing.

Getting To & Around Chichen Itza

Girl in bus There are several ways to travel to Chichen Itza - check out your options below.

  • Public bus Taking a public bus is a cheap option to get to Chichen Itza, but it does require enough confidence to travel independently. Buses make the journey to the popular site from every corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, usually once or twice a day in each direction. Most buses are operated by the region’s comfortable and punctual bus company, ADO, or one of its second-class cousins. From Valladolid, the 40-50 minute ride costs 150 pesos, and from Cancun, it takes two hours and costs 400 pesos.

  • Colectivo Colectivos are small vans that travel a set route picking up passengers along the way. They are by far the cheapest way to get to Chichen Itza if you’re staying in Valladolid, which is around 45 minutes to an hour away from Chichen Itza. You can make the journey for as little as 40 pesos each way.

  • Join a tour The most convenient way to visit Chichen Itza is on a tour. You will usually be picked up from your hotel or a nearby meeting point and will travel in air-conditioned comfort directly to the ruins. Of course, this means you’re on the tour leader’s schedule, rather than your own, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind that comes with someone else planning your day.

Once you’re inside the Chichen Itza archaeological zone, you’ll be exploring on foot. As the size of the site is 4 square miles, walking around the whole thing will take a while. We recommend at least two or three hours. But just think how great your step count will be by the end of the day.

Our Favorite Tours & Excursions Near Chichen Itza

A tourist is jumping Taking a tour to Chichen Itza is a fantastic way to spend your vacation and with our hand-picked tours, you can also include other nearby attractions. Try these options on for size.

Chichen Itza Sunrise & Catamaran to Isla Mujeres

Remember how we said arriving early is best when visiting Chichen Itza? Well, on this tour, that’s exactly what you’ll do. Be among the first visitors of the day for a guided exploration of the Mayan ruins. The following day, for a complete change of scene, you’ll head off to the paradise island of Isla Mujeres on a catamaran, living it up, snorkeling, and enjoying the free bar.

Chichen Itza, Cenote Swim & Valladolid - Lunch & Hotel Pickup

Combine a guided tour of Chichen Itza with a visit to the nearby colonial city of Valladolid, one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s prettiest destinations. You can also experience swimming in a cenote, which is a unique limestone sinkhole that Mayans believe to be sacred. This is a fantastic way to enjoy the best the region has to offer in one day.

Luxury Chichen Itza by Helicopter

If you’re looking for the ultimate luxury Chichen Itza tour, why not push the boat out and take a private helicopter flight from Cancun right to the site of the ancient ruins? Not only will you be guided around the best parts of the site, but you’ll also take a dip in a nearby cenote and enjoy lunch in the beautiful, culturally rich city of Valladolid. And, after all that fun, you get to enjoy another private helicopter ride back to Cancun - epic!

Chichen Itza FAQ

What is Chichen Itza?

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's known for its architectural diversity, historical significance, and the famous Equinox Serpent phenomenon at the El Castillo pyramid.

Why is Chichen Itza considered a must-visit destination?

It's a site of immense historical and cultural importance, showcasing the architectural genius and astrological knowledge of the Mayans. Attractions like the Temple of Kukulkan and the Great Ball Court offer visitors a glimpse into ancient Mayan civilization.

What is the best time to visit Chichen Itza?

The shoulder seasons of November, February, and March are ideal for visiting due to pleasant weather and smaller crowds. Visiting during the spring or fall equinox can also offer a unique experience with the appearance of the serpent shadow on El Castillo.

How do I get to Chichen Itza?

Chichen Itza is accessible via public bus, colectivo, or tour from cities like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Merida, and Valladolid. The travel time varies depending on your starting location.

Is there a time difference I should be aware of when traveling from Cancun to Chichen Itza?

Yes, there is a 1-hour time difference between Quintana Roo (where Cancun is located) and Yucatan (where Chichen Itza is located). This is crucial to remember if you're on a tight schedule.

What are the ticket prices and opening hours for Chichen Itza?

As of 2024, tickets for non-Mexican adults cost 614 pesos. The site is open from 8 am to 5 pm, with the last entry at 4 pm. Prices and hours may vary, so it's advisable to check before your visit.

What should I bring for my visit to Chichen Itza?

Due to the heat and lack of shade, it's recommended to bring water, a hat, sunscreen, and potentially an umbrella for shade. Comfortable walking shoes are also a must.

Can I buy tickets in advance for Chichen Itza?

Yes, buying tickets in advance is possible and recommended to avoid long lines at the entrance. Tickets may also be included as part of a tour package.

What else can I do near Chichen Itza?

There are several tours that combine a visit to Chichen Itza with other activities, such as swimming in a cenote, exploring the colonial city of Valladolid, or even a luxury helicopter tour for a unique perspective of the ruins.

In a nutshell…

We hope this article has shown you why Chichen Itza is a must-visit during your next Riviera Maya vacation. Be amazed by the skill and knowledge of the Mayans as you soak up the history of this prehispanic wonder - it will likely be one of your vacation highlights. Why not begin planning your trip now?

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Carly R
Independent Traveler and Thinker
Carly Rolfe is a Travel Journalist & Writer from the UK who has travelled extensively in Mexico and the Caribbean. Her writing for outlets such as Hotels.com, The Cancun Sun, and Virgin Experiences has helped thousands of travelers discover new experiences.

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