Chichén Itzá

History and Context

Chichén Itzá is a big deal as far as ruins go. There are a lot of ruins in the Yucatan peninsula, and the Mayan civilization was around for a very long time (earliest towns 2000 BCE) and only truly "fell" very recently, the last city in 1697. That's really recent in terms of history; for comparison (I researched this myself), the Salem witch trials were held in in 1692 and 1693, four years before the fall of the last Mayan city.

Charnay chichenitza.png
Before Excavation, 1860
By Désiré Charnay - Digital collections, New York public libraries, Public Domain, Link

Chichén Itzá isn't as recent as the late seventeenth century, but it is one of the most notable monuments remaining of this civilization (the Spanish conquest may have something to do with that, we're learning a lot in Merida). So to finish the context on this, Chichén Itzá is some of the best preserved and greatest ruins of a major world civilization that lasted at least 9 times longer than the USA has been a country so far. This place is a big deal, and is one of the (unordered) New Seven Wonders of the World.

So with the context set, we went there. It's pretty impressive. It's also a popular day trip from Cancun for the hotel zone crowds, although that's a several hours bus ride.

Without permission, from


Because Chichen Itza is such a big deal on the sightseeing circuit, we tried extra hard to plan this one correctly. Staying in Valladolid gives us a huge leg up, because while it's a popular day trip from Cancun, Cancun is two hours to the East and honestly, how early do you want to get up on your vacation to go see some ruins?

Valladolid is no more than 45 minutes to the Chichen Itza parking, and since we're just a car with two people, we don't have to deal with wrangling dozens of vacationers onto and off of buses. So all of these factors, and arriving almost as soon as the park opened at 8 AM, gave us ample time in the ruins with very few other visitors around to make noise and ruin photo ops.

We did learn that arriving just at 8 AM doesn't even give you the most exclusive access to the grounds, however. There is a hotel zone at Chichen Itza, walking distance from the park entrance, where travelers can stay. These hotels give you access to the park at 6 AM through a private entrance; that's definitely the most convenient and exclusive way to see the park if you care to spend for it. I'm sure you can even get sunrise pictures there, although I don't know if those are especially notable at Chichen Itza (they were at Angkor Wat).

So we rolled in at around 8:15 (we're getting better at this) and after buying tickets and walking onto the grounds, we mostly did have the place to ourselves. We certainly had the opportunity to get pictures of the pyramid without anyone else in the shot, something that becomes impossible shortly after opening.

Almost no one in the shot

The Ruins

The headline at Chichen Itza is the remarkably well-preserved, and remarkably massive, Mayan pyramid. If you've been reading the blog you can probably guess the name of this monument: El Castillo.

El Castillo

Panoramic at the base of El Castillo

El Castillo is very big. It really dwarfs the other ruins we've seen in the Yucatan so far, and because it's on flat ground in a clearing in the jungle, its height really stands out.

Like many ancient ruins, El Castillo has timekeeping and an understanding of the solar year baked into its architecture. I've heard it described as the Mayan calendar made out of stone: the pyramid has four sides, each of which has 91 steps (4 x 91 = 364). The platform at the top of the temple represents the last day for 365. I read one article that said the Mayans were able to calculate the precise length of a year to two ten thousandth's of a year, but I don't know if there is a tiny extra step or level somewhere in this pyramid to account for that.

Detail of El Castillo

El Castillo from the back

The other notable astrological feature of El Castillo is that on the spring and autumnal equinoxes (day and night are both 12 hours), the pyramid casts triangular shadows down its side that gives the appearance of an undulating serpent, imagery that they used in many places in their architecture. Apparently it is not fully accepted that this was intentional though.

We didn't purchase a guided tour at Chichen Itza, to save money and because we both like to explore things like this at our own pace. Usually that's fine, we'll miss out on some knowledge but could always read about it later; it's the being there in person to see the ruins up close and in their full context that's irreplaceable. This time, though, there was a fact that you have to be there to appreciate - and we were fortunate enough to overhear other visitors demonstrating the phenomenon.

El Castillo from the north west. Stark contrast between some more and less restored areas

Feathered serpent head ballustrades

What we learned is this: if you stand far enough away from the pyramid, facing it and aligned with the center of the temple on top, and clap loudly enough, the acoustics of the pyramid will distort and echo your clap back to you in a really fascinating way. It sounds like a bird squawking, appropriate since this is the temple of Kulkulcan, a feathered serpent god.

We saw many people and tour groups playing with this effect and were able to replicate it ourselves. We didn't even try to get it on video because with just a cell phone, there's no way the echo response would be loud enough to be heard over the wind and background noise. It's just one of those things you probably have to go there to experience, although online videos do capture it pretty well.

Reading indicates that this is said to sound like the quetzal bird, sacred to the Mayans. I couldn't find any strong consensus on whether this acoustic effect was intentional or not.

Platform of Venus, with feathered serpent ornamentation and bird

The temple at the top of El Castillo

El Castillo dominates Chichen Itza pictures and the grounds, but there's a lot more to see there. The other highlights for me were: the Great Ball Court, the sacred cenote, and the connected Skull Platform and Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars. And all of those together wouldn't be even half of the ruins and views in the fallen city.

Great Ball Court

I'm kind of obsessed with this game because it's so weird. There isn't a consistent name for it - Wikipedia calls it the Mesoamerican ballgame. I've seen it referred to as pok-ta-pok in tour literature and heard it as just pelote, which means "ball" in Spanish.

Ball court hoop with serpent head decoration in the foreground.
This court was big.

The ball court from the far end

There are several fascinating aspects to this game and not a whole lot of confirmed knowledge. It seems kind of like basketball or soccer with a small hoop for goals, except that players may only hit the ball with their hips. There are archaeological ties with the game to human sacrifice, possibly even the winning team being those who are sacrificed.

The ball court approach, these are probably the high seats for nobility

Broken nose serpent

The courts for this game vary a lot but usually have sloped walls and a stone hoop for the ball that is set perpendicularly to the ground rather than parallel as in basketball.

According to the placards at Chichen Itza, they think that the Great Ball Court was only used for ceremonial and symbolic purposes and not really for competitive games, due to its outrageous size. I'm inclined to believe that, I don't know if I could have thrown the ball into the hoop, let alone hit it up there with my hip.

Mesoamerican Ballcourt cross-sections 3.svg
The Chichen Itza court is big!
By Madman2001 - Own workGFDLLink

The ball court is also said to have incredible acoustic properties. We didn't get as good of a demo of this, but one tour group did line up at the far end and shouted across the court. The return echo was rather clear and prompt. I suspect there are other acoustic secrets here that we just didn't figure out without a guide or research.

A small private tour had brought along a rubber ball to the court for the visitors to experiment with. I wish we had had one, but I'm not sure much is definitively known about the rubber balls used for this game in the Mayan era.

El Castillo from the ball court area

The Skull Platform and Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars

These were very close to the ball court and had some of the best preserved and coolest bas-relief art. I don't know much about these platforms, the placards suggested that the Skull Platform was involved in the celebration of war or to intimidate potential invaders, possibly including human sacrifice?

The skull platform

The jaguar in Mayan culture was a symbol of night, the underworld, and death, and also celebrated as the form of some gods. The eagle was the opposite of the jaguar, associated with the earth and daytime. In this platform, they represent two different kinds of warriors.

Jaguar and eagle, holding an egg

Mayan warrior in bas-relief

Reclining Mayan

The Sacred Cenote

There is an enormous cenote just north of the main grounds at Chichen Itza along one of their sacbe or white roads. A sign said that it was 60 meters across with a 20 meter drop from ground level to the water. This one was not attractive for swimming, not that we'd be allowed anyway considering its importance to the Mayans that lived at Chichen Itza and its landmark status here.

Approaching the cenote from the sacbe

A sense of the size and depth of this cenote from ground level

There were some cool limestone caves along the sides and some interesting birds living in the trees that grew out of the water and walls. The sacbe to the cenote was lined with vendors setting up their tables to sell t-shirts, jaguar calls and souvenirs to the crowds. I know we got there at a good time because for the duration of our exploration, vendors everywhere were still setting up.

Panorama of the Sacred Cenote from the West

We have since learned that the Mayans considered cenotes to be portals to the underworld. Early dredging of the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza has uncovered gold jewerly, pottery, and human bones from sacrifices here. I can't imagine living one thousand years ago and seeing sacrifices to the cenote, knowing that it is the link between the overworld and underworld. I imagine they would do these at night with lights all around the cenote, jaguars and owls in the jungle, full moon overhead...

The Observatory

El Caracol, officially, this looks like a modern astronomy observatory with a domed roof that's mostly collapsed in by now. This was simply one of the most different ruins here as there are not a lot of domes or other advanced shapes left standing.

El Caracol

The Rest

There's a lot more at Chichen Itza, including 1000 stone columns, with many grouped at the Temple of Warriors but others spread out over much of the site. Many of the columns had degraded to the point that the bas-relief images weren't really visible enough to show us much. Also, one thousand is a lot of columns, so after a while they stop being too interesting.

Some of the columns. SOME.

We walked well over 5 miles just around the ruins, exploring it at our own pace. On the way out we had some feet that needed a break, so we ended up stopping at the only restaurant on the grounds of the site, just outside the archaeological zone. I was really wary of eating at the only restaurant on the grounds, not expecting to get a good deal nor a good meal.

Faces in the walls

We were pleasantly surprised. This was our first taste of sopa de lima and poc chuc pork, both of which were excellent. We've taken to comparing prices of soups and guacamole appetizers to gauge the cost of a restaurant and this place really wasn't too expensive, slightly cheaper than the touristy places in Valladolid. Plus the chance to rest a bit, use a bathroom with air-conditioning, and get ready for our trip to Ek Balaam was well worth it.

A rare spot in the ruins where you can see the internal structure.
Stairs and ceiling all made out of stone.

Overall, we both agreed that Chichen Itza is one of the best run attractions that we've been to on our trip so far. It was a great mix of professional management, easy to understand signage and discipline to let the ruins stand for themselves when necessary. There were, seemingly, thousands, of Mayan descendant vendors selling very inexpensive souvenirs pretty much everywhere. In some places they were more persistent in hawking than I'd like, but it didn't damper the overall experience for us.


  1. WOW! Incredible stuff, thanks Adam, we are really getting an education AND you are making our NE commutes entertaining and very bearable !

  2. Thanks! We're learning a lot and trying to document it a bit and make sure it sticks, plus it is really interesting stuff. I wonder when the kiddos will be covering the Mayans...

  3. Awesome blog! I'll be following it now. Have fun!