Mexico, as well as most of Central/Latin America, is filled with ancient cities we can now walk through and explore. Although many of them are yet to be fully uncovered (i.e. Palenque, MX or El Mirador, GUA), some sites are well-known and huge tourist attractions.
How to get there
Chichén Itzá is located in the heart of Yucatán, only a 45 minutes drive from Valladolid, 1h30m from Mérida and 2h30m from Cancún. You can pay for a private tour (the most expensive option), drive there with your own car or take public transport.
I took a colectivo taxi from Valladolid, a real gem of a place (get ready for a blog post about it! All vans leave from Calle 39, not far from the ADO bus station and it will be your cheapest option (…unless you want to hitchhike). For those who don’t know, colectivos are the most common transportation in Mexico, they could be minivans or even cars which only leave when they are full and are generally safe (of course it depends on the area) and if you’re lucky you’ll also have AC. Colectivos heading to a certain place will be located in the same area of the city and you can easily find them by asking around.
The first van for Chichén leaves at 7 am and that should allow you to reach the entrance before most visitors, thus letting you enjoy the views without a ton of selfie sticks and protruded arms.
Entering Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, so climbing up the buildings is no longer permitted [sorry, not more selfies next to Chacmool], but walking on those grounds will be unforgettable.
Due to the increasing amount of tourists visiting Mexico, the government has increased entry prices to all sites, with foreigners obviously paying the highest price and Nationals/Regional citizens the lowest rates. Since the prices had changed a few days before I arrived, I wasn’t expecting to pay 480 MXN (€23/$25) to get in! It may not seem like a lot, but for Mexico prices it is very expensive.
It won’t be difficult to find an official (aka overpriced) guide as you walk in. Some only show you around the central area of the city for about 2 hours, not remotely close to the amount of time to see the whole site. Their knowledge is excellent, but I just wished I had read more about it before I went. I shared a 1000 MXN tour with a couple and I asked myself a lot whether it was worth it or not. I could have found something cheaper, but it would have been pointless to visit Chichén Itzá without someone who can explain to you about its history and symbolism. So from that aspect, I’d advice to look a little bit more thoroughly and get a cheaper guide, but do get one! If you go on an organised tour it will be included.
It gets incredibly hot in there! Don’t forget hat, sunscreen, bug repellent and plenty of water. You can find water there, but you’ll pay 30 MXN for a small bottle and it’s just more plastic waste Mexico really does not need!
A little bit of history
The name Chichén Itzá can be broken down to Chi (=mouth), Chen (=cenote) and Itza (=population). You can think of it as the mouth of the well of the Itzas, the Itzas being the civilisation which inhabited this place. The well, or cenote, refers to the two cenotes which can be found inside the site. They are not the most impressive cenotes you will see in Mexico, but they have great historical importance due to the amount of treasures and weapons which were found at the bottom of them, as well as human skeletons. Yes, they used to do human sacrifices there!
If you want to swim in a beautiful cenote, get a taxi to the one just a few km from the archeological site and enjoy some refreshing time! Just remember it closess at 4 pm.
The most impressive and well-known building is El Castillo, named like this by the Spanish conquistadores, even though it is not a castle. The Mayan used to call it the Kukulkan Pyramid and its architecture had incredible importance for the city. Similarly to other pyramids across the world, the location was carefully planned in a way that it would reflect time and seasons and function as a calendar for everyone to plan seeding and harvesting. The only person who had permission to give such information was the king, who kept the general population ignorant so that he would be considered powerful enough to be able to interpret this beautiful man-made calendar. You’ll be shocked to learn about the symbolism of the pyramid, from the amount of steps, to the incredible sound that it “produces” when you stand in front of the steps and clap your hands. Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler, you’ll find many people doing it and I’ll let you figure out what that sound is.
Many visitors gather in front of Kukulkan on Solstice day because of how sunlight hits the steps, producing a game of lights and shadows which resemble the body of a snake (indeed, Kukulkan) descending the pyramid. Its head is actually a mix between a snake and a jaguar. This figure will be found all across the city, as well as other Mayan sites in Mexico. The duality is a recurrent concept in Mayan culture, and many aspects of their architecture and beliefs are linked to the passage between the underworld and the upper world.
The pitch where they used to play El Juego de Pelota (the ball game) is the largest of all Mayan cities you can visit. The game was played by highly selected players who could only use their torso, arms and legs to hit a heavy ball and make it pass through a stone circle. The games could last for hours and only the upper class citizens were allowed to see them. The winners were celebrated as heroes, the losers were sacrificed. Either way, being sacrificed was an honorable thing to do and according to our guide, “they didn’t mind being thrown in the water after their head was cut off”.
I would like to say that you’ll hear lots of birds and walking through ancient buildings will be magical, but the reality is that it wasn’t so much for me. The whole place is filled with vendors constantly talking to you to attract you to their stall. I found it very disturbing and it ruined the experience for me. Luckily, after my guided tour ended I continued exploring on my own. I saw the two cenotes and lots of other buildings scattered through the woods. It is a lot calmer there, very few tourists actually go and that will allow you to slow down and make the most of your visit.
There is so much to write about Chichén Itzá, but I don’t want to give you all the details. All in all, it was an incredible place to visit and its history is impressive. Maybe it was special because it was the first site I visited during my time in Central America.
However, there are a few downsides. First of all, the vendors really put me off! The huge amount of tourists is inevitable and at the end of the day, I am one of them. But I didn’t enjoy the noise and the constant jaguar-sounding toys all around me. Second, it is expensive. There are other smaller sites you can visit for as little as 50 MXN and are very well-kept and sooo much quieter! I don’t want to tell you not to visit Chichén, but think about it carefully. And if you have time, do visit other sites as well! Perhaps one where you can actually swim in the clear waters of the cenote and you’ll get a free fish pedicure (info coming soon). I felt emotional when I stepped foot on other grounds where “the magic” can still be felt and I’m glad I did.
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