Chichén Itzá: The Complete Guide

The step pyramid at Chichen Itza

 TripSavvy / Angelina Pilarinos

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Chichén-Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico

Chichén Itzá is a Maya archaeological site in the Yucatan Peninsula that served as the political and economic center of the Maya civilization between 750 and 1200 A.D. Its impressive structures which remain standing today demonstrate the Maya's extraordinary use of architectural space, vast astronomical knowledge, as well as their keen sense of artistry. It is a must-see site on a visit to Cancún or Mérida, although it is about a 2-hour drive from either of those tourist destinations, it is definitely worthy of a day trip.

El Castillo
Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Getty Images


The name Chichén Itzá roughly means "at the mouth of the well of Itza." The city was established close to several cenotes, water-filled sinkholes, and the final layout was established in 900 A.D. Chichén Itzá was a pre-Columbian city that was an a major regional economic power. Due to its location and port at Isla Cerritos, Chichén Itzá could obtain resources otherwise unavailable to Mayans like obsidian and gold. Chichén Itzá was a prominent Mayan city from around the 7th century through the 11th century when the city's decline began. The exact cause of the decline is unclear, but even when trade activities slowed and Chichén Itzá lost prominence, the city wasn't completely abandoned. When Spanish conquistadors arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1500s there was still a local population in the area and may have been a deciding factor in where the conquistadors placed their capital.

Things to Do at Chichén Itzá

On your visit to Chichén Itzá, you shouldn't miss the following features:

  • El Castillo: This is one of the most striking buildings in Chichen Itza. It is dedicated to Kukulkan, the Plumed Serpent. Every year on the fall and spring equinox the sun strikes the side of the building making a play of light and shadow which appears as a snake along the steps of the building. Excavations have discovered that the stepped pyramid was built over an older, smaller temple, and some experts believe that there is a hidden cenote underneath El Castillo.
  • Temple of the Warriors: Hundreds of columns surround a massive temple structure carved with reliefs. Square columns remain that once held up the roof of the temple. These columns are carved on all four sides with figures of feather-bedecked warriors.
  • Great Ball Court: This is the largest known ball court in Mesoamerica, at 545 feet in length and 225 feet in width. Each end has a raised temple area. The acoustics of the ball court are remarkable: A whisper from one end can be clearly heard at the other.
  • Sacred Cenote: This sinkhole was the recipient of a great many sacrificial objects. It was a place of pilgrimage for many Maya. There was a belief around the 13th century that people thrown into the Sacred Cenote who survived the fall were granted the gift of prophecy.
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Getting There

Chichen Itza is located 125 miles from Cancun and 75 miles from Mérida. It can be visited as a day trip from either location, and there are also a few hotels nearby in case you would like to arrive the previous day and get an early start visiting the ruins before the heat of the day sets in and the crowds begin to arrive.

Essential Information

The site is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Time spent visiting the site generally ranges from 3 hours to a full day.

As of 2019, the admission fee for Chichén Itzá archaeological site is 480 pesos per person (for non-Mexicans). There is an extra charge for use of video camera or tripod on the site.

Visitor Tips

Dress appropriately: Choose natural fiber clothing that will protect you from the sun (a hat is a good idea too) and comfortable walking shoes. Use sunblock and take water with you.

If you visit Chichen Itza as part of an organized day trip from Cancun you will find that it makes for a long day, and you'll arrive at the hottest time of day. Another option is to rent a car and either make an earlier start or arrive the afternoon before and stay overnight at one of the nearby hotels.

Take a bathing suit and towel to enjoy a refreshing dip at the nearby Ik-Kil cenote after your tour of Chichén Itzá.

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Guide to Visiting Chichén Itzá