Chichen Itza’s Maya Ruins

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous, most impressive, and most visited of the Mayan ruins sites on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
El Castillo at Chichen Itza
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The symbol of the feathered serpent–the body of the rattlesnake, covered with the plumage of the quetzal bird–was to this civilization what the Cross was to the Christian and the Crescrent to the Saracen. Under this symbol the culture her Kuk-ul-can (Feathered Serpent) of Yucatan, Quetzacoatl of the Aztecs and earlier people, was first reverenced, then deified and worshipped. Edward H. Thompson, “The Home of a Forgotten Race: Mysterious Chichen Itza, in Yucatan, Mexico,” National Geographic, 25, 6 (June 1914) 587.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the imposing structures of Chichen Itza, one of the most famous and most visited of the sites of Mayan civilization ruins on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. As impressive as Europe’s ancient ruins are, they have a fundamentally different feel than those in Central America. There’s a quiet dignity to what physically remains of the Mayan civilization. Undoubtedly, that has much to do with their location. Whereas many of the European ruins are often in the middle of modern populated areas, making it easy to see the modern incarnations of those ancient times, (Pompeii and Herculaneum notwithstanding) many of the Mayan sites have been truly deserted for centuries and are surrounded by miles of forest. Modern archaeological efforts have tried to reclaim these ancient cities from the encroachment of tropical forest, but the built structures are at such striking odds with the thick forest that surrounds them that one can’t help ask “How on earth did they build this here?” quickly followed by “Where’d everybody go?” It all adds to the sense of mystery that you can’t escape when visiting what’s left.

Located in the center of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is a large Maya civilization complex centered around the distinctive pyramid known as El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan) pyramid. The complex also features the Great Ball Court, the most impressive of several such sporting arenas found at other Mayan sites, basically a long court with hoops built up on the walls and surrounded by spectator galleries. Precisely how they played the ball game is now a mystery, and the various reenactments you’ll see at some of the tourist sites are basically just guesses.

Unlike some other, smaller Mayan sites not far away like Ek’Balam, Chichen Itza has been converted into a quintessentially tourist-friendly site and makes for a great stop during a vacation in Mexico. The first giveaway is the parking lot with a dedicated tour bus section. Being only a little over 2 hours from Cancun (or about 45 minutes from Valladolid, if you’re looking for a more pleasant base), hordes of tourists stream in daily. It’s a huge area and can accommodate a lot of people and has ample modern amenities, but arriving at opening time before the tour buses arrive makes for a much more pleasant and rewarding visit. It also means that you’ll probably not be inclined to hang around until evening for the nightly laser and light show that’s included with the price of admission, but somehow that doesn’t seem to me to be much of a sacrifice.

Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is listed among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Photos of Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza Maya Ruins El Castillo Pyramid (081216094326_4470)
El Castillo lies in the center of a large plaza area. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Temple of Warriors at Chichen Itza 081216094316_4468
The Temple of Warriors. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Jaguar Head of Venus Platform and Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Jaguar Head of Venus Platform and Temple of Kukulkan. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Skull carvings at Chichen Itza
Skull carvings on the side of one of the low platforms near El Castillo. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Souvenirs at Tourist Market at Chichen Itza
Souvenir stands set up as a kind of small market along the sides of the dirt road running between El Castillo (in the distance) and the complex’s cenote. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Maya Ruins El Castillo Pyramid (081216092710_1917x)
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Columns 081216094518_4471
The Temple of Warriors. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tourists with a guide in front of Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Venus Platform and El Castillo at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins in Mexico
The Venus Platform, with El Castillo in the background. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tourists in front of the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
El Castillo at Chichen Itza
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Stone Columns at Chichen Itza
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Carving of Mayan King at Chichen Itza
Carving of Maya King. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Mayan Ruins Steps at Chichen Itza
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Warrior Depiction in Stone, Chichen Itza
Warrior Depiction in stone. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins with Venus Platform at left
Temple of Kukulkan, with Venus Platform at leftPhoto © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Souvenir Market at Chichen Itza
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Temple at Chichen Itza, Mexico
Some of the more ornately decorated temples in a section a little away from the main El Castillo plaza. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Stone Jaguar Symbol
A jaguar head carved into the stone. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza--23-COPYRIGHT-HAVECAMERAWILLTRAVEL.COM.jpg
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Platform and stairs at Chichen Itza
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Jaguar Carvings at Chichen Itza
More depictions of jaguars, a common theme at Chichen Itza. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Excavation at Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Some excavations around the base of El Castillo. This was taken on a visit a few years after the photo at the top of the page. In the interim, the excavation project had been started. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Venus Platform and Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Wooden Masks at Tourist Market at Chichen Itza
Colorful wooden masks for sale on one of the souvenir stalls lining the road to the cenote. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Columns in Plaza of the Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza Mayan ruins
The appropriately named (with a little exaggeration) Plaza of the Thousand Columns. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Stone Columns 081216102932_4532
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Ball Court at Chichen Itza
The ball court. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza 081216102334_4516
Plaza of the Thousand Columns. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Maya Ball Court at Chichen Itza 081216114734_4589
One of the “hoops” or goals on the side of the ball court. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Ball Court at Chichen Itza
A wider shot at the ball court that shows how high the rings are on the side of the court. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Maya Ruins Stone Carvings 081216114124_4561
Carvings in the side of one of the lower platforms. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Maya Ruins El Castillo Pyramid (081216094230_1949x)
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza 081216100518_4479
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Stone Wall 081216095044_1962
A jaguar and eagle carved in stone. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Chichen Itza Maya Ruins El Castillo Pyramid (081216092810_1931x)
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com

What to Know Before You Go

It’s a large, sprawling area with many isolated areas. If going early or late in the day, it’s a good idea to go with a group or a guide.

Map

Where to Next?



Travel Advice for Mexico

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Mexico (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Mexico here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Mexico here.

Guidebooks for Mexico

If you're looking for a guidebook to make the most of your visit, these are some of the most popular ones currently for Mexico. Some are available in both paper and e-book formats.

Lonely Planet Mexico 16 (Country Guide)
  • Sainsbury, Brendan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
DK Eyewitness Mexico (Travel Guide)
  • DK Eyewitness (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Travel Insurance For Your Trip to Mexico

I never travel without travel insurance, and I've run into several situations where I've had to make claims. I consider it essential.

But shopping for travel insurance can be a pain and confusing. Thankfully, there are some travel insurance comparison sites that show you a wide range of plans, make it easy to compare coverage, and can save you money at the same time. And the coverage can be much better tailored to your specific needs than the checkbox offering at travel booking sites or through your credit card.

These are some good places to shop for travel insurance for your next trip to Mexico :

Hopefully, you won't need it, but if something goes wrong, you'll sure be glad you have it!

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