I was welcomed by the sound of birds and the tropical breeze once stepped out of the airport in the early morning. It reminded me so much of Bali. Then I was surrounded by drivers who greeted their guests and took them to their resorts. Within 15 minutes we reached the tourist area of Cancún, Mexico – it’s a long strip along the coast with high-rise resorts lining up along the beach. Most of the hotel suites are with a balcony facing east. The first morning I woke up I saw a beautiful sunrise at my window and it was breathtaking.
Cancún is the kind of place where a traveler planned to stay for a few days, and ended up staying for a month. Check out my Cancún, Mexico travel advisory for more about traveling there. Mexico’s Riviera Maya is situated on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula and it’s the cradle of the ancient Mayan culture, stretching down the coast over 96 kilometers the South of Cancún.
Rich in both natural and cultural resources, there is an abundance of things to see and do in Cancún. From adventurous watersports, exciting nightlife, and delicious seafood, to an excursion to many nearby heritage sites, unveiling the Mayan secrets that are so fascinating to us all. Here, let me take you on a journey from Cancún to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World: Chichen Itza. The day trips cover a few more exciting spots that give a full picture of the history and culture of the mysterious Mayans.
Why Chichen Itza?
I don’t think one needs much convincing to go and see Chichen Itza, but here are a few reasons that I would like to point out, just in case you want to find out more about this fascinating heritage.
Chichen Itza is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Enough said. While the New Wonders were selected based on a vote, for Chichen Itza to be able to earn a place on the list has proved its cultural and historic importance, and to me, I think it’s well deserved. Chichen Itza is at the same rank as Machu Picchu, Taj Mahal, Colosseum, Great Wall, Petra, and Christ the Redeemer (plus the Great Pyramid, which holds an honorary status and to be honest, Christ the Redeemer isn’t quite at the level of the others sites, but it was public voting.) It is one of the most well-known and recognized sites of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past. Hence, if somehow you ended up traveling to Cancún for the first time, it is almost rude not to put Chichen Itza on your itinerary.
Chichen Itza is easy to get to. The site is 200 kilometers away from the city center of Cancún, and it’s merely a two and a half pleasant drive to get there. Chichen Itza is located within the lowland jungle and a number of day tours take off daily. The costs for joining a day tour are usually reasonable, you might even get a discount for joining a combo. Besides, Chichen Itza is so famous that you will easily get directions or info about this site in the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s easy to plan a day trip, and after a few days of sitting by the beach and partying, it sounds nice to take a break and have a getaway to the historic places.
Chichen Itza is a place filled with Mayan Secrets. Mayan civilization has so much more than a calendar that marked “the end of the world” on December 21, 2012. Did you wonder what happened to the Mayans, what they discovered, what is their religion and what they invented? The archeological site revealed a lot about this long-lost civilization, where the people who once thought that God made them from corn. I will talk a little bit more about it in the next part; but if you are at all interested. You have to be here to understand all these first-hand.
Chichen Itza 101
Originally, Chichen Itza is buried deeply in a tropical jungle – it was constructed ~600 AD outside a ring of a meteorite crash. For centuries, it was a prominent governing, an economic and religious center in the Mayan world. Given the Mayan people disappeared without a trace, the architecture is well-preserved by nature. Do the math, the ruins have a history of over 1,500 years.
“Itza” is a division of the Yucatec people of Petén, Guatemala. “Chichen Itza”, in the Mayan language, means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” because they were proud of its largest well (the Xtoloc cenote) in the Yucatán Peninsula. Chichen Itza was at its peak when the Royal families subsequently left the site in the 7th century, returning in the 10th century – separating Chichen Itza into two phases.
For the new Chichen Itza, Mayan was influenced by the Toltec culture, reflected by the addition of figures of jaguars and eagles, warriors, skeletons, and the symbol of Toltec, Kukulkan. Eventually, the once-powerful empire was defeated by Mayapan in the 13th century, and later, officially conquered by the Spanish in the mid-16th century.
The pyramids that we see today are a manifestation of the prosperity of the Mayans. Its architectural style is reminiscent of Puuc and Chenes styles that we found in the Northern Maya lowlands. Due to a rich source of freshwater obtained from the cenote, the Chichen Itza was rapidly developed alongside profound scientific and mathematical discoveries.
Seven Wonders of the World
So what are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?
- Great Pyramid of Giza, El Giza, Egypt the only one that still exists.
- Colossus of Rhodes, in Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name.
- Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.
- Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt.
- Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Halicarnassus, Achaemenid Empire, modern day Turkey.
- Statue of Zeus at Olympia, in Olympia, Greece.
- Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey).
New Seven Wonders of the World
- Great Pyramid of Giza, El Giza, Egypt (Honorary Status)
- Great Wall of China, China.
- Petra, Ma’an, Jordan.
- Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
- Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico.
- Machu Picchu, Cuzco Region, Peru.
- Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.
- Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
An architectural wonder
The tallest structure in Chichen Itza is the El Castillo, a pyramid that’s usually featured in travel books and guides. Note that Chichen Itza is a heritage site with a collective of ancient structures and the pyramid is always mistaken, for or referred to, as “Chichen Itza.” The pyramid stands about 100 feet tall, and it’s the tallest and largest structure within Chichen Itza; El Castillo is also not the only pyramid preserved in Chichen Itza, the Osario Pyramid is located nearby, but it’s much smaller. Unlike the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, El Castillo is not a tomb, but a temple, although sacrifices were offered on the altar in ancient times. The entire heritage site covers an area of about 1.9 square kilometers, and the highlights are relatively close to each other so it’s very easy to explore and navigate.
Ticket price and opening hours
While I joined a day tour from Cancún which covers transportation and some other tourist spots. It’s possible to visit there on your own. There are two types of tickets: general admission for international visitors costs about US$23 (486 pesos) and it’s cheaper for locals, which costs about 207 pesos from Monday to Saturday, and 127 pesos on Sundays.
For a little extra, check out the tickets for Kukulkan Nights, it is a light and sound show that takes place in Chichen Itza at the Kukulkan Pyramid. The show begins at 7 pm and tickets are open for sale at 3 pm in the afternoon. The show ticket is 600 pesos.
Chichen Itza open all year from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. To be safe, check the official website for the latest arrangements before your visit, as the site may be closed due to crowd control, or other reasons.
The best time to visit Chichen Itza
The best period of the year to visit Chichen Itza is between November and May as it can get really hot in the summer. The area receives a lot of rain in June. While Cancún is a beach destination, I find it much more comfortable in December when the city enjoys a lot more sunny days and cooler temperatures.
Apart from the weather, early spring and Autumn is the low season when you can enjoy the site without a huge traveling crowd. As I mentioned, Chichen Itza is quite easy to get to, just pick out a day on your trip to Cancún when the weather is great, and hop on a bus or sign on a day tour any time. As usual, the best time of the day to see Chichen Itza is to be early when the gate opens at 8 am or after 3 pm when most of the tourist groups have left. The site is a popular location so it’s normal to expect a crowd at the entrance through security and ticketing, but once you got it, it has pretty much space to explore and you won’t feel as crowded.
An excursion from Cancún to Chichen Itza
After I got picked up by the shuttle bus the group lined up and boarded a large coach bus heading to Chichen Itza. It was a combo tour package so I enjoyed a small discount for visiting both Chichen Itza and Tulum. On day one, we are going to see Chichen Itza and Cenote, on the way back. I will share more about Tulum and Coba in my next post, and you will be surprised that the other lesser-known heritage sites have quite a lot to see, too.
The advantage of joining the day tour, first and foremost, is spared me the hassle of handling my own transportation, and it covered a few more spots on my way to Chichen Itza. But if you are traveling on a budget, the ADO bus company provides services to commute between Cancún and Chichen Itza. The first bus takes off at 8:45 am and the last returning bus departs at 4:30 pm.
If you have a rental car, parking in Chichen Itza is quite easy – but have peace of mind that your rental car won’t be vandalized or stolen, park down at the entrance instead of leaving it on the side of the road.
It was such a pleasant day. The sun was shining and tourists from all over the world joined this tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable as he gave us background information about Mayan culture and history.
Our first pit stop was in the Spanish colonial city of Valladolid; it is a popular tourist spot because of its close proximity to a number of Mayan ruins, as well as Cenote Ik Kil. It also became part of the Pueblo Mágico promotional initiative.
Valladolid is situated in the inland eastern part of Yucatán state with about a population of 50,000, making it the third-largest community in the state. Valladolid was named after the old capital of Spain and the city is a replica of any historic town in Spain.
Once the coach bus reached the city I could see classic Spanish-style architecture everywhere. The Cathedral of San Servacio O Gervasio is a 16th-century Spanish colonial Cathedral and the focal point of the city.
Valladolid has a chessboard-like city grid while the Cathedral is the center, standing next to the main square, Francisco Canton Rosado, where souvenir shops and restaurants are located. It was a nice stop to check out the colonial past and refreshed it before carrying on our journey to the ancient Mayan Wonder.
Discovering the Mayan secret
On the way to our lunch, we had another short stop at the Mayan Cultural Village, in a nutshell, it is a handicraft store for tourists to buy souvenirs.
Let’s talk about the Maya civilization. The Maya civilization began over 3,500 years ago in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. It was one of the most extraordinary cultures on the American continent. The Mayans forged a great nation with a distinct and uniquely defined style; yet their extraordinary cultural expressions only remained as ruins and heritages for us to see today, as they have mysteriously “vanished” in human history.
Their architecture, science, mathematics discoveries, and art have changed today’s human life tremendously. Their books, codecs, and finely elaborated hieroglyphics have recorded knowledge from the ancient time that inspired all (Not to mention the 2012 apocalyptic conspiracies?).
The most important discovery of them all would probably be the introduction of “0” in the numerical system that revolutionized the arithmetic methodology in the entire world.
Besides, the Mayan Calendar was an extremely accurate calendar in human history, with its refined astronomical skills and careful observations of the rhythm of seasons, the passage of the sun through its zenith, and the appearance of stars, constellations, eclipses, and so on. The body of astronomical knowledge was applied to the measurement of time and mathematics which still amazed scientists with their precision and accuracy today.
Significant inventions and discoveries of the Maya Civilization:
Astronomy. We all know about the leap year, and we celebrate it every 4 years – so did Mayans. It is believed that the Mayan calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar, which uses 365.25 days in a year. They worked out that the length of a lunar month should be 29.5308 days, and so 81 lunar months equal to 2,392 days. More, they discovered the 584-day cycle of Venus, and they studied Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury, obtaining celestial information like obscuration, or the path of one planet in front of the other. All this work has left insights to astronomers and how they understand space.
Mayan Calendar. The Mayan calendar may have ended in 2012, their work of the Haab was the sun-based calendar (using 365 days a year) standardized modern calendar.
Sports. Mayans love their sports. That’s why an expansive ball court is an important element where both players and spectators can enjoy the games, like pok-a-tok or hotchpotch.
The ball court is built at the foot of sanctuaries to pay tribute and respect to the deities.
Chocolate. Yes! The Mayans were the first to discover how to use cacao beans between 250 and 900 AD. It’s hard to imagine how lives are like now had the Mayans not knowing how to mix cacao bean with pepper and cornmeal, which led to the use of Cacao and everything that led to the making of Chocolates.
In ancient times, cacao beans were valuable enough to be used as a currency, it’s literally edible gold.
Medicine. Well…. the Mayans used hallucination drugs, not exactly the ecstasies that are found in today’s rave parties. Instead, the shamans in ancient times discovered stimulating drugs that have the effect to relieve pain and increase energy.
A number of these substances were adopted to make painkillers in modern medicine.
Mathematics. Te Mayans introduced “0”.
More, they have a rather accurate and sophisticated numeric system. One is that the number 0 is still used among us today.
Art. Mayan art is not exactly an invention (art has been since ancient times) but it was unique in its own way and is widely applauded by people around the world. its pattern, visual, and color are also adopted and applied in today’s modern art, which could be found on many decorations and walls. A wide range of materials is used, from wood, jade, obsidian, and so on.
Writing System. The Glyphs is the most advanced form of writing and the Mayans used around 700 different glyphs, and astonishingly 80 percent of the language is still understood today. The Maya script is accepted to be the most comprehensive writing system in Mesoamerica, and the majority of Mayan history was recorded in this system.
Rubber. Yes, plastic was invented by Charles Goodyear, officially, by mixing chemicals to form polymers, and so on. Interestingly, it is believed that the Mayan produced elastic from latex and mixed it with other plant substances to make elastic items with various properties, including bouncy balls for their ball games.
What are the Chichen Itza highlights?
Once we arrived at the archaeological site, wow, the entrance was crowded. But the pyramid actually has a lot of space for visitors to appreciate the architecture up close, and far. El Castillo (The main temple) was the main feature and it was built based on the solar calendar; our guide gave us some insightful commentary about how this pre-Colombian settlement was an important destination for pilgrimages and is still considered sacred today.
Old Chichen Itza
There was a spot in front of the pyramid where every group clapped their hands together because people could hear the echo of the sound coming out from the top of the pyramid when they clapped – resembling the chirp of Quetzalcoatl (a deity in Mayan Culture).
Great Ball Court
The Mesoamerican ballgame is kind of a big deal in ancient times, and hence the ball court. The Great Ball Court is an open space with high walls on both sides of the field. Take a look at the hanging 20 feet high on these stone walls. The guide told me those were the “goals” for the balls to pass through, imagine it’s the basketball, the Mayans are playing a tough game.
The stone walls are leaning inwards and produce echoes so that the audience could hear the ball bouncing during the ball games.
Temple of the Warriors
The temple is a three-tier pyramid-like structure with a platform at the top.
That is the altar, and the temple is surrounded by stone pillars, with statues of Atlas that are a sacred place off limits to the pheasants.
Look closely, you can see the stone statue of Chacmool lying at the center of the temple, which shares a resemblance with the Toltec culture. However, this is where the Mayans offer the sacrifice of human hearts.
Temple of the Great Jaguar
The temple features two statues of Jaguars and it was believed to be a depiction of a scene of the war with the Toltecs in the 10th century. Jaguar was an animal that Mayans feared in the jungle, and it’s also a symbol of power and strength.
Tzompantli (Skull Rack)
Tzompantli, the skill rack, is a display of human sacrifice, The rack is located just beside the Great Ball Court and it has engravings of skulls in different frightening expressions.
The cenote is not the biggest in the area, but it’s connected with Chichen Itza and it’s a sacred location. Therefore, unlike some of the many others that allow visitors to swim in, the cenote here within the archaeological site is only for viewing.
New Chichen Itza
Observatory (El Caracol)
Besides, there was an observatory to explore astronomical events, the light enters the observatory and illuminates the structure during the equinox (The day of the year when the length of the day equals night)!
Nunnery (Casa de Las Monjas)
The Nunnery is a two-layer structure, and its function remains unknown. The structure is one of the most decorated among all though, it has numerous bas-reliefs on the wall.
High Priest’s Grave
The grave was badly destroyed and restored in the last couple of years. Treasures like vases, and sea shells, were found in the grave when it was discovered.
Can we climb Chichen Itza?
Simply put – no.
El Castillo is the largest pyramid (and the most photographed and featured) in Chichen Itza, and it cannot be climbed in the last decade, with an aim to preserve and show respect to this scared place. However, visitors can climb Nohoch Mul, the largest pyramid in the Yucatán Peninsula, and I feature for my day trip to Tulum and Coba.
Cenote Ik Kil
The last spot that we visited is a beautiful open-air Cenote nearby. Cenote is a natural freshwater sinkhole, and there is more than one of them in the area. The cenote is the only source of fresh water for the Mayans and they considered Cenotes to be sacred portals to the underworld.
As I mentioned that the sacred cenote in Chichen Itza is off-limits, but visitors could simply strip off and swim in the water to cool off here. If you want to swim in the cenote, you would probably need to prepare swimwear or a towel or a change of clothes. There’s a changing room at the entrance, with a shower to rinse off the dirt before walking down the stairs in the cave to the water.
In case you really didn’t have what you needed, towel and locker rentals were available – it’s a unique experience to swim there as the scenery in the hole is of course unique. Even if you don’t swim, you can take a walk down the stair and you can still get to see the cenote through the holes.