What to see in Mexico
Tourist attractions Chichen Itza
Once upon a time, Chichen Itza was among the most important city-states in pre-Hispanic America. Nowadays, it’s considered one of the 7 wonders of the world and is a highly popular tourist attraction on Mexico’s sun-kissed Yucatan Peninsula. A Mayan city, frozen in time, a trip to Chichen Itza is high on the bucket lists of many a traveller. Occupying an area of 4-square miles, the city was once a religious, military, political and commercial centre, home to an estimated population of 35,000 people.
It’s thought that a city of such size and grandeur was constructed here, a largely arid region, due to the existence of two cenotes in the surrounding area, allowing for easy access to water which, in turn, allowed the ancient city to flourish. More than 1000 years of history are encompassed within the site, and both Maya and Toltec civilisations have shaped the monuments that still stand to this day.
The modern-day site is divided into Old Chichen and Chichen Itza, two distinct zones where you can encounter a variety of architectural styles and trace different periods in this vast city’s history. In total, there are 26 Mayan-era structures to discover if you travel to Chichen Itza.
Within easy reach of the popular resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, day trips to Chichen Itza are the ideal way to see the legendary ruins for those vacationing in this part of Mexico. If you are fortunate enough to travel to Chichen Itza during the Spring or Autumn equinoxes you’ll experience the so-called ‘Serpent Effect’ when the northwest corner of the Kukulcan pyramid casts a snake-like shadow on the central staircase! Nevertheless, visiting Chichen Itza at any time of year is a unique opportunity to discover the secrets of Mexico’s most mysterious and ancient civilisations.
Things to see at Chichen Itza
At the heart of the site lies the Temple of Kukulcan, the most famous structure at Chichen Itza. Also known as ‘El Castillo’, this 4-sided stepped pyramid was built during the peak of the city’s power. At the top of the 30-metre tall pyramid is a rectangular temple. With its sacred serpent statues and mysterious astrological alignment, it’s little wonder this pyramid captures the imagination of all who visit, or long to visit Chichen Itza. A nightly light show at the pyramid recreates the unique serpent-shadow effect and is an unmissable highlight if you visit the site.
Several ball courts have been identified at Chichen Itza, but the Great Ball Court is the largest and most impressive. It was constructed as a stage for the Mesoamerican Ball Game, a little-understood ceremonial ritual that was widely played by ancient civilizations on the Yucatan Peninsula. The sheer size and decoration of the Great Ball Court make it easy to imagine the importance of the games or rituals that once took place here.
Another of the best things to see at Chichen Itza is the huge Temple of the Warrior, a stepped pyramid, thought to have played host to large scale public gatherings. The central temple boasts incredible reliefs of warriors, eagles and jaguars and inside the temple is the Tomb of Chac Mool, a reclining sculpture thought to symbolise a slain warrior.
To delve deeper into the beliefs and technologies of the ancients, be sure to visit the Observatory, living proof of the Mayans ’ interest in all things astrological. This spherical building sites atop a large platform and it’s thought that the observatory was perfectly positioned to observe the path of the planet Venus.
Finally, a tour of Chichen Itza would be incomplete without visiting the Sacred Cenote. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to several cenotes, the result of naturally occurring limestone sinkholes. 60-metres in diameter, the Sacred Cenote was once an important place of pilgrimage for the ancient Mayans and a site of ritual sacrifice. Over the centuries, many valuable objects have been excavated from the cenote, including gold, obsidian and jade artefacts.