A tour of Chichen Itzá is practically mandatory for anyone visiting the Yucatán peninsula. Not just any old historical site can boast with being one of the World’s Seven Modern Wonders. Even if you’ve seen pictures in advance, there’s just something about this place – it won’t leave you disappointed! However, Chichen Itzá is enormous. You might not be able to see it all at once. Here are seven of the most amazing locations in Chichen Itzá. Make sure you see at least these during your visit!
1. El Castillo
Photo: El Castillo is the most famous structure in Chichen Itzá.
A gigantic Mayan calendar. That’s what the impressive 25-metre-high El Castillo, or the pyramid of Kukulkán, has been called.
El Castillo is located on a huge grassy square in the ancient Mayan metropolis Chichen Itzá, just a short distance from the main entrance. Although it’s impressive, the first impression visitors get of this pyramid, might still be that it looks pretty modest, at least compared to many of the other elaborately decorated buildings in Chichen Itzá. But there’s definitely more to this building than meets the eye.
El Castillo is a great example of the unbelievably precise mathematic, astronomic and architectural knowledge the ancient Mayans had.
For example, the pyramid has four sides. Each with its own set of stairways. The sides all have a total of 91 steps. Together with a final step at the top of the pyramid, leading to a small temple, you get a grand total of 365. This number is the exact amount of days one year in the ancient Mayan calendar had (and yes, it’s pretty close to our modern day calendar!).
Twice a year, during autumn and spring equinox, the pyramid hosts a show that still today attracts thousands of spectators. Kukulkán, the God that El Castillo is believed to be dedicated to, had the form of a feathered serpent. At the bottom of the staircase on the North side of the pyramid are two snakeheads, carved out of stone. The stairs are constructed so that each year, during autumn and spring equinox, the shadow falls at an angle that makes it look like a serpent body, connecting with the stone heads at the bottom.
If you’re still not convinced this building is a true masterpiece, read my blog post to find out more fascinating facts about the Temple of Kukulkán (for example, did you know that it might be sitting on top of a cenote and that there might even be three pyramids inside?).
Photo: The Temple of Kukulkan, or El Castillo, is actually several pyramids built on top of each other! The famous building might also be sitting on top of a cenote.
2. Gran Juego de Pelota
Photo: One popular theory is that the purpose of the Mayan ball game was to get a rubber ball through these hoops.
The largest and most impressive Mayan ball court known today is the Gran Juego de Pelota in Chichen Itzá. This giant field measures 135 metres from one end to the other, with walls some 90 metres long on each side of the court. Seen from above the court has the shape of the capital letter “I”.
Halfway along the sides there are stone hoops cemented high – one on each side of the court. Many guides will tell you that the purpose of the game was to get the ball through these hoops. However, this is just one of many theories. As with many other aspects of the ancient Mayan civilisation, the exact rules of the game might remain a mystery for all eternity.
A panel runs along the bottom of each side, depicting what appears to be scenes of the game. On top of the panels runs the stone body of a snake.
It’s practically impossible to visit the Gran Juego de Pelota without witnessing tens of tour groups demonstrating the impressive acoustics of the ball court. A conversation can be heard from one end of the court all the way to the other – 135 metres away. A clap will produce several loud echoes.
In the ancient Mayan culture the ball game held great ceremonial, religious and political significance. Many of the Mayan cities have several different ball courts, which shows what an important part this game played in their culture. Chichen Itzá had not one, but eight ball courts!
Photo: The Gran Juego de Pelota in Chichen Itzá is the largest ball court that we know of today.
3. Plataforma de los Cranéos or Tzompantli
Photo: Tzompantli or the Platform of the Skulls might have been used as a place to display the heads of sacrificial victims.
This T-shaped platform is located just before the Gran Juego de Pelota. You’ll probably notice it… It’s the one with thousands of macabre, grinning skulls carved into its sides.
As if the skulls weren’t enough, there are also pictures of eagles tearing open the chests of humans and feasting on their hearts.
We don’t know this for a fact, but a widespread theory is that this platform was used to exhibit the heads of sacrificial victims.
4. Cenote Sagrado
Photo: Thousands of valuable objects of different shape and size as well as the remains of over a hundred humans have been found in this cenote.
From Tzompantli, walking some 300 metres along the sacbé (one of the Mayan roads) towards the north side of the plaza you’ll get to the sacred cenote, Cenote Sagrado.
This cenote – a sinkhole (learn more about cenotes here) – is believed to have given Chichen Itzá its name. Chichen Itzá translates to “At the Edge of the Well of Itzá”.
Cenote Sagrado is around 60 metres in diameter and over 30 metres deep.
Thousands of valuable objects (for example in gold and jade) have been found inside the cenote while doing under-water archaeological excavations. In addition to this, the remains of over 100 humans have been found, showing signs that could be linked to human sacrifice (if you’re interested, this is an excellent blog post about the studies done on the human remains found in this cenote). This has – in addition to the fact that Mayans believed the cenotes were portals to the underworld Xibalba – led to the widespread theory that humans were sacrificed into the well.
There’s a comfortable bench on the left side of the cenote with a nice view over the incredibly green water. A perfect spot for a short snack-and-water break or to just sit in peace pondering the great unanswered questions about the ancient Mayans.
5. Grupo de las Mil Columnas
Photo: The Group of Thousand Columns takes up a large area of Chichen Itzá. The columns seem to represent warriors.
The Group of Thousands Columns, or Grupo de las Mil Columnas, lies on the East side of El Castillo. Just like the platform with all the skulls, this one is easy to spot. It’s like a giant forest of stone columns!
Carvings on some of the columns seem to indicate that the columns represent battle-dressed warriors.
Photo: The Group of a Thousand Columns is located right by the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of Warriors).
6. El Caracol
Photo: This building was used as an observatory. Notice how much it resembles modern-day observatories!
Walking towards the south part of Chichen Itzá, you’ll arrive at El Caracol. Archaeologists believe this fascinating building was once an observatory. The round dome at the top centre of the building has windows spread out in a haphazard manner.
But of course, nothing is haphazard when it comes to the ancient Mayans. At specific dates, the windows will align with important stars. It’s believed that this way the priests could easily decree the times for important events in society, like harvest and celebrations for example.
There are four doors, one towards each cardinal point. Above these doors hang masks of the Mayan Rain God Chac (Travel Tip: if you’re unsure of what the mask looks like, there are a myriad vendors selling replicas of these masks all over Chichen Itzá).
This building got its name, El Caracol, because of a spiral-shaped staircase inside (“caracol” means snail in Spanish).
7. La Iglesia
Photo: La Iglesia is one of the older buildings in Chichen Itzá. Practically a piece of art, you could admire it for hours and still find new things to look at!
This small, but beautiful building is almost completely covered in carvings. It’s one of the most exquisitely decorated buildings in Chichen Itzá. Can you spot the snail, the turtle, the armadillo and the crab above the doorway? According to ancient Mayan mythology, these creatures held up the sky. There are also several masks of the Rain God Chac to be spotted.
La Iglesia is located right next to what the Spaniards named Edificio de las Monjas (nunnery) – a very large building, believed by archaeologists to have been a palace for royalty.
La Iglesia is Spanish for church. As the Spaniards named the building next to it Nunnery, the name Church for the little building right next to it probably seemed fitting.