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The Ultimate Guide to Chichen Itza, Mexico

Last Updated on 8th March 2023 by Sophie Nadeau

Step into millennia of ancient Mayan history when you visit Chichen Itza. One of the New Wonders of the world, this historic site was constructed by the Yucatan’s native Maya population, long before Spanish colonialists made it to the country. 

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza/ Aleksandr Medvedkov/ Shutterstock

Think of Chichen Itza, and you’ll initially think of pyramids. While El Castillo is an important part of the complex, Chichen Itza was actually an ancient Mayan city. Most experts date it to be at least 1,500 years old, and it has a remarkably well-preserved selection of pyramid-shaped structures (that were historic temples) and other ruins. 

By touring around Chichen Itza, you’ll learn about the region’s fascinating prehistory, while taking in some of the Yucatan’s best landscapes! Here’s a full guide to visiting Chichen Itza. 

Mayan observatory at Chichen Itza
Mayan observatory at Chichen Itza/ AAR Studio/ Shutterstock

Why you need to visit Chichen Itza

One of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichen Itza combines ancient architecture with tropical scenery; it’s one of the most immersive places in Mexico where you can educate yourself about the Maya. 

The Mayans were an advanced ancient population who built cities, created pottery and artisanal products, studied the night sky and used their findings to write calendars and created mathematical creations. 

The best way to experience Mayan findings is to delve right into them; which you can do as you see the awe-inspiring structures of Chichen Itza, imagining how people used them for worship, play and education thousands of years ago. 

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza/ Leon Rafael/ Shutterstock

How to get to Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is accessible from Valladolid, Merida (check out our 3 days in Merida itinerary, where we suggest a day trip to Chichen Itza within the guide), Tulum and Cancun; if you’re visiting Mexico mainly to go to Chichen Itza, you’ll want to fly into the large international airport in Cancun. 

Many visitors choose to rent a car and do a Yucatan road trip – there are lots of incredible places to see, and many of the cenotes are only accessible if you have your own two wheels!

Plus, driving in this part of Mexico is typically safer than elsewhere (just have a clear idea of where you’re going, speak to locals to assess any dangers and don’t drive at night, just to be safe). 

chichen itza
Chichen Itza/ Estelle Hct/ Shutterstock

However, if you don’t want to rent a car, Chichen Itza is well-serviced by bus routes. ADO is a coach company that serves this part of Mexico. Their vehicles are spacious, comfortable and safe, and they connect Chichen Itza with Merida, Tulum and Cancun. 

The journey times are as follows: 

  • From Merida: one hour 30 minutes
  • From Tulum: two hours 40 miuntes
  • From Cancun: three hours 

If you have time on your Mexico trip, I highly recommend spending a couple of nights in Valladolid. It’s a beautiful colonial city, with charming historical streets, brightly coloured buildings and an atmospheric square where there’s always a parade. It’s also in proximity to many of the best cenotes in the area. 

You can take ADO buses from Merida, Tulum and Cancun to Valladolid as well. 

If you’re pushed for time and want to make sure that you see the surrounding highlights as well as Chichen Itza, I recommend partaking in a tour. Tours are bookable on Get Your Guide from Tulum, Merida and Cancun. 

The tours incorporate the Izamal pyramid, Cenote Chichikan, Ek’Balam and Cenote Saamal. You’ll be able to step back in ancient Mayan history, take a swim in a bright blue cenote and explore the towns and villages of the Yucatan peninsula, along with an English-speaking guide and skilled driver. 

Here are all of the links to book the tours! 

 columns of the Temple of the Warriors
Columns of the Temple of the Warriors/ Filippo Carlot/ Shutterstock

Hotel recommendations

While you don’t need to stay in a hotel at Chichen Itza – it’s easy to access from many of the Yucatan peninsula’s most popular towns and cities – you can guarantee that you’ll be at the historical site before the tour groups, and if you visit later in the day, you can stay until the last tourists peter out! 

Here are some of the best options for hotels near Chichen Itza: 

Hacienda Chichen Resort & Yaxkin Spa: This luxurious eco-friendly resort has traditional Mexican architecture, it’s located just steps away from Chichen Itza and offers elegant rooms, a full-service spa, and a beautiful outdoor pool. Check prices and availability here.

Hotel Villas Arqueológica Chichén Itzá: This affordable hotel is in the Chichen Itza archaeological site, just a five-minute walk from the ruins, and offers bright and welcoming rooms and a hearty restaurant. Check prices and availability here.

Hotel Okaan: This luxury retreat is located in the nearby town of Pisté, a ten minute drive from Chichen Itza, and offers stylish rooms with canopy beds and gorgeous swimming pools in tropical surroundings. Check prices and availability here.

Things to see at Chichen Itza

While you’re exploring Chichen Itza, don’t miss the following highlights:

El Castillo 

Also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, El Castillo is the structure that everyone thinks of when they hear about Chichen Itza!

This pyramid is 30 metres tall (which is 100 metres smaller than the Great Pyramid of Giza, but it’s still impressive!), and it has 91 steps on each of its four sides.

There’s a final step at the top, making a total of 365 – the same as the number of days in the year. The positioning of El Castillo is significant too; it’s supposed to be aligned with the sun. 

el castillo chichen itza
El Castillo/ alects/ Shutterstock

Temple of the Warriors 

A 12 metre high structure, the Temple of Warriors was used to host gatherings and festivities; in fact, it’s the only late Maya building that was large enough to host celebrations.

There’s also a 10th – 12th century reclining Chac Mool – a particular pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture. 

Temple of the Warriors 
Temple of the Warriors/ Ragulina/ Shutterstock

The Great Ball Court

The Mayans weren’t that different to people nowadays; they played ball games just like people today might play soccer or basketball! The Great Ball Court is where the ancient Mayans played pok-ta-pok. 

This was a game involving hitting a ball through a basketball-style hoop at the end of the court – the only catch was players must hit it with their hip or side – no feet, heads or feet are allowed! It’s a remarkably well-preserved court and you can walk the whole way through it. 

The Great Ball Court
The Great Ball Court/ Diego Grandi/ Shutterstock

El Caracol

Translating to “snail” in Spanish, El Caraol was an observatory structure where Mayan people would look into the skies, analysing the star constellations and night sky.

It enabled them to study the moon and planets like Venus and Mars, which helped the ancient people to progress their education and knowledge, which served as a basis for a  lot of what we know today. 

El Caracol
El Caracol/ Richie Chan/ Shutterstock

Cenote Sagrado

Cenote Sagrado, known as “Sacred Cenote”, is a sinkhole full of water that, as the name suggests, was a holy place for the pre-Hispanic Mayan people.

It was originally somewhere where people would make offerings to the water gods; this ultimately turned into human sacrifices! Knowing that, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway, but swimming is strictly forbidden. 

Cenote Sagrado
Cenote Sagrado/ Jess Kraft/ Shutterstock


Tzompantli is a wall with carvings of skulls, used for displaying the skulls of sacrificial victims from rival kingdoms. There are a few of these in other ancient Mexican sites, and they all pose as a chilling reminder of the sinister sacrifices of the Mayan world. 

Tzompantli of Chichen Itza
Tzompantli of Chichen Itza/ Nik Waller Productions/ Shutterstock

Tips for visiting Chichen Itza

There are a few things that you should consider when visiting Chichen Itza. Here are some of my best tips! 

Be wary of the sun

First, be aware that Chichen Itza doesn’t have much shade; and the Mexican sun can be strong, no matter the time of year! So be aware that the sun can be harsh as you explore.

I’d recommend wearing long, light clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and applying factor 50 sunscreen liberally.

Plus, drink plenty of water before, during and after to avoid heat exhaustion; you can also purchase electrolyte drinks from 7/11 shops in Mexico. 

Arrive early

In a similar vein, you can beat the heat by arriving at the ancient site early.

The weather starts heating up at around 10:00 am; so if you arrive at 8:00 am, you should be able to have a couple of hours to see the highlights! This also enables you to avoid crowds, as most tour groups don’t enter until 10:00 am. 

The temple of the jaguar warriors of Chichen Itza
The temple of the jaguar warriors of Chichen Itza/ S.Moebs/ Shutterstock

Hire a guide

There’s a bit of information about the site on boards as you walk around, but you might want to hire an English-speaking guide to help you learn about the site some more.

There are plenty of guides offering their services at the entrance; they usually have one price per group – make sure that you discuss this before you take the tour and have the cash to pay them. 

FAQs about Chichen Itza

Is there a lot of walking in Chichen Itza?

Yes, you should be prepared to spend almost your entire time at Chichen Itza on your feet, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes. You can end up walking anything between 1 and 4 miles depending on the route you take to explore the park.

How long do you need to explore Chichen Itza?

Those who want to see all of Chichen Itza’s top attractions should set aside at least three hours to enjoy all of the sites. This doesn’t include travel time to and from the ancient site, and this will obviously vary depending on where you’re coming from.

Are you ready to visit Chichen Itza? 

A must on most people’s Mexico bucket lists, this wonder of the world is an awe-inspiring complex that leaves most visitors starstruck and eager to learn more about the country’s native people.

While it’s visited by up to two million tourists each year, there are still a few things to consider when planning a trip there – and we’ve covered all of them in this guide – don’t forget to save it for reference when you’re there! 

Ik-Kil Cenote near Chichen Itza
Ik-Kil Cenote near Chichen Itza/ BorisVetshev/ Shutterstock

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Ultimate Guide to Chichen Itza mexico

Claire Martin is a travel blogger and freelance writer who specialises in overland adventures. She’s drove around Australia, travelled from Bali to London without flying, lived in Mexico and has spent many months exploring Europe. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Claire’s Footsteps

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