Built to a scale that seems to be from another world, Chichén, one of the new seven wonders of the world, has some of the largest buildings of the ancient Mayan cities. It had a port near Río Lagartos and grew rich from trading. With a large population, it became the most powerful city in the whole of the Yucatán in the last centuries of the Classic Mayan era (AD 750–900), defeating Cobá, Izamal, and others in war. A visit to this site is not to be missed.
Open 8am–5pm daily • www.chichenitza.inah.gob.mx • Adm $8 (under 14s free)
Sound and Light Show: winter: 7pm daily, summer: 8pm daily; adm included in main entrance fee, but $2.50 extra for English, Italian, German, or French commentary on headphones; www.inah.gob.mx
The observatory is also called El Caracol (“snail”) for its odd round shape. Three slots in its top level point due south and toward the setting sun and moon on the spring and fall equinoxes.
The Spaniards thought this group of buildings was a nunnery, but experts now believe it formed the main residential and administrative area for Chichén’s lords in the city’s first years. The buildings are covered in a wealth of spectacular carvings.
Built in AD 864, this is the biggest ancient ball court in Mexico. It has exceptional carvings and remarkably good acoustics.
Presented nightly, the show features an imagined history of Chichén Itzá, while the main temples are dramatically lit in changing colors.
This pyramid is inscribed with the date of its completion: June 20 842. It is named for a tomb excavated at its foot, which cannot be visited.
It is no longer possible to climb this awesome pyramid, which encloses an older one, that is accessed from the top of the Castillo. Carvings, panels, levels, and the 365 steps are symbols of the intricate Mayan calendar.
The squat temple opposite the Castillo was used in city rituals. In front of it are ranks of pillars, each intricately carved with portraits of important figures in the Chichén elite.
The forest of pillars around a giant quadrangle once supported wood and palm roofs. This was Chichén’s main place for doing business: for buying, selling, and voicing disputes.
Chichén Itzá once covered a much wider area than is seen at its monumental core. To the south is Chichén Viejo – a part-excavated site in the woods that is as old as the central plazas.
Visited by Mayan pilgrims over centuries, the Sacred Cenote, a giant natural sinkhole, has yielded up jewelry, sculptures, and bones of animals.
On the spring equinox, the afternoon sun picks out the tails of the serpents lining the Castillo’s north stairway and runs down to their heads just before sunset. On the autumn equinox, the reverse effect occurs. This “Descent of Kukulcán” symbolized the city’s contact with the gods. Today, crowds flock to see the event.