Whether you are flying in to Cancun for your first visit to Mexico’s gorgeous Caribbean coast or getting off a cruise ship docked in Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itza should be on top of your must-visit list. The best time to be in Chichen Itza is in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Although it is only almost 2 hours drive from Cancun you have to allot one whole day for the entire trip if you are joining a tour group. Tour groups usually leave Cancun at mid-morning, arrive at a swimming side trip, stop for buffet lunch at a Mexican restaurant and arrive in Chichen Itza around after lunch and leave at around 4pm. If you have the guts to drive on your own, you can choose to leave Cancun before lunch time and arrive in Chichen Itza at the same time tour groups arrive so it gets pretty crowded around that time. Otherwise choose the best option to drive early in the morning from Cancun at 6am and then arrive in Chichen Itza after two hours and by lunch time you can be back in Cancun to utilize your time for other activities.
To avoid the hassles of being lost while driving and queueing for tickets if we take the trip on our own, my friend and I decided to take a tour group. There were offers from travel agents situated inside our hotel in Cancun but my friend decided to go to the city center and got a better, cheaper deal! We were picked up at our Cancun hotel at around 830am on the day of the tour.
It was a full-packed tour bus with tourists from Brazil, Columbia, Argentina & the U.S. Some were from Europe and some were from other parts of Mexico. My friend and I were the only Asians.
After one and a half hour driving from Cancun, our first stop was the town of Valladolid. It was a taste of colonial Mexico.
Our main destination in the town was Zací. Located just three blocks away from the town plaza, the now open-air cenote (underwater sinkholes) has a diameter of 150 feet and is 260 feet deep. This is a popular cenote for swimming in the refreshing turquoise waters. You will see rare species of eyeless black fish known as “lub.” A third of the cenote is covered with stalactites and stalagmites and there is a walkway around the entire cenote. Some did bring swimming gears and swam in the freshwater well.
Others just watched and strolled around the compound that actually has a very good restaurant.
And I rested… and rested some more. For those who were not keen on swimming, we could only take a walk around the freshwater well compound, take a look at the souvenir items and have some food and drinks. I was actually only interested and focused on Chichen Itza.
We left the freshwater well after an hour and we were treated to a dazzling display of colors everywhere around town.
The buildings were painted with pastel colors, a trademark of colonial Mexico.
We also passed by a famous landmark in Valladolid, the Cathedral of San Gervasio.
We finally stopped at one of the town’s famous buffet restaurants serving delectable Mexican food. It was also part of the tour package. We just had to spend for our own drinks.
After lunch, we drove again around town on our final approach to Chichen Itza passing by colorful buildings again….
….one of which was a bank.
We also passed by a quite crowded street with locals, old and young, strolling by. Most of them are the descendants of the ancient Mayans who are known for their advanced mathematical knowledge and incredible understanding of the solar system.
Finally, after a 40-minute drive from Valladolid, we arrived in Chichen Itza!
Tickets were already pre-purchased by the tour operator as part of the tour package.
A general map of the complex would help in exploring around.
After a short walk from the main entrance, my first glimpse of the world-renowned Temple of Kukulkan or El Castillo (the castle) reminded me of the same emotional frenzy I felt, seeing the Great Pyramid of Giza, a year earlier.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of Kukulkan or El Castillo was built by the pre-Columbian Maya around 9th and 12th century AD.
English speakers were separated from Spanish speakers so we were advised to join the group of Victor, our English speaking tour guide. Before we went into a walking tour of the complex, he superbly explained in detail the history of the Mayan civilization and the related sites but I could get only a part of what he was explaining as I was sometimes away eagerly taking shots of the impeccable structures.
It was actually a crowded afternoon and we really had to take the right timing to take the pictures without much of the crowd as background.
This is the north side of the 29-m high step pyramid. The total height includes the 6-m high castle. The pyramid consists of a series of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. There are 91 steps on each side. Unfortunately, climbing the El Castillo was stopped in 2006 by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Only the northern balustrades have the sculptures of the feathered serpents run down its sides. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes off the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest balustrade, which some believe creates the illusion of a feathered serpent “crawling” down the pyramid.
Kukulkan (feathered serpent) is shown at the base of the west face of the northern stairway of El Castillo. Kukulkan is the name of the Maya snake deity closely associated with the Itza state in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the cult formed the core of the state religion.
This is the south side of El Castillo.
This is the northwest side of El Castillo.
This is the mostly eroded southeast side of El Castillo.
One of those funny shots showing the serpent kissing my cheek.
Recent excavations revealed earlier Mayan structures.
This is the Jaguar Temple that together with the El Castillo, Tzampontli & the Great Ball Court form the Great North Platform of Chichen Itza.
This is Tzompantli still in the Great North Platform. This monument, a low, flat platform, is surrounded with carved depictions of human skulls.
This is the Great Ball Court, the most impressive and largest ball court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. It measures 166 by 68 metres. The imposing walls are 12 metres (39 ft) high, and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents.
At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated and from the wound emits seven streams of blood; six become wriggling serpents and the center becomes a winding plant.
Walking to the direction of the Central Group structures in Chichen Itza, we passed by so many stalls selling souvenir items such as masks, t-shirts, relics, key chains and many more.
One of the structures in the Central Group is El Caracol observatory temple.
Many were in awe of the observatory, a small structure with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape (the others are rectangular, in keeping with Maya practice). It is theorized to have been a proto-observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens.
As the sky got dimmer, we hastily went to the area of terminal classic buildings constructed in the Puuc architectural style. The Spanish labeled the area as Las Monjas (The Nunnery).
Just to the east is a small temple (nicknamed La Iglesia, “The Church”) decorated with elaborate masks of the rain god Chaac.
This became one of my favorite structures in Chichen Itza.
Upon our return to the Great North Platform, we headed west to the Group of a Thousand Columns.
The columns are in three distinct sections: an east group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, which contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents.
The columns actually lead to the…..
….Temple of the Warriors, one of the most impressive structures at Chichén Itzá. It may be the only known late classic Maya building sufficiently big enough for really large gatherings.