Visiting Chichen Itza: Everything You Need to Know

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Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist attractions and North America’s only Wonder of the World. And for good reason- this incredible and ancient site (dating back over 1,500 years!) makes you feel like you’re straight up starring in your own personal Indiana Jones movie. Here’s a complete guide to everything you need to know about visiting Chichen Itza, a not-to-be-missed site on any Mexico bucket list.

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Couple holding hands and looking at El Castillo at Chichen Itza
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Before we dive into all things Chichen Itza, let’s back up for a second.

What is Chichen Itza?

So you’re probably wondering “What’s all the fuss about this random pyramid in the middle of the jungle?” Well, I’m so glad you asked!

The city of Chichen Itza (which is so much more than a pyramid!), in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, was built somewhere between 400-600 AD and was one of the largest cities of the mighty Mayan civilization. The city was a booming center for trade and was the home to as many as 50,000 Mayans at one time. 

Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, Mexico

This was, perhaps, in part, because of its location right near a massive cenote (a sinkhole in the limestone bedrock, filled with fresh water), which would have kept the town supplied with precious water (which was kinda hard to come by in the middle of the Mexican jungle back in the day!) for drinking, cleaning, agricultural, and religious purposes. In fact, that’s likely where the city got its name, which roughly translates to “at the mouth of the well of the enchanter of water.” 

No one really knows why Chichen Itza spiraled from one of the most powerful Mayan cities to the ruins that stand here today, but sometime between the 12th and 15th century, the population vanished. The most popular theory is that the residents had to move due to a severe drought, but there’s other possible theories floating around about the arrival of the Spaniards, changing weather conditions, and the rise of other surrounding cities, like Mayapán.

Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza was largely forgotten about by most of the world, tucked away in the jungle, until two explorers, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, published their experience about coming across the great ruins in 1841. Since then, this ancient city has captivated travelers and history lovers alike, being named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1988 and one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. 

How Much Does it Cost to Go to Chichen Itza?

One of my favorite things about Mexico is how incredibly affordable it is. However, the Mexican government has recognized how big of a draw Chichen Itza is (it’s a frickin’ Wonder of the World, guys!) and accordingly, charges steeper than expected admission. 

At the time I’m writing this, admission is:

  • $613 MXN for adults (age 13 or over) .
  • $90 MXN for children (under 12).
  • $272 MXN for Mexican citizens or free on Sunday (this also applies to foreigners with an ID proving residence in Mexico)
  • $90 MXN for Mexican citizens with a Yucatan ID . 
Bas Relief at the Great Ball Court in Chichen Itza

The price of Chichen Itza keeps rising with its booming popularity, so don’t be surprised if it’s slightly more than what I’ve outlined above when you visit- and let me know in the comments below so I can update the information accordingly!

Protip: You can pay for your entrance fee with a credit card, but it’s smart to have enough pesos on hand to cover your admission. There’s only a handful of credit card machines at the entrance gate and it’s not unheard of for them to go down. It would SUCK to travel all the way to Chichen Itza and not be able to enter because you only have a credit card on hand. 

If you drive, you’ll also need pesos to pay for parking, which will run you about $80 MXN per car. 

Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is incredible, but as one of the most popular attractions in Mexico (receiving over 2 MILLION visitors per year!), there’s definitely some things that will help make your trip as epic as possible.

1. Arrive early or late 

If you can get to Chichen Itza first thing in the morning when the site opens at 8 AM, I’d definitely recommend it. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll also beat a lot of the vendors (who are PERSISTENT, y’all!) and the worst of the midday heat. This is what my husband, Justin, and I did and I was super thankful to have had an hour or two of quiet time to explore the site.

Can’t swing the early morning wake-up call? Head here in the afternoon instead, when most of the tour groups will start clearing out. It’s open until 5 PM, with the last entry permitted at 4 PM. It takes most travelers between two to four hours to explore the site, so consider showing up around 2-3 PM.

Woman standing in front of Temple of the Jaguar at Chichen Itza

2. Be mindful of the time

This one goes hand in hand with the first tip, but be aware that the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Bacalar are located, is actually one hour ahead of Chichen Itza and the rest of the country from October through April. Plan your arrival times accordingly!

3. Know where you’re going and where to park

When Justin and I were visiting Chichen Itza, we wanted to be the first ones in the park so that we could get awesome photos, free of other tourists. But when I plugged in “Chichen Itza” into our Google Maps, we wound up on some random road full of hotels and had to scramble to figure out where we needed to go to actually enter the site. 

So be sure to plug in the ticket office, which will take you directly to the official parking lot and, of course, the ticket office. 

Side view of the temple of Venus

Some folks park on the side of the road outside of the Chichen Itza complex to save the $80 MXN parking fee, but I wouldn’t advise it. The road is quite narrow here, so the chances of someone hitting your car is pretty high, as well as being a big ol’ target for bad guys looking to break into your car. So let’s not make it easy for them (especially for what amounts to $4 USD), shall we?

4. Understand what you can’t bring in. 

I thought that the Taj Mahal had a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t bring in, but Chichen Itza is equally as intense. You can’t bring “professional camera equipment” (e.g., telephoto lenses over 300mm), gimbals, GoPros, drones, tripods, or Bluetooth speakers into the archeological site. After you purchase your tickets, a security guard will go through any bags you’re taking in and check.

We admittedly had some of these items in our backpack while entering (we weren’t going to use them!) and were not allowed to enter the site until we stowed the prohibited gear away in our car.

Carving at Chichen Itza, Meixco

While it wasn’t a huge deal for us since we had a car right there, it would be not so great to come here on a tour and be forced to store your super expensive camera gear in the onsite lockers (with pretty flimsy looking locks), in addition to forking over the $40 MXN for the locker rental.

5. Come prepared.

There’s some things that you should make sure are included on your Mexico packing list, which will make your experience visiting Chichen Itza that much more pleasant.

  • Comfortable walking shoes: We’ll chat about this more below, but Chichen Itza is so much more than the iconic pyramid, with the ruins spread across almost two square miles.
    Wear shoes you can walk in—Justin wore these Tevas hiking sandals for men all over the Yucatan and I wore the women’s hiking sandals equivalent during our trip.
  • Food and water: Food and water is pretty pricey here and, for being a massive tourist destination, pretty challenging to find when you’re actually exploring the ruins. Bring some snacks and LOTS of water (we both carry these comically enormous Nalgene bottles with us whenever we travel to save money on buying small plastic water bottles and to be kinder to the planet). 
  • Sunscreen and other sun protection. Piggybacking on the lots of water comment, it gets HOT here, y’all- most of the ruins are totally exposed to the sun, with little shade to hide in if you need a break. Bring along sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect that luscious skin of yours.
Man looking up the stairs at El Castillo in Chichen Itza

6. You can’t climb the pyramids.

While we all want to live out our best Indiana Jones life, you unfortunately can’t climb on any of the pyramids in Chichen Itza for preservation purposes.

If you’re really hellbent on climbing on Mayan ruins, there’s plenty to choose from around the Yucatan Peninsula, including the Coba Ruins near Tulum and Uxmal near Merida.

Woman twirling in front of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Mexico

7. Wander around the whole site.

The area around the main pyramid, El Castillo, and some of the surrounding buildings indeed get quite crowded throughout the day. This area is known as the Great North Platform and contains the majority of the most famous ruins at the site, like the Great Ball Court or the Temple of the Warriors (which we’ll talk about a bit more further below).

But there’s also a cluster of buildings to the south of this area, which you can access through a pathway in the Plaza of a Thousand Columns (more on that later, but if you’re trying to find it, keep an eye out for, well, a whole bunch of columns). 

Woman looking at Plaza of a Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza

This area, known as the Osario, is home to some of the most interesting buildings in Chichen Itza, including a Mayan astronomical observatory, and sees just a tiny fraction of the visitors as the Great North Platform. When Justin and I wandered over to this area, we had about seven of the ruins totally to ourselves!

8. Be prepared for vendors.

Visiting Chichen Itza and learning all about the amazing Mayans is cool and all, but there is one pretty large drawback—the vendors here are INTENSE. 

Selling everything from skulls to t-shirts, figurines, and hats, they are packed along most of the walkways and will aggressively and insistently ask you to buy whatever they’re peddling. Prepare your ears to be constantly barraged by the sound of a wailing cat, a sound generated by a “jaguar whistle” sold by a lot of the vendors. And yes, it’s exactly as annoying as it sounds. 

While I was there, I kinda wish I had brought my noise canceling earbuds along to block out all of the chaos—and if you’re particularly sensitive to noise, I might suggest you actually do so.

Things to Do When Visiting Chichen Itza

Wondering what’re the best things to do in Chichen Itza? Well, with more than 20 buildings spread over approximately two square miles, there’s a LOT to see with just one day at the site, especially if you just have a few hours. 

So, after visiting every single one of its many buildings, I’m highlighting the 9 most interesting sites to see whilst visiting Chichen Itza. 

1. Temple of Kukulkan (El Castillo)

El Castillo is the iconic pyramid that most visitors think of when they hear “Chichen Itza.” This 98-foot tall structure served as a temple for Kukulkan, a Mayan feathered serpent god, which is depicted in the carvings stretching down the temple’s stairs.

Couple sitting in front of El Catsillo in Chichen Itza, Mexico

I’m sure I’m not alone in loving the more mystical aspects of the Mayans and El Castillo is FULL of little mystical nuggets. 

Like, for example, each of the four sides of the pyramid have 91 steps that add up to 365 for each of the days of the year. 

Or how, at the fall and spring equinox, the light from the setting sun makes it look like the snake sculptures running down the stairs are undulating (thousands of visitors flock to Chichen Itza to see this spectacle each year!). 

Snake balustrades at El Castillo in Mexico

Or like, how, if you stand at a certain spot at the base of the pyramid’s stairs and clap, you’ll hear a chirping echo. This may have been engineered by the Mayans to mimic the resplendent quetzal, which was considered to be a sacred bird. Pretty nifty pyramid, eh?

2. Great Ball Court (Gran Huego de Pelota)

Besides El Castillo, the Great Ball Court, one of the largest ancient ball courts on the planet, may be the most famous aspect of Chichen Itza. 

Here, the Mayans played pok-a-tok, which is sort of (but not really) like a combination of soccer and basketball. Players would use their hips, thighs, knees, and elbows to hit a heavy rubber ball through a hoop, poised 20 feet in the air. The consequences of pok-a-tok were a bit more dire than a good ol’ b-ball game, though- it’s believed that the captain of the losing team would often be beheaded.

Great Ball Court in Chichen Itza, Mexico

Beyond the more grizzly components of the stadium, there’s also cool engineering aspects, too—like the fact that if you whisper on one side of the stadium, it can easily be heard over 500 feet across the court.

3. Temple of the Bearded Man

Sitting on the north end of the Ball Court, the Temple of the Bearded Man is so named because, well, there’s a strange bearded man carved into it. 

It’s mostly notable for having distinct architectural details from most of the other buildings at Chichen Itza—sloping sides and vertical walls. These details may have been borrowed from other ancient Mayan cities, like Xochicalco, in Mexico’s western state of Morelos.

4. Platform of the Skulls (Tzompantli)

If you’re into the more, er, macabre side of Chichen Itza, you may find this platform interesting. Located to the right of the Temple of the Bearded Man, the platform is carved with several rows of skulls and was used to display the heads of enemies killed in war and sacrificial victims, including those who lost pok-a-tok.

5. Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado)

The Sacred Cenote, an enormous limestone filled with green water, is up there with one of the most famous sites at Chichen Itza. 

The Mayans believed that certain cenotes, including the Sacred Cenote, were portals to the underworld. They deposited many valuables, like gold and jade, into its waters and later, human sacrifices, as a form of sacrifice to Chaac, the Mayan god of rain, thunder, and lightning. Most of the victims were male children (between the ages of 6-12), although warriors and women were also thrown into the cenote as well.

There were several platforms built over the cenote–two where observers of the offerings likely sat and another where the offerings were made. There’s also ruins of a small building on the edge of the cenote, which was used as a steam bath for the victims’ purification before they were sacrificed.

I’m not sure you’d really want to, due to the color of the water and, well, the whole human sacrifices thing, but you’re not permitted to swim in the cenote.

6. Temple of Warriors

This temple was one of the last ones built at Chichen Itza and one of the most impressive, likely being used to hold really large gatherings in the city’s heyday. The central temple is carved with bas-reliefs fitting of the Temple of Warriors, including eagles, soldiers, and jaguars eating human hearts (pretty intense, if you ask me!).

Temple of the Warrior in Chichen Itza

At the top of the staircase leading up the temple is a Chac Mool statue, a reclining figure with a plate on its stomach, that was believed to be a messenger of the gods. It’s speculated that the hearts of the Mayans’ enemies may have been placed on this plate as a spectacle for the surrounding crowds.

7. Plaza of a Thousand Columns

Not everything is plates of hearts and human sacrifices at Chichen Itza, like, for example, the Plaza of a Thousand Columns. So named for the 200 or so stone columns, scattered across the ground, the columns once supported a roof and a frieze (a thin decorative panel, usually directly below the roof), which has since collapsed. The frieze depicted masks of Chaac and round shields. 

Man looking at the Plaza of a Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza

This building was used as a meeting hall, likely for military and religious purposes. 

8. Cenote Xtoloc

Cenote Xtoloc is smaller and has a much less dramatic function than the Sacred Cenote, but certainly no less important—it was the town’s fresh water source and, at the height of its population, was surrounded by storage tanks to provide water to the city’s inhabitants. 

Same as the Sacred Cenote, you can’t swim in Xtoloc, but there’s plenty of awesome cenotes near Chichen Itza to cool off once you’re done exploring, like one of our favorites, Cenote Yokdzonot, or Cenote Ik Kil.

Cenote Xtoloc in Chichen Itza

9. Mayan Observatory at El Caracol

This is one of the only known round buildings constructed by the Mayans, which is believed to have been used as an astronomical observatory through the openings in the top of its 75-foot tall tower. 

The Mayans studied the sun, moon, planets, and other stars and had an impressive understanding of astronomy. The priests, who are believed to have also served as the astronomers of the time, accurately calculated astronomical events like solar and lunar eclipses, the solar year, and the movement of the stars and planets. 

Their study of astronomy was closely linked with their spiritual beliefs and their understanding of how the universe was formed.

How to Get to Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is located right outside the small town of Pisté in the Yucatan Peninsula. The site is located a few hours from some of the most popular destinations in the Yucatan, like Tulum or Cancun, but, given its popularity with visitors, it’s a breeze to get to.

Many visitors simply take day-trips from wherever they’re staying in the Yucatan peninsula- I’ve outlined below how to get from the most popular destinations in the area to Chichen Itza.

Alternatively, many folks decide to head to the closest large-ish city, Valladolid, to spend the night before heading to Chichen Itza the next morning. 

Sign for Valladolid in front of the Convento de San Bernadino de Siena

This is what Justin and I did when visiting Chichen Itza and I highly recommend it!

Valladolid is a charming city, with colorful colonial architecture and cool sites, like Cenote Suytun and Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, to explore. If you’re going this route, consider staying at Hotel Posada San Juan, a hotel housed in a charming 19th century colonial house, complete with a pool to cool off under the hot Mexican sun and a beautiful garden.

Don’t have time for an overnight stay? Not to worry- here’s how to get to Chichen Itza from all over the Yucatan.

Note: I’ve listed all of the times for the buses at the time I’m writing this, but they’re obviously subject to change. Be sure to check the bus schedule before you head out on your trip to make sure nothing has been updated!

Valladolid to Chichen Itza

  • Car: If you happen to have a rental car (which you should so that you can go on a Yucatan road trip!), Chichen Itza is just 44 minutes west of Valladolid.
  • Tour: If you don’t have a car, the easiest way to get to see this ancient Mayan city is to join one of the many incredible Chichen Itza tours to choose from- plus you’ll have the benefit of having a knowledgeable guide with you!

    On this tour from Valladolid, you’ll be guided around Chichen Itza, Cenote Yokdzonot (one of my favorite cenotes in Mexico!), and the yellow city of Izamal by a knowledgeable and multilingual guide.
  • Bus: One of the best things about staying in Valladolid is that you’re able to easily get to Chichen Itza, even via public transit!

    Here, you can either take a colectivo, which leaves almost every hour starting at 7 AM, or a more cushy ADO bus, which leaves around 11:30 AM every day. Both of these options leave from the ADO bus station in Valladolid.

    Colectivos return from Chichen Itza to Valladolid approximately once an hour, whereas ADO buses return to Valladolid from Chichen Itza at 1:55 PM and 3 PM.
Crowded street in colorful street in Valladolid, Mexico

Merida to Chichen Itza

  • Car: Chichen Itza is one hour and 45 minutes east of Merida by car.
  • Tour: There’s several tour options from Merida.

    Consider this small group tour, which stops at Chichen Itza, a local’s house for lunch AND to enjoy their private cenote, and the town of Izamal, all with a knowledgeable and friendly guide.

    Alternatively, this tour stops at Izamal, Chichen Itza, and Cenote Yokdzonot, which you’ll explore on your own.
  • Bus: You can take the ADO bus from Merida to Chichen Itza, which departs three times a day (7:15 am, 9:30 am, and 12 pm). You can catch the ADO bus back to Merida at 5:10 PM.
Ornate building in Merida, Mexico

Tulum to Chichen Itza

  • Car: Chichen Itza is two hours and 15 minutes northwest of Tulum.
  • Tour: There’s plenty of Chichen Itza tours from Tulum, like this tour, which includes a guided tour of Chichen Itza, some time to explore Valladolid, and a visit to a quiet and community-run cenote.

    This tour from Tulum offers a tour of Chichen Itza with a knowledgeable guide, plus a stop in Valladolid and the stunning Cenote Xux Ha.
  • Bus: There’s an ADO bus that departs at 9:10 AM from Tulum and departs from Chichen Itza around 4:10 pm.
Sculpture in Tulum, Mexico

Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza

  • Car: Chichen Itza is two and half hours west of Playa del Carmen.
  • Tour: There’s a number of awesome Chichen Itza tours from Playa del Carmen.

    For examples, on this private tour, you’ll get to personalize your itinerary and take a dip in an off-the-beaten path cenote.

    Alternatively, if you’re a history buff, consider booking this tour, where you’ll see both Chichen Itza and Ek Balam (another ruins site where you can actually climb the pyramids!) and cool off afterward in a cenote.
  • Bus: There’s one ADO bus that departs from Playa del Carmen at 8:10 AM and departs from Chichen Itza at 4 pm.

Cancun to Chichen Itza

  • Car: Chichen Itza is two hours and 40 minutes west of Cancun by car.
  • Tour: Honestly, the further out you get, the more I’d recommend taking a tour. For example, if you go on any of the Chichen Itza tours from Cancun, you can take a nap on the bus, watch a movie, whatever- and not have to worry about driving almost six hours roundtrip in one day.
    This tour from Cancun stops at Chichen Itza (with the first hour being a guided tour), the beautiful Cenote Samaal, and Valladolid. Not a fan of group tours? This private tour allows you to customize your itinerary, from when you want to get to Chichen Itza to selecting from a variety of cenotes and even comes with beer on your air-conditioned transport vehicle.
  • Bus: The ADO bus departs from Cancun at 8:45 AM and returns to Cancun at 4:30 PM.
Aerial view over hotels and the beach in Cancun, Mexico

Do You Need to Go With a Tour when Visiting Chichen Itza?

This is probably obvious from above, but no, you don’t need to go on a tour of Chichen Itza. 

While you’re welcome to visit Chichen Itza on your own, you’ll have to figure out your own transportation and, more importantly, won’t get a lot of the historical and cultural context that a knowledgeable guide can provide (and, cough, you’ll be bugged by vendors more).

On the other hand, if you choose to explore on your own, you’ll have complete flexibility as to when you get to Chichen Itza, as well as what sites you want to hit. 

There’s so many interesting things to know about the Mayans that I’d personally recommend going on one of the many awesome Chichen Itza tours that are available, but if you can’t swing it, visiting Chichen Itza on your own is still definitely worth it! 

Phew, I hope you feel primed and ready for visiting Chichen Itza. Is there anything else you have questions about? Let me know in the comments below!

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