Confession: We almost went all the way to Mexico and didn’t stop at the most famous ruins, Chichen Itza, in the country. Ranked as the largest Maya city, this place is massive, but very walkable. Interest bloomed in ancient ruins around 2012 when, you know, everyone lost their minds about the catastrophic, world-ending Mayan prediction.
Though the world did not cease to exist, it pumped a ton of money into maintaining and restoring some of the Mayan ruins. Out of all the Mayan settlements, Chichen Itza is the largest and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. Postcards of the ruins grace every souvenir shop in the Yucatán province. Really though, you can’t miss it.
Chichen Itza has stood strong for over 1,000 years, serving as a center of pilgrimage for the ancient Maya and eventual arrival of the Toltec people. This ultimately led to a fusion between the two cultures, evident in the structures they created.
Excavations began just over a 100 years ago and in 1988 it was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 2000, Chichen Itza was also named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
What to Expect
Open 365 days a year and easily accessible by car or bus, I don’t want to hear any excuses.
We visited the three main ruins within a few hour’s drive of Cancun and while I found the jungle Coba ruins to be impressive in size and the Tulum ruins scenic by the ocean, Chichen Itza is on their own level. You can’t help but wonder how and why some of these structures were created. Nor the fact they used to sacrifice people in the cenote on site (which is worth the 5 minute walk by the way, plus there’s bathrooms and ice cream at the end.)
It can get a little hard to fully appreciate when you’re surrounded by other tourists and vendors, but if you’re early enough, you may just have time to picture yourself climbing the steps to the Pyramid of Kukulcan (which, as of 2006 you can no longer do unfortunately.)
Key Spots To Check Out While Visiting Chichen Itza:
Pyramid of KukulcanBall CourtTemple of a Thousand Warriors Pillars
I kid you not, this is single-handedly THE most important piece of advice I could give. You may be cranky at having to get up at the crack of dawn, but you’ll thank me later when your photos are mostly devoid of tourists and you didn’t suffer through 2-3 hours of aggressive vendors. These guys start to set up around 10 am and by noon, they are in full force, whistling to attempt to flag you down as you walk from building to building. It’s possibly one of the worst parts of visiting Chichen Itza.
Whether you buy it at the gate, or stuff it into a purse beforehand, definitely don’t forget to drink up. Most of the buildings are out in the open upon the wide and flat plane of grass where there is zero shade. Especially if you’re going to ignore my tip above. If you get there after 11 am, be ready to roast. Also, don’t forget that sunscreen!
Throw on those sneakers.
Because the ruins are spread out on a site of 5 square kilometers and there are a ton of interesting buildings to explore, I recommend wearing walking shoes or at least something relatively comfortable. The terrain is all flat and easy to get around on, but you can easily kill 1-3 hours with all the exploring you’re bound to do.
You may want to splurge on a tour.
I know, I know, it’s not your thing. We personally didn’t go on one, but I can definitely see the appeal. Not a lot of the ruins are well-labeled; dusty plaques by the base of some of the buildings give a bit of information. But if you’re looking to fully immerse yourself, this may not be enough. See if there are any other English-speaking (or whichever language you’re comfortable with) tourists looking to split the cost of a tour to make it worth it for everyone.
While you’re in the area..
Check out (or even stay a night or two) in Valladolid. It’s a great little city to explore and get away from all the built-up nature of of Cancun / Playa Del Carmen. Located in the middle of Chichen Itza and Cancun (about an hour and a half from both), it’s a great midway point where we ended up grabbing lunch and touring a little tequila distillery.
We found visiting Chichen Itza to be one of the most memorable parts of our family trip and definitely recommend adding it to the list. For those exploring Mexico for the first time or hundreth, it’s a short car ride away from Cancun and worth the time it takes to travel over. We found the roads to be drive-able, the directions easy to follow, had no pressing concerns regarding safety in Chichen Itza as well as the Yucatán peninsula in general.