Back in 2007 some organization no one ever heard of raised some money in the quest to bill a new “Seven Wonders of the World,” a noble undertaking, but what amounted to little more than a popularity contest with nations around the world vying to have their cultural treasures secure their place on the list in an effort to boost tourism revenues.
Earning one of these seven coveted spots was Chichen Itza, Mexico’s famed Mayan site located in the Yucatan peninsula not too far from Cancun. As ancient enthusiasts, seeing the site has long been on our list, and even though we’ve visited the Yucatan on multiple occasions, always with family or friends, we were never able to convince our party to make the drive out to see Chichen Itza. On our last trip we were alone, so there was no one to stop us from taking in this ancient world marvel. Did it live up to the hype? Read on to find out.
Where: 200km west of Cancun, 120km east of Mérida
Hours: 8am–4:30pm daily
Entrance fee: $254 pesos
Time: 2-3 hours
Most visitors to Chichen Itza come from Cancún, although it’s also an easy day trip from Mérida. If you’re staying in either place you’ll have no problem finding a tour company to go with. Many people come from cruise ports for the day on big buses. Our advice is to rent a car and make the safe and easy drive yourself, getting there before the rest of the crowds arrive. Just be ready with some pesos in hand for the toll road. We stopped in Chichen Itza on the drive from Cancún to Mérida and paid about $380 pesos. From Cancún it’s about a 2 hour drive.
Buses are also an option, with tickets costing about $260 pesos from Cancún.
Once you arrive and park you’ll queue for tickets, finding a theme-park like entrance that matches the popularity of the site. Be advised you’re actually paying both a state tax and federal tax when purchasing tickets. If you’re paying cash you’ll only need to make one transaction, but if you’re using a credit card you will have to make two. Take time to use the restroom facilities before heading on. You’ll follow a path lined with vendors before arriving at the central part of the site, with the imposing El Castillo in the center.
The Pyramid of Kulkulkan, or El Castillo as it’s known, is easily the most impressive part of the site. However, for us, after all the hype and waiting to finally visit Chichén Itzá, it was somewhat of a letdown. It was far smaller than we were expecting, no where near as imposing as the pyramids at Cobá or Uxmal. What sets El Castillo apart from those is its architectural stylings, owing to its later-era construction.
Two heads of the feathered serpent Kulkulkan are the base of each side of the main staircase to the top of the pyramid. Twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the setting sun casts the shadows of the pyramid steps on these bannisters giving the illusion of the serpent slithering down the pyramid. If you can time your visit during this event it would surely be a sight to see, but if not, the nightly sound and light show artificially recreates the phenomenon.
Most of the other noteworthy structures can be found around El Castillo. To the northwest is the Great Ball Court, for playing the Mayan ball game Pok-Ta-Pok, which was more like a religious ceremony than a spectator sport. The court here at Chichén Itzá is the largest found so far in Mesoamerica. East of El Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns.
If you’re a completionist and have enough time, follow the narrow path to the north for five minutes to reach the cenote which was an important ritual site for the inhabitants of Chichén Itzá. And a five minute walk south of El Castillo is another cluster of buildings including El Caracol, which was an astronomical observatory for the ancient Maya.
Chichén Itzá is no doubt a wonderful site, but it’s ascendency to claim a coveted spot as a “Wonder of the World” is curious, and no doubt the result of an effective marketing campaign. In my opinion, as far as pre-Columbian sites in Mexico go, the impressive metropolis of Teotihuacán is more deserving of the designation of Wonder of the World. If you enjoy visiting ancient sites then make the trip, but if you’re only casually curious then there are sites closer to Mérida and Cancún you could check out.
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