Does this ancient & famous pyramid look familiar?  It’s one of the most famous pyramids in Mexico.  For those who travel to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, this iconic structure tops many sight-seeing lists.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, Chichen Itza was one of the most important cities in the ancient Mayan Empire.  We recently took a trip to the beautiful Yucatan and wanted to discover the famous El Castillo Chichen Itza for ourselves.  Here are some of our tips for planning a great trip to Chichen Itza!

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Morning time at Chichen Itza

Where is Chichen Itza?

You may have seen photos of El Castillo, but you may still be wondering “Where is Chichen Itza?”  Chichen Itza is located only a couple hours from popular spots in the Yucatan, such as Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Merida, Chichen Itza Mexico and is easily accessible.

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You can take guided Chichen Itza tours from any of these major cities, public transportation (buses are available) or you may opt to rent a car in Cancun and explore on your own.  I had visited this site over 10 years ago, on a typical guided tour of Chichen Itza from the resort in Cancun.  And while there are many things to do in Cancun and the nearby areas, a trip to this iconic Mayan ruins in Mexico is a must for most visitors.

It was a great excursion for my brother and I so long ago, but I was really looking forward to my most recent trip with my new travel partner, Liz, because we were planning to drive around this part of Mexico and explore the area on our own.

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Chichen Itza is located west of Cancun, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Overview – Chichen Itza Facts

A ceremonial city, Chichen Itza’s height was between the 11th and 13th centuries.  As with many of the Mayan ruins and pyramids in Mexico, this once thriving community of the Mayan people was lost to the jungle for centuries, and archaeologists are still uncovering mysteries surrounding many of the structures.  The Maya were skilled farmers and developed a sophisticated written language.  They also had a defined social-class system and were heavily involved in trade throughout Central America with their network of cities.

The Maya also had a firm grasp of mathematics and astronomy.  In fact, many of their structures were built to monitor the movements of the Sun, Moon, and Venus in the sky; helping them to create a calendar and identify the planting and harvesting seasons.

The Maya could also be pretty brutal by modern standards.  They sacrificed animals and humans and threw them into Cenotes (sinkholes of water) to appease the gods, because they believed the Cenotes were the entrance to the underworld.  They are also famous for their Ball Game, varying sized courts are found in many different ancient Mayan Cities; the one at Chichen Itza is the biggest.

Spectators would fill the stands while teams would handle a ball, using their hips rather than their hands, to propel the ball up through high stone rings.  The losing team had to offer one of their players to the winning team, to be sacrificed!

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The Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza. Battle to the death!

Enhance Your Visit to Chichen Itza with Private Guides, Guidebooks & Audio Guides

Even if you aren’t a history buff, when visiting a site such as Chichen Itza it is helpful to know a bit about what you are looking at;  it adds a lot to your experience.  There are plenty of locals who will offer to take you on a guided Chichen Itza tour, in fact, our resort offered tour guides to us for a fee.  If you prefer a digital guide, you can download a variety of audio guides online to your mobile device.  This way you can explore at your pace, and it’s an economical alternative.

We chose to purchase a souvenir guide book from our amazing on-site Chichen Itza hotel.  It was simple and concise, while including some maps and photos.  We referred to the book as we explored the grounds, and it helped to give us some background about what we were looking at, as well as some history and insight into the life of the ancient Maya.  Overall, we were able to explore all of the site in about 3 hours, finishing before the major heat of the day.

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El Castillo Chichen Itza all to ourselves! The famous pyramids of Mexico

Benefits to Staying on Property at Chichen Itza Mexico

To maximize our visit (and spend some time relaxing in the area as opposed to driving back and forth in a single day) we chose to stay at the Mayaland Resort, which is located on the same property as the ancient Chichen Itza Mayan ruins.  It is actually one of the only resorts in the world that share property with an archeological site.  We arrived in the evening and after getting settled into this luxury hacienda-style resort, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner among the palms and spanish decor, while planning our next day of exploring the ruins.

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From the Mayaland Resort, Liz gazes out tower Chichen Itza’s “Observatory” – where they monitored the movements of Venus

The great thing about staying on property at Chichen Itza Mexico is that we didn’t have to drive or walk far from where we were staying to get to the ruins.  In fact, we could actually see the ruins from our rooms!  Yes it is pretty amazing.  While at dinner our waiter suggested that we arrive early to the ruins (as soon as they opened) so we could explore before the crowds & tour buses arrived from the Cancun resorts.  We took him up on his advice, and we are so glad we did!

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The sacred Jaguar of Chichen Itza

Arrive Early & Have the Most Famous Pyramids in Mexico all to Yourself!

We woke up early the next day to have some breakfast before heading into the grounds of Chichen Itza.  It was a short 3 minute walk across the resort property to their private entrance to the ruins.  We stopped to purchase our tickets (no line) and strolled right in.

Visiting Chichen Itza Mexico in the morning not only gives you a chance to explore before the crowds, but it allows you to beat the afternoon heat (although it will still be quite hot!).  So make sure that you bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and even a little shade.  There are a couple of places near the ruins where you can duck under a tree to get out of the sun, but when it’s full of afternoon tourists, it can be tough to find a spot under the trees.  For a price, there are a few local vendors more than willing to sell you a cold beverage if you need.

Arriving early before the tour groups was one of the smartest things we could have done.  We had the ruins all to ourselves for close to 2 hours.  So we had the best opportunity to take some great photos of Chichen Itza without crowds of people in the way.   It was amazing to be able to gaze up at the famous El Castillo Chichen Itza pyramid in Mexico and take photos…without hardly anyone around!

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Getting out of the sun at Chichen Itza Mexico

Vendors, Vendors, Vendors!

Be prepared for the massive volume of local vendors on Chichen Itza property.  Because we arrived so early in the morning and the peak visitors hadn’t arrived yet, most vendors were still setting up and did not bother us to much; so we were able to have a pretty quiet morning exploring.  But once the tour buses started arriving, the vendors become quite vocal to get your attention…and they are persistent!  If you are not interested, just smile and say “no thank you” (or “no gracias”) and keep moving.

If you do see something that you might want to take home to remember your visit, be sure to negotiate with vendors (politely of course).  Do not take the first offer.  You will find a lot of the typical tourist merchandise here, but you may also find a couple of gems, and actually see the vendors carving the beautiful traditional art themselves.

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We got in early so all the vendors were not set up yet.

Explore the Area Beyond Chichen Itza Mexico

There are plenty of other things to do in the area near Chichen Itza Mexico, so we highly recommend staying a night or two so that you can explore beyond the archaeological site.  During our trip, we explored Chichen Itza in the morning and still had plenty of time in the afternoon to go swimming & cool off in one of the many nearby cenotes (underground pools), such as Ik Kil.  

Of all the Mayan ruins in Mexico, Chichen Itza is a must do for all travelers to the Yucatan – especially if you want to check out one of the most famous pyramids in Mexico.  Following these tips will help you to enjoy your visit while getting the most out of your time, as well as having some time for relaxation in the beautiful Mayan jungle.

Want more information about planning a trip to Cancun, the Yucatan, or Riviera Maya regions of Mexico?  Be sure to check out our complete Yucatan Travel Guide!

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Additional Resources to Plan Your Visit to Chichen Itza Mexico & the Yucatan

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Plan Your Trip - SBNow that you have the details about visiting Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, it’s time to start planning your trip!

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