Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza is one of the best, archaeological treasures of Mexico. This time capsule of a once-dominate Mayan civilization is a must see when visiting the Yucatán Peninsula. Come see why it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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1 Introduction to Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza is among the most famous of the nearly 4,400 Mayan ruins across Mesoamerica. The former city with a peak population of 30,000 people began in the 7th century during the Late Classic period. Within three hundred years, it expanded to about 15 square miles although less than a third has been excavated. For the next 200 years, it was influenced by the Itza civilization until they were outcast in 1221 and the site was mostly abandoned. Despite its remote location on the Yucatán Peninsula about a 2.5 hour drive from Cancun, Chichen Itza is a major tourist attraction. One look at its iconic El Castillo shows why it is worthy of its designations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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2 Description of El Castillo at Chichen Itza, Mexico

El Castillo is a stepped-pyramid at the center of Chichen Itza’s Great Plaza. The massive, nine-tiered limestone structure measures 98.5 feet tall with a 180.5 foot base. The Castle (also called the Temple of Kukulcan) is an amazing pre-Columbian structure of design, engineering and workmanship for its construction in the 9th to the 12th centuries. Since 2006, visitors can no longer climb the staircases of El Castillo. Tourists are similarly roped off from the other 30 buildings at this archaeological site.

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3 El Castillo Northern Staircase at Chichen Itza, Mexico

El Castillo has a staircase on each side featuring 91 steps. On top is the 365th step, representing the days of the year. The Mayan’s mastery of astrology also influenced the pyramid’s design. During the spring and winter equinox, a 37 yard long shadow of a snake travels along the stairs as the sun moves throughout the day. At the base of the Northern Staircase are two carvings of a feathered serpent. They represent Kukulkan, the serpent god and the most important Mayan deity.

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4 Temples of the Jaguar at Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Temples of the Jaguar towers over the eastern wall of the Great Ballcourt. From the elevated position on the second level, the Mayan ruler and his guests could watch the ball game. The court was also used for major ceremonies, celebrations and inaugurations. The Jaguar name is significant. In the Mayan culture, the big cat represented strength and ferocity. This deity of the underworld also controlled night and day.

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5 Lower Temple of the Jaguar Bas-relief at Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, Mexico

At the base of the Temple of the Jaguars is a throne to the big feline, the second most important religious figure in the Mayan civilization. The jaguar was revered as a symbol of leadership and war. Surrounding the throne are columns with elegant bas-reliefs such as this one featuring a warrior, serpents and an anthropomorphic bird-snake deity at the bottom.

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6 Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Mayans loved their ball games for nearly three millenniums. It has several names including pitz, pok-a-tok, Mesoamerican ballgame or simply Maya ball. The Aztecs called it ōllamalizti. The sport was a blend of athletic endurance (games could last two weeks) with religious overtones and human sacrifice. Chichen Itza has 17 courts. This was the biggest with parallel walls measuring over 500 feet long. The Great Ballcourt is also the largest of more than 1,300 Mesoamerican ball courts uncovered in central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and three more neighboring countries. It was constructed in 864 AD.

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7 Great Ballcourt Stone Ring at Chichen Itza, Mexico

On both sides of the Great Ballcourt is a stone ring decorated with a bas-relief of a serpent. The object of the sport (pitz) was to score by sending a rubber ball through this hoop. This rarely happened for several reasons. The ball weighed up to nine pounds and was typically 10 to 12 inches in diameter, nearly the size of the opening. The ring was attached to the masonry apron at a height of 20 feet. The two teams of up to six players each were immensely competitive. Most challenging of all: the athletics could not use their hands. Instead, they used their hips to forward the ball. Above the ring is a small temple. The two at the Great Ballcourt are dedicated to the sun and the moon.

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8 North Temple of Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, Mexico

At either end of the I-shaped Great Ballcourt are temples. The southern one is in ruins. The Northern Temple typically represented the heavens. This is also referred to as the Temple of the Bearded Man because of a relief inside showing a figure with facial hair, a rarity among Mesoamerican archeological sites. The purpose of this three-tiered masonry building is uncertain. Some experts believe it was the ruler’s viewing platform during important ceremonies. From this position, the acoustics from the ballcourt are so excellent you can hear someone speak at the far end of the alley.

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9 Wall of Skulls along El Tzompantli at Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Mayan civilization – especially at Chichen Itza – practiced human sacrifice as a gift of blood to the deities. There are several carvings depicting this religious practice. For example, a long frieze at the Great Ballcourt depicts beheading and disembowelment presumably of athletics. According to legend, the captain of the winning team was often killed as a reward, resulting in his immediate ascension into heaven. High ranking political and war prisoners were also murdered by various means. The most gruesome evidence is the Wall of Skulls. El Tzompantli was the platform where impaled heads were horizontally displayed.

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10 Eagles Holding Heart Carvings along El Tzompantli at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Additional carvings at El Tzompantli depict this Mayan warrior clutching a quiver of arrows and a club tipped with an obsidian (volcanic glass) blade. He is surrounded by images of serpents and flanked by two eagles. Each giant bird is clutching a human heart. Heart extraction was a common form of human sacrifice from 900 – 1524 AD. The eagle was the ruler of the sky and represented authority, control and wisdom.

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11 Eagles and Jaguars Platform at Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Platform of Eagles and Jaguars is adorned with four serpent sculptures at the corners plus elaborate carvings along the base. The eagles represent the Eagle Knights, a group of elite Mayan archers. The jaguars are a tribute to the Jaguar Knights. They were highly-skilled and aggressive soldiers noted for their fierce, hand-to-hand combat. The reclining figure is a chacmool, believed to symbolize a slain warrior offering sacrificial gifts to the gods. A similar statue was uncovered at the platform’s base in 1875 by Augustus Le Plongeon, one of fourteen found at Chichen Itza created between 800 – 900 AD. Archeologists estimate Platforma de las Aguilas y los Jaguares was built sometime between 900 – 1200 AD during the Early Postclassic period.

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12 Platform of Venus at Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Platform of Venus is another well-preserved, Toltec style structure in the Great Plaza nearest to El Castile. At the corners of the four staircases are the familiar statues of serpent heads acting as guardians. Unlike the other buildings, the upper base of Platforma de Venus is round, presumably to stage dances or ceremonies. Archeologists believe the Mayans at Chichen Itza accurately calculated the 583.92 day cycle of Venus dating back to the early 10th century during the Terminal Classic period. They then used the planet’s rotation to schedule certain rituals. There is an additional Venus Platform near the Tomb of the High Priest (Ossuary).

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13 Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Templo de los Guerreros was built upon the site of a previous temple honoring chacmool, a reclining warrior found only at Chichen Itza and at Tula, the former Toltec civilization capital about 750 miles away near present-day Mexico City. A statue of chacmool – considered to be a messenger of the gods – rests atop the three-level stepped pyramid. Among the fascinating features are 200 square columns with carvings portraying Toltec warriors. Also notice the sculptures perched on either side of the staircase standing above the feathered serpent heads. They were used as flag bearers. The massive Temple of the Warriors dates from the Early Postclassic period (950 – 1200 AD).

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14 Hall of the Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Adjacent to the Temple of the Warriors is the Hall of the Thousand Columns. Grupo de las Mil Columnas is considered to be a former residence complex for the social and governmental elite. The colonnades define a large square plaza with the ruins of council halls, temples and a ball court.

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15 Northern Colonnade at Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Northern Colonnade is the most beautiful part of the Thousand Columns Plaza. The well-preserved round and square columns topped with square capitals stretch for almost 600 feet. Inside was an altar fronted by a long bench. The wall runs parallel to the Temple of the Warriors. A keen eye will spot what seem to be elephant trunks at the edges. These sculptures represent Chaak, the Mayan god of rain and lightning.

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16 Southeastern Colonnade at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Columnata Sureste is located among the buildings in the Great Northern Platform wedged between the Thousand Columns and the Steam Bath. The round, tiered columns capped with square stones once supported a large structure covered with a vaulted ceiling. The original purpose of the Southeastern Colonnade’s seven rooms has not been identified.

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17 The Market at Chichen Itza, Mexico

These wide stairs lead to a 250 foot long plaza formally covered by a roof suspended by columns. The space also has a sunken courtyard and temple ruins. The Spanish named this Toltec structure El Mercado. However, archeologists are not convinced it served as a marketplace when constructed between 900 – 1200 AD (Early Postclassic period).

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18 Steam Bath at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza is hot all year with an average temperature of 79° F in January and December and typically in the mid-80s to low 90s during the summer. So it is surprising the Mayan’s needed a sauna. But this building is an ancient steam bath. Its small size required a person to crawl in order to get inside. They were used as part of a ritual cleansing. Other steam baths are located at Chichen Itza.

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19 El Castillo Upper Terrace at Chichen Itza, Mexico

At Chichen Itza, all roads (called sacbe in Mayan meaning white way) lead back to El Castillo. So after admiring each set of buildings, you find yourself back in the center of the Great Plaza for another look at El Castillo. This time examine the Upper Temple. This top terrace has four doors and, as the tallest structure in the former Mayan city, was probably reserved for important religious ceremonies. Since excavation of Chichen Itza began in the mid-19th century, it was assumed El Castillo was filled with rubble. But in the mid-1930s, a team began digging down from the Upper Terrace and discovered an inner temple containing statues and a Jaguar Throne.

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20 The Ossuary at Chichen Itza, Mexico

South of the Great North Platform buildings is the Ossario Group. The namesake is this step pyramid called The Ossuary. Alternatively spelled Osario (burial place), its design is similar to El Castillo but it is considerably shorter at 29.5 feet. It was also called the Tomb of the High Priest (La Tumba del Gran Sacerdote) when archeologists discovered artifacts and seven skeletal remains at the bottom of a 39 foot deep, central cave during the late 19th century. Experts now dispute the tombs belonged to high priests.

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21 The Ossuary’s Eastern Staircase at Chichen Itza, Mexico

When The Ossuary was built between 900 – 1100 AD, it was designed with four staircases leading up to a sanctuary platform. The excellent condition of the eastern stairs shows the feathered serpents statues at the base and on top plus the carving of their coiled body ascending the masonry coping. Also notice the reliefs along the top three of the seven tiers.

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22 Snake Heads at The Ossuary at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Snake head sculptures are such a common visual at Chichen Itza – like these at the base of The Ossuary’s southern staircase – that they deserve more explanation. They represent Kukulkan, the Mayan snake god. He was known as the War Serpent (Waxaklahun Ubah Kan) during the Classic period (250 – 950 AD). Later he was referred to as the Vision Serpent and acted as a messenger between the ruler and the heavens. Belief of the deity began in Chichen Itza and then spread across Mesoamerica as a religious cult. Some experts believe the origin for the personified version of Kukulkan may represent a Chichen Itza ruler from the 10th century. According to folklore, Kukulkan was capable of flying across the earth and as high as the sun.

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23 Temple of the Wall Panels at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Most buildings at Chichen Itza were named by archeologists based on some unique characteristic they uncovered and not what they were called by the Mayans. The Temple of the Wall Panels is a good example. Its name was inspired by pictorial carvings along the south and north walls. They depict a battle among war captains who struggled for control of Chichen Itza. The reliefs also include images of plants and animals. It is assumed Templo de los Tableros Esculpidos was used for fire rituals.

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24 Red House Front Facade at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Most of the ancient buildings at Chichen Itza are devoid of color; only the limestone is exposed. But during the Mayan occupation, archeologists believe they were covered with painted plasterwork. This is how Casa Colorada (Spanish for Red House) got its name because traces of red were found on the façade. Alternatively, it is called Chichanchob meaning Little Holes, a reference to the perforated roof. Debate continues whether this Puuc style structure was built in the mid-9th century (Terminal Classic period) or around 600 AD during the Late Classic period.

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25 Red House Back Facade at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Inside of the Red House are a series of hieroglyphics (stylized pictographic script) listing the names of halach uinics (Mayan rulers). Therefore, this may have been the residence of the great lords or at least members of the social elite. The date of 869 AD was also found among the carvings, suggesting Casa Colorada was constructed then. The structure is part of a complex in the South Group including the House of the Deer (or Hunt) and the House of Metates.

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26 El Caracol at Chichen Itza, Mexico

El Caracol derived its name from its snail-like appearance. When built between 600 to 850 AD in the Late Classic period, the observatory’s base was aligned with the solstices and the path of Venus, considered to be the Great Star called Xux Ek. The 157.5 foot dome provided unobstructed views of the heavens which were divided into 13 layers. The movements of the sun (the prime giver of life), the moon (a female deity) and the constellations became essential to establishing the Mayan calendar, tracking time, planning for agriculture and scheduling of wars and major celebrations plus religious events. Mayan astrologists were called ilhuica tlamatilizmatini. This means “the wise man who studies heaven.” They were revered almost to the level of a priest.

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27 Nunnery Complex at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Grupo de las Monjas or Nunnery Complex is a collection of buildings at the southernmost part of Chichen Itza opened to tourists. This is the Nunnery Annex. Located nearby are The Nunnery (Chichen Itza’s oldest building from 600 AD) and Iglesias or church. They all bear the imagery and long-nosed masks of Chaak (the rain god) and Witz (representing hills and mountains). The Spanish named the Puuc-style structures because they resemblance convents in Spain. Archeologists doubt they were used for this purpose. More likely they were palaces for the wealthy or occupied by the Mayan council.

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28 Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza, Mexico

Although Chichen Itza is surprisingly more compact and walkable than many of Mexico’s famous Mayan sites, you should still plan for at least a three hour visit. And because it is extremely popular – attracting over 1.5 million visitors yearly – it is best to arrive close to the 8:00 a.m. opening to beat the crowds and heat. Another tip is to savor the view of El Castillo throughout the day as the sun illuminates its various sides. After sunset, you may want to stay for the spectacular, 30 minute light and sound show projected on the side of El Castillo.

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Ik-Kil Cenote near Chichen Itza, Mexico

Touring Chichen Itza all day is exhilarating but hot. Want a fast and fun way to cool down? Then make the 2.5 mile drive to KM marker 122 along Valladolid. It is thrilling to make a splash into this cool and refreshing water which is 130 feet deep. Ik-Kil is a cenote, a below ground cave exposed when the limestone collapsed. The Mayans believed these sacred wells were a portal to the underworld. Today, this 200 foot wide, vine-covered cavern is a popular tourist attraction.

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