Visiting Chichen Itza
A visit to Chichen Itza is most likely on everyone’s schedule when staying on the Yucatan peninsular. Pretty much every tour company offers a trip to the world famous Mayan ruin-complex, which sadly has the downside that it can be very busy with busloads of people. Chichen Itza is the second most visited archeological sight in Mexico after the Aztec sites near Mexico City.
The Ruins of Ek Balam
We had seen the ruins of Ek Balam at the beginning of our stay in Valldolid, and loved climbing the pyramid there. We were aware that we would not be allowed to climb the Kulkulkan pyramid of Chichen Itza, but knew there would be plenty of other interesting ruins to see and explore.
Cenote Ik Kil
We had left hotel Zentik Project in Valladolid early that morning and driven past the beautiful church of Uyama, which I documented here. En route from this pretty village we decided to stop for a quick swim in the Cenote Ik Kil next to Chichen Itza. We probably should have known better, but we assumed as we would be one of the early people to get there it would still be fairly quiet and peaceful for our swim in the cenote. Thankfully there were no big buses or other cars in the parking lot when we arrived. The cenote is set in the grounds of a hotel with the rooms arranged a bit like an American motel. It would be our kind of nightmare to stay in the hotel, with all the people going to the cenote walking past the room, but I guess it has the advantage of literally being next to the ruins. Besides this issue, to get to the cenote you are forced to go through a big shop selling all kinds of souvenirs, and pay a fairly steep fee compared to other cenotes.
A Tourist Trap
The cenote itself is quite beautiful, but has been made into a proper tourist sight with showers, changing rooms and lockers, some people would appreciate these features but not us. It almost felt like a tourist trap…
Swimming in the Cenote
We changed, rinsed off and made our way down the slippery wet steps to the cenote. The area around the cenote cave has been concreted in and they have built a platform on one side for brave visitors to jump into the cold water. We went into the cold dark water for a brief swim, but already there were plenty of people blocking the steps to get in and out of the water. I cannot imagine what it would be like later in the day, as we left after our swim we noticed at least ten buses had arrived. The other annoying thing was that there were a lot of tourists just standing around to take photos of the cenote, which made the already small area even more crowded. Back upstairs we changed into our clothes again and moved on to Chichen Itza wishing we had missed out this particular attraction.
Car Parking at Chichen Itza
At Chichen Itza a few minutes drive away we parked our car in the large car park. It was already almost already completely full, apart for plenty of spaces for buses. We queued for about 15 minutes in the hot sun to buy our tickets; there is a discount for children under 12. When we walked onto the grounds of the archaeological ruins of Chichen Itza we were funnelled past souvenir stall after souvenir stall. Later on we would find out that along every path these stall were set up and the vendors would try to get you to buy their goods at every turning. I wish they would keep the vendors away from the ruins and or perhaps confine them to certain parts of the site, but I guess as I bought some dresses at two of the stalls I cannot complain too much about them here.
A Glimpse of El Castillo
The first thing we noticed once the trees opened up to a large open field was, the impressive Kulkulkan pyramid, also called El Castillo.
Chichen Itza dates back to 750 AD and started to decline as a regional centre around 1250 AD. It seems though that even when the Spanish arrived in 1526 there was still a thriving population of locals living in the area. It used to be the largest Mayan city on the Yucatan peninsular and just the main core covered about 5 square kilometres. Smaller residential buildings extend for an unknown amount into the depths of the jungle and remain to be excavated. The site has many fine buildings, grouped into sections, which were connected by paved causeways, called sacbés.
The Large Pyramid
The stepped El Castillo pyramid is set on the Great North Platform and stands about 30 meters high, with a six-meter high temple upon its summit. During excavations of the pyramid archaeologists discovered that another smaller pyramid sits underneath the one that can be seen today. This used to be quite common practice in Mesoamerican cultures and they believe further pyramids are nested like a Russian doll under that one. A statue of Chac Mool, one of the Mayan Gods, was found inside the temple’s throne room, which visitors were able to see until 2006. Today the pyramid is closed due to the high number of tourists visiting Chichen Itza every day causing too much wear. On each side of the huge stairways leading up to the throne room there are massive stone serpents heads and they look rather scary.
Temple of Warriors
We walked around to the left side of the pyramid and headed towards the Temple of Warriors and the Thousand Columns. On the backside of El Castillo we noticed it was left in its more ruined rugged state in comparison to the other three renovated sides. It was interesting to see how much cosmetic work had been done with concrete and mortar to make the pyramid look like they had originally.
Beyond the main pyramid is The Temple of Warriors where row upon row of carved stone columns surround another pyramid temple. The columns are meant to depict warriors. We strolled to the right hand side into the vastness of the thousand columns. Upon closer look we noticed that some columns had more intricately carved details than others, and some were made with several parts whilst others again were left to fall into disrepair and lying on the grounds of the site. I was sad you were not allowed to walk between the columns, as they were all now closed off to visitor access. Personally I found the columns more impressive and authentic than the main pyramid.
From here our route moved on towards El Mercado (marketplace), which was, as is now believed, probably used for ceremonial purposes rather than selling goods as originally guessed by the original explorers when the site was rediscovered. Next to the marketplace was the Xctoloc cenote, which was probably used to sacrifice people, as skeletons and personal items were discovered when divers explored the deep waters.
The Ossario Group
Behind the observatory we stumbled onto Las Monjas, a complex of building, which served as a government palace. Some of the buildings in this complex we found were decorated with elaborate masks and pictogram texts.
We strolled on to the Ossario Group, where we found another step pyramid, much like El Castillo but smaller in size, dominating the site. Again we noticed the huge serpents heads at the bottom of the stairs, these appeared much larger in size compared to the serpents heads we saw at El Castillo. They guarded the graves of the high priests. We headed back towards the Great North Platform, past more souvenir stalls and eager vendors along all the paths.
The Sacred Cenote
Back at El Castillo we noticed that there were many more groups of visitors now standing around, they must have arrived after lunch. This did not bother us as we walked down the scabé road, gently downhill towards the largest cenote on the site. This sacred cenote, was much more impressive than the Xctoloc cenote being 60 meters in diameter and surrounded by sheer cliffs. Mayan’s would conduct sacrifices at the cenote during droughts and other critical times. Thousands of valuable objects, including gold, carved jade, pottery and human bones were found at the bottom when the site was excavated and support this theory.
Great North Platform
Back up on the Great North Platform we walked past the Venus dais, dedicated to planet Venus and the Tzompantil, skull platform. It was not difficult to work out where the latter platform got its name as its four sides are covered in rows of skulls, quite scary, but rather impressive.
The Great Ball Court
Our last site to visit (often the first for many people following the standard route) was the Great Ball Court. Here there is large field, the playing area between massive walls. On either side we could see sloping platforms where the balls bounced off, and above set up high in the centre were the carved rings that acted as goals. The court was eclosed by a temple at the far end. This ball court is the largest of the thirteen ball courts that have discovered in Chichen Itza, many more have been found over the other ruins. Archaeologists assume that the ball game changed over the years and that in some cases the loosing players were sacrificed. Along the walls of the ball court are stone reliefs; some include decapitations of the players, quiet gruesome to see.
Some Tips for Exploring with Kids
By now Jerome had enough of all the ancient buildings and Chris and I were happy to leave as we had seen all the significant sights. There were a few stands selling drinks but nowhere that had food and we did not want to eat in the touristy restaurant by the entrance.
I know Jerome felt a bit bored at times walking round Chichen Itza that day, but he was also curious about the history and life of the Mayan’s. Jerome was keen to know more about the ball courts and liked the observatory too. There were also some interesting birds to see in the trees and he liked the iguanas sunning themselves everywhere. Children with a curious mind will enjoy the visit but you may want to consider other smaller sites to whet the appetite of those with less of a concentration span. Alternatively perhaps a shorter visit to the main area combined with a trip to one of the nearby cenotes would make it a better experience for younger children. I would advise you to bring some food and drinks as there are not many places on site to get anything and especially in the heat of the day you need plenty of drinks to keep you going. Chichen Itza in general looked easy to get around with a pushchair as it is all flat but it might be a bit bumpy at times, so a backpack child carrier might be the preferable choice for babies/toddlers. Another tip is to visit as early as possible in the day to beat the crowds and perhaps avoid some of the later arriving pestering souvenir merchants.
For a late lunch I had seen a restaurant on google maps not too far away with high ratings by local people, and we got there after a short 10km drive. The restaurant was part of cenote Yokdzonot and was in a little village with lots of original Mayan houses. The restaurant had a selection of Yucatan and Mexican dishes and the food was delicious deserving the high rating.
Swimming in the Cenote
After our lazy lunch we naturally all wanted to take a dip in the cool waters of this beautiful cenote. It was a huge contrast to the fake touristic complex we had encountered in the morning, having been left almost completely natural with just a wooden access way and some stone steps down to the water. We had the cenote completely to ourselves, which was also a contrast to the experience of that morning. The guard told us that the water of the cenote changed colours depending on the season. We really enjoyed our swim here and there were lots of catfish swimming with us in the turquoise water. The sun through the greenery overhead gave the whole place a mystic feeling. I am almost reluctant to recommend this magical place so if you do visit please do respect it.
We then drove on to Merida our next stop.