The Seven Wonders of the World are amazing. What’s also amazing is when you can check one of them off your travel bucket list. I hadn’t given much thought to Chichen Itza in the past, but now that I’ve been, I totally get it, and definitely recommend you visit if you get the chance. This guide to Chichen Itza, Mexico will help you plan your visit.
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Such an impressive place. Like every beautiful sight in the world, photos do it no justice.
Dear Mayans: how did you build these incredible temples back then?! Inquiring minds want to know.
97% of photos you see of Chichen Itza are of the eye catching El Castillo – better known as the Temple of Kukulcan – and for good reason, it’s an impressive (and huge!) temple. But still, there’s so much more to Chichen Itza than just this one temple.
Don’t assume you’ll pull up, snap a photo in front of the Temple of Kukulcan, and be one your way in ten minutes. There are many other ruins, temples, and even sacred cenotes (no, you can’t swim in them, and once you see them, you won’t want to anyway) to discover.
Instead, plan to be there for a couple hours, at the very least. Wear comfortable shoes, pack some snacks, sunscreen, and of course…don’t forget your camera.
Where is Chichen Itza?
So, where is this place? A fair question. And a good one too, because let’s be real…Mexico is HUGE!
Chichen Itza is in the Yucatan Peninsula, which is made up of 3 states – Yucatan, Quintana Roo (this is where Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Merida are), and Campeche.
Distance wise – you’re looking at about 200km from either Cancun or Playa del Carmen, and about 120km from Merida.
Totally doable as a day trip.
One thing that surprised me was that, depending on where you are coming from, there is a one hour time difference within the peninsula. This threw me off numerous times throughout the day, and half the time I had no idea what time it actually was.
How to Get to Chichen Itza
To get there, you have a few options…
Many people rent a car and drive themselves.
Depending where you are coming from, you are looking at a couple hour’s drive (Chichen Itza from Cancun, for example). But, it’s not a difficult drive, as it is mostly highway, flat, well signed, and easy to navigate, so completely doable. If I were to go back, I think I would go this route.
Note that there is a hefty toll along the highway of about 350 MXN (about $19 US).
The advantage to driving yourself is, of course, that you are on no one’s schedule but your own, and you don’t have to commit an entire day to this if you don’t want to. A huge plus, so I found out.
Another option is hire a private guide/driver.
The advantage to this, is that you can work with your guide to plan a day trip to stop at the places you want, and not have to worry about driving. And, if you enjoy one place more than others, you can stay longer, instead of being forced to stick to a grid schedule. And, if your guide knows the peninsula well, (s)he will know when is the best time to visit the places you’d like to visit, the best routes, etc.
This might be worth the investment if you’d like to cross a few things off your list in one day, but aren’t comfortable driving in a foreign country.
If neither of these options are your thing, or are out of your price range, another option is to take the public bus.
If you are in Cancun, for example, you can get to Chichen Itza from downtown on an ADO bus, leaving at 8:45 AM, and returning at 4:30 PM. This will cost approximately $20 US and will take about 3 hours one way, because it makes stops along the way.
Not the fastest way to get there, but you will get there. You can purchase tickets on ADO’s website, or in person at any ADO station. (I couldn’t find the English version of the ADO website, so any time I use their services, I book in person).
Last but not least…the cheapest, and easiest, way to see Chichen Itza is to join a group tour.
Don’t do this.
I was staying in Playa del Carmenand did this. Maybe it was the tour company I was with, I don’t know. But it didn’t seem to matter who I booked with, we all ended up on the same bus anyway.
The problem with these group tours, is that the tour companies will drag you around to numerous stops, that most people have little interest in seeing (if there is anything to see at all), in hopes that you will buy things, because of course, the company wants to make money.
It will get ridiculous and frustrating very fast. At one point on my group tour, we stopped in Valladoid for an hour. For no reason.
It is an incredibly long day. I was picked up at 7:00 AM, fed only lunch at noon, and not dropped off until 10:00 PM.
Yes, you read that right. It took almost 15 hours to see Chichen Itza with a group tour.
I will never do this again, and I will never recommend this option to anyone.
Learn from my mistake.
Don’t take a group tour!
Do I Need a Guide for Chichen Itza?
No matter how you get there, guides are available for hire at the front entrance to Chichen Itza.
Guides are knowledgeable, speak great English, and will point out many things you would never have noticed on your own. I definitely recommend speaking to a couple to get a feel for how you mesh with them, and find one you like.
Being on a group tour, we were matched up based on what language we spoke. I really liked the guide my group was paired with. Diego was friendly, definitely knew his stuff and presented the information in an interesting way, versus just talking ‘at’ us.
Such as…why do the sculptures on the ball court walls show a player of one team holding the decapitated head of an opposing team member?
Or…why are there so many stones missing from the back side of Temple of Kukulcan?
I won’t give away all the answers, but here’s a couple interesting facts to get you going…
There are 91 stairs on each side of the pyramid, equalling 364. The 365th stair is the top platform.
Each year, at sunset on Spring and Fall equinox, the sun casts shadows in such a way that it looks like the Kukulcan serpent is slithering down the temple. (If you decide to go during this time, know that it will be shoulder to shoulder!)
What Else is There to Do at Chichen Itza?
You might as well cross a couple things off your To Do list while you’re at it right? Many people combine a visiting Chichen Itza with swimming in cenotes.
These refreshing swimming spots are the result of giant sinkholes opening up, revealing the ground water beneath. Needless to say, in the hot weather of Mexico, the cool, fresh water in the cenotes are a popular attraction, so some of them will be busy.
The closest one to Chichen Itza is Ik Kil. Some say that it is one of the most beautiful cenotes in Mexico. After visiting, I can agree that it is definitely really cool, but since I haven’t been to any others, I can’t compare it to others.
You be the judge of that.
Having said that, the definite plus to this cenote is that it has much better facilities than others. On site, there are lifeguards, lockers, bathrooms, change rooms, and a restaurant. I was very impressed with how clean the facilities were.
Another stop people often make is to the Ek Balam ruins near the town of Valladoid.
In English, Ek Balam means “black jaguar”. It’s a huge site, just like Chichen Itza, but the main core of it is a walled city that had about 40 buildings.
The restoration of these ruins started in 1997, so they are much newer to the tourist scene, compared to Chichen Itza, but they offer their own unique experience.
For example, visitors are still able to climb the main pyramid. At 96 feet tall, you get an amazing view of the peninsula from the top.
- Go as early as you can to avoid the crowds. As a group tour to Chichen Itza, we showed up in the afternoon, and it was mobbed. The best time to go is first thing in the morning (the grounds open at 8:00 AM) before tour groups arrive.
- Naturally, as a tourist attraction, any food or drink here is insanely overpriced. Bring your own. Be sure you bring enough water to keep yourself hydrated and food to keep you going. This place is bigger than you think, don’t underestimate its size.
- Wear comfortable shoes! Chichen Itza is a huge site, so there is a lot of uneven ground to cover.
- Don’t forget sun protection! There’s very little shade, and by midday, the heat is very intense.
No matter how you get there, definitely make it a point to go see Chichen Itza if you are in this part of Mexico; it is one of the 7 wonders of the world after all.
From Playa del Carmen, it’s very easy to continue your journey through Central America by going to Belize next. That’s exactly what I did. Click here to read about how I spent two days on Caye Caulker Belize.
Now tell me, have you been to Chichen Itza? Did you like it? How did you get there?