Chichen Itza is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and one of the most popular destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico. The Mayan site is definitely worth a visit, and although it can get horrendously busy, follow these tips and you’ll get the most out of your trip!
1. Arrive early.
Chichen Itza opens at 8 am, so plan ahead and arrive before the gates open so you can be among the first people inside. It gets very crowded, so early birds can get photographs of the magnificent temples without other people in the shots, and you beat the heat too.
Alternatively, arrive after 3 pm when the tour groups have gone. However, the site closes at 5 pm so you risk not having time to explore everything.
2. Or arrive late.
There is a nighttime light show which allows you around 45 minutes to tour around the site (with a multilingual audio guide), followed by a 25-minute sound and light show projected onto the Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo) pyramid. Visiting at night is a totally different experience, and you get the chance to explore without the heat and hassle from the souvenir sellers. You will need to buy your tickets in advance online, and although the audio guide is in several languages, the show is only in Spanish.
3. Avoid Sundays and national holidays.
On Sundays, Mexican nationals get free entry to Chichen Itza, so the site will be even busier than on other days of the week. Similarly, national holidays and peak times such as Christmas and Easter will be busier too, so try to plan your visit to avoid peak times.
4. Get prepared.
My oh my, does it get hot! There isn’t much shade around the main temples, and the sun beats down mercilessly. Bring plenty of water with you, sunscreen, and a hat or umbrella to protect yourself from the sun. There is a shop at the entrance where you can buy drinks and snacks, but once you are inside there is nowhere to buy refreshments during your visit. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes too.
5. Stay overnight.
You can visit Chichen Itza on a day trip from Cancun, either with a tour group, or independently, but if you have the time, plan to spend the night at the nearby towns of Pisté or Valladolid to explore the surrounding area. Every tour group from Cancun arrives at Chichen Itza at around 10 am, visits the site, then goes to the nearby Ik Kil cenote for a swim. While this is a great addition to the trip, as every group is doing the same thing, there are people everywhere! Skip the day tour, and spend a night or two here to visit both sites early, avoid the rush, and visit the night light show too.
6. Buy your ticket (twice).
Confusingly, there are two tickets required for Chichen Itza, one for $70 pesos, and another for $172 pesos, so $242 pesos (around $13) in total. You will be instructed to go to two different ticket windows to buy your tickets. Also, for professional photographers, film permits cost extra, and tripods are not allowed without a special permit arranged with INAH in advance, which is extremely difficult to get. Bring cash with you to buy your ticket as the card machine often doesn’t work, and although there is a cash machine available, if that doesn’t work either you are in trouble.
7. You can’t climb the pyramids or swim in the cenotes.
Unlike some other Mayan archaeological sites, you can’t climb up any of the pyramids. The cenotes at Chichen Itza were used as a site for religious ceremonies and human sacrifices, so even if the water at the sacred cenote was less green I still wouldn’t fancy taking a dip in it, knowing that hundreds of years ago people were thrown in! Still bring your swimsuit though, you can make use of it at the Ik Kil cenote nearby.
8. It’s impossible to avoid the souvenir sellers.
The souvenir sellers are let in at 8 am along with the visitors, so if you arrive early you will get a bit of peace as you explore without constant harassment. However, once they have set up their stalls, it is relentless. Everyone will want to sell you something, for one dollar, practically free, the best price just for you. And worst of all, the jaguar “whistles” sound like a cross between a crying baby and a sick animal, it is the strangest and most irritating noise I have ever heard!
9. Explore all the areas.
The main “attraction” at Chichen Itza is the spectacular El Castillo Pyramid. If you arrive early, visit this first to get photographs while it’s still quiet. Then, make sure you explore all of the areas, including the ball court, El Caracol observatory, the Bonehouse, sacred cenote, and Temple of the Warriors to get a true picture of the magnificent Mayan site.
10. Take time to admire the work of the Maya.
What really makes Chichen Itza so special is the architectural design and attention to detail. The design of the main pyramid, El Castillo, is so perfect that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun casts a shadow on the pyramid in such a way that a snake appears to slither up or down the huge steps. Beneath the pyramid, an underground cenote has recently been discovered, and hidden passageways remain unexplored. At its peak, Chichen Itza was home to an estimated 90,000 inhabitants, a thriving city that has only partially been excavated. Take time to appreciate all this, and you will realize why Chichen Itza earned its title of one of the seven new wonders of the world.
11. Know your stuff.
Without an organized tour, you can choose to wander freely around the site or hire a guide. There are plenty of people offering guiding services as you come into the car park, but wait until you get inside the complex for the official guides and best rates. Alternatively, bring a good history book, so you can understand more about the significance of the site.
12. Have Lunch in Pisté.
Although there are refreshments available at the entrance to Chichen Itza, they are expensive. Assuming you followed my advice to visit independently, drive or hop on the bus to the nearby town of Pisté where a delicious lunch is a much better value. Try Loncheria Fabiola (Carr. Costera de Golfo, Pisté) for local specialties like cochinita pibil (roast pork) tacos.
*Don’t forget that Cancun and Quintana Roo are in a different time zone to Chichen Itza and the rest of Mexico, so from October to April Cancun is an hour ahead of the rest of the country. During daylight savings time in Mexico from April to October the two zones have the same time, so if you’re traveling from Cancun adjust your journey time accordingly.*