Chichen Itza - History and Facts | History Hit

Chichen Itza

San Felipe Nuevo, Yucatan, Mexico

Chichen Itza is a site made up of two impressive and well preserved cities, built by the Mayas and then captured by the Toltecs.

About Chichen Itza

Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most visited historical sites, and for good reason. The site has been extensively restored, and whilst it is far from untouched, it is hard not to feel a sense of the power and sophistication of the Mayan civilization which built this city.

The name Chichen Itza literally means  ‘at the mouth of the well of the Itza’ in Mayan, and the site was chosen for its location: it has four large cenotes (waterholes) close by, which would have provided plentiful fresh water to the city’s inhabitants. At its height, it was one of the largest Mayan cities, sprawling over 25 square kilometres and home to up to 50,000 people.


Mayans first occupied the Chichen Itza site around 600AD, although the city only rose to prominence in the 10th century: it eventually became a regional capital, controlling large swathes of the Yucatan peninsula following the decline and eventual collapse of the nearby cities of Yaxuna and Coba. Whilst the city began to decline somewhere around 1100AD, it was never deserted.

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the early/mid 16th century, they found a thriving population in the locality of Chichen Itza, which initially drove them out when they attempt to colonise the city. Control of Chichen Itza and the Yucatan by the Spanish was gained by mid 16th century.

Explorers including Desire Charnay, Augustus Le Plongeon and Alfred Maudslay were some of the first Europeans to photograph and explore Chichen Itza in the late 19th century: their photographs of Chichen Itza entered the popular imagination.

American archaeologists were the first to excavate the site in the early 20th century: much of what was found was shipped back to Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Mexican and American archaeologists began to fully restore the site in the 1920s.

Chichen Itza today

Chichen Itza is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico, so be prepared for crowds. To avoid them, we suggest arriving as close to possible to opening hours – right at the start, or right at the end of the day. It is often hot and sunny and the site offers little shade (or protection, should it rain). The site is pretty big so be sure to wear comfortable shoes.

There’s a large, modern visitor centre, toilets and cafe on site: the nearest town is approximately 3km away otherwise.

1. El Castillo

Arguably the most iconic temple in Mayan culture, this 365 stepped pyramid rises from what is the centre of the Chichen Itza complex today. Although it’s no longer climbable, it’s still remarkable: built with the spring and autumn equinoxes in mind, when the late afternoon sun hits the north west corner of the pyramid around these moments, it creates a series of shadows showing where the sculptures of feathered serpents appear to crawl down the pyramid.

The pyramid is believed to have been specifically and significantly located above a cenote. Extensive excavations of the pyramid have discovered various human remains, suggesting it was used for sacrifices. The temple itself is located at the top of the pyramid, and is dedicated to Kukulkan, a feathered serpent deity.

2. El Gran Juego de Pelota (The Great Ball Court)

The Mesoamerican ballgame remains something of a mystery in the modern world. The game was played with a ball of hard rubber, which weighed about 4kgs. It had some resemblance to football, apart from the fact that the ball could only be touched with hips and thighs rather than feet or hands. Goals / rings line the length of either side of the court, and the ones at Chichen Itza are extremely well preserved.

Legend suggests that the game formed part of a wider ritual, and that the losing team would be sacrificed: this remains unsubstantiated. Chichen Itza alone has 13 ball courts, but The Great Ball Court is the biggest at 168 metres long and 70 metres wide. It also has a whispering effect, meaning you can hear (and be heard) clearly from the other end of the court – make sure to try it out.

3. El Cenote Sagrado (The Sacred Cenote)

Cenotes are natural sinkholes, filled with fresh water that can be found across the Yucatan peninsula. The Sacred Cenote’s name derives from its association with sacrifice: it became a place of pilgrimage in Mayan culture, and it was believed that throwing sacrifices into the cenote (which Mayans believed could be connected to the underworld) would bring good luck and fortune upon the thrower.

Sacrifices ranged from gold, silver and jade objects to human remains. It seems that for the most part those sacrificed in the cenote would have been killed prior to their sacrifice. Other stories report that Mayans believed that those who survived being thrown in the cenote as a sacrifice would return with the power of prophecy.

4. El Caracol

The Spanish named this observatory El Caracol (the snail) for its interior spiral staircase. Mayans used astronomy as part of their religious rituals, without using any kind of apparatus (i.e. just using the naked eye). The site allows for the observation of at least 20 notable astronomical events which could be used as markers of time. The building itself is a fusion of architectural styles and Mayan religious imagery.

Getting to Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is about halfway between Merida and Cancun on Ruta 180, just to the west of Valladolid. Public buses run to Chichen Itza regularly from all three cities and take a couple of hours: although the early start might sound painful, you’ll be thankful when you get there!

Organised day trips and tours are also available from everywhere on the Yucatan to Chichen Itza.

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