Chichen Itza is an archeological site located on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and is the location of ancient ruins of the Mayan city, Chichen Itza. During the peak of Mayan civilization in the 9th century, Chichen Itza was one of the biggest cities. The site offers some of the best-preserved architectural work of the ancient Mayans, and it is the second-most popular archeological site in Mexico, attracting over one million visitors each year.
Some of the most notable features include El Castillo, the Great Ball Court, the Tzompantli, Cenote Sagrado, El Mercado, El Caracol, and the Osario.
Chichen Itza’s Highlights
Also called the Pyramid of Kukulkan, El Castillo is a huge step pyramid located in the North Platform of Chichen Itza, built sometime between the years 700 and 1300, in the Classic or Post-Classic Mayan period. The 98-foot tall (29 m) pyramid served as a temple dedicated to the Mayan deity, Kukulkan and the Feathered Serpent deity. Each of the four sides of the ancient temple feature square terraces with 91 steps to the top of the temple.
El Castillo has its fair share of surprises. It is arguably the most iconic Mayan pyramid, but it is not the tallest. A curious fact about it, only recently discovered, is that this structure was actually built on top of an older, smaller pyramid. And if you find yourself at its base, around its north stairs specifically, and you see people around you clapping, do not be surprised. They are testing out the acoustics: a clap will be answered by a sound similar to a bird’s chirp reverberating off the structure. Some experts debate whether this was intentional, but regardless, it is pretty fascinating.
Chichen Itza has several sinkholes due to the dissolving of the limestone bedrock which reveals the water that was below the surface. The ancient Mayans revered these sinkholes, using them to offer sacrifices to the deities. Cenote Sagrado is the most impressive of all sinkholes located in Chichen Itza and was used as a site to offer sacrifices to Chaac, the rain god. In the early 20th century, Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado and discovered human remains among other artifacts at the bottom of the cenote, implying human sacrifice was carried out at the Cenote Sagrado. However, though it has been established that the Mayans did perform human sacrifice, don’t get caught up in the frenzy: the prevalence of these types of rituals has been played up by tour guides, and evidence shows that animal sacrifice was more common.
El Caracol is an observatory building located in Chichen Itza that dates back to the 10th century, during the late Classic Mayan period. Historians believe that the building was constructed to offer Mayans a platform to observe the sky as the surrounding area was full of vegetation and lacked a natural pedestal. The El Caracol is a testament to the advanced astronomical skills possessed by the ancient Mayans and was used to view Venus, among other findings. Venus was very important to the Mayans and was considered to be a war god and the sun’s nighttime twin. The tower’s positioning actually corresponds to Venus’ trajectory in the sky.
The Mayans had a very advanced calendar that they refined by examining the stars in the sky. However, one misconception is that they were the sole inventors of this calendar. While they developed it significantly, it is actually based on a calendar that was widely used by many cultures in that area as early as the 5th century BCE, long before the Mayans came along.
The early Mayans settled in Chichen Itza in the early Classic period, around 600 AD, and began developing it into a town. However, it was during the late Classic period and the early Terminal Classic period that the Chichen Itza rose to prominence as an important city in the Mayan Kingdom, around 900 to 1200. It quickly became the region’s political, economic, and socio-cultural capital. During its peak, the city is alleged to have caused the decline of surrounding cities, including Yaxuna and Coba. In the 13th century, the city began to decline with its elite activities being relocated to other cities. However, the city continued to have a significant population until it was abandoned to the jungle in the 1400s.
Chichen Itza is one of the most popular tourist spots in Mexico, attracting 1.4 million visitors per year. The archeological site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 due to its cultural significance in Mayan history. Until recently, visitors had the privilege to ascend the steps on the monuments and enter inside the chambers. However, public access to the majority of the monuments has been restricted and visitors are only allowed to walk around the monuments.
Chichen Itza needs to be seen to be truly believed as the splendor that it is. It is one of those human marvels for which a photo simply does not do it justice!