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Chichen Itza

General Information and History

You have two options: (1) arrange a tour with a company in Cancun or (2) driving to the site in a rental car. We arranged a tour through our hotel and although I enjoyed it I felt a bit rushed to stick to the rigid schedule and will probably drive on a return trip or stay at the hotel that is near the ruins.

If you are driving, Chichen Itza is about 75 miles west of Cancun on Mex. 180-D. Be aware that 180-D is a toll road and when you take the Chichen Itza exit you will have to pay close to $10! About 2 miles before getting to the site you will pass through the small town of Piste. Here there are hotels and restaurants which are a little more reasonably priced than those near Chichen Itza, although there is something to be said to staying a day on site if you really want to see everything.

It is generally believed that Chichen Itza was founded in the 4th century (AD) and served as the center of Mayan life on the Yucatan peninsula for several hundred years. Serious restoration of the site began in the early 1900s. Of the several hundred buildings that comprised the city, only about 30 are restored. The rest remain covered in brush and sometimes large mounds of dirt which can be seen as you walk around the grounds.

El Castillo

El Castillo

I have chosen to put some of my pictures up with some interesting points and helpful hints, rather than give a building by building description of the site, since I believe it is something that truly must be experienced and discovered while you are there.

The best time to visit Chichen Itza is in the winter months. However, not being able to select the time of my sister's wedding, we were there in early August. It was very hot and there is not many places available for water within the site, so if you come in the summer be prepared with your own water. And don't forget the sunblock! Also, areas of the site can have a large number of mosquitos, so mosquito repellent is a good idea as well at any time of the year.

El Castillo (The Castle)

The pyramid known as El Castillo dominates the site, and is generally the image people think of when someone mentions Chichen Itza. The symmetry and mathematical representation of the pyramid has quite a bit of significance. The pyramids 364 step (91 on each of four sides) represents the number of days in the Mayan year. There are 18 terraces on each face of the pyramid, corresponding to the 18 months of the Mayan calendar and 52 panels, corresponding to the number of years in a calendar cycle.

The picture at right is no exaggeration, although the pyramid is only about 100 feet tall, the climb is steep but I think quite worth it. I would suggest on the way down to swallow your pride and to slide on you butt for most of the way down, since it is easy to get disoriented.

When standing at the base of the pyramid at about the position of the above picture, clap your hands loudly and you will hear the call of the quetzal, sort of a chir-roop. Further investigation of the site by acousticians have shown that the lower steps have a short tread length and high riser which create the chir sound and the upper steps echo at a lower pitch to produce the roop sound.

Inside El Castillo is an older temple which can be visited twice a day. In mid August it was extremely hot and humid but also pretty interesting. Just a note that this is not recommended if you are claustrophobic in any way as some of the passageways are pretty tight and there are usually lots of people lined up to view the inner temple.

El Castillo

ball court

Another amazing thing about the position and the architecture of the pyramid is that during the spring and fall equinoxes the shadows cast by the north staircases forms the body of a serpent on the stairs. During the spring equinox, the serpent appears to be descending the stairs and during the fall equinox the serpent appears to be ascending the stairs.

Ball Court

To the left is a view of the ball court from the top of El Castillo. When entering the court, you will notice the excellent acoustics and the temples on the northern, southern and eastern sides of the court. South is to the right in the picture.

The object of the game is believed to be to pass a hard rubber ball though a small hoop on the wall of the court without using your hands (some of this sounds vaguely familiar). As a testament to the importance of religion in Mayan society it is believed that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to the gods, since the victory made him worthy of this honor.


As a scientist I was intrigued by the use and understanding of acoustics and astronomy in the ancient Mayans. This was shown not only at El Castillo, but in the observatory shown at right. Up close this looks surprisingly like modern observatories. Nine stones could be removed from slits in the dome, allowing the observation of different areas of the sky.

It is believed that in combination with the marking of the equinoxes by the serpent of El Castillo the observation of the planetary cycles were important for everything from sowing crops to the economic, social and religious life of the city.

Particularly important for the Mayans was the appearance of Venus in the morning sky after inferior conjunction. Also important were the stationary points of Venus and Jupiter as it is believed that these positions were considered signs for the beginning of religious sacrifices or even military campaigns.


Cenotes for sacrifices

Edward H. Thompson visited Chichen Itza in 1889 as an assistant to Alfred P. Maudslay when he was the American consul in Yucatan. He returned and purchased the hacienda at Chichen Itza with the help of Allison V. Armour, and lived at the site for thirty years conducting various investigations. Thompson is best known for dredging the Sacred Cenote (located a few minutes walk north of El Castillo) and recovering artifacts and human bones, thus proving the legend that it was a place of human sacrifice. Many of the items were smuggled to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University by visiting friends. When the Mexican government learned of this, they seized the hacienda and sent Thompson back to the U.S. I think he his lucky he didn't spend the rest of his life in jail! The Peabody Museum returned most of the collection back to Mexico in 1958.

Other interesting things

There are many interesting carvings on many of the buildings around Chichen Itza. A trip down the path from the nunnery to Old Chichen is suggested as it gives an appreciation for how the site may have looked to explorers coming up on an unrestored site. It is helpful if you have a guide for this, but mosquito repellent is a must! 2005. All Rights Reserved.