A Complete Guide To Visiting Chichen Itza, Mexico

The ruins of Chichen Itza are known to be the most impressive (and certainly the most famous) of all Mayan sites in Mexico. One of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World,’ Chichen Itza is a massive site complete with pyramids, sacred cenotes (sinkholes), ballcourts, temples and more.

Thanks to its location in the center of Yucatan Peninsula, visiting Chichen Itza is incredibly easy: you can go there on day trips from Merida and Valladolid, but even Cancun and Tulum are within day-trip distance.

If you are looking for information on visiting Chichen Itza, Mexico, you are in the right place! I have been there three times – I basically visit each time I go to Mexico! I have even spent the night in the area once, and it was incredible.

This is to say – I know the site well, and I tell you everything you need before visiting, with information on what to see on the site; how to get there from a variety of places, and more.

Ready to find out more? Continue reading to discover everything you need to know about visiting Chichen Itza, information on the best Chichen Itza tours, and much more.

visiting Chichen Itza

Everything You Must Know Before Visiting Chichen Itza

The History Of Chichen Itza

The name Chichen Itza translates to “At the Mouth of the Well of Itza”. It’s an iconic site with a long history, but the ancient city is thought to have thrived between 600 and 1200 AD.

It was once one of the largest cities in the Mayan world, home to an estimated 100,000 inhabitants. The population is believed to have been fairly diverse too, evidenced through the huge variety of architectural styles from across the Mayan world that can be seen in Chichen Itza.

The “well of Itza” is actually a reference to the two natural cenotes that are found within the boundaries of the ancient city.

Throughout the almost 1,000 years of its history, Chichen Itza has been home to a variety of different people, all of whom have left their mark on the city. There is a collection of surviving buildings that remain to tell the tale.

One of the most important events that occurred at Chichen Itza is the migration of Toltec warriors from the Mexican plateau to the south during the 10th century AD. Following the conquest of the Yucatan by the Toltec – under King Kukulkan, who has a pyramid dedicated to him at Chichen Itza – there followed a blend of Maya and Toltec traditions.

After the 13th century, no major monuments appeared to have been built at Chichen Itza. After around 1440, the city rapidly declined and was eventually abandoned. It wasn’t until 1841 that the ruins were excavated and rediscovered.

Chichen Itza Mexico

Main sights at Chichen Itza

One you are inside Chichen Itza, you will see it is a sprawling site. The core alone covers five square kilometers with other residential areas and various monuments scattered across a large area.

With that in mind, if you’ve only got a short time when visiting Chichen Itza, it’s good to know which are the main sites that you can make a beeline for once you arrive.

Temple of Kukulcan

Situated in the northern part of Chichen Itza, this huge pyramid is easily the most famous monument in the ancient city and the most famous spot for Chichen Itza photos. It’s what most people think of when they think about Chichen Itza.

The pyramid, also called El Castillo, stands at around 30 meters (98.4 feet) high, and consists of nine square terraces with a temple perched on the summit. Dedicated to Kukulcan – a feathered serpent deity in Mayan mythology – at the base of the northern staircase you can find carved serpent heads.

Inside the temple chamber, a Chac Mool statue was discovered along with a jaguar throne. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts triangular shadows and looks like a serpent descending the staircase.

Temple of the Warriors

Temple of the Warriors

Another large-stepped pyramid, the Temple of the Warriors is interestingly very similar to Temple B at the ancient site of Tula (the former Toltec capital city, northwest of Mexico City). This indicates that there was contact, at least culturally, between the two powers.

This temple, however, is much larger than that at Tula. There’s a stairway that leads to the summit where you’ll find a Chac Mool statue – possibly used for placing religious offerings, or as a place to put blood and human hearts (it’s unknown which it was used for).

Visiting Chichen Itza

Group of a Thousand Columns

Next door to the Temple of the Warriors, along its south wall, is a series of multiple columns as if standing guard. When the city was inhabited, these would have supported a roof system which has long since been lost to the elements.

The pillars have been ornately carved and depicted soldiers in bas-relief, while others depict people and deities as well as serpents and other animals.

Here’s also where you’ll find the Temple of the Carved Columns, the Temple of the Small Tables and Thompson’s Temple.

Great Ball Court

Great Ball Court

The Great Ball Court is where the residents of Chichen Itza would have played Pok Ta Pok, an ancient Mesoamerican ball game. Ball courts like this one are found at numerous ancient Mayan ruins across Central America, but the one at Chichen Itza is the largest and best preserved of them all.

There are many other monuments within this area too. The two main ones are the Temple of the Bearded Man (or the North Temple), with its detailed bas-relief carvings; and the Temples of the Jaguar (consisting of the Upper and the Lower Temple), also featuring elaborate carvings.

Osario Group

Osario Group

The Osario Group is where you can find numerous important structures of Chichen Itza. Many of these were actually built to face Xtoloc (the Mayan word for iguana), the second largest of the sacred cenotes at Chichen Itza.

Similarly to the Temple of Kukulcan, the Temple of Osario is a large, stepped pyramid – all four sides have staircases that lead to a temple at its peak. Different from other pyramids, and quite incredibly, at its center the Temple of Osario features a pathway that leads to a natural cave,12 meters (29.3 feet( deep!

There’s also the Temple of Xtoloc. It’s particularly interesting thanks to its carved images of birds, people, plants and mythological scenes.

Between these two temples, you’ll find the Platform of Venus and the Platform of the Tombs.

Cenote Ik Kil, close to Chichen Itza

Sacred Cenote

Away from the cenote of Xtoloc is the main Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza. This sinkhole filled with water is unlike other cenotes in Yucatan in that it’s forbidden to swim in it – and that’s for a good reason.

Just north of the civic precinct, the cenote is connected to the main center of Chichen Itza by a 300-meter (984 feet) long sacbe (a raised causeway used in the ancient Maya world). This water source was important for life in the city, but it also played a religious purpose as well.

Thousands of artefacts have been discovered within the cenote suggesting that offerings were made here. However, they also discovered human remains meaning that sacrifice may have also taken place at the cenote. Now aren’t you glad that you’re not allowed to swim in it?

Make sure to read my post The Best Cenotes In Mexico.

visiting Chichen Itza

Central Group

Another of the major complexes at Chichen Itza is the Central Group. This is where you’ll find Las Monjas or “the Nunnery”. Actually, this wasn’t a nunnery at all, but a governmental palace which features a number of hieroglyphic texts. Many of these mention the ruler K’ak’upakal.

Within the Central Group you will also see El Caracol (“The Snail”). Situated to the north of Las Monjas, this round building takes its name from the spiral staircase inside the structure.

Unusually placed on a square platform, this circular building is thought to have been used as a sort of observatory with openings aligned to various astronomical events, particularly the path of Venus through the skies.

East of the Caracol is Akab Dzib. Meaning “Dark Writing” in the Mayan language, Akab Dzib was the home of the administrator of Chichen Itza.

Casa Colorada Group

To the south of the Osario Group you’ll find this group of monuments. It’s made up of a small platform topped with several structures, and it’s where you’ll see some of the oldest ruins at Chichen Itza.

The Casa Colorada – or “Red House” – also goes by the Mayan name Chichanchob, meaning “Small Holes”. Inside there are detailed hieroglyphics that tell the tale of Chichen Itza’s rulers and possibly of those at nearby Ek’ Balam too. The Mayan date inscribed here corresponds to 869 AD making it one of the oldest in the whole city.

Light show

If you’re at Chichen Itza after dark, then you’ll be in for a treat. Every night the Temple of Kukulcan is illuminated by a pretty magnificent light show.

This ancient Mayan temple complex becomes the backdrop to a colorful extravaganza that tells the story of Chichen Itza – its wars, life in the city and religious beliefs.

Starting at 8:00 pm and running for 30 minutes, the presentation is in Spanish, but is still easy to understand thanks to the visual elements illuminating the immense pyramid.

Practical Information For Visiting Chichen Itza

Now that you know just how amazing the site is and you are convinced you should be visiting Chichen Itza, you’re ready and raring to hit up all of the top sights to see at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, the next step is to figure out how to get there. Here are all the details you need to know.

Should you get a Chichen Itza tour guide?

Chichen Itza can be visited independently or with an official Chichen Itza tour guide – it’s really up to you, your travel style and your budget. You can definitely get online and research about the ruins before you go (this post has provided quite a bit of information); or even bring a guidebook with you for a better experience.

However, no matter how good your guidebook is and no matter how much you read before visiting, I honestly recommend getting a guide. The site is actually one of the largest in Mexico – there really is a lot to see. And only a guide will be able to unveil some of its secret and explain its full significance and role.

Guides usually hang out right by the ticket office. They will have an official ID and will be available in a variety of languages. If you think a guide is too expensive, you may try to hang out at the ticket office for a while until someone shows up who is also interested, and you may split the costs!

The price of guides varies depending on the size of the group, but it is typically around 600 to 700 Mexican Pesos (between $35 and $41 USD)

The best Chichen Itza tours

As I have said before, one of the best ways of experiencing Chichen Itza is by getting a guide. Alternatively, you can consider joining one of the many Chichen Itza tours that are available online.

There is a whole host of tours that depart from the main tourist hubs along the Maya Riviera and further afield.

It makes sense – taking a tour means you don’t have to worry about the logistics of travel there and back. Plus, you’ll also have a guide to tell you all about the cultural and historical significance of the site – in English.

I have been to Chichen Itza many times and I must say I have had difficulty finding good guides that speak English, so a guided tour is a way of making sure you have one!

The downside is that you won’t be able to travel at your own time, and you’ll be with a group of people who you may or may not like! In addition, tour groups tend to arrive around the same time of day meaning you’ll may find the site quite crowded.

But honestly, to me the advantages greatly out-weight the disadvantages!

The following are some of the best Chichen Itza tours:

From Cancun: Chichén Itzá, Valladolid & Cenote Tour – A very budget friendly option departing from Cancun, it lasts 12 full hours.

From Cancun: Guided day trip to Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik-Kil – A great tour to visit two of the most popular sites in the area.

Chichen Itza sunrise tour – Experiencing the sunrise on the site is a unique experience. This tour departs from Cancun.

From Merida: Guided tour of Chichen Itza with lunch – If Merida is your starting point, this is your best option.

Chichen Itza

How long does visiting Chichen Itza take?

Chichen Itza is a fairly large site – depending on your pace, you can spend up to a day visiting Chichen Itza! However, if you keep your pace and just want to see the highlights, three or four hours should be enough.

Guides will normally guide you around the site for about two or three hours, after which you are free to roam at your own pace.

How to get to Chichen Itza

Take the bus

Buses run from most major cities in the region to Chichen Itza making it an easy mode of transport. Its location at the center of the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula places it close to tourist resorts such as Cancun, as well as the city of Merida.

The best company to look for buses to Chichen Itza is ADO. These buses are well maintained, reliable, and tickets can be booked in advance.

If you are staying in Valladolid you also have the option of taking the colectivo – it’s really inexpensive and a very local experience, too!

Hire a rental car

Having your own set of wheels makes getting to Chichen Itza a breeze. You can arrive when you want and leave when you’ve seen enough without having to worry about timetables or being left behind by the tour bus.

Hiring a rental car is fairly straightforward. There are multiple international companies in the larger towns and cities of the Yucatan area. Driving itself is easy with the roads generally being in quite good condition.

To check the prices of car rental in Mexico, click here.

How to get from Merida to Chichen Itza

The easiest way to get to Chichen Itza from Merida is by taking the bus. There are three ADO buses connecting Merida to Chichen Itza, and it takes around two hours to reach the archaeological site.

You’ll have to leave quite early in the morning to make the most of your day (for example, to get there for opening time, you’ll need to leave Merida at 6:30 am.

You can also opt to drive. It’s much quicker – around an hour and a half – and very straightforward. You’ll drive along a toll road and follow the signs to Chichen Itza. There are many car rental companies in Merida including several international brands.

Finally, you can join one of the many guided tours departing from Merida daily.

I recommend this guided out of Chichen Itza from Merida that also goes to Izamal, Valladolid and a nearby cenote.

How to get from Valladolid to Chichen Itza

Valladolid is the closest large town to Chichen Itza, so it’s no wonder that this is a popular place to stay to use as a jumping off point. Due to how close it is, you can actually get the very local colectivo from Valladolid to Chichen Itza.

You can catch a colectivo from near the ADO bus terminal where they’ll start their services at 7:00 am throughout the day. The journey takes 45 minutes and it is very cheap – it’s easily the most affordable way to get to Chichen Itza.

There is only one ADO bus connecting Valladolid to Chichen Itza, leaving mid morning and taking about 45 minutes.

Of course, driving is also a possibility and it’s a good idea if you are planning on visiting other sites in the area.

Chichen Itza ruins

How to get from Cancun to Chichen Itza

Getting from Cancun to Chichen Itza can be a bit more difficult.

You have the option of taking the ADO bus from Cancun to Chichen Itza. It leaves from Cancun ADO bus terminal and takes about three hours to get to Chichen Itza. The issue with the bus is that there is only one daily – usually departing at 8:45 am; and returning to Cancun at 4:30 pm.

You will have to book your roundtrip journey in advance, too.

At the time of writing, there are no buses from Cancun to Chichen Itza according to the ADO website. I suggest enquiring locally at the bus station to make sure there aren’t as this may well be a mishap of the website!

Another option is to drive yourself. It takes 2.5 hours along a direct toll road. This means you can leave earlier in the day as opposed to taking the bus so you can arrive at opening time and avoid the tour groups.

Finally, the easiest thing to do, considering the distance, and especially if you’re traveling in a group, is to book one of the many guided tours departing regularly from Cancun.

You may want to consider this hassle free day-trip from Cancun to Chichen Itza. It also goes to Valladolid and a nearby cenote.

How to get to Chichen Itza from Tulum or Playa del Carmen

You can get to Chichen Itza from Tulum or Playa del Carmen by bus. The bus takes two hours and 20 minutes to Chichen Itza from Tulum; and an hour more if you depart from Playa del Carmen.

There is only one daily bus, departing from Playa del Carmen at 8:07 am, stopping by Tulum Pueblo at 9:07 and then continuing to Chichen Itza; and only one daily bus making the return journey at 4:07 pm, so you’ll have to book tickets in advance.

Tickets from Playa del Carmen or Tulum are fairly inexpensive.

Given it’s a long journey, the best way to travel to Chichen Itza from Tulum or Playa del Carmen is to drive yourself. You can leave way earlier than 9:07 am, plus, it only takes two hours along the 180 Highway (past Valladolid).

Chichen Itza Mexico

Spending the night at Chichen Itza

Most people visiting Chichen Itza use Merida, Valladolid or even Cancun as their base. When I visited the first time, my sister and I used Merida as our base to get there, and drove to Valladolid after visiting – it worked out perfectly.

However, if you want to be the first at the gate when Chichen Itza open, your best option would be to sleep at one of the resorts located on the road to the site.

I have done that myself a couple of times and while these places are certainly more expensive than what you’d find in Merida or Valladolid, they are actually really good, beautifully immersed in the vegetation, with nice pools and they all come with a couple of nice restaurants.

I stayed at Mayaland when I visited and had a massive bungalow to myself. The resort is literally steps from Chichen Itza’s gate too.

Chichen Itza hours

Chichen Itza opening hours are from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Last admission is at 4:00 pm.

Chichen Itza tickets

Chichen Itza entrance fee is fairly expensive – this is the most expensive site to visit in Mexico, and Chichen Itza tickets go up pretty much every year – I found it to be slightly more expensive every time I visited!

There are two fees involved in the admission charge for Chichen Itza. One is for the Institute of History and Anthropology of Mexico (INAH), and the other is for the Ministry of Culture of Yucatan (Cultur).

At the time of writing, the general admission costs are as follows:

  • ADULTS – MXN 614 (that’s around $36 USD);
  • CHILDREN (3-12) – MXN 90 (around $5 USD);
  • MEXICAN CITIZENS – MXN 272 ($16);
  • LOCALS TO THE AREA – MXN 90 (around $5 USD).

Note that Mexicans and foreign residents of Mexico get free admission on Sundays.

Chichen Itza tickets can be purchased online here. Keep in mind that the number of daily visitors is limited, so you may want to purchase your ticket in advance.

If you want Chichen Itza tickets to the light show, there is an additional fee to pay. Tickets are sold from 3:00 pm at the ticket office. The show begins at 7:00 pm.

Other useful information

Here are a few other things to consider when planning on visiting Chichen Itza:

What to pack for Chichen Itza

  • Sunhat (protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays)
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Water bottle
  • Day pack (make sure it’s comfortable)
  • Comfortable, sturdy shoes (there’s a lot of walking involved!)
Where are Chichen Itza toilets located?

It’s important! You can find toilets at the main entrance to Chichen Itza. More Chichen Itza toilets closer to the Temple of Kukuclan. Around the site, the nearest restroom is never more than a few minutes’ walk away.

Further Readings

Planning a trip to Mexico? Make sure to read my other posts:

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Discover everything you need to know before visiting Chichen Itza ruins, Mexico - via @clautavani

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