The Complete Chichen Itza Guide: Visiting on a Budget and Without Crowds
Visiting the ancient Maya citadel of Chichen Itza is a must on any Yucatan itinerary. Having held UNESCO world heritage status since 1988 and being one of the new seven wonders of the world you simply can’t overlook this monumental creation when in Yucatan. This citadel was probably one of the largest and most powerful in the Mayan Kingdom and contains many temples, ball courts, platforms and civic buildings. Visiting Chichen Itza makes for the most authentic glimpse into Mexico’s rich history. There are many ways to visit this pre-Colombian site, however, and the way you choose to do so will also have an impact on your experience here. If you’d like the place to yourself and the opportunity to contemplate almost 2,000 years of history, peacefully, keep reading. I’ll explain everything you need to know about visiting Chichen Itza in this guide- on the cheap and without the crowds.
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The site can easily be reached from Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Merida and the closest option, Valladolid. In order to be one of the first people through the door, I’d highly recommend staying in the beautiful, colonial town of Valladolid for at least one night and making your way to the ruins the next morning. If you’re travelling in from further away you have two options. Rent a car or join a tour.
If you’d like to visit these ancient ruins in peace or to take a cracker of a photo with no people in it, you’ll have to get to Chichen Itza right as it opens at 8 am. This way you can buy your ticket with no queues, simply breeze through the entrance and into the compound to enjoy it in its early morning light. From 8 am, you’ll have about 2 hours to explore the ruins before the headphone-clad, umbrella waving tour groups arrive. If getting there at 8 am doesn’t work for you, try to get there for about 3 pm- by then most of the tour groups will have disappeared and it should also be quieter.
These two photos of the famous pyramid were taken three hours apart. The first at 8 am and the other at 11.00 am, as I was leaving. I also visited in the low season.
VISITING CHICHEN ITZA NEED-TO-KNOWS
↠ The entrance fee is a whopping 533 pesos ( $25/£20) (price in 2021). You also have to pay for parking if you visit in your own rental car. Parking right next to the entrance costs an additional 80 pesos.
↠ The site is open from 8 am-5 pm.
↠ It’s located 40km to the West of Valladolid, 200km from Cancun and 123km from Merida.
↠ Allow for about 2-3 hours to see the site well.
For the latest information on rules and regulations check the official Chichen Itza website here.
HOW TO GET THERE
Colectivo– The most budget-friendly way of getting to Chichen Itza is by colectivo (shared minivan) from Valladolid. They leave when full from a little car park on Calle 39 between Calles 44 and 46. The first one leaves at about 7 am. If you leave then, you’ll get to Chichen Itza as it opens, beating most of the souvenir sellers to their posts. The colectivo costs 35 pesos ($2) each way. On the way back you can simply hail one down from the car park from where they dropped you off. They pass through every 20 minutes or so. Note that not all drivers work on a Sunday, therefore there is a reduced service.
Car – Renting a car is the easiest and fastest way to get to Chichen Itza and this way you can fully control your arrival time. There are many rental agencies in Tulum, Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. My personal choice is City Car Rentals as they offer some of the best deals around. They are reputable and provide a great service.
Tour– If you prefer the ease of a tour, there are many that can be booked from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Tours are great as you really get to know Chichen Itza through the knowledgeable guides on hand to explain the history of the site and the Mayan way of life. Just try to book with operators which promise the earliest arrival time.
CHICHEN ITZA GUIDE: TOP TIPS FOR VISITING
↠ Wear comfortable shoes – this goes without saying- the Chichen Itza grounds are pretty big and you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
↠ You probably won’t be able to use your tripod – I did quite a lot of research around this prior to visiting stating that tripods weren’t allowed so I left mine behind. There were signs at the entrance that clearly said no tripods. I did, however, see a couple of people using a mini-tripod and that seemed to be ok.
↠ Bring your own drinks and snacks but leave them in the car (or hide them deep in your bag). Food from sellers around Chichen Itza is, as you probably imagined, dreadfully expensive by Mexican standards and not all that healthy so try to bring snacks and water with you. Chichen Itza is also full of glorious green spots around the temples where you can sit under a tree, enjoy its shade and the birdsong around you and have a small snack. Technically you aren’t allowed any food and drink inside with you apart from water so if you’re planning to bring snacks put them at the bottom of your backpack.
↠ Bring cash. Credit cards are not accepted.
↠ Consider the services of an official Chichen Itza guide – guides can be hired at the entrance of the site and it’s something worth considering if you’d like to learn more about the history of the Mayans and this sacred site.
CHICHEN ITZA GUIDE: WHAT TO SEE
Around the site of Chichen Itza you’ll find many ruins of buildings that once were temples, civic squares and even sports stadiums. The most noteworthy are:
El Castillo – Also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, the Mesoamerica serpent deity, this 30-metre pyramid with the temple on top will be the first thing you see as you enter. It is now the most recognisable symbol of Chichen Itza. During the weeks running down to the spring equinox, the pyramid casts a series of rectangular shadows on the western staircase giving the effect of a wiggly serpent descending the balustrade- a pretty marvellous way to evoke the serpent god on the temple.
The Great Ball Court – Many ball courts have been found at Chichen Itza but this one just north-west of El Castillo is the largest and most impressive in ancient Mesoamerica. At both ends, you’ll find temples and on the sides, long platforms with high walls. Two giant rings can be found in the middle with serpent motifs engraved on them. The most impressive feature of the ball court is the acoustics. No doubt you’ll see guides with tour groups demonstrating them- in some places sounds can carry for 4-5 echoes. Also, look out of the bas-relief carving of a decapitated ballgame player and the many wiggling serpents representing the squirting blood from the wound.
Skull Platform– Just behind the ball court don’t miss this impressive skull platform- a metre high platform depicting many stylised skulls.
The platform of the Eagles and Jaguars – a low structure just next to the skull platform, the impressive carvings of which are especially gruesome, depicting eagles and jaguars feasting on human hearts.
Cenote Sagrado – this cenote, or natural sinkhole, located to the north of the site was a Mayan pilgrimage site. During times of drought, people would make sacrifices to the gods, praying for rain. Unlike the other beautiful cenotes in the area, the rather gruesome history and mucky green colour don’t make it an attractive place for swimming.
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