The Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins are the second-most visited ancient site in Mexico after the Teotihuacan Pyramids of Mexico City. This historic site is only a two hour drive from the Cancun International Airport and it attracts more than 2.6 million visitors every year.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is most famous for it’s restored white limestone pyramid, The Castillo Temple. It’s iconic image is almost as recognizable as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and the structure is classified as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
If you’re planning a vacation to Cancun, a day trip to the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins worth considering. This article provides an overview of the region’s history and some advice to help you plan your visit. We’ve also included directions from the hotel district to the ruins and a list of supplies you’ll want to bring.
Quick Article Guide:
1. Why Visit Chichen Itza and the Castillo Temple
2. Getting to Ruins from the Cancun Hotel Zone
3. The Castillo Temple (Kulkukan’s Pyramid)
4. Can you Climb the Pyramid at Chichen Itza?
5. Swimming in the Ik Kil Cenote near Chichen Itza
6. When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Chichen Itza?
7. What Should I Wear to the Ruins at Chichen Itza?
8. A Packing List for Chichen Itza and the Ik Kil Cenote
Over a thousand years ago, Chichen Itza was bustling community with more than 50,000 residents. The city thrived from 600 A.D. until 900 A.D., and during this period in history, it was one of the most populous cities in the world. Chichen Itza also served as a trading post. The ancient Mayans bartered with other indigenous communities and groups throughout the Caribbean Islands, Central and South America.
Sacbeob, or white paved roads and sidewalks connected the structures within the city and the area remained inhabited until the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s. After initially failing in 1535, the Spanish Conquistadors returned to defeat the remaining Maya, and the land was transitioned into a cattle ranch. By this time, most of the Mayan city’s nobility had already relocated west to the nearby city of Mayapan.
The Spanish largely left the stone monuments they found intact after the Mayans abandoned the city. As a result, dozens of restored structures still stand at the ancient site today. In addition to the main pyramid known as El Castillo, there is a ball court and some smaller temples. The Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins are also the home of the Sacred Cenote, an open-air sinkhole that once provided fresh water to the city’s residents.
Chichen Itza is only a two and a half hour drive from Cancun, but we recommend booking a private tour. The site is usually packed with large tour buses, vans, and taxis. You’ll also want a tour guide to explain the significance of everything you’re seeing. In our experience, large sites like Chichen Itza are much better with a smaller group. You can set your own pace, see the entire site, and hear everything your guide is saying.
You can also sleep in instead of driving around from hotel to hotel in the morning while your guide to picks up the other tourists. There are dozens of reputable travel agencies and guides that offer tours of Chichen Itza. These excursions are offered at every hotel in the area and at the all of the shopping centers in the tourist zone. Don’t buy your tickets from your hotel or the kiosks at the mall though!
Vendors charge a commission for the excursions they sell. Your best option is booking beforehand with a reputable travel site like Trip Adviser. This will save you money and you won’t have to worry about the tour being sold out. If you insist on driving, the 180D highway will get you there in about 2.5 hours. You can also take the ADO bus from downtown. It departs at 8:30 am each morning and leaves the site at 4:30 pm.
The Castillo Temple is the most popular attraction at the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins. Also known as Kukulkan’s Temple, this white limestone monolith stands over 98 feet tall, and it was constructed between the 8th and 12th centuries. Each year during the winter solstice and summer equinox, the sun aligns with the steps on the pyramid creating a shadow that looks like snake climbing and descending the structure.
In 2007, Kukulkan’s Temple was named as one of the New Seven Wonder’s of the World. This helped Chichen Itza into the international spotlight and associated the Mayan Ruins with world-renowned sites including the Roman Coliseum, Petra, the Great Wall of China, and Machu Picchu. Today, the site attracts an average of 3,500 visitors each day, and it is the second-most visited Pre-Colombian site in Mexico.
Restoration was also completed on Kukulkan’s Temple in 2007. One side was intentionally left unfinished allowing visitors to see the bricks under the polished limestone casing. This may have been at the direction of UNESCO in a effort to keep some of the site original. An almost identical, and more restored, version of the same step pyramid can also be found at the nearby Mayan site of Mayapan.
Visitors are not allowed to climb any of the buildings at Chichen Itza. Access to the interior chamber on the top of The Castillo Temple is also restricted to the public. In 2006, a San Diego woman fell from the steps of the pyramid and it was closed to visitors. Our tour guide also told us that some tourists had carved into the walls of the chamber which may have been another reason behind the decision.
There are still plenty of things to do at this site though. The walk from The Castillo Temple to the Sacred Cenote and back is almost a third of a mile and there are lots of structures to see. Some of these buildings include; The Observatory, The Warriors Temple, The Jaguars Temple, and the largest Mayan Ball Court in the country. Most tours also stop at the Ik Kil Cenote nearby, so you’ll also have a chance to swim.
If climbing an ancient pyramid is on your bucket list, consider the Mayan Ruins at Mayapan. This ancient site is almost identical to Chichen Itza and it receives a fraction of the visitors. There is also a slightly shorter version of Kukulkan’s Temple at these ruins that visitors are still allowed to climb as of December, 2019. Tourists are also allowed to climb the Aztec Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan near Mexico City.
If you book a tour of the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, your group will probably stop at the Ik Kil Cenote before lunch. This cenote is only a few miles from Chichen Itza and it is one of the most-visited in Mexico. Visitors can enjoy a dip in the fresh water which remains at a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. These cenotes were consider sacred by the ancient Mayans who relied on them for farming and drinking.
An underground system of rivers feeds the cenotes and the surrounding Mayan villages still rely on them for farming water. In an effort to protect the ecosystem, visitors are required to shower before they’re allowed to enter the cenote. The employees will also check your sunscreen to make sure it is biodegradable. Our tour group swam for an hour before we enjoyed a traditional Mayan meal nearby.
On most of the online reviews we saw, tourists often confused the Ik Kil Cenote with the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. While both cenotes are open-air, their are also some striking differences between the two. For starters, the Sacred Cenote at the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins is not accessible to swimmers. The Ik Kil Cenote also has clear, slowly-moving water while the Sacred Cenote appears stagnant and green.
Chichen Itza’s weather is almost identical to Cancun, making November to April the best time of year visit. During these months, the daytime temperatures are perfect, and rain is minimal. From March until the end of May, the Yucatan has high humidity making it intolerable for most travelers. In June, the Atlantic hurricane season begins, and heavy rain is common from this time of the year until the end of October.
We’ve traveled to Cancun during the hurricane season many times without issue, but its important to pay attention to the weather patterns. During El Nino years, the Atlantic Ocean sees a decreased amount of tropical storms while the Pacific Ocean sees more. While La Nina is occurring the Atlantic Ocean experiences more hurricanes, so make sure you avoid traveling during to Cancun during these years.
The daytime temperature rarely drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit at Chichen Itza, so comfortable gym clothes are best. If you’re sensitive to sunlight, we recommend wearing long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat. Dry-fit shirts are also a great choice. There are very few trees at these ruins and most of your time will be spend in the direct sun. You’ll also need to bring a bathing suit if you want to swim at the cenote.
Regardless of the time of year you visit Chichen Itza, we recommend bringing a light rain jacket or poncho. The weather is unpredictable on the Yucatan Peninsula and a tropical storm can appear with little to no warning. Thankfully, most of these storms blow over within a hour, and the temperature rarely drops. However; the two hour drive back to the hotel will be very uncomfortable if your clothes are soaked.
We recommend bringing a few items along for your trip to Chichen Itza and the Ik Kil Cenote. We always pack a small backpack for our excursions to make sure we’ll have everything we need. One backpack should provide more than enough space for two travelers. A fanny pack can also come in handy is you have some valuables that you don’t want to leave in the car.
Items we recommend for your trip to Chichen Itza and the Cenote:
– Biodegradable Sunscreen (Chichen Itza offers very little shade)
– Mosquito Repellent (There are lots of mosquitoes in this area and throughout the Yucatan)
– A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses (To protect your face and eyes from the bright sun)
– Comfortable Walking Shoes (You should expect to walk at least a mile during your visit)
– Flip-Flops or Sandals (For walking in and out of the Ik Kil Cenote)
– Water (Bring an extra bottle or two, even if your tour offers it)
– Electrolyte Packets (The temperature can reach over 100 degrees at this site)
– Pesos (For souvenirs, water, food, parking, and admission)
– Camera (A modern iPhone should do just fine)
– A Bathing Suit (For swimming in the cenote)
– A Towel (Towels are not provided)
Items to Leave at Home or Your Hotel:
– Pets (Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History does not allow them into the site)
– Loud Music (The site’s architecture causes it to act like an amphitheater)
– Drones (Flying drones have been banned from this site)
– Selfie-Sticks (These are prohibited from Chichen Itza ruins and most of the historic sites in Mexico)
Another Note: The tour guides asked us not to purchase souvenirs from the vendors at the site because the vendors crowd the site and away from the visitor’s experience. We were also warned that some of the items they sell are probably fakes.
Do you need help planning your upcoming trip to the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins? Would you like to share some details about your trip to ancient site? Please leave us a comment in the section below.