The most famous, the most extensively restored and by far the most visited of all Maya sites, Chichén Itzá lies conveniently along the main highway from Mérida to Cancún, a little more than 200km from the Caribbean coast. A fast and very regular bus service runs all along this road, making it perfectly feasible to visit as a day’s excursion from Mérida, or en route from Mérida to the coast, or even as a day out from Cancún, as many tour buses do. But both to do the ruins justice and to see them when they’re not entirely thronged with tourists, an overnight stop is well worth considering – either at the site itself or, less extravagantly, in the nearby village of Pisté or in Valladolid.
Though in most minds Chichén Itzá represents the Maya, it is in fact the site’s divergence from Maya tradition that makes it archeologically so intriguing. Experts are fairly certain that the city was established around 300 AD, and began to flourish in the Terminal Classic period (between 800 and 925 AD); the rest of its history, however, as well as the roots of the Itzá clan that consolidated power in the peninsula here after 925, remain hotly disputed. Much of the evidence at the site – an emphasis on human sacrifice, the presence of a huge ball-court and the glorification of military activity – points to a strong influence from central Mexico. For decades researchers guessed this was the result of the city’s defeat by the Toltecs, a theory reinforced by the resemblance of the Templo de los Guerreros to the colonnade at Tula, near Mexico City, along with Toltec-style pottery remains and numerous depictions of the Toltec god-king, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcán to the Maya).
Work since the 1980s, however, supports a theory that the Itzá people were not Toltec invaders, but fellow Maya who had migrated from the south (an explanation for their subjects referring to them as “foreigners” in texts). The Toltec artefacts, this view holds, arrived in central Yucatán via the Itzás’ chief trading partners, the Chontal Maya, who maintained allegiances with Toltecs of central Mexico and Oaxaca.