The main entry to the site is on the west side. A huge visitor centre houses a museum, restaurant, ATM and shops selling souvenirs, film, maps and guides. You can also get in at the smaller eastern gate by the Hotel Mayaland. Either way, you’ll want to go in at opening time, as tour buses from Cancún and Mérida start arriving around 10.30am. Allow about three hours to see the site, and if crowds are light, start with the iconic buildings in the Itzá-era Chichén Nuevo (New Chichén) on the north side, then retreat to the Terminal Classic (Chichén Viejo) to the south, where fewer visitors go.

Brief history

Though in most minds Chichén Itzá represents the Maya, it is in fact the site’s divergence from Maya tradition that makes it archeologically 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, and the roots of the Itzá clan that consolidated power in the peninsula here after 925 remain in dispute. 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, which would explain why their subjects referred to them in texts as “foreigners”. 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.

Chichén Nuevo

The main path leads directly to El Castillo (also called the Pyramid of Kukulcán), the structure that sits alone in the centre of a great grassy plaza. It is a simple, relatively unadorned square building, with a monumental stairway ascending each face (though only two are restored), rising in nine receding terraces to a temple at the top. The simplicity is deceptive, however, as the building is in fact the Maya calendar rendered in stone: each staircase has 91 steps, which, added to the single step at the main entrance to the temple, amounts to 365; other numbers relevant to the calendar recur throughout the construction. Most remarkably, near sunset on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the great serpents’ heads at the foot of the main staircase are joined to their tails (at the top of the building) by an undulating body of shadow – an event that lasts just a few hours and draws spectators, and awed worshippers, by the thousands. The effect is recreated nightly in the sound-and-light show.

Inside El Castillo, where visitors cannot enter, an earlier pyramid survives almost intact, and in the temple’s inner sanctuary, archeologists discovered one of the greatest treasures at the site: an altar, or perhaps a throne, in the form of a jaguar, painted bright red and inset with jade “spots” and eyes.

The “Toltec” plaza
El Castillo marks one edge of a plaza that formed the focus of Chichén Nuevo, and in addition to a sacbé leading to Cenote Sagrado, all its most important buildings are here, many displaying a strong Toltec influence in their structure and decoration. The Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), lined on two sides by the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of the Thousand Columns), forms the eastern edge of the plaza. These are the structures that most recall the great Toltec site of Tula, both in design and in detail – in particular the colonnaded courtyard (which would have been roofed with some form of thatch) and the use of Atlantean columns representing battle-dressed warriors, their arms raised above their heads.

The temple is richly decorated on its north and south sides with carvings and sculptures of jaguars and eagles devouring human hearts, feathered serpents, warriors and, the one undeniably Maya feature, masks of the rain god Chac, with his curling snout. On top (now visible only at a distance, as you can no longer climb the structure) are two superb examples of figures called Chac-mools, once thought to be introduced by the Toltecs: offerings were placed on the stomachs of these reclining figures, which are thought to represent either the messengers who would take the sacrifice to the gods or perhaps the divinities themselves.

The “thousand” columns alongside originally formed a square, on the far side of which is the building known as the Mercado, although there’s no evidence that this actually was a marketplace. Near here, too, is a small, dilapidated ball-court.

North of El Castillo is the Plataforma de Venus, a raised block with a stairway up each side guarded by feathered serpents. Here, rites associated with Quetzalcoatl when he took the form of Venus, the morning star, would have been carried out. Slightly smaller, but otherwise identical in design, the adjacent Plataforma de Águilas y Jaguares features reliefs of eagles and jaguars holding human hearts. Human sacrifices may have been carried out here, judging by the proximity of a third platform, the Tzompantli, where victims’ heads likely hung on display. This is carved on every side with grotesque grinning stone skulls.

Gran Juego de Pelota
Chichén Itzá’s ball-court, on the west side of the plaza, is the largest known in existence, with walls some 90m long. Its design is a capital “I” surrounded by temples, with the goals, or target rings, halfway along each side. Along the bottom of each side runs a sloping panel decorated with scenes of the game. Although the rules and full significance of the game remain a mystery, it was clearly not a Saturday afternoon kick-about in the park.

On the panel, the players are shown proceeding from either side towards a central circle, the symbol of death. One player, just right of the centre (whether it’s the winning or losing captain is up for debate) has been decapitated, while another holds his head and a ritual knife. Along the top runs the stone body of a snake, whose heads stick out at either end. The court is subject to a whispering-gallery effect, which enables you to be heard clearly at the far end of the court, and to hear what’s going on there.

Templo de los Jaguares
This temple overlooks the playing area from the east side. At the bottom – effectively the outer wall of the ball-court – is a little portico supported by two pillars, between which a stone jaguar stands sentinel. The outer wall panels, the left and the right of the interior space, are carved with the images of Pawahtuns, the gods who supported the sky and who are thought to be the patrons of the Itzá people. Inside are some worn but elaborate relief carvings of the Itzá ancestors inserted in the Maya creation myth – a powerful demonstration of their entitlement to rule.

Cenote Sagrado
The city’s largest cenote lies at the end of the sacbé that leads about 300m off the north side of the plaza. It’s an almost perfectly round hole in the limestone bedrock, some 60m in diameter and more than 30m deep, the bottom third full of water. It was thanks to this natural well (and perhaps another in the southern half of the site) that the city could survive at all, and it gives Chichén Itzá its name (literally “at the edge of the well of the Itzá”). The well was regarded as a portal to the underworld, called Xibalba, and the Maya threw in offerings such as statues, jade and engraved metal disks (a few of them gold), as well as human sacrifices – all of them boys, recent research has shown. People who were thrown in and survived were believed to have prophetic powers, having spoken with the gods.

Chichén Viejo

The southern half of the site is the most sacred part for contemporary Maya, though the buildings here are not in such good condition. They were built for the most part prior to 925 AD, in the architectural styles used in the Puuc and Chenes regions.

El Osario
A path leads from the south side of El Castillo to the major structures, passing first the pyramid El Osario (the Ossuary; also called the High Priest’s Grave), the only building in this section that shows Toltec-style detail. Externally it is very similar to El Castillo, but inside a series of tombs was discovered. A shaft, first explored at the end of the nineteenth century, drops down from the top through five crypts, in each of which was found a skeleton and a trap door leading to the next. The fifth is at ground level, but here too was a trap door, and steps cut through the rock to a sixth chamber that opens onto a huge underground cavern: the burial place of the high priest.

El Caracol
Follow the main path and you arrive at El Caracol (the Snail, for its shape; also called the Observatory), a circular, domed tower standing on two rectangular platforms and looking remarkably like a modern-day observatory. The roof has slits aligned with various points of astronomical significance. Four doors at the cardinal points lead into the tower and a circular chamber. A spiral staircase leads to the upper level, where observations were made.

Las Monjas
Immediately to the south of El Caracol, the so-called Monjas (Nunnery) palace complex shows several stages of construction. Part of the facade was blasted away in the nineteenth century, but it is nonetheless a building of grand proportions. Its annexe, on the east end, has an elaborate facade in the Chenes style, covered in small heads of Chac that combine to make one giant mask, with the door as a mouth. By contrast, La Iglesia, a small building standing beside the convent, is a clear demonstration of Puuc design, its low band of unadorned masonry around the bottom surmounted by an elaborate mosaic frieze and roofcomb. Masks of Chac again predominate, but above the doorway are also figures of the four mythological creatures that held up the sky – a snail, a turtle, an armadillo and a crab.

Beyond Las Monjas
A path leads, in about ten minutes, to a further group of ruins that are among the oldest on the site, although they are unrestored; this is a good area for birdwatching, with few people around to disturb the wildlife. Just east of Las Monjas, is the Akab Dzib, a relatively plain block of palace rooms that takes its name (“Obscure Writings”) from undeciphered hieroglyphs found inside. Red palm prints – frequently found in Maya buildings – adorn the walls of some of the chambers. Backtrack along the main path to the building opposite El Osario, the Plataforma de las Tumbas, a funerary structure topped with small columns; behind it is a jungle path that heads back to the main east–west road via the site’s other water source, Cenote Xtoloc.