Chichén Itzá

Most Famous Maya City with Toltec Influence

Chichén Itzá is one of the most impressive remains of Mayan culture. At least, that's what the ruined city is known for in Mexico. Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rightly so, you will soon notice that when you get there. In this article, you will find the best tips for your visit to Chichén Itzá, with all the sights. And information on how to avoid the many tourists. So that your excursion is optimal. 

The well-known Chichén Itzá is one of the most impressive remains of the Maya civilisation. But there is also an influence at the site of the lesser-known Toltec people. This ancient city is famous for the human sacrifices that supposedly took place here. The city still creates plenty of discussions between the scientists who research these ancient civilisations.

Chichén Itzá is for sure the best preserved Maya city in Mexico. During the spring and autumn equinox, (March 21st and September 21st) the sunlight falls onto the steps of the pyramid in a particular way that resembles a snake slithering down. This is a popular excursion so make sure you book well in advance if you want to witness this.

Human Sacrifice

The ruined city of Chichén Itzá is infamous: supposedly, numerous people were sacrificed here. By the Maya people, though it’s believed the Toltec people might have also been here. One of its most famous buildings is El Castillo, a huge stepped pyramid.

There have been several archaeological digs at the site. One of those was led by American archaeologist Sylvanus Griswold Morley, at the start of the 20th century. Morley worked for the prestigious Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, and he unearthed large parts of Chichén Itzá. He played a very important role in the quest to decipher Maya script, and wrote a book about it: An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs.

Morley tried to find a link between the many Maya cities that were discovered in the rainforest. With these early discoveries and Morley’s work a discussion (which is still ongoing) began about the history of the different civilisations and peoples that once lived in Mexico. Rumour also has it that Morley was the inspiration for the famous Indiana Jones movies by Steven Spielberg.

One of the many reliefs in Chichén Itzá.

Recommendations for Your Visit

At the entrance you can hire a guide for a few cents. Their knowledge can be an absolute added value, so that the city really starts to live. Test his knowledge (and English if you don't speak Spanish) beforehand so you don't get disappointed.

The local population hardly benefits from all the tourists who visit Chichén Itzá every year. They often try to earn some money with souvenirs. Their background, the Mayas, can often be found in the souvenirs. Those who want to support them will therefore not leave here empty-handed.

Accommodations at Chichén Itzá

Many tourists come from Cancún or Merida and walk around here in the heat of the day. Be smart and sleep nearby, so you can roam around (and rest) early the next morning. I did and noticed that it is a completely different experience. There are plenty of hotels, hostels and bed & breakfasts nearby.

History of Chichén Itzá

With every shovelful of dirt, the history of this city is slowly uncovered. It seems that in the 9th century, the Maya people abandoned the cities in the Mexican lowlands. They founded a new city near a natural well, which they considered to be holy. This kind of water well is believed to have been created by the impact of the huge meteorite that landed in Mexico and ended the life of the dinosaurs on earth.

Surprisingly, the Toltec culture is well represented in Chichén Itzá. There are several violent and quite terrifying images on some of the buildings. These are not found in other Maya cities such as Palenque and Tikal. This leads scientists to come to several different conclusions.

Toltec Conquered the Maya

The most important information supporting this theory did not come from the Maya people but the Toltec people, who recorded their history. They wrote about their ruler Cē Ācatl Topiltzin QuetzalCoatl, who travelled to Yucatan. His brother had just gained control over the current capital Tula, and cast out its previous ruler.

The Maya and the Toltec Lived Together Peacefully

Research has shown that both the May and Toltec people were excellent merchants. It’s possible the Maya had simply adapted the Toltec culture into their own over their years of trading. That would explain the mixed-use of architectural features from both Maya and Toltec cultures.

The Maya Conquered the Toltec

Recently several scientists have expressed that the Maya were potentially not particularly peaceful people, and they might have taken the capital of Tula from the Toltec people by force. It could be that their aggression grew, and the frightful imagery at Chichén Itzá could simply be the first display of this.

The famous skulls in Chichén Itzá.

Each of these theories is supported by the discoveries at the site. What is known is that both the Maya and the Toltec people honoured the same god: Quetzalcoatl, who was originally a Toltec ruler (see theory 1). This new religion was named after the mythical being of Kukulkan, which means ‘feathered serpent’. This creature with its fluorescent feathers and the long tail was considered to be the most beautiful ‘bird’ in the world. The city was suddenly abandoned in 1194, probably because of extended, extreme drought. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that they have likely moved to Guatemala and founded the city Petén.

One of the biggest points of discussion are the famous reclining sculptures of what are believed to be slain warriors, named chacmools. The artwork in the city leads scientists to believe these sculptures might have been altars for sacrifices, probably even human sacrifices. Nothing is entirely certain. Could it be that the sacrified person (an enemy?) was laid over the sculpture, in a position that made it easy to cut off his head? Or perhaps their heart was cut out and placed on top in a sacrificial bowl, as an offering to the god of rain and fertility: Tlaloc?

Despite the decades of research, very little is certain about the city of Chichén Itzá. Neither the function of all the buildings, nor the relationship between the Maya and Toltec peoples. And why do there seem to have been human sacrifices here, when there is no evidence of this found in other Maya cities? Chichén Itzá offers a world of mystery and discovery for everyone who visits it.

Chichén Itzá offers what you would expect from a large city: there are temples, tombs, market places, sporting grounds, theatre stages and palaces. And there are also rock drawings and the famous jaguar throne. At least, researchers think it’s a throne because once again, it’s hard to be certain of anything here.

A good example of Chichén Itzá architecture.

If you take your time during your visit you’ll find that you’ll be able to imagine what life would be like in this city, when it was a bustling hub sometime between the years 800 and 1000.

Best Time for Chichén Itzá

If you’d like to witness the equinox, you should plan your visit around the 20th or 21st of March (spring) or the 21st or 22nd of September (autumn). That’s when you’ll see the sunlight hit the pyramid’s steps just so, and it seems there is a serpent slithering down the pyramid. You can see this phenomenon on the days before and after these dates as well. Do keep in mind you won’t be the only one wanting to see it…

Spring and autumn are generally good times to visit, even without witnessing the equinox. Between June and September, there is a chance of hurricanes, and the summer temperatures are quite high.

My Tips

Show all Bucket List Tips on Mexico

Read My Tips

all 31 articles on Mexico

Show all articles