Chichén Itzá is one of the most impressive remains of the Maya civilisation, at least that’s what it’s known for in Mexico. 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.

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.

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:

  1. The Toltec people conquered the Maya people: 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.
  2. The Maya and the Toltec peoples lived together peacefully: Research has shown that both the May and Toltec people were excellent tradespeople. 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.
  3. The Maya people conquered the Toltec people: 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.

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.

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.

The best time to visit 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.

Be aware:

Many tourists travel here from Cancun and Merida and end up spending the hottest part of the day wandering around. If you’re smart, you’ll stay nearby the site and go in the early morning, when it’s cooler and quieter.

You can hire a guide for very little money near the entrance. Their local knowledge will absolutely add to the experience. Do make sure they speak adequate English if you don’t speak Spanish, and ask a bit about what they know, to avoid disappointment.

The locals don’t benefit much from all the tourists that come and see Chichén Itzá. They try to make some money by selling souvenirs, which are often related to the Maya, their cultural heritage. So if you’d like to support the locals, don’t leave empty-handed. Chichén Itzá is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

More information: whc.unesco.org/en/list/483

Maya Toltec