Chichén Itzá is the lordly rock star of the Mundo Maya. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and an inspirational backdrop for performances by artists such as Elton John and Luciano Pavarotti.
This grand capital of the Yucatán may have been home to as many as 50,000 Maya during its heyday in the Late Classic and Postclassic periods. After Chichén’s Maya population collapsed around A.D. 900, an invasion of northern Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs were followed by the Itzá, all of whom continued to build on the site.
What is left is a stunning smorgasbord of Mesoamerican culture and architecture spread across a massive complex of temples, palaces, altars, and the largest ball court in the Maya world.
Some of the most important structures (the ball court and Temple of Kukulcán) were erected toward the end of the Maya rule, possibly triggered by an auspicious calendar cycle ending in A.D. 830.
El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcán) is an iconic stepped pyramid 24 meters (79 feet) tall and dating to around A.D. 850. This structure is famous for having various Maya calendar cycles represented in the number of steps, platforms, sides, and levels, all of which are aligned with the equinox sun, such that on those days only (and for a few days before and after the equinox dates), a serpent-shaped shadow descends the steps.
Chichén has the greatest ball court in the Mundo Maya (the field stretches 135 meters, or 443 feet). The level field between flat walls soars eight meters (26 feet), broken only by the circular rings through which the hard rubber ball had to pass.
Don’t miss the Tzompantli (Wall of Skulls), which features rows of staring skull carvings: rows of skulls, skulls on a rack, eagles eating human hearts, and death warriors holding shields. (Photo ops galore, and inspiration for the name of your next death metal band.)
Crucial to the location of the city, the Sacred Cenote is a 100-foot-deep natural well, located 300 meters (985 feet) north of the main city at the end of a limestone road. This is where the Maya made many sacrifices, both human and material. The rain gods must have been very hungry: dredging revealed scores of skeletons, many women and children. Archaeologists have also found many precious jade items at the bottom of the water. Watch your step.
Though tourists may not enter the Temple of Warriors, they can admire the carvings on its south facade. Human faces emerge from serpents’ mouths, and four hook-nosed Chaac masks look on. Next to this building is the photogenic Group of a Thousand Columns, the Maya’s conceptual answer to China’s Terracotta Army.
Rising several stories atop a small hill, El Caracol is an especially important structure in Chichén Itzá, named for the spiral staircase that leads to what may have been an astronomical observatory. The site is perfectly aligned with the solstice sun; its window slits align to the path of the moon during the spring equinox.
Chichén Itzá is open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Entrance costs US$10 (plus US$3.50 video camera fee). The fee includes entrance to the park and the sound-and-light show, whether you stay for it or not. You’ll also be offered the option of a tour guide (US$50–60 per group).
Chichén Itzá is a huge, well-groomed, and micro-managed site with a lot of rules and ropes. At the entrance is an ATM, bag storage, cafeteria, bookstore, and gift shop—and a constant stream of tour buses loading and unloading in the large parking area. It’s usually all quite efficient.
As one of the premier day-trip destinations from Cancún and cruise-ship ports, Chichén Itzá is swarmed by tens of thousands of visitors in the middle of the day. Definitely consider staying at an on-site accommodation to experience the site during the cooler (mellower) mornings or late afternoons. The Lodge at Chichén Itzá (tel. 800/235-4079, www.mayaland.com , US$250) has 39 bungalows amid the ruins, and is home to its own private collection of unexcavated ruins. The lodge also has a private entrance to Chichén Itzá, which allows guests to avoid the Disneyland-esque lines at the main entrance.
A quick visit to the museum at the visitors center is worth it, and you may as well stay for the Sound and Light Show (7 p.m. Oct.–Apr.; 8 p.m. May–Sept.).
All equinox dates are already huge events at Chichén Itzá, since this is the day that the sun casts a shadow on El Castillo that looks like a snake descending the stairs. Expect a series of large events and gatherings here, probably more in a celebratory mood. (I would not be surprised if there is a reenactment of the ball game, at least on the solstice dates.)
Chichén Itzá is located on Highway 180 between Mérida  (1.5 hours away) and Cancún  (2.5 hours away). The easiest way to arrange a day trip from Mérida or Cancún is with your hotel or a local tour company.
By car from either Mérida or Cancún, take the autopista (US$7 from Mérida, US$22 from Cancún). Exit at the village of Pisté and follow signs to the site.
Chichén Itzá is 1.5 kilometers (1 mi) from the bus station in the small town of Pisté . Buses to and from Pisté stop at both the entrance to Chichén Itzá and the bus station. There are also buses to and from Cancún , Cobá , Mérida , Tulum , and Valladolid . By bus from Mérida, take a first-class ADO bus or one of the first-class buses to Cancún. Otherwise, buy a second-class bus ticket to Valladolid and travel first-class from there.
For more travel information on things to see and do at Chichén Itzá and in the surrounding area, please visit the Chichén Itzá section of our Moon Cancún & the Yucatán travel guide .