Located in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most popular Mayan ruins, and for good reason. Only three hours by bus from Cancún, the thousand-year-old ruins transport you back to an age of hierogloyphics, massive temple-pyramids, and human sacrifices.
Are there tourists? Oh yeah, in spades. Tell someone traveling around Mexico that you’ve just been to Chichen Itza, and within ten seconds some variation of the word “touristy” will escape their lips. Sure, it can be a little crowded, but the tourists come for good reason– to see the mind-boggling, towering remains of this ancient civilization.
First populated by the Mayans around the year 500, Chichen Itza became an important political and cultural center as early as 800 before the civilization began to decline. In the 900s, the city was resettled and appears to have been invaded by Toltecs from the northern town of Tula, apparent from the fusion of Mayan and Toltec architectural styles. The city was abandoned in the early 1200s.
Another can’t-miss site in the park is the Gran Juego de Pelotas (Grand Ballcourt), where tour guides can be heard clapping throughout the day to demonstrate to their groups the court’s wonderful acoustics. (Go on, try it!) The Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of the Thousand Columns) is just what it sounds like– an impressive arrangement of, well, a thousand ten-foot-high columns. For more on the individual buildings at Chichen Itza, check out the accompanying slideshow.
If you go: From Cancún, buses leave for Chichen Itza every hour from 5 am to 5 pm. Expect to pay about US$10 if traveling first-class, slightly less otherwise. Buses typically stop at the park’s western entrance, though a few will drop you off in the nearby town of Piste. Ask before you get on. Outside of Cancún, almost any town in the Yucatan will have multiple buses going to (or through) Chichen Itza every day. The park gets very crowded later in the day, so try to go as early as possible.
Tickets for the ruins, purchased right at the entrance to the park, cost about US$9.
Where to stay: Day-trips to Chichen Itza are possible from tour agencies in almost any decent-sized town in the Yucatan, although the three-hour (at least) bus ride each way makes for a very long day.
A better option is to spend the night in Valladolid, a small colonial town about 25 miles east of the ruins. Places to stay are cheap and abundant and reservations aren’t required. If you’re looking for a more cosmopolitan city, head to lovely Mérida about 90 minutes to the northwest of the ruins. Bus tickets are sold inside the Chichen Itza visitors’ center.