An Insider’s Guide to Chichen Itza
We emerged from a copse of trees deep in conversation. I had been standing on the lush green lawn in the thick jungle heat for a few minutes before I bothered to glance to my right. Immediately, my breath caught in my throat. Looming before stood a structure I had seen in countless photos on countless magazine pages and websites. But nothing prepared me for the experience in person.
This is the can’t-miss icon of Mayan ruins in this region of Mexico. The pyramidic Temple of Kukulkan juts out of the jungle and just begs to be photographed from every angle. Travelers have been fascinated by this site since the mid-1800s, when explorers first started to visit. Despite the modern-day hordes of tourists, craft vendors, and selfie sticks, Chichen Itza is still a wonder to behold.
There are a few ways to get to Chichen Itza, and they are (in order of preference):
This is by far the best option, because you can get to the complex before it opens and try to get a few photos of the Temple before it’s surrounded by tour groups. The roads in and around Chichen Itza are well-paved and driving in Yucatan and the surrounding area is safe. Parking is 30 MXP and the majority of the lot is shaded from the sun.
Hire a Driver
If you don’t want to do the driving but still want the flexibility of your own schedule, you can hire a driver. On the lower end of this scale, many taxi drivers can be negotiated with to take you around for the day. Don’t expect it to come cheap — Chichen Itza is a good 2.5 hours from Cancun. You can find private car services from nearly every major town in the Yucatan Peninsula for a higher rate.
Take a Bus
If driving is not in the cards for you, there are several bus services to Piste, the small town outside of Chichen Itza. The bus company ADO has my trust, and they connect directly to Chichen Itza from most major towns on the Yucatan Peninsula. You won’t have the benefit of an early arrival, but you can always stay overnight in Piste and make your way to the ruins early the next day.
Take a Tour
There are several tour companies that offer services to Chichen Itza, mostly of the megabus variety. If you don’t mind sharing your experience with a dozen+ other tourists, this could be the route for you. Many tours will come with a qualified guide to explain the significance of various sites.
While You’re There
Entrance Fee: $232 MXP (Cards Accepted)
Worth the Money: Hiring one of the guides at the front gate. They will quote you $750 MXP for a guide, but if you tell them you read that it’s $600 MXP they will lower the price. The guides all speak great English and will give you insight into the complex that you can’t get on your own. Our guide, Ruben, detailed the various methodologies the Mayans used to measure time. When he explained how these tied into the way the Temple of Kukulkan was built, our minds were blown. Be sure to tip.
Don’t Skip: The Great Ball Court, to the left when you enter the primary grounds of the complex. It’s the largest of it’s kind and it’s in remarkably good shape. Here, Mayans played a Mesoamerican form of basketball, trying to pass a rubber ball through one of two rings on either side of the court. It’s unclear with the victors or the losers were put to death after the game, but the stakes were definitely high.
After You Leave
There are a few other spots nearby worth checking out, from unique swimming holes to pretty European towns.
The odds of making it to this cenote if you didn’t drive yourself or higher a driver are pretty slim. About 25 minutes outside of Piste is a small village called Yokdoznot. Down a side street in this sleepy town is an unassuming little complex that houses one of the most beautiful cenotes in the area.
Cenotes X’quequen and Samula
Just outside of the city of Valladolid are two more cenotes worth exploring. Built within the same complex and about 100 meters away from each other, X’quequen (X’Keken) is a fully-enclosed cave cenote with impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations. It’s well-lit and easily swimmable for all level of skill. Samula is the Instagram-worthy cenote with a skylight that shine sunshine down into the bright blue water below. It’s worth the extra 30 pesos to visit both.
Valladolid is all pastel shopfronts, beautiful old churches and sidewalk cafes. A large park dominates the center of the city and is a great place for a stroll. It’s a tiny slice of Europe parked smack in the middle of Yucatan Peninsula. It’s not a bad place to base yourself for a few days while you explore the lesser-known ruins in the area.
Parking Price: $30 MXP
Entry Price: $232 MXP
Hours: 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Best Time to Go: 8 – 10 a.m.
Worth the Money: Hiring a guide from the front gate — it will enrich the experience!
Hot Tip: Tell the guides that Lonely Planet says it only costs $600 MXP; they will lower the price. Be sure to tip your guide.
Have you been to Chichen Itza? What advice would you give your fellow travelers? Let me know in the comments!