Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders on The World is famed the world over. It’s iconic pyramid-shaped temple is the poster-child for Mayan civilisation and its on the bucket-list for most travelers. Found in Mexico’s Yucatan only 2 hours from the tourist mega-resort city of Cancun and comparatively smaller beachside vacation destinations of Playa del Carmen and Tulum Chichen Itza, it has become one of Mexico’s most visited destination – and for good reason – but with masses of tour groups being dumped on this site daily is there anyway to enjoy Chichen Itza without the crowds? And how can you do Chichen Itza by yourself and on the cheap? Let me tell you how you can have a unique experience here, without any other tourists in your photo, for a far cheaper price with just a small bit of forward planning. But first, a short history of the Chichen Itza UNESCO site to get you even more excited!
Short on time? This place requires a night closer to Chichen Itza but you can still have this exact same experience by hiring a car in Cancun and driving yourself. In fact this will allow you to see more of the highlights of the Yucatan as well. Check here to compare the best prices for car rental by booking in advance.
Chichen-Itza has over a 1,000-year history and even after being abandoned (twice!) it still maintained a tremendously important rule in Mayan culture in the Yucutan right up until the Spanish Conquest where Conquestidores found locals still making pilgrimages to this sacred site. A unique pre-Hispanic city that displays a blend of the Maya and Toltec culture and vision of the world – Throughout the ruins, you can see evidence of both Chac, the Maya rain god, and Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent of the Toltec. While the Maya obviously brought their trademark architecture skills the Totlec brought their expertise in warfare and elevated human sacrifices here to a level not seen in any other Maya cities.
The stand out attractions of Chichen Itza today are the Warriors’ Temple, El Castillo and the circular observatory known as El Caracol. El Castillo in particular is iconic of the site and the money-shot everyone wants to get. Not actually a pyramid but more of a ancient Mayan calendar it is actually divided in two by a staircase, creating 18 different terraces that commemorate the 18 months in the Mayan Year, each with 20 days. There are four staircases (one on each side), with 91 steps on each – counted together plus the final platform is 365, the number of days in the year. As if that wasn’t enough on the spring and autumnal equinoxes each year the morning and afternoon sunlight produces a light-and-shadow illusion of the serpent ascending or descending on El Castillo’s famous staircase – while an incredible sight expect hoards of tourists, and the effect is almost as good in the days before or after the equinoxes.
You do not need to go on a Chichen Itza private tour to have your own quiet time here, in fact this would not help at all as they generally arrive too late in the day. The only way to see Chichen Itza without the crowds is to go there by yourself, either with a car or staying in a nearby town. I recommend to stay in the charming colonial town of Valladolid – colourful, easily accessible and not too big or too small – and from here you can catch a quick and easy 40 minute collectivo straight to the front gates. If you are like me and catch the first collectivo from the station next to the Valladolid ADO bus station at 7 am you can arrive just before eight, be the first people to pay the Chichen Itza entrance fee and the first people to enter the park. I am quite serious, there were only 3 other people who came 10 minutes after me and then besides the tacky souvenir sellers it was only at just before 9am that the tours from Cancun started arriving, and intensifying at 10 when I left. This this fool proof plan the only thing you need to worry about is dealing with post-travel depression when you finally leave beautiful Mexico!
The Chichen Itza Ruins are more than 740 acres (300 hectares) in size, a large city in the past but today without a guide you can easily cover it all in 2-3 hours, getting out before the worst of the tours or heat kicks in. I truly loved being able to marvel at this 7th Wonder of the World all by myself and to appreciate its beauty and history – at least for a moment – unlike the thousands upon thousands of other daily visitors, who sadly spend more time searching for shade or their tour guide in the hot sun than looking on in amazement. When the tours arrive, beat a hasty retreat and go on a Chichen Itza cenote tour about 3 km down the road before the tour buses go there in the early afternoon and ruin that too.
Valladolid is very accessible from most of the Yucatan being on the main road between Cancun and Merida, or Tulum and Merida. If you have the time it’s a nice place to relax for a few days and to use as a base to see the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos, the largest and most impressive flamingo colony in Mexico. There are also plenty of cute cafes, an impressive collection of Mexican folk art at Casa de Los Venados, bike tours, tequila tasting and delicious taquerias to be discovered! Oh and of course there are a few cenotes around, even some in biking distance – Just be sure not to go to Cenote Zac in town, it is heavily populated (as it’s in the centre of town) and neither beautiful or swimmable.
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