Chichen Itza, the largest of the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula, was once a cosmopolitan Mayan-Toltec city. The complex is divided into two major areas: "Old Chicken" the older Classic Maya city (7th -10th century), and "New Chichen" (11th-13th century) that incorporates elements from the Toltecs. The ruins are in excellent condition, and Chichen Itza is great place for kids to explore.
Allow plenty of time to visit Chichen Itza, it covers a large area, and improves with more than one visit. We stayed several days in a hotel nearby, ran around Chichen Itza in the morning, then enjoyed an afternoon in the pool.
Chichen Itza ruins -
When you first arrive, head over to El Castillo (also called Kulkukan's Pyramid), in the northern area of "New Chichen." Other highlights in this area are the Great Ball Court, Tzompantli, and Temple of Warriors.
- El Castillo, with four ramps and nine levels, is a temple for the king-deity Kukulkan ("feathered serpent, also known as Quetzalcoatl). At the bottom of one ramp are two feathered serpent heads. Alas, you can no longer climb to the top for fabulous views of ruins and jungle in distance.
Great Ball Court
- The biggest ball court in pre-Columbian America, players on the two teams competed to hit a rubber ball through a stone ring on either wall. Not just a monumental setting for games, losers or even winners may have lost their head at the end of the game.
- Four rows of skulls are carved in the stone on the Tzompantli, "platform of skulls" platform. Heads of dead enemies were displayed on the wall. Also look for reliefs with images of eagles, serpents, and warriors each holding a severed head.
Temple of Warriors
- It's not possible to climb the temple, so bring binoculars to look at the reclining chacmool statue (probably used in sacrifice offerings) and two columns with feathered serpents at the top of the stairs. The square columns around the base are decorated with warriors in armor and feathered headdresses.
- Before you leave this area, take a short walk to the cenote, "sacred well of sacrifice." The water might look a little green, but into this well the Maya tossed people, gold figurines, jade, precious items, sacrifices to the god Chac (Chac was the god of rain, but also brought storms and war).
- Don't miss this re-creation of a Mayan family home. The mud walls are painted red, the roof is thatched, the floor is dirt. A Mayan house was simply furnished with clay pottery cooking pots and mats to sleep on.
- In "Old Chichen," check out the Caracol observatory. The Maya made amazingly accurate astronomical calculations using sight lines from the door and windows on the Caracol.
The Nunnery (Edificio de las Monjas)
- Not a nunnery, this was a palace complex, decorated with fabulous reliefs of the rain god Chac. Chac with a hook nose and stylized flowers over his eyes, is both fearsome and benevolent. The rectangular building next door (Iglesia) look for Chac on each of the four corners.
at the main entrance has exhibits about Mayan culture, and a model of the Chichen Itza complex overall. You can also buy souvenirs, local crafts your child's name in Mayan hieroglyphics.
Sound and Light show
in the evening. Being out under the stars with El Castillo and ruins all lit up is impressive -splashy images and motifs projected onto the pyramid.
Look for animals, mythological creatures and deities
- Throughout the ruins, look for jaguars and eagles, feathered serpents (snake head with fangs, feathers for body), and god of rain, Chac.
Tip: The National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park Mexico City has artifacts from Chichen Itza, along with the Great Museum of the Maya World in Merida.
Cenote Ik Kil - If your kids are good swimmers (there's no shallow end here), go for a swim in the Cenote Ik Kil, the "sacred blue well." Stairs leading down to the water make it easy to climb in and out. The water is incredibly clear - bring your snorkels.
Balankanche Caves - The Yucatan Peninsula sits on a limestone plain. As water seeps through the limestone, caves are formed with stalactites and stalagmites. The Balankanche Caves were used by the Maya to make ceremonial offerings to the rain god. The highlight of the cave tour is a huge cavern with an enormous stalagmite in the middle, like a pillar reaching to the ceiling. Mayan ceramic ceremonial objects are arranged around the stalagmite. The trail through the cave is wide, but be prepared for warm temperatures.