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Chichen Itza

Chichén Itzá is the largest of the archaeological cities in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities in the region. The city may have had the most diverse population in pre-Columbian times, a factor that may have contributed to the diversity of architectural styles in Chichen Itza.

The ruins of Chichen Itza are federal property, the site is managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. The land under the monuments was privately owned until 2010 when it was purchased by the state of Yucatan.

The Chichén Itzá complex is one of Mexico’s most visited tourist destinations. Chichén Itzá was granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. The site also is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Geography & Location

Chichen Itza is located in the northern Yucatán.

The northern Yucatán Peninsula is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sinkholes, called cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year-round at Chichen.

One of the cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” (“Sacred Cenote”), is the most famous. Pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into this cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac.

Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910 and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains. Studies have confirmed that this is a human sacrifice.

Origin of the Name

The Mayan name of the place “Chi’ch’èen Ìitsha” in Yucatec maya means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. This derives from the word chi’ (“mouth” or “edge”) and the word ch’en or ch’e’en (“well”).

Itzá is the name of an ethnic-lineage group that gained political and economic dominance of the northern peninsula. One possible translation for Itza is “enchanter (or enchantment) of the water” from its (“sorcerer”) and ha (“water”).

The name is spelled Chichén Itzá in Spanish, and the accents are sometimes maintained in other languages to show that both parts of the name are stressed on their final syllable.

Other references prefer the Maya orthography, Chichen Itza. This form preserves the phonemic distinction between ch’ and ch, since the base word ch’e’en (which, however, is not stressed in Maya) begins with a postalveolar ejective affricate consonant.

The word “Itza'” has a high tone on the “a” followed by a glottal stop (indicated by the apostrophe).

Evidence in the Chilam Balam books indicates another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatán. While most sources agree the first word means seven, there is considerable debate as to the correct translation of the rest.

This earlier name is difficult to define because of the absence of a single standard of orthography, but it is represented variously as Uuc Yabnal (“Seven Great House”), Uuc Hab Nal (“Seven Bushy Places”), Uucyabnal (“Seven Great Rulers”) or Uc Abnal (“Seven Lines of Abnal”).

This name, dating to the Late Classic Period, is recorded both in the book of Chilam Balam de Chumayel and in hieroglyphic texts in the ruins.


Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200).

The layout of the Chichen Itza site core was developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD, and the 10th century saw the rise of the city as a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatán to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula. The earliest hieroglyphic date discovered at Chichen Itza is equivalent to 832 AD, while the last known date was recorded in the Osario temple in 998.


The Late Classic city was centered upon the area to the southwest of the Xtoloc cenote, with the main architecture represented by the substructures now underlying the Las Monjas and Observatorio and the basal platform upon which they were built.


Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands. The ascension of Chichen Itza roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands.

As Chichen Itza rose to prominence, the cities of Yaxuna (to the south) and Coba (to the east) were suffering decline.

These two cities had been mutual allies, with Yaxuna dependent upon Coba. At some point in the 10th century, Coba lost a significant portion of its territory, isolating Yaxuna, and Chichen Itza may have directly contributed to the collapse of both cities.


According to some colonial Mayan sources (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century. Hunac Ceel supposedly prophesied his own rise to power.

According to custom at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to have the power of prophecy if they survived. During one such ceremony, the chronicles state, there were no survivors, so Hunac Ceel leaped into the Cenote Sagrado, and when removed, prophesied his own ascension.

While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapan, at least not when Chichén Itzá was an active urban center.

Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza declined as a regional center by 1250, before the rise of Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.

After Chichén Itzá elite activities ceased, the city may not have been abandoned. When the Spanish arrived, they found a thriving local population, although it is not clear from Spanish sources if the Maya were living in Chichen Itza or nearby.

The relatively high population density in the region was a factor in the conquistadors’ decision to locate a capital there. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado remained a place of pilgrimage.

Spanish conquest

In 1526 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán Peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha’, south of what is today Cancún.

Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and established his main base at Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north.

The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.

Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first, he encountered no resistance and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers.

The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually, they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of the ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived.

Montejo the Younger attempted an all-out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining troops. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness.

By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.

Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and, by recruiting Maya from Campeche and Champoton, built a large Indio-Spanish army and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.

Modern history

Chichen Itza entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens. The book recounted Stephens’ visit to Yucatán and his tour of Maya cities, including Chichén Itzá.

The book prompted other explorations of the city. In 1860, Désiré Charnay surveyed Chichén Itzá and took numerous photographs that he published in Cités et ruins américaines (1863).

In 1875, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichén and excavated a statue of a figure on its back, knees drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach.

Augustus Le Plongeon called it “Chaacmol” (later renamed “Chac Mool”).

Teobert Maler and Alfred Maudslay explored Chichén in the 1880s and both spent several weeks at the site and took extensive photographs. Maudslay published the first long-form description of Chichen Itza in his book, Biologia Centrali-Americana.

In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward Herbert Thompson, purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city.

His discoveries included the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial Series and the excavation of several graves in the Osario (High Priest’s Temple).

Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper, and carved jade, as well as the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons.

Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

In 1913, the Carnegie Institution accepted the proposal of archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley and committed to conducting long-term archaeological research at Chichen Itza. The Mexican Revolution and the following government instability, as well as World War I, delayed the project by a decade.

In 1923, the Mexican government awarded the Carnegie Institution a 10-year permit (later extended another 10 years) to allow U.S. archaeologists to conduct extensive excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza.

Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol, among other major buildings. At the same time, the Mexican government excavated and restored El Castillo and the Great Ball Court.

In 1926, the Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado and smuggled them out of the country. The government seized the Hacienda Chichén.

Thompson, who was in the United States at the time, never returned to Yucatán. He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932. He died in New Jersey in 1935.

In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichen Itza to his heirs. The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon.

There have been two later expeditions to recover artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado, in 1961 and 1967.

The first was sponsored by National Geographic, and the second by private interests. Both projects were supervised by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

INAH has conducted an ongoing effort to excavate and restore other monuments in the archaeological zone, including the Osario, Akab D’zib, and several buildings in Chichén Viejo (Old Chichen).

In 2009, to investigate construction that predated El Castillo, Yucatec archaeologists began excavations adjacent to El Castillo under the direction of Rafael (Rach) Cobos.

More facts about Chichen Itza

Political organization

Several archaeologists in the late 1980s suggested that, unlike previous Maya polities of the Early Classic, Chichen Itza may not have been governed by an individual ruler or a single dynastic lineage.

Instead, the city’s political organization could have been structured by a “multepal” system, which is characterized as rulership through a council composed of members of elite ruling lineages.

This theory was popular in the 1990s, but in recent years, the research that supported the concept of the “multepal” system has been called into question, if not discredited. The current belief trend in Maya scholarship is toward the more traditional model of the Maya kingdoms of the Classic Period southern lowlands in Mexico.


Chichen Itza was a major economic power in the northern Maya lowlands during its apogee.

Participating in the water-borne circum-peninsular trade route through its port site of Isla Cerritos on the north coast, Chichen Itza was able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant areas such as obsidian from central Mexico and gold from southern Central America.

Between AD 900 and 1050 Chichen Itza expanded to become a powerful regional capital controlling north and central Yucatán. It established Isla Cerritos as a trading port.

Site description

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities, with the relatively densely clustered architecture of the site core covering an area of at least 5 sq km. Smaller-scale residential architecture extends for an unknown distance beyond this.

The city was built upon broken terrain, which was artificially leveled in order to build the major architectural groups, with the greatest effort being expended in the leveling of the areas for the Castillo pyramid and the Las Monjas, Osario, and Main Southwest groups.

The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings were connected by a dense network of paved causeways, called sacbeob.

Archaeologists have identified over 80 sacbeob crisscrossing the site and extending in all directions from the city. Many of these stone buildings were originally painted in red, green, blue, and purple colors.

Pigments were chosen according to what was most easily available in the area.

The site must be imagined as a colorful one, not like it is today. Just like gothic cathedrals in Europe, colors provided a greater sense of completeness and contributed greatly to the symbolic impact of the buildings.

The architecture encompasses a number of styles, including the Puuc and Chenes styles of the northern Yucatán Peninsula.

The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets, and each set was at one time separated from the other by a series of low walls. The three best-known of these complexes are the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, the Temple of Warriors, and the Great Ball Court; The Osario Group, which includes the pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc; and the Central Group, which includes the Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.

South of Las Monjas, in an area known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) and only open to archaeologists, are several other complexes, such as the Group of the Initial Series, Group of the Lintels, and Group of the Old Castle.

Architectural styles

The Puuc-style architecture is concentrated in the Old Chichen area, and also the earlier structures in the Nunnery Group (including the Las Monjas, Annex, and La Iglesia buildings); it is also represented in the Akab Dzib structure.

The Puuc-style building features the usual mosaic-decorated upper façades characteristic of the style but differs from the architecture of the Puuc heartland in their block masonry walls, as opposed to the fine veneers of the Puuc region proper.

At least one structure in the Las Monjas Group features an ornate façade and masked doorway that are typical examples of Chenes-style architecture, a style centered upon a region in the north of Campeche state, lying between the Puuc and Río Bec regions.

Those structures with sculpted hieroglyphic script are concentrated in certain areas of the site, with the most important being the Las Monjas group.

Architectural groups

El Castillo

Dominating the North Platform of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan (a Maya feathered serpent deity similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl), usually referred to as El Castillo (“the castle”). This step pyramid stands about 30 m high and consists of a series of nine square terraces, each approximately 2.57 m high, with a 6 m high temple upon the summit.

The sides of the pyramid are approximately 55.3 m at the base and rise at an angle of 53°, although that varies slightly for each side. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°.

The talud walls of each terrace slant at an angle of between 72° and 74°.

At the base of the balustrades of the northeastern staircase are carved heads of a serpent.

Mesoamerican cultures periodically superimposed larger structures over older ones, and El Castillo is one such example.

In the mid-1930s, the Mexican government sponsored an excavation of El Castillo. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one.

Inside the temple chamber was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of a Jaguar, painted red and with spots made of inlaid jade.

The Mexican government excavated a tunnel from the base of the north staircase, up the earlier pyramid’s stairway to the hidden temple, and opened it to tourists. In 2006, INAH closed the throne room to the public.

In 1566, the pyramid was described by Friar Diego de Landa in the manuscript known as Yucatán at the Time of the Spanish Encounter (Relación de las cosas de Yucatán).

Almost three centuries later, John Lloyd Stephens described with even more detail the architecture of the pyramid in his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (Incidentes del viaje Yucatán), published in 1843.

At that time, the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá was located on an estate, also called Chichén Itzá, owned by Juan Sosa. Frederick Catherwood illustrated the book with lithographs depicting the pyramid covered in abundant vegetation on all sides.

There are some photographs taken at the beginning of the 20th century that also show the pyramid partially covered by said vegetation.

In 1924, the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. requested permission from the Mexican government to carry out explorations and restoration efforts in and around the area of Chichen Itza.

In 1927, with the assistance of Mexican archaeologists, they started the task.

In April 1931, looking to confirm the hypothesis that the structure of the pyramid of Kukulkan was built on top of a much older pyramid, the work of excavation and exploration began in spite of generalized beliefs contrary to that hypothesis.

On June 7, 1932, a box with coral, obsidian, and turquoise-encrusted objects was found alongside human remains, which are exhibited in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

After extensive work, in April 1935, a Chac Mool statue, with its nails, teeth, and eyes inlaid with mother of pearl was found inside the pyramid.

The room where the discovery was made was nicknamed the Hall of Offerings or the North Chamber. After more than a year of excavation, in August 1936, a second room was found, only meters away from the first.

Inside this room, nicknamed the chamber of sacrifices, archaeologists found two parallel rows of human bone set into the back wall, as well as a red jaguar statue with 74 jade inlays for spots, jade crescents for eyes, and white painted flint for teeth and fangs.

On its back was found a turquoise disc apparently used for burning incense.

Both figures were found facing north-northeast.

Researchers concluded that there must be an inner pyramid approximately 33 m wide, shaped similarly to the outer pyramid, with nine steps and a height of 17 m up to the base of the temple where the Chac Mool and the jaguar were found.

It is estimated that this construction dates to the eleventh century CE.

After all of the work was completed, an entryway was cut into the balustrade of the northeastern exterior staircase to provide access to tourists. The older, inner pyramid is referred to as the “substructure”.

Closed for public climbing

Climbing El Castillo was stopped in 2006, after a 91-year-old woman slipped on her way back, fell fell down the remaining steps of the pyramid. Medical assistance was immediate.

The ambulance, permanently stationed at the foot of El Castillo, was mobilized.

Its crew administered aid at the scene and then rushed her to the nearby Regional de Valladolid Hospital. Unfortunately, the lady’s head and neck injuries were too severe. Despite the best efforts of the hospital personnel there, she died four hours later.

For the owners of Chichén Itzá, this was the last straw.

They had bowed to public pressure to keep the structures accessible to climbers for too long.

An army of specialists had scrubbed or otherwise erased the graffiti; repairs had been made to eroded steps; guide ropes had been fitted; and the ambulance installed. But there were now simply too many people wishing to climb the pyramids.

What had occurred with the old lady had been an accident waiting to happen, and now it had actually happened. The decision was made, for the safety of visitors and the preservation of the structures, to prohibit public climbing on the pyramids.

At the same time, INAH closed the public access to the interior throne room.

Spring and Autumn equinoxes

On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan.

Great Ball Court

Archaeologists have identified thirteen ballcourts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichen Itza, but the Great Ball Court about 150 m to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive.

It is the largest and best-preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 168 by 70 m.

The parallel platforms flanking the main playing area are each 95 m long. The walls of these platforms stand 8 m high; set high up in the center of each of these walls are rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents.

At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated; the wound emits streams of blood in the form of wriggling snakes.

At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo del Hombre Barbado).

This small masonry building has detailed bas-relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair. At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.

Built into the east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar.

The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the ball court and has an entrance guarded by two, large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif. Inside there is a large mural, much destroyed, which depicts a battle scene.

In the entrance to the Lower Temple of the Jaguar, which opens behind the ball court, is another Jaguar throne, similar to the one in the inner temple of El Castillo, except that it is well-worn and missing paint or other decoration.

The outer columns and the walls inside the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief carvings.

Additional structures

The Tzompantli, or Skull Platform (Plataforma de los Cráneos), shows the clear cultural influence of the central Mexican Plateau. Unlike the tzompantli of the highlands, however, the skulls were impaled vertically rather than horizontally as at Tenochtitlan.

The Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars (Plataforma de Águilas y Jaguares) is immediately to the east of the Great Ballcourt. It is built in a combination of Maya and Toltec styles, with a staircase ascending each of its four sides.

The sides are decorated with panels depicting eagles and jaguars consuming human hearts.

This Platform of Venus is dedicated to the planet Venus. In its interior archaeologists discovered a collection of large cones carved out of stone, the purpose of which is unknown. This platform is located north of El Castillo, between it and the Cenote Sagrado.

The Temple of the Tables is the northernmost of a series of buildings to the east of El Castillo. Its name comes from a series of altars at the top of the structure that are supported by small carved figures of men with upraised arms, called “atlantes.”

The Steam Bath is a unique building with three parts: a waiting gallery, a water bath, and a steam chamber that is operated by means of heated stones.

Sacbe Number One is a causeway that leads to the Cenote Sagrado, which is the largest and most elaborate at Chichen Itza.

This “white road” is 270 m long with an average width of 9 m. It begins at a low wall a few meters from the Platform of Venus. According to archaeologists there once was an extensive building with columns at the beginning of the road.

Sacred Cenote

The Yucatán Peninsula is a limestone plain, with no rivers or streams. The region is pockmarked with natural sinkholes, called cenotes, which expose the water table to the surface.

One of the most impressive of these is the Cenote Sagrado, which is 60 m in diameter and surrounded by sheer cliffs that drop to the water table some 27 m below.

The Cenote Sagrado was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people who, according to ethnohistoric sources, would conduct sacrifices during times of drought.

Archaeological investigations support this as thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the cenote, including material such as gold, carved jade, copal, pottery, flint, obsidian, shell, wood, rubber, cloth, as well as skeletons of children and men.

Temple of the Warriors

The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. This complex is analogous to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions.

The one at Chichen Itza, however, was constructed on a larger scale. At the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit (and leading towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple) is a Chac Mool.

This temple encases or entombs a former structure called The Temple of the Chac Mool. The archeological expedition and restoration of this building were done by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1925 to 1928. A key member of this restoration was Earl H. Morris who published the work from this expedition in two volumes entitled Temple of the Warriors.

Group of a Thousand Columns

Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system.

The columns are in three distinct sections: A west group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors. A north group runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief;

A northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents.

The northeast column temple also covers a small marvel of engineering, a channel that funnels all the rainwater from the complex some 40 m away to a rejollada, a former cenote.

To the south of the Group of a Thousand Columns is a group of three, smaller, interconnected buildings. The Temple of the Carved Columns is a small elegant building that consists of a front gallery with an inner corridor that leads to an altar with a Chac Mool.

There are also numerous columns with rich, bas-relief carvings of some 40 personages.

A section of the upper façade with a motif of x’s and o’s is displayed in front of the structure. The Temple of the Small Tables is an unrestored mound. The Thompson’s Temple (referred to in some sources as Palace of Ahau Balam Kauil ), is a small building with two levels that has friezes depicting Jaguars (balam in Maya) as well as glyphs of the Maya god Kahuil.

El Mercado

This square structure anchors the southern end of the Temple of Warriors complex. It is so named for the shelf of stone that surrounds a large gallery and patio that early explorers theorized was used to display wares as in a marketplace.

Today, archaeologists believe that its purpose is more ceremonial than commercial.

Osario Group

South of the North Group is a smaller platform that has many important structures, several of which appear to be oriented toward the second-largest cenote at Chichen Itza, Xtoloc.

The Osario itself, like El Castillo, is a step-pyramid temple dominating its platform, only on a smaller scale. Like its larger neighbor, it has four sides with staircases on each side.

There is a temple on top, but unlike El Castillo, at the center is an opening into the pyramid which leads to a natural cave 12 m below. Edward H. Thompson excavated this cave in the late 19th century, and because he found several skeletons and artifacts such as jade beads, he named the structure The High Priests’ Temple.

Archaeologists today believe neither that the structure was a tomb nor that the personages buried in it were priests.

The Temple of Xtoloc is a recently restored temple outside the Osario Platform.

It overlooks the other large cenote at Chichen Itza, named after the Maya word for iguana, “Xtoloc.” The temple contains a series of pilasters carved with images of people, as well as representations of plants, birds, and mythological scenes.

Between the Xtoloc temple and the Osario are several aligned structures: The Platform of Venus (which is similar in design to the structure of the same name next to El Castillo), the Platform of the Tombs, and a small, round structure that is unnamed.

These three structures were constructed in a row extending from the Osario. Beyond them, the Osario platform terminates in a wall, which contains an opening to a sacbe that runs several hundred feet to the Xtoloc temple.

South of the Osario, at the boundary of the platform, there are two small buildings that archaeologists believe were residences for important personages. These have been named the House of the Metates and the House of the Mestizas.

Casa Colorada Group

South of the Osario Group is another small platform that has several structures that are among the oldest in the Chichen Itza archaeological zone.

The Casa Colorada (Spanish for “Red House”) is one of the best-preserved buildings at Chichen Itza. Its Maya name is Chichanchob, which according to INAH may mean “small holes”.

In one chamber there are extensive carved hieroglyphs that mention rulers of Chichen Itza and possibly of the nearby city of Ek Balam and contain a Maya date inscribed which correlates to 869 AD, one of the oldest such dates found in all of Chichen Itza.

In 2009, INAH restored a small ball court that adjoined the back wall of the Casa Colorada.

While the Casa Colorada is in a good state of preservation, other buildings in the group, with one exception, are decrepit mounds.

One building is half-standing, named La Casa del Venado (House of the Deer). This building’s name has been long used by the local Maya, and some authors mention that it was named after a deer painting over stucco that doesn’t exist anymore.

Central Group

Las Monjas is one of the more notable structures at Chichen Itza. It is a complex of Terminal Classic buildings constructed in the Puuc architectural style. The Spanish named this complex Las Monjas (“The Nuns” or “The Nunnery”) but it was actually a governmental palace. Just to the east is a small temple (known as the La Iglesia, “The Church”) decorated with elaborate masks.

The Las Monjas group is distinguished by its concentration of hieroglyphic texts dating to the Late to Terminal Classic. These texts frequently mention a ruler by the name of Kakupakal.

El Caracol (“The Snail”) is located to the north of Las Monjas. It is a round building on a large square platform. It gets its name from the stone spiral staircase inside. The structure, with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape (the others are rectangular, in keeping with Maya practice), is theorized to have been a proto-observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens.

Akab Dzib is located to the east of the Caracol. The name means, in Yucatec Mayan, “Dark Writing”; “dark” in the sense of “mysterious”. An earlier name of the building, according to a translation of glyphs in the Casa Colorada, is Wa(k)wak Puh Ak Na, “the flat house with the excessive number of chambers,” and it was the home of the administrator of Chichén Itzá, kokom Yahawal Cho’ K’ak’.

INAH completed a restoration of the building in 2007. It is relatively short, only 6 m high, and is 50 m in length and 15 m wide. The long, western-facing façade has seven doorways. The eastern façade has only four doorways, broken by a large staircase that leads to the roof.

This apparently was the front of the structure and looks out over what is today a steep, dry, cenote.

The southern end of the building has one entrance.

The door opens into a small chamber and on the opposite wall is another doorway, above which on the lintel are intricately carved glyphs – the “mysterious” or “obscure” writing that gives the building its name today.

Under the lintel in the doorjamb is another carved panel of a seated figure surrounded by more glyphs. Inside one of the chambers, near the ceiling, is a painted handprint.

Old Chichen

Old Chichen (or Chichén Viejo in Spanish) is the name given to a group of structures to the south of the central site, where most of the Puuc-style architecture of the city is concentrated. It includes the Initial Series Group, the Phallic Temple, the Platform of the Great Turtle, the Temple of the Owls, and the Temple of the Monkeys.

Other structures

Chichen Itza also has a variety of other structures densely packed in the ceremonial center of about 5 sq km and several outlying subsidiary sites.

Sacred Cenote

Cenote Sagrado (“Sacred Well”), alternatively known as the “Well of Sacrifice”, refers to a noted cenote at the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site of Chichen Itza.

It is located to the north of Chichen Itza’s civic precinct, to which it is connected by a 300-metre sacbe, or raised and paved pathway.

According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac.

Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910 and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains. A study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.

Description and History

The northwestern Yucatán Peninsula is a limestone plain, with no rivers streams, lakes, or ponds.

The region is pockmarked with natural sinkholes, called cenotes, which expose the water table to the surface. One of the most impressive of these is the Sacred Cenote, which is 60 m in diameter and surrounded by sheer cliffs that drop to the water table some 27 m below.

According to ethnohistoric sources, the Sacred Cenote was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people who would conduct sacrifices in it. As Friar Diego de Landa observed in 1566 after visiting Chichen Itza:

“Into this well, they have had, and then had, the custom of throwing men alive as a sacrifice to the gods, in times of drought, and they believed that they did not die though they never saw them again.

They also threw into it a great many other things, like precious stones and things that they prized. And so, if this country had possessed gold, it would be this well that would have the great part of it”.

Archaeological explorations of the cenote

Most of the major findings in the cenote were made under the supervision of Edward Herbert Thompson, who began dredging in 1904. Much of what is known about the dredging process is derived from Thompson’s personal notes.

Thompson received money from Stephen Salisbury III to help him buy the Chichén Itzá excavation site and explore the cenote. Much of Thompson’s findings and research can be found at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

A bucket attached to a pulley system was used to dredge the cenote.

Much of the beginning work consisted of clearing debris and fallen trees on the top of the water. Leon Cole, a colleague of Thompson, once recorded in his journal, “they made ten hauls in the morning and six or eight in the afternoon.”

People would search through the buckets of water looking for artifacts and categorizing them accordingly. Unfortunately, there were several reports of stolen artifacts that could never be found.

Thompson decided to take a break from dredging after Salisbury died. A host of problems, including the Mexican Revolution, and financial issues began to hinder the work effort and damage the morale of the workers.

Thompson’s house in Mexico was also burned down, and one of the chests in which he kept his notes and data was destroyed in the fire. By 1923, Thompson was officially done working on the cenote.

In 1909, Thompson decided to dive in the cenote to explore the floors, assisted by two Greek divers from the Bahamas. He reported limited visibility due to the murky water, and many shifting rocks and trees made the dive hazardous.

Thompson found a layer about 5 m thick of blue pigment that had settled on the ground of the cenote. He described the bottom as, “full of long narrow cracks, radiating from centers as if the glass bottom of a dish had been broken by a pointed instrument.

We found down in the cracks and holes a grayish mud in which were embedded the heavier gold objects, jades, and copper bells in numbers.” He later proudly proclaimed, “I have at last personally trod the bottom of the Cenote.”

In 1961, William Folan, a field director for the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH), helped launch another expedition into the cenote. Some of their notable discoveries included an inscribed, gold-sheathed bone, a large chert knife with a gold-sheathed wooden handle, and wooden ear flares with jade and turquoise mosaic.

In 1967-1968, Norman Scott and Román Piña Chán led another expedition. They tried two new methods that many people had suggested for a long time: emptying the water out of the cenote and clarifying the water. Both of these methods were only partially successful.

Only about 4 m of water could be removed, and the water was only clarified for a short amount of time.

Objects found in the Sacred Cenote

Archaeological investigations support this as thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the cenote, including artifacts made from gold, jadeite, copal, pottery, flint, obsidian, shell, wood, rubber, cloth, as well as human skeletons.

Many perishable objects were preserved by the cenote. Wooden objects that normally would have rotted were preserved in the water.

A great variety of wooden objects have been found including weapons, scepters, idols, tools, and jewelry. Jade was the largest category of objects found, followed by textiles.

The presence of jade, gold, and copper in the cenote offers proof of the importance of Chichén Itzá as a cultural city center.

None of these raw materials are native to the Yucatán, which indicates that they were valuable objects brought to Chichén Itzá from other places in Central America and then sacrificed as an act of worship.

Pottery, stone, bone, and shells were also found in the cenote.

Archaeologists have found that many objects show evidence of being intentionally damaged before being thrown into the cenote, and have speculated that this intentional damage is meant to be analogous to “killing” the object as a sacrifice.

Human sacrifice

Certain cenotes contain a large number of human remains, including both males and females and young children/infants.

According to archaeologist Guillermo de Anda of the University of Yucatán, evidence from Mayan mythology suggests that many young victims (most aged 6 to 12) whose gender is indeterminate were male.

While the classical images of a female Mayan sacrifice being flung alive to drown in a cenote are pervasive, Guillermo de Anda’s writings on the subject suggest that most sacrificial victims – juveniles who were either purchased or captured while their parents were working in the fields, warriors captured in battle, or elites captured during conflicts with neighboring clans – were usually (though not always) killed prior to being thrown into the cenote, and in many cases, dozens of miles from the cenotes in which their bodies were eventually deposited. He also notes that only a certain set of cenotes was used in this way, while others were reserved for domestic purposes (de Anda 2007).

This suggests that Mayan religious officiants believed that only certain cenotes led to the underworld, and sacrifices placed in others would serve no purpose. It also suggests that the status of the victim as alive or dead was unimportant.

The occasional appearance of human remains in non-sacrificial cenotes can be attributed to rare errors in judgment on the part of the shaman. The actual pattern by which a particular victim’s remains became interred in which cenotes remains a subject of conjecture.

The Franciscan leader Diego de Landa reported that he witnessed live sacrifices being thrown into the cenote at Chichén Itzá. However, his account does not indicate the regularity of this behavior.


Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. In 2014 it was estimated to receive an average of 1.4 million. In 2016, Chichen Itza was visited by more than 2 million tourists.

Tourism has been a factor at Chichen Itza for more than a century. John Lloyd Stephens, who popularized the Maya Yucatán in the public’s imagination with his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, inspired many to make a pilgrimage to Chichén Itzá.

Even before the book was published, Benjamin Norman and Baron Emanuel von Friedrichsthal traveled to Chichen after meeting Stephens, and both published the results of what they found.

Friedrichsthal was the first to photograph Chichen Itza, using the recently invented daguerreotype.

After Edward Thompson in 1894 purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included Chichen Itza, he received a constant stream of visitors. In 1910 he announced his intention to construct a hotel on his property, but abandoned those plans, probably because of the Mexican Revolution.

In the early 1920s, a group of Yucatecans, led by writer/photographer Francisco Gomez Rul, began working toward expanding tourism to Yucatán. They urged Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto to build roads to the more famous monuments, including Chichen Itza.

In 1923, Governor Carrillo Puerto officially opened the highway to Chichen Itza. Gomez Rul published one of the first guidebooks to Yucatán and the ruins.

Gomez Rul’s son-in-law, Fernando Barbachano Peon (a grandnephew of former Yucatán Governor Miguel Barbachano), started Yucatán’s first official tourism business in the early 1920s.

He began by meeting passengers who arrived by steamship at Progreso, the port north of Mérida, and persuading them to spend a week in Yucatán, after which they would catch the next steamship to their next destination. In his first year, Barbachano Peon reportedly was only able to convince seven passengers to leave the ship and join him on a tour.

In the mid-1920s Barbachano Peon persuaded Edward Thompson to sell 5 acres (20,000 m2) next to Chichen for a hotel. In 1930, the Mayaland Hotel opened, just north of the Hacienda Chichén, which had been taken over by the Carnegie Institution.

In 1944, Barbachano Peon purchased all of the Hacienda Chichén, including Chichen Itza, from the heirs of Edward Thompson.

Around that same time, the Carnegie Institution completed its work at Chichen Itza and abandoned the Hacienda Chichén, which Barbachano turned into another seasonal hotel.

In 1972, Mexico enacted the Ley Federal Sobre Monumentos y Zonas Arqueológicas, Artísticas e Históricas (Federal Law over Monuments and Archeological, Artistic, and Historic Sites) that put all the nation’s pre-Columbian monuments, including those at Chichen Itza, under federal ownership. There were now hundreds if not thousands, of visitors every year to Chichen Itza, and more were expected with the development of the Cancún resort area to the east.

In the 1980s, Chichen Itza began to receive an influx of visitors on the day of the spring equinox. Today several thousand show up to see the light-and-shadow effect on the Temple of Kukulcan in which the feathered serpent god appears to crawl down the side of the pyramid.

Tourists are also amazed by the acoustics at Chichen Itza. For instance, a handclap in front of the staircase of the El Castillo pyramid is followed by an echo that resembles the chirp of a quetzal as investigated by Declercq.

Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the second-most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites. The archaeological site draws many visitors from the popular tourist resort of Cancún, who make a day trip on tour buses.

In 2007, Chichen Itza’s El Castillo was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World after a worldwide vote. Despite the fact that the vote was sponsored by a commercial enterprise and that its methodology was criticized, the vote was embraced by government and tourism officials in Mexico who project that as a result of the publicity the number of tourists expected to visit Chichen will double by 2012.

The ensuing publicity re-ignited debate in Mexico over the ownership of the site, which culminated on 29 March 2010 when the state of Yucatán purchased the land upon which the most recognized monuments rest from owner Hans Juergen Thies Barbachano.

Over the past several years, INAH, which manages the site, has been closing monuments to public access.

While visitors can walk around them, they can no longer climb them or go inside their chambers. The most recent was El Castillo, which was closed after a San Diego, California, woman fell to her death in 2006.

Get around

At the site, you get around on foot. Wear sturdy, comfortable walking shoes.

There is very little usable shade in the middle hours of the day.

Bring a pair of binoculars, star-gazing and birding are incredible in this region. Also, if you want to know more about the Mayan local communities, their cooking, religious rites, calendar system, and ancient arts, visit the small towns around Chichen.

Yaxkin Spa (Hacienda Chichen Hotel) offers holistic beauty rituals based on ancient Maya traditions. The area has excellent birdwatching opportunities. Guests at the Hacienda Chichen have access to the hotel’s bird refuge and extensive nature trails.

There are several fantastic cenotes, fresh water sinkholes in the limestone, found near Chichen Itza. Some of them are surrounded by lush gardens with restaurants, washrooms, and showers.

During a hot day, cenotes make for a great way to cool yourself off in the afternoon, take a break, and split up your day.

The Descent of Kukulcan During the three most celebrated days which witness The Descent of Kukulcan (the 19th, 20th, and 21st of March), Chichen Itza hosts music, dances, and theatrical performances organized in the interior of the site, as well as at the access door.

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