19 Fascinating Chichen Itza Facts to Know Before You Go

Chichen Itza facts are fascinating to learn whether you are planning a trip to the wonder of the world, or you simply have an interest in Ancient Mayan history. This phenomenal historical site is one of the iconic images of Mexico and is a highlight of any trip to the Yucatan peninsula.

Regardless of how many times you may have seen Chichen Itza photographed on social media, in travel magazines, and in documentaries, nothing compares to visiting it in real life. The famous temple that you see in most photographs of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulcán. 

Chichen Itza is the name of the Mayan city here, not the temple. The site is actually bigger than you may expect. The city stretches over 4 square miles and during its heyday, was home to more than 35,000 people! 

19 Fascinating Chichen Itza Facts 

The founding of Chichen Itza 

There is some debate about the specific date that Chichen Itza was founded. The city is believed to be around 1,500 years old and estimates place the city as being founded in the early 400s. 

The name Chichen means “at the mouth of the well” and Itza means “water witches”. It is believed that this name points to the nearby cenote. 

Chichen Itza was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988 

Fun facts about Chichen Itza
Fun facts about Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of 35 UNESCO world heritage sites in Mexico. It was inscribed in 1988 and it would take almost another two decades before it was recognized as one of the “new” seven wonders of the world.

Chichen Itza became one of the “new” seven wonders of the world in 2007

The original list of the first seven wonders of the world was compiled in the 2nd century BCE. Since then, many of the original wonders, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, no longer exist. 

In the year 2000, the Swiss foundation New7Wonders launched a global campaign to identify the new seven wonders of the world. More than 100 million people across the globe voted and the results were announced in 2007.

Chichen Itza is one of them. The other six are, namely, Petra in Jordan, the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the Taj Mahal in India, and Machu Picchu in Peru.

Stone Henge, Angkor Wat, and the Acropolis in Athens were among the other finalists. Undoubtedly, Chichen Itza is one of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico that you can visit.

A mysterious serpent can be seen on the main pyramid on certain days

Fun facts about Chichen Itza
Fun facts about Chichen Itza

On certain days of the year, a fascinating spectacle called “the equinox” can be seen at the Temple of Kukulcán at Chichen Itza. The “Equinox” is an illusion that gives the image of a serpent slithering up the northern staircase of the pyramid.

It happens twice a year – usually around March 21st and September 21st. On these dates, thousands of tourists from across the world come to view this astrological phenomenon. 

This is one of the best times to visit the Yucatan.

The Temple of Kukulcán was created as a depiction of the Mayan calendar. The serpent joins the underworld and the heavens. During the equinox, vendors set up stalls to sell traditional Yucatecan food and street food eats, while musicians perform folk and traditional music. 

Chichen Itza is an architectural wonder, developed with methods that were very advanced for that time. The existence of this is something that fascinates archaeologists and scholars to this day.

It is worth participating if your travel dates coincide. Alternatively, the Chichen Itza light and sound show provides an artificial recreation. 

The Ancient Maya would show off the skulls of their dead enemies  

Chichen Itza facts
Chichen Itza facts

Platforms known as Tzompantli were built in different Mayan cities. They were used to display the severed heads of enemies and act as a caution to other tribes not to cross the Maya.

In Chichen Itza, you will find this platform just southwest of the Temple of Kukulcán. Its design is impressive, with rows and rows of skulls carved into the rock.

Why do people clap at Chichen Itza? 

The Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza
The Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza

When you walk around the Chichen Itza site, you will be constantly met with the sound of people clapping. If you clap your hands at the foot of the stairs of the Temple of Kukulcán, a sound that resembles a rattlesnake or a bird chirping is emitted from the temple. 

Some archeologists believe that this was not accidental and that the Ancient Mayan Architects purposely manipulated the acoustics when building the temple so that this sound would be emitted. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the sound is very similar to that emitted by the colorful quetzal bird that was considered sacred by the Maya. 

During ancient Mayan ceremonies and rituals, a Priest would clap at the base of Kukulcán. It is believed that they thought that the chirp that came from the stones was God responding. 

2 million people visit Chichen Itza a year 

Approximately 2 million tourists visit Chichen Itza a year, with tens of thousands of people passing through its turnstiles every day. That is more tourists than some countries see! 

There are tunnels inside the Temple of Kukulcán 

Unfortunately, you cannot go inside the Temple of Kukulcán but that is not to say that there is nothing in there! There are various historic documentaries on Nat Geo and Discovery that show archeologists exploring the tunnels inside of the temple if you want to explore it vicariously through them.

Archeologists discovered that a second smaller pyramid was nestled inside the main one. Inside, they discovered human remains, a jade-studded jaguar throne, and a statue of Chac Mool that was believed to have been used for human sacrifices. 

You used to be able to climb the pyramids

If you spend any amount of time in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, you will note that you can climb the pyramids and ruins in a lot of Mayan cities. At Mayapan, Edzna, and Xcambo you can climb up onto the ruins but at Chichen Itza, you cannot.

This is not just for preservation reasons. Decades ago, tourists were permitted to climb the pyramids here. 

However, in 2006, a woman fell to her death while descending the pyramid. As time goes on, it is likely that more Mayan ruins will prohibit climbing for safety reasons. Thousands of people stepping on the same stones for hundreds of years has caused them to smooth down and become slippery. 

Human sacrifices would be made at the sacred cenote 

One of the sacbes (roads) that leads northwest from the Temple of Kukulcán takes you to the sacred cenote. Mayans would throw people into the cenote as sacrificial offerings to the Gods. 

Those sacrificed were mostly adult male warriors and children. Over 200 bodies, jewels, ceramics, and gold pieces have been found as part of the archaeological findings in the cenote. Even after Chichen Itza was abandoned, the Mayans still continued to use this cenote for centuries to make sacrifices. 

There is a platform dedicated to the planet Venus 

The Ancient Mayans were keen astronomers. Just north of the Temple of Kukulcán is a platform dedicated to the planet Venus. 

It is also known as the Tomb of the Chac Mool because a Chac Mool was discovered inside the platform when it was excavated. There was also a decapitated head found on-site, seemingly an offering made to the Gods.

The Mayans tracked Venus extensively in the observatory. The platform was likely used for rituals and dances.

La Iglesia is a charming “church” dedicated to the rain god 

Chichen Itza facts
Chichen Itza facts

La Iglesia is one of the oldest structures within the Chichen Itza complex. It is tucked away from view at the far southern end of the site past the observatory.

The structure dates back to around 800 to 1000AD and is an excellent example of Puuc architecture. It is believed that “La Iglesia” (“the church”) was a place of worship for the rain god.

The building is small and consists of only one room. However, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in detail.

La Iglesia is one of the most ornate and elaborately designed buildings in Chichen Itza. Look out for the motifs of the hook-nosed rain god above the doors and windows. 

The Pok-a-Tok ball court at Chichen Itza is the largest in Mesoamerica 

Chichen Itza facts
Chichen Itza facts

Pok-a-Tok was an ancient ballgame played by the Maya. The objective was to get a hard rubber ball through the stone hoops located on either side of the court using only your thighs and hips.

The game was played for fun but also to settle arguments and conflicts. Sometimes, the losing team would be killed and sacrificed to the gods!  

You will see Pok-a-Tok ball courts at various Mayan ruins around Mexico. However, the court at Chichen Itza is the largest in the country and all of Mesoamerica. 

The Ancient Maya would watch the stars from El Caracol

El Caracol (“the snail) is the name of the ancient observatory built at the Chichen Itza site. Its elevated position enabled the Maya to better observe the constellations and today, this is one of the most unique-looking structures within the complex. 

Chichen Itza was abandoned 

Despite being one of the most important settlements for the Mayan civilization, Chichen Itza was eventually abandoned. Its residents moved on to Mayapan.

Archaeologists have drawn up many hypotheses for the reasons why this may have happened but nobody knows for certain. Droughts and exhausted soils may have been factors but this is just speculation. 

There are other interesting temples around Chichen Itza 

The Temple of Kukulcán may be the grandest and most famous temple at Chichen Itza but it isn’t the only one. Here, you will also find the Temple of the Bearded Man, the colonnaded Temple of the Warriors, and the Tomb of the High Priest or Osario Temple. 

The Temple of Kukulcán in Mayapan is a replica of the Chichen Itza temple 

Following the downfall of Chichen Itza, King Kukulkan II and his men relocated to the city of Mayapan. He ruled the city between 1263 and 1283 AD. 

The central focus of Mayapan is the Temple of Kukulcán. It is almost an exact replica of the pyramid at Chichen Itza.

However, archeologists consider this to be a far inferior copy. The same effort, care, and attention to detail were not put into building the Kukulcán temple or other structures in Mayapan. Indeed, this was the beginning of the end for the ancient Mayans. 

There are several other cenotes near Chichen Itza 

The sacred cenote is not the only cenote in or around the Chichen Itza complex, although it is one of the most important. Cenote Xtoloc is located just a short distance from the Temple of Kukulcán and was a major water source for the city.

Cenote Ik Kil is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Yucatan. It is a popular place for tourists to spend an afternoon swimming after visiting Chichen Itza. 

Chichen Itza was not discovered until 1841 

Chichen Itza was discovered in 1841 by American explorer John L. Stephens. Over the decades that followed, avid archeologists started excavating the city.

Chichen Itza Tours 

If there is one Mayan city that you absolutely must visit while you are in the Yucatan, it is Chichen Itza. It is easy to get from Merida to Chichen Itza or from Valladolid to Chichen Itza.

If you are renting a car in Mexico, you could also combine a visit here with an afternoon spent swimming in the Homun cenotes or visiting the majestic ruins of Ek Balam. Visiting Chichen Itza independently gives you more freedom and flexibility of schedule when exploring the site.

It also means that you can arrive early in the morning. (You should try to get to Chichen Itza as soon as the doors open at 8 am if you want to beat the crowds).

However, alternatively, opting to participate in a Chichen Itza tour means that you can take some of the stress out of the logistics of getting to and from the site. Many reputable local companies offer Chichen Itza excursions and include pickup and drop off at your hotel and lunch.

If you are traveling to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, or Tulum, this saves having to take multiple buses. Better yet, exploring Chichen Itza with a guide means that you have an expert on hand to ask questions to, and who can provide you with more information and context to the things you are seeing.

Recommended Chichen Itza Tours

A number of reputable Chichen Itza tours are detailed below for your consideration. It is advisable to book online in advance to secure your place and avoid disappointment. 

Interesting facts about Chichen Itza: final thoughts 

Chichen Itza facts
Chichen Itza facts

Have you visited the Yucatan peninsula or Chichen Itza? Did you enjoy reading these Chichen Itza facts? 

Chichen Itza is a great stopping point on any Yucatan road trip. It also makes a great day trip from either Merida, Valladolid, or Cancun.

Do you know any other fun facts about Chichen Itza that you would like to share? You may also enjoy reading these facts about Mexico.

Safe travels! Buen Viaje! xo

Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico and the Editor-in-Chief of Mexico Travel Secrets. She has over seven years worth of experience in working in travel media and has travelled to 57 countries, mostly solo. Throughout her career, Melissa has produced written content for several high-profile publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, the Huffington Post, Rough Guides, and Matador Network.

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