Chichen Itza and Valladolid
Please check out my new article: 8 Tips for Visiting the Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza.
For some backpackers/budget travelers, Chichén Itzá is like a really good band that cool people don’t like. It got too popular—one of the new seven wonders of the world, after all —and there are so many other great ruins to see nearby: Tulum, Cobá, Palenque, Toniná, and countless more. Some travelers I met—people who were really into ruins—didn’t even go there.
There are big crowds, an inflated price, and way too many aggressive hawkers behind tables stacked with t-shirts, pyramid statues, and admittedly nice carvings. And since a Canadian spent the night on top of Kukulkan pyramid and then met security in the morning with a big smile, only to be promptly hauled off to jail, very little of Chichén Itzá can be climbed or entered, unlike most other Mayan ruins.
But, come on! It’s Chichén Itzá. It has some of the biggest buildings and most detailed architecture I’ve seen. Plus the site is extensive. I think we spent five or six hours there. The Kukulkan pyramid (El Castillo) is only the beginning, awesome as it is.
This wall is part of Chichén Itzá’s big ball court:
There are two cenotes (limestone sinkholes/caves) on site, though you can’t and wouldn’t want to swim in them. Usually cenotes are clear fresh water. You can find them everywhere on the Yucatán peninsula. These were used for ceremonial purposes, including sacrifices.
The skull platform was used for—you guessed it—human sacrifice.
We went to the night show the night before. It’s called Luz y Sonido. You don’t have access to the whole park but are shuffled over to a section of folding chairs. Then the Kukulkan pyramid is lit up to a dramatically voiced history of the Mayan world in Spanish.
It started raining really hard afterwards. We had to walk up the road to a police checkpoint where we waited for a bus coming from Mérida to take us back to Valladolid. They pass about every hour. According to the friendly policeman we chatted with while being bombarded by bugs of all sizes underneath the bright lights of his little checkpoint, the area is super safe—no problem walking around at night. He recognized and waved at half of the drivers who passed.
We stayed in Valladolid, a nice colonial town about a half hour down the road. It’s a great place to get a taste of Yucatán culture.
The center square was beautiful at night, at least during the 20 minutes it wasn’t pouring rain the two nights we spent there. (This was during Hurricane Carlotta.)
One of the regional foods is salbutes:
We got them in the market, along with lots of fruit and other fresh things.
These guys were selling honey and yucca products. We bought the bags in front—yucca bread and yucca sweets. They were great.
Valladolid is a good place to buy reasonably priced hand-made sandals.
And right in the town there’s a cenote. You can swim in this one. The water is a little murky but there are some high points to jump from. They even have a Buddhist temple.
How to Get to Chichén Itzá and Valladolid
If you don’t want to be part of a large, noisy, umbrella toting tour group being rushed through the park, you can take a bus there from Cancun or Mérida. At either bus terminal they will assume you want ADO, but if you want to save money ask for a second class bus. They leave often.
If you leave early in the morning you can make it there in time to see it all, or if you have time you can stay in Valladolid. From Valladolid there are colectivos (passenger vans) that leave all the time, and you can get back there or onwards to Mérida or Cancun in buses that leave from the Chichén Itzá parking lot. There’s even a place to leave your bags at the entrance, for free.
My most important tip? Get there right at 8 a.m. when it opens to beat the crowd.
The guide is for the independent traveler who likes the beach, but also wants some culture. Its full appendix includes information on hotels, public transportation, restaurants, culture, and Spanish phrases. You’ll save more than its small price the first time you follow my advice on a bus, restaurant, or cenote.