Chichen Itza, the pre-Columbian Mayan city in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is a famous archaeological site and tourist destination. Parents wishing to introduce their kids to history, archaeology, or ancient architecture should put this gem on their travel bucket list.
Chichen Itza’s history
This UNESCO site situated in the eastern portion of Yucatán state of Mexico is about 125 kilometers west of Cancun and Cozumel. With its rugged cliffs, soaring pyramids, massive temples, grand carved columns, and extensive sports fields, Chichen Itza makes for a memorable day trip spot to visit with kids.
Archaeologists believe the city of Chichen Itza was settled between 750 and 900 AD. By the 10th century, the city gained fame as a capital of the central Yucatan becoming the center of Mayan political, cultural, and economic life.
In the 13th century, Hunac Ceel, a ruler of Mayapan, managed to take over the city after supposedly prophesying his takeover of it.When Spanish explorers arrived three centuries later, they found a thriving city. After conquering the Yucatan peninsula, Montejo the Younger renamed the city Ciudad Real. Montejo was forced out by the Mayans in 1534, only to capture the area again, and transform Chichen Itza into a cattle ranch by 1588.
The city was virtually forgotten until 1834 when John Lloyd Stephens published his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Stephens’ account of exploring the area inspired other explorers like Désiré Charnay in 1860 and Edward Herbert Thompson in 1894 to visit the city.
However, it was only in 1913 that a team of archaeologists, lead by Sylvanus G. Morley, finally started to work at the site. Needless to mention, the Mexican Revolution and WWI delayed the excavations.
Travelers from Cancun or Playa del Carmen can rent cars and drive to the Mayan city. Rentals range from $80-100 per day. Though the road to Chichen Itza is predominantly flat and straight, visitors should be aware that road signs are in Spanish, and some motor vehicle laws are different in Mexico so hiring a cab driver for the day or booking a guided tour may be a better choice.
Those staying at a major hotel can ask the property’s concierge to arrange a guided bus tour that costs around 450 pesos per person. The buses are usually reliable, comfortable, and air-conditioned.
Tourists wishing to hire a driver for the day can do so from Cancun and Playa del Carmen as well as on the return route from Chichen Itza. Some local taxi drivers do drive dangerously and at excessive speeds that may frighten many American tourists though most will slow down when asked.
As mentioned before, Chichen Itza is a fascinating destination with a lot to see for those interested in history. However, for those traveling with special needs or younger kids seeing everything might not be a viable option.
So, for those wishing to hit the main highlights, we recommend the following three landmarks.
One of the most iconic features of Chichen Itza, El Castillo , is a step-pyramid temple standing about 30 meters high. Following a worldwide vote, the giant pyramid was recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Excavations in the 1930s by the Mexican government revealed a whole second temple buried below the official one. The excavation revealed a Chac Mool statue as well as a Jaguar shaped throne tucked away in the second temple.
Shortly after this discovery, the local government commissioned the digging of a tunnel so tourists could access the second “hidden” temple.
Travelers who visit during the Spring and Summer Equinox might be able to see shadows resembling serpents wiggling down the staircase. Some scholars and scientists have suggested these shadows were designed to represent Kukulkan, the Mayan feathered serpent god.
Nowadays, Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia that manages the site has closed the monuments to public access to preserve the ancient ruins. While visitors can still walk around the ruins, no one can climb or go inside the pyramids.
Nowadays,Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia that manages the site has closed its monuments to public access to help preserve the ancient ruins. While visitors can still walk around the ruins but no one can climb or go inside the pyramids.
Great Ball Court
Those who have studied Mesoamerican culture may remember the Mayan ballgame, often referred to as Ollamaliztli.
Chichen Itza boasts its own Great Ball Court; 168 meters wide that is just northwest of the Castillo Pyramid.
This court is considered one of the most well-preserved ball courts of its kind from ancient Mesoamerica. Visitors can observe sculpted scenes of games along the walls, one of which depicts a decapitated athlete. Furthermore, the playing areas are surrounded by high walled platforms (over 8 meters high) and ringers carved with feathered serpents, yet another nod to Kukulkan.
This beautiful and diverse travel destination features dry bed soil with several rivers running underground. Over the years, these rivers have created large, sinkholes called cenotes, which tourists can explore .
Though there are many cenotes throughout the Yucatan Peninsula The Cenote Sagrada, over 50 meters in diameter, is the most well-known.
According to findings, this cenote was a place of pilgrimage for the Mayans wishing to perform sacrifices during periods of drought. Thousands of artifacts made of gold, jade, pottery, obsidian, and cloth have been found in this cenote. But not only objects were sacrificed in this spot. Archaeologists have also uncovered the skeletons of children and men.
The current entrance fee is 98 pesos and includes access to the show. In addition, lockers and translation equipment for English, French, Italian, and German are available for renting. There is a souvenir shop where guests can buy trinkets. Our son fell in love with and bought a mini replica of El Castillo.
Autism Travel Tips:
- Most tourists prefer to visit early in the day before the hottest part of the day makes it very uncomfortable for those sensitive to heat.
- Like many other archeological sites, Chichen Itza is unpaved and grassy so it can get quite muddy after rain. Parents should come prepared with comfortable close-toes walking shoes, hats, sunscreen, and ponchos .
- Chichen Itza is an open space, so there are no lines; helpful for families with autism who wish to tour the place at their own pace.
- Though Chichen Itza does have a place to buy food and snacks ;visitors might want to bring their own bottled water on the day trip. The location provides toilets, however bringing a travel sized Lysol spray and hand wipes is highly recommended.
- Visitors can see a light and sound show every night. Parents will want to bring a pair of binoculars as star-gazing, and birding is spectacular in the region.
- Parents should remind their kids that climbing on the pyramid and ruins is prohibited.