I am a native New Yorker, and so every once in a while, I get to feeling full of myself. “New York is the capital of the world!” I chortle. “It is the cream of the crop! The cat’s meow! The pinnacle of civilization! Look at our skyscrapers! Our subway system! Our Broadway musicals that star real lions! What people could be more sophisticated than we are?”
At least, I used to feel that way, and then I went to Chichen Itza. This wondrous place is a Mayan city that was built in the Yucatan region of Mexico about 1000 years ago. It features a giant pyramid with a magical serpent shadow, the world’s biggest rubber not-really-a-basketball court, a group of 1000 columns, and a terrifying platform of skulls. If Meso-Americans were able to accomplish all this 1000 years ago, I’m not sure New Yorkers have anything to be smug about. After all, we can’t even make our subway run properly on weekends. Join me on a tour of this fabled ghost city, and we will eat Mayan delicacies, hunt for drowned ladies in a limestone pool, and party until the wee hours. Viva Mexico!
Breakfast: Hotel Medio Mundo
I had not chosen to spend the night in Chichen Itza, instead preferring to stay in the Yucatan’s charming capital, Merida. Chichen Itza is not terribly far from Merida, but I wasn’t about to head there by myself because I don’t drive. Instead I chose to book a tour through Gray Line. The driver picked me up punctually from my hotel and a group of about 10 strangers and I embarked on a journey to the pyramids of old.
Since the lunch on the tour is scheduled for rather late in the day, I recommend getting a good breakfast before you head out. I further suggest staying at an adorable B and B called Hotel Medio Mundo. The rooms were cool and clean, there was a free vegan breakfast every morning (which was delicious and I am the world’s least vegan person), and the location was just a brief walk from the main town square. The breakfast is served in this oasis of a courtyard every morning:
My favorite part of the breakfast was the fresh baked rolls. One was sweeter and one was a little spicy and they were served with a variety of homemade spreads.
I have no idea what was in the spreads except that I assume the green has avocado in it. But all in all, it added up to a perfect breakfast.
Morning: Guided Tour of Chichen Itza
After our guide picked us all up in and around Merida, he took us on the two hour drive to Mayaland, which is a fancy resort within walking distance of Chichen Itza. I was glad for the stop because we got to use the facilities at the resort while our guide took care of the entrance tickets to Chichen Itza, so we did not have to wait on line. We did have a fairly lengthy walk past an inordinate number of people trying to sell us tchotchkes to get to the actual Maya land, Chichen Itza, from the resort Mayaland. Nothing looked worth buying, so we didn’t stop.
The first part of the tour is led by the guide, who took us around all the major sights of Chichen Itza. He had one of those tour guide photo books, so he could show us pictures of some of the things he was describing, like skulls and serpent-gods, which he was not able to physically carry about his person. I will not spoil his tour by sharing everything he said, so instead get ready for…
three fun facts about chichen itza
1) The most famous monument at Chichen Itza is the glorious step pyramid known as “El Castillo” or “The Castle”. Our guide said the pyramid demonstrates how mathematically advanced the Mayans were, and not just because of the construction of the pyramid itself. At the equinoxes, the shadows formed by the setting sun create a representation of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. No one knows how they did it. Except for Quetzalcoatl, of course. He’s a winged snake-god, so pretty sure he knows everything.
2) The Great Ball Court is the other main attraction at Chichen Itza. The game was played with rubber balls and the goal was to move the ball past the other team’s goal. Our guide said that human sacrifice was practiced after the game, but that historians aren’t sure if it was the losers or the winners who were sacrificed. One of our more perceptive group members asked why anyone would try to win the game if the winners were sacrificed, and our guide explained that the Mayans would have considered being sacrificed a great honor. I’m really glad that my mother encouraged me to seek honor by getting good grades instead of being sacrificed to a winged snake-god!
3) This is the Skull Platform, where the heads of people who had been sacrificed would have been displayed. But these charming stone heads are not actual skulls, rather they are mere representations. Our guide helpfully informed us that you can tell which kind of people each skull was meant to belong to: the small skulls are Itza, the flat skulls are Maya, and the big skulls are Toltec. I think people should start bringing these stereotypes back into style! “You’re as big-headed as a Toltec” could really catch on!
Early Afternoon: Explore Chichen Itza On Your Own
Once the guided tour is over, you’ll have about an hour or so on your own to explore Chichen Itza. I recommend taking the time to go around and try to spot as many creepy stone snakes as you can. See how easy it is! Some big snakes here…
More creepy snakes here…
Even more snakes this way!
This whole place is basically Indiana Jones’s worst nightmare. But I guess if I worshiped an angry snake-god, I would put his image on everything too. Maybe if it looks like him, he’ll be reluctant to destroy it!
Travelerette Treasure: I really liked the Group of 1000 Columns, mostly because I became obsessed with figuring out whether the name was a misnomer or not. Were there really one thousand columns? If not, exactly how many are there? Are there more or fewer than one thousand? Why would someone want to put a thousand columns anywhere? So many questions, so many columns.
After the tour, we headed back to Mayaland for an unlimited lunch buffet. There was everything from palm heart salad to poc chuc (Yucatecan grilled pork) to Veracruzian style fish to flan for dessert. We all stuffed ourselves silly because the buffet lunch was included with the tour, so the only thing we had to pay for was the drinks. (They offered Mexican beer, water, and soft drinks.) Sadly I was a silly and forgot to take pictures of the food, but you can see what the choices look like here. It was a great place to take an air-conditioned load off after being outside in the heat all day.
Afternoon: Yokdzonot Cenote
For those of you not in the ce-know-te, cenotes are natural limestone pools that can be found all over the Yucatan. Sometimes the ancient Mayans would use them as a dropping off spot for their victims of human sacrifice. The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza was especially famous for being the final resting place of many a lovely young lady. But despite this sordid history, when our guide offered to drop us off at one cenote on the way back from Chichen Itza, we all agreed.
Fun Fact: The Yucatan has more than 6000 of these beautiful cenotes. So that means if you visited one cenote a day, it would take you more than 16 years to see them all. Sounds like a project for the Travelerette!
The Yokdzonot Cenote is reachable by descending a long path, so we were able to get some lovely photos of the gorgeous aquamarine color of the pool before heading down the walkway to touch the water. It was too cold to actually go in, so we all just wiggled our toes in the cenote.
That’s my pedicure!
Travelerette Tip: If you see only one thing in the Yucatan, let it be the cenotes. I saw several when I was there, and I will never forget their gem-colored goodness. Also, though this cenote was a bit chilly, most of them are definitely warm enough to go swimming in, so I recommend having a swimsuit with you whereever you go in the Yucatan, so you can just bop into a cenote any time you want. Let my photos convince you if my words do not:
There! You are convinced! Hie thee to a cenote with great haste!
Once you are done, your guide will drop you off at your hotel for the night. Some of us were staying as far afield as Playa del Carmen, and some of us were staying in Merida, but we all got a safe ride back to our hotel.
Evening: Plaza Grande, Merida
I was dropped off at my hotel around 5, and I was pretty tired, but that’s still too late to turn in! How about a relaxing evening in Merida’s main square, the Plaza Grande? The Plaza Grande is just the main square in the center of town. Almost every Spanish colonial town has one of these. The Plaza Grande in Merida is special because there is a dance or musical performance almost every night. Check this calendar for details!
Travelerette Tip: If you go around sunset, you should be there for the nightly ceremony to lower the Mexican flag.
Travelerette Treasure: I was too full for a big dinner after the Mayaland buffet, so instead I stopped for a snack at the Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon, right off the Plaza Grande. This is the most famous ice cream place in Merida, and they have oodles of local flavors. I opted for the elotes (corn) ice cream, which tasted like summer and was sweet but not too sweet. Plus it had veggies in it, so that makes it okay to eat ice cream for dinner.
Whatever the musical performance in the Plaza Grande is, it should be over around 10. Then you can head back to your hotel and collapse after a full day of trying to not think too much about human sacrifice and snake-gods.
And That’s How You Have a Perfect Day at Chichen Itza
What would you like to do with one day in Chichen Itza? Do you think your head is more large, small, or flat? Would you want to play the Mayan ballgame if it meant getting sacrificed even if you won? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.