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Location Chichen Itza Archaeological Site

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Chichen Itza Archaeological Site

Location: Merida  |  Yucatan  |  Mexico

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Language: Spanish
Possesses a deceiving quality, they are probably the most famous Mayan Structures, but travelers could not possibly know that, once face to face with the walls of the Temple of Kukulcán, their memories will allow them to imagine its features as if they were dreamed.

Easily the best known and well-restored of Yucatan Maya archaeological sites, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The ruins at Chichen Itza cover an area of 6.5 sq km (2.5 sq miles) and can be toured in a day.

Chichen Itza has two distinct architectural zones. The southern zone dates back to the 7th century and showcases Chichen Itza’s early construction in the traditional Puuc Maya style of the Yucatan region. The central zone was constructed after the arrival of the Toltecs around the 10th century and showcases a unique fusion of highland central Mexican and Puuc architectural styles.

Chichén Itza’s most impressive sights and structures are located in the central zone. Here you’ll find the Juego de Pelota (Ball Court), several platforms, temples and the spectacular El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan), a massive 25m stone representation of the Maya calendar. Toltec Warriors are represented in the carvings around the doorway at the top of El Castillo.

Local guides at the site can provide detailed information about Chichen Itza and even lead you to a cenote (underwater sinkhole). The Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) at Chichen Itza is believed to have been used by the ancient Maya for ceremonial purposes including human sacrifice.

Each year during the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun produces the illusion of a serpent ascending or descending the steps of the Pyramid of Kukulkán, a fantastic phenomenon that attracts huge crowds. The illusion is reproduced at the sound and light show that takes place nightly at the archaeological site.

You can visit these Mexican ruins on a day trip or tour to Chichen Itza, or stay overnight in a restored hacienda. The nearby Hacienda Chichen is the oldest hacienda in the Yucatán region and has been beautifully restored and converted into a luxury hotel and spa.

Chichén Itzá was the most important city in Mayan culture during the late Classic and early Postclassic periods, between 900 to 1300 A.D. During the early Classic period, it was the capital of a wide region, when the Puuc style buildings were built. With the arrival of the Itzáes, by the end of that period, a new style was created, which mixed Mayan traditions with the contributions of the newcomers. This was the second and largest peak of the site, which concluded with the arrival of the Mayapán princes, between 1185 and 1204 A.D.

Fairly well preserved, archaeologists can’t agree on whether it was these Mayans who influenced Tula, the Toltec city near Mexico City, which they have many similarities with, or if the myth was true about the Toltec king Quetzalcóatl’s exile (Kukulcán) at the start of Chichén Itza´s peak period.

Built inland, with a monumental core of five square kilometers, and a wide area of housing and places of secondary importance, 20% of the site has been excavated to date. The name of the city means “At the Mouth of the Well of the Itzá”, in reference to the wells or cenotes that supplied water to the area and, which in all probability, were the reason for its settlement.

The Sacred Cenote, located at the bottom of a sacbé (stucco coated Mayan road), was the point where the priests and Mayan people journeyed in pilgrimage to throw offerings, generally valuable objects, to the godChaac, lord of the rain, and where there were also human sacrifices. It was excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, under the initiative of Edward Herbert Thompson, an American consul with a doubtful memory. A large quantity of objects were recovered, including jade, gold, ceramic and bone, which have been used to document Mayan society.

Chichén Itzá’s architecture is quite innovative in comparison to classic Mayan cities. Its great columns and pilasters, built with superimposed stone blocks that are often carved, fill the buildings both inside and out, especially in the Thousand Columns building, which probably served as a market.

The most important and famous building in Chichén Itzá is the Temple of Kukulcán, a Mayan representation of the god Quetzalcóatl. Known as “The Castle”, it is 24 meters high, built over a 55.5 meter wide platform, with 4 ascending stairways, representing the cardinal points. The number of steps is equivalent to the 365 days of the year.

There are also other astronomical symbols: the nine staggered bodies divide the pyramid in 18 terraces which symbolize the 18 months of the Mayan calendar; underneath the inside, there are 52 panels that represent the years in every sacred cycle. In the spring equinox (march 21st) and the fall equinox (September 21st), a mind-blowing optical illusion occurs at the north stairway: the steps project a set of lights and shadows that form the image of a god serpent’s body literally descending down to the earth, (Kukulcan’s Descent), symbolizing the command to perform agricultural labors to plant the cornfield before the arrival of the rainy season.

The Temple of the Warriors is located on a pyramid-shaped building; its name comes from the bas-relief that decorates its pilasters, which shows warriors holding their prisoners. However, the image it is best-known for is that of Chacmool who guards the entrance, a sitting figure watching us, with his legs bent and a stone bowl on his lap (which may contain sacrifices), it had a symbolic influence on the work of British sculptor Henry Moore.

The Ball Court is the biggest in all Mesoamerica with its length of 168 meters. It is made up of two elevated, parallel walls holding the two stone rings on their centers through which the ball had to pass.

The Temple of the Jaguars is located on the panel of the ball court, at its rear rests a chamber sculpted with representations of warriors, priests, animals, and water plants.

The Nuns Complex was a palace, which reminded the Spaniards of the cells in a convent. It has three stories, on which the Pucc and the Mayan-Toltec styles are combined. The Church is a small building full of carvings, with an elaborate Puuc style decoration. The most interesting sculpture here is the Bacabs , the four animals that held the sky from the four cardinal points in Mayan mythology, represented by an armadillo, a snail, a turtle, and a crab.

Further north, the Astronomic Observatory, also called “The Snail” due to its spiral stairs, has preserved its original structure, displaying the indentations on the panels that correspond to the positions of certain celestial bodies crucial to the Mayan calendar. It is possible that this round building situated on two rectangular platforms with a different orientation, was used to perform astronomical observations.

The Archaeological Zone has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. If you are in the area, you simply must visit the Chichén Itzá Site Museum.

Built sometime in the 7th century the pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico, called El Castillo, actually had astronomical purpose! In fact, it’s actually a solar calendar. Each of the four sides of the pyramid has 91 steps – and if you add those up, with the final step at the top of the temple platform, they total 365 – the number of days in their year. Each of the pyramid’s four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform on top as the final ‘step’, produces a total of 365 steps – the number of days in the Solar Calendar . There are other significant numbers from the Mayan calendar also built into El Castillo’s architecture.

Additionally, during spring and fall equinoxes, you can see a pattern made by the angle of the sun and the edge of the steps on the pyramid. The triangles of light along the side of the stairs link up with the snake head carvings at the base of the stairs, giving the illusion of a serpent, perhaps a diamond-back rattlesnake. Clearly the builders of the pyramid had an understanding of the movement of the Sun!

Here is another astronomical structure – El Caracol, also known as the Observatory. The windows and doors in the Observatory are specifically aligned with the movements of the Sun, stars, and planets, particularly Venus. The fact that this dome was created in stone is an impressive feat, as are its specifically placed windows.

El Castillo's design is thought to relate to the Mayan calendar. Each of the four faces incorporates a broad, steep staircase consisting of 91 steps that ascends to the top platform. Counting the top platform as an additional step gives a total of 365 steps: 1step for each day of the year. The staircases rise at an angle of 45 degrees to the horizontal, while the average inclination of the stepped pyramid itself is 53.3 degrees. The faces of the individual steps are sloped at a greater angle, approximately 73 degrees.

The nine main platforms of the pyramid are thought to represent the 18 months of the haab, and the 52 panels represent the number of years it takes for a calendar round date to recur.

Design Summary

  • Height: 24m - top platform (+6m with the temple).
  • The temple at the top of the pyramid is 6 m high, 13.42 m wide, and 16.5 m long.
  • Staircases rise at an angle of 45 degrees to the horizontal.
  • The average inclination of the stepped pyramid itself is 53.3 degrees.
  • The faces of the individual steps are sloped at a greater angle, approximately 73 degrees.

The Shadow of the Equinox

Kukulcán's pyramid is notable for the fact that at the spring and fall equinoxes (March 21 and September 22) the sun projects an undulating pattern of light on the northern stairway for a few hours in the late afternoon—a pattern caused by the angle of the sun and the edge of the nine steps that define the pyramid's construction.

These triangles of light link up with the massive stone carvings of snake heads at the base of the stairs, suggesting a massive serpent snaking down the structure.

Additionally, when one looks at the western face during the winter solstice, the sun appears to climb up the edge of the staircase until it rests momentarily directly above the temple before beginning its descent down the other side. The orientation of the pyramid is approximately 17 degrees east of magnetic north, in an area where the declination is approximately 2 degrees east, so the actual orientation is around 19 degrees east of true north. Several other major structures on the site are oriented in approximately the same way.

Summary of Events Reflected by El Castillo

The cycle of the sun and how it interacts with the pyramid El Castillo at Chichén Itzá.

Key dates that are all approximately 91 days apart from each other.


  • July 16: Start of Mayan new year. Add 52 days to this date (the same as the number of years in Maya "cycle" and you arrive at Sept 6th.
  • Sept 6th: All nine triangles of light are visible between 5 and 5:30 PM.
  • Sept 22: Fall equinox (Day and night equal length) when seven triangles are visible. This is 92 days from previous summer solstice of June 21.
  • Oct 9th: ix triangles visible between 4 and 4:30 PM.
  • Dec 21: Winter solstice, longest night of the year. (91 days from Sept 22 fall equinox) North and East sides in total darkness while West and South are in daylight. 91 Days from fall equinox.
  • March 5: Six triangles visible between 4 and 4:30 PM.
  • March 21: Spring Equinox. (Day and night equal length) Seven triangles between 4:30 - 5 PM. 91 days (same as stairs on the pyramid) from December 21 solstice.
  • April 6: Nine triangles between 5 and 5:30 PM All possible triangles visible at this time.
  • June 21: Summer solstice. Longest day of the year. (91 days from the March 21 show of seven triangles) South and West sides in total darkness between 7 and 7:30 AM.


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