Some travellers will make sure they go to the most touristy places, like Chichen Itza. Some others will make sure they avoid them and find less visited ruins. I am kind of in between these two behaviours.
“Should I go to Chichen Itza?” I had a hard time answering this question as I was planning our trip to Cancun.
I like to avoid the crowd to a point that I love being the only tourist in a remote place. Still, most touristy places are touristy for a reason, so they would always catch my attention. Unfortunately, a crowd of tourists or too much development can quickly kill my pleasure.
Not only is it the most touristy place in Mexico, but Chichen Itza is also on the list of the World’s Seven Wonders.
No need to describe how much it caught my attention. But the crowd was not the only negative point. It was not close to the other attractions we wanted to visit. And it has nothing in common with the remote natural areas I love so much. After reading some online reviews describing it as “not authentic”, I had a divided feeling and a hard time deciding how much I wanted to go.
When hesitation is too big, I guess it means “go”, just to avoid regrets.
So, is Chichen Itza worth the effort or is it a tourist trap?
From my experience, I think it is both.
I am glad I went to Chichen Itza.
There are only seven Wonders of the World, and I wish I could see them all. After all, it’s a nice tick, isn’t it?
And it is more than just a tick. I learnt a lot during our 3.5-hour visit around the ruins with our guide, Felipe. He was crucial to enhancing our visit. Without his explanations and his illustrations, we would have missed more than half of the interesting things there. We had this experience a few days earlier in Coba: we had no idea what we were looking at and, from what we could pick up from the guided tours around us, we did not see most of the interesting details. So I highly recommend taking a guide for at least one of the visits. Their prices are reasonable: we paid Felipe 750 pesos for our group of four.
The Chichen Itza ruins are impressive because they have been restored, and they have dramatically uncluttered the vegetation around them. However, you cannot touch anything nor go close to the ruins – which can be frustrating for those who visited less touristy places before.
So, are the beauty of the ruins enough to make the site fascinating?
Our guide Felipe gave sense to our tour by teaching us about the Mayan culture. All his thoughts linking the Mayan culture with today’s world (politics, economics, religion) were interesting to debate. He was very critical on some interpretations of the Mayan beliefs, allowing space for further thinking and imagination. As he was proud to say, he was not just a “pointing guide”. How did we find our guide, Felipe? At the entrance. He came to us with his books of illustrations and just with a quick look at it, he convinced us he will improve our visit.
Would we have learnt as much at other less frequented ruins?
With an excellent guide, most probably. But we would not have seen for real one of the World’s Seven Wonders and, most of all, restored and impressive Mayan ruins.
It’s not all about the pyramid. The observatory or the ballgame court are as massive and fascinating. I found them more impressive than the other buildings we saw in Coba. The Mayans were incredible. What they achieved is fascinating, from an architectural and a cultural point of view. So damn smart. Two things stroke me the most:
- In front of the pyramid. You stand there and clap your hands. A bird answers every single time. With their smart design, noise from the top of the pyramid resonates. No need for further explanations on how you can make people believe in powerful spiritual stories when you can create such a trick!
- The story behind their ballgame. Two teams. The captain of one of the teams will be sacrificed at the end of the game, according to the result. When we all think the loser would give his life, they have information supporting the hypothesis that it would actually be the winner. They believe that the Mayas would sacrifice the best people to offer them to their Gods. Disturbing.
Chichen Itza is a bit of a tourist trap.
We spent the night before in Valladolid (our hotel was Hotel Zentik Project*) to be able to get to Chichen Itza just after its opening. Although it was off-season, I was very keen to arrive before the buses to avoid the crowd. There were only a few cars and not many people at the entrance. If you don’t like touristy places, that’s the way to visit Chichen Itza.
During our visit, it was obviously getting busier. After visiting the cenote, we hardly recognised the way back. It had become a market, with sellers shouting in multiple languages the prices of their souvenirs: “Almost free!”, “Only $1!”… Is it necessary to mention most prices were higher than in Valladolid? Don’t forget to negotiate; it’s part of the experience, they say! I hate shopping, so all this annoyed me.
All these stalls bring noise and animation. I found that having them between the ruins takes away some of the charms of visiting an ancient civilisation. It is not only the 1.4m annual tourists that made this place too busy to my taste. The crowd was actually a lot smaller than I expected.
I cannot blame the locals to try to make money from a tourist attraction. But it bothers me when it deteriorates the experience. Would I prefer a big tourist shop at the entrance with profits mostly going to one owner? No. It is often hard to find the right balance.
Still, I am glad I went, and I recommend going. These renovated ruins are beautiful, and Mayans are fascinating. If you have time also to visit Coba, you will get a more authentic experience and the opportunity to climb the tallest pyramid of the Yucatan!
Tips for accommodation and transport to Chichen Itza
We visited it as an overnight trip from Tulum. I recommend reaching the site when it opens in the morning, to avoid the crowd. You cannot do it as a day trip if you don’t want to get up too early.
We stayed at the original Hotel Zentik Project in Valladolid*. We upgraded from our usual hotel choices and chose this one because it was providing a unique experience with a saline pool in a cave open 24 hours and interesting art in the rooms. If that’s out of your budget, there are plenty of other options to sleep near Chichen Itza (click here to view more info on hotels and availabilities*). We got there before the bus tour and felt like we had the site just for ourselves. When we finished our tour, it was a totally different story, so I’m really glad we chose to spend the night in Valladolid.
We hired a car to go to Chichen Itza from Tulum. The roads are in rather good quality and we found it easy to drive around the Yucatan Peninsula, despite having a car break down and being arrested by the Mexican police a couple of times. If you don’t want to hire a car, you can easily book a tour to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Click here to view the different options*.