Chichen Itza; studied it, read about it, taught it to my high school students for years. There’s no great joy in saying it was the most disappointing of all of our visits to Mayan ruins. Sure the pyramid is impressive, but the site is grossly over-hyped. The hype is probably one of the reasons for the disappointment. I’m not saying not to visit Chichen Itza. I’ll probably visit it a second time, just to make sure my first impressions weren’t off. Below you will read why we thought the site was such a disappointment.
History of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is one of the greatest and largest Mayan sites in Mexico. Chichen Itza means “at the well of the mouth of the Itza.” Scholars have argued that Uuc Yabnal, as well as several possible variations is the true name of the site. The high point of Chichen Itza civilization was 600 CE, and lasted for five centuries. Spanish Conquistadors reached Chichen Itza in the 1530’s. John Lloyd Stephens rediscovered the site in the nineteenth century. In 1894 the U.S. Consul to the Yucatán purchased Chichen Itza, and all the surrounding land. He spent the next 30 years “exploring” (some say looting). You can read about his adventures in his autobiography, People of the Serpent.
Five summers spent working on archaeological digs all over the world helps me understand archaeological sites on a whole new level. Perhaps that knowledge is why Chichen Itza seems over-restored to the point of looking fake. The site dates from 600-1200. Where is the expected decay? Of course this is an exaggeration, there is definitely some decay, but many of the structures are just too perfect. For me, that detracted from the experience.
The line to enter Chichen Itza at noon.
The Crowds, Oh the Crowds!
Get there early they say. Beat the crowds they say. We were at Chichen Itza when it opened at 8am. All of that planning bought us about 15 minutes of merciful quiet. We were able to get a few photos of the pyramid, known as the Temple of Kukulcan, before the crowds showed up. Why do I say tourists & crowds and not travelers? Because the crowd at Chichen Itza was one of the most obnoxious we’ve met in our entire six weeks in Mexico (except for Cancun, but that’s another story).
The commercialization was unbelievable! When you walk the streets of Chichen Itza you might as well be roaming the tourist stalls of Plaza 28 in Cancun. The vendors start setting up as soon as the park opens. They line every single spare inch of walkway and then some. The fake silver, the constant harassment, table after table of the same junk. Yes, people have to make a living, but they should stay outside of the park like they do at the ruins of Coba and Tulum. Allowing street vendors to line the avenues of a world-class archaeological site detracts from its importance and cheapens the experience.
Drones are completely banned at Chichen Itza. Did that matter to entitled tourists? Not in the least. The constant noise from drones buzzing about overhead was annoying. Drones are pretty cool. I don’t own one. If I did, I definitely wouldn’t fly it at the cost of someone else’s experience.
Speaking of noise…
There’s absolutely no chance of quietly thinking about the significance of Chichen Itza. Once the people start pouring in, the clapping begins. Yes the clapping, in front of the pyramid, pretty much non stop. Some tour guide somewhere showed someone that their clapping :gasp: makes an echo in front of the pyramid. So it goes on all day long, non-stop, and you can hear it from everywhere.
If the clapping isn’t enough noise pollution, the vendors are constantly blowing on an ear-splitting jaguar whistle. It’s cute the first time, but after you hear it 100 times in a short span of time, the din becomes irritating. Add the clapping, jaguar whistles, overhead drones, and tourists screaming at each other to the constant yelling of vendors to look at their junk (and yes, it’s all junk), then the atmosphere becomes carnival-ish.
It’s Not All Bad
Even with the annoyances described above, Chichen Itza is definitely worth visiting. How can I say to visit after describing the letdown above? Because it’s an important Mayan site. Someone definitely didn’t think out how they wanted to present this place. Maybe the government has learned from the mistakes (archaeological atrocities?) at Chichen Itza because the chaos is absent from other Mayan sites we visited. Chichen Itza is one of the most famous, and one of the oldest archaeological parks in Mexico (aside from Teotihuacan near Mexico city), and it’s worth enduring the hoards of tourists and noise to see it, at least once.
Try and Spot the Wildlife
If you can find a quiet little corner of the park, you will be able to see amazing flora and fauna. Iguanas and colorful birds are everywhere. It’s possible to hear them sing if you go far enough away from the “hot” tourist spots. Please just look and leave them alone, it breaks my heart every time I see tourists poking, chasing, and feeding the iguanas as if they are put on earth only for human entertainment.
One of the highlights of visiting Chichen Itza is being familiar with the history. Knowing the history, and being able to compare this site with the other ones that we’ve visited makes it an entirely different experience. I recommend spending a few hours researching the site and Mayan history before you visit.
Even though my review of Chichen Itza is mostly negative, I would definitely visit again. If you go, I recommend staying in the town of Piste, so you can take your time and enjoy the site. Most of the tour buses stop in and unload people and then leave again in an hour. We were at Chichen Itza from 8am – 12:30pm and still didn’t see everything. We left because the combination of the heat and crowds was becoming unbearable.
Are you planning a visit to Chichen Itza? Have you been? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please send us an email or comment below.
I visited the ruins over 40 years ago . Visited last year , and will return this year . Yes it has been restored . But it definetly is not fake as some try to state . The 1st time , my sons and I were there , we saw wild monkeys , parrots in flocks , iguanas in every size . Time takes it’s toll , and the people have tried to restore .
It’s still a learning experience !!
My wife and I visited Chichen the first time in 1982. It was crowded then, but we were able to climb on any of the structures (which I thought was ridiculous and needed to cease). We just visited again 02/2018 and this time was less crowded. Yes it is commercialized, but people are still very poor and are trying to take advantage of capitalism. I do hope they will cut down on the number of venderes in the future. I personally do not mind the restoration. I like that a portion has been left in rubble, but I actually would like to see some of it restored to its once magnificent beauty. It is an amazing place, especially if you find mathematics, astronomy and acoustics fascinating. Look beyond the crowds.
I absolutely agree with you on this site. I was fortunate enough to see it many years ago, when the vendors were not allowed on the premises, there were about 1/10th of the amount of visitors we see today, when we were able to climb the Castillo, walk back to Old Chichen, walk through the Observatory. It used to take us a whole day to explore the site. Yes, like you, I always felt that it was too perfect, perhaps more reconstructed than necessary. But I still love it. What I found over the years that works is staying at one of the three hotels by the “back” entrance. I know, it is not for budget travel, but sometimes they have good deals, especially at the Villas Archaeologicas. We stayed there for less than $50 a few weeks ago. From there, you can walk to the back entrance, on the premises of Mayaland Hotel. You’ll have a much better experience entering there. We used to stay in Piste years ago, but the town has grown and lost its charm. Also,I found that if you sit long enough in front of the Red House, not far from the Observatory, you’ll get some quiet time, no matter how noisy and crowded the rest of the site gets. I hope you’ll have a better experience next time.
Thanks for your tips. We may go back this summer and staying on the back side of the park sounds like an excellent idea.
Hey i’m currently planning my trip to the riviera maya and find your blog super helpful, just wanted to drop in a note of appreciation 🙂
When are you leaving? Glad you like the blog, let me know if I can answer any questions about that area.
This does sound disappointing! I’m assuming the crowds are like this year-round? I had to click over to your post on Teotihuacan to see what you thought of it, as your experience at Chichen Itza sounds a lot like my experience there. I enjoyed Teotihuacan, but would like to go back someday at a less crowded time.
Hi Polly. We were actually at Chichen Itza during the low season. I can’t imagine what it’s like during the high season Nov-Apr.