Exploring Chichen Itza: Mexico’s Wonder Of The World

Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins Mexico

The Ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, Mexico

The history of Chichén Itzá is not for the faint of heart. These Mayan ruins are shrouded in mystery and have a way of haunting you long after returning home from Mexico.

Once you finally get past an army of local vendors at the entrance, the ancient stone carvings of fearsome creatures and bloodthirsty warriors at Chichen Itza inspire awe and trigger unease at the same time.

This pre-Hispanic city (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) has a fascinating 1,000-year-old history. It is the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico, partly due to its close proximity to Cancun.

Located in the Yucatan Penninsula, the ruins are extensive and cover 740 acres. Many sections have still never been excavated.

While wandering around the massive archaeological site, I kept wondering what hidden treasures lay undiscovered beneath my feet.

Chichen Itza Sculpture

Jaguar Head Sculptures

Temple of Kukulcan

Temple of Kukulcan

History Of Chichen Itza

One thing that makes the Chichen Itza so intriguing, other than the giant stone pyramid, is the mysterious decline of the Maya people themselves.

By the time of the Spanish conquest of the Maya, this great city and others like it were virtually ghost towns.

Historians have several theories as to why. Overpopulation may have depleted environmental resources. A great drought or another catastrophe may have wiped out the civilization.

Competing city-states were constantly at war too — the Maya may have simply done themselves in.

In any case, Mexico’s most famous ruins are astonishingly well-restored site compared to other Mayan ruins in the region. Which is why it’s considered one of the New 7 Wonders Of The World.

El Castillo the Temple of Kukulcan

El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza

Pyramid Temple Of Kukulkan

Once you enter Chichen Itza, you can’t miss the 98-foot tall pyramid Temple Of Kukulkan (aka “El Castillo”) which dominates the northern part of the city. Not as large as the pyramids of Giza, but impressive nonetheless!

Kukulkan is a feathered snake deity in the Mayan religion. The pyramid is guarded by enormous carved serpent heads at the base of the stairs.

The Mesoamerican fascination with stars and planets mean the pyramid’s four stairways represent the four points of a compass. There are 365 steps too, one for each day in the solar calendar.

Nine terraces probably symbolize the Maya belief in a nine-level heaven too.

If you REALLY want a treat, visit El Castillo in March or September during the annual equinoxes. At sunset, a play of light and shadow creates the eerie effect of a snake gradually slithering down the staircase…

Scientists recently discovered this pyramid actually has two more pyramids inside it.

Stone Columns

Hall Of A Thousand Columns

Warrior Temple at Chichen Itza

Temple Of The Warriors

Temple Of The Warriors

The Temple Of The Warriors is another impressive structure at Chichen Itza. Some of the 200 columns on the south side depict warriors in bas-relief.

The columns once supported a roof system that is long gone.

Also known as the Hall of the Thousand Columns, this grand space might have been a meeting place or an indoor market.

A Chac Mool tops the broad staircase, distinctive statues found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. Reclining figures holding bowls with their heads turned at a 90-degree angle and propped on their elbows.

They might represent temple guardians or slain warriors bearing gifts to Chac, the god of rain.

In Maya religious ceremonies, stone dishes probably held offerings such as incense, tobacco, tamales or tortillas. In Aztec rituals, they more likely held human hearts.

Ball Court at Chichen Itza

The Mesoamerican Ballgame

Mayan Ball Game

Oldest Sport in the World?

The Maya Ball Court

Off to the left of the main pyramid, you’ll find the famed Maya ball court. While many sites include ball courts, the one at Chichen Itza is the largest in the world.

Maya athletes played a game where the object was to put a rubber ball (representing the sun) into a small stone circle perched very high on a wall, without using your hands OR feet.

Some carvings suggest that the winning team’s captain was decapitated, which was a sign of honor. The ball game is over 3,500 years old, making it the first organized game in the history of sports.

Some of the games were played to resolve arguments between rival cities or as an alternative to all-out war.

Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza

The Sacred Cenote

Cenote De Los Sacrificios

Chichen Itza means “mouth of the well of Itza” in the local Maya language. One possible translation of Itza is “enchanted water.” The Yucatan is covered in cenotes — distinctive limestone sinkholes that form natural pools.

Cenotes have deep spiritual significance for the Maya. Many scholars believe Chichen Itza was built solely because of the large cenote located here, which provided people with fresh water.

Cenote de los Sacrificios (also known as the Sacred Cenote) measures about 200 feet across with sheer cliffs that drop to the water’s surface. During severe droughts, worshippers tried to appease their rain god Chac by sacrificing special items or people (!) they weren’t very fond of.

Dredging this cenote uncovered thousands of artifacts made of gold, jade and copper. Numerous human skeletons with sacrificial wounds littered the depths as well…

Chichen Itza Temples

La Iglesia Structure

Chichen Itza Stone Carvings

The Wall of Skulls

More Cool Archeological Structures

Tzompantli means “wall of skulls,” and this next attraction lives up to its name. The large platform supported stakes on which decapitated human heads were impaled on top of each other.

The unfortunate victims were enemies defeated in battle or prisoners of war sacrificed to the gods. Whimsical skull carvings around the base are a nice touch.

This exhibit would have scared the living daylights out of would-be enemies.

A more elaborate platform nearby is known as House of the Eagles. Its motif is similarly creepy. Eagles and jaguars, symbolizing Toltec sacrificial warriors depicted clutching human hearts.

One of the most interesting structures is El Caracol, which functioned as an observatory. There are many more fascinating stops at Chichen Itza, so plan to spend at least 3 – 4 hours to see it all.

Chichen Itza Cenote Ik Kil

Popular Cenote Ik Kil

Cenote Zaci in Valladolid

Less Crowded Cenote Zaci

Swimming In Cenotes Nearby

While you can’t swim in the cenote at Chichen Itza itself (unless you want to join the skeletons at the bottom!) there are others nearby where you can.

The closest cenote, and most popular with tour buses, is called Ik Kil. While it’s a pretty one, it’s always packed with people and feels like a tourist trap. I’d probably skip it.

If you want a more authentic cenote experience, I’d recommend cooling off in the cenotes near the town of Valladolid. These include Cenote Zaci, Cenote Dzitnup, or Cenote Suytun.

Entrance Vendors Selling Trinkets

Navigating the Local Vendors

Getting To The Ruins

The ruins of Chichen Itza are about 197 kilometers (2 hours) from Cancun or 181 kilometers (2 hours) from Playa del Carmen by car. It’s also about 1.5 hours away from Merida.

The smaller town of Valladolid is another option. From here the ruins are less than an hour away.

Rental Car

RentalCars.com searches all the big car rental companies and finds the best price. This is probably the easiest way to rent a car in Mexico.

If you’re looking for a more adventurous route, the “libre” road runs parallel to the main toll highway and goes through a bunch of smaller villages for a more authentic feel of Mexico.

By Bus

Mexican ADO Bus Service from Cancun to Chichen Itza costs about $202 MXN ($9) one way and takes 3 hours. From Valladolid, there’s bus service every 30 minutes for about $26 MXN

Collectivo Taxi

Colectivos van taxis leave Valladolid from a lot just east of the bus station and cost $35 MXN.

Chichen Itza Pyramid

Different View of the Pyramid

Tips For Visiting Chichen Itza

  • Tickets cost $242 MXN ($11 USD). If you pay cash, only pesos are accepted. You can rent a locker for large bags and valuables.
  • There’s an evening “light & sound” show at 7pm in fall and winter and 8pm in spring and summer. It’s included in the price of admission.
  • Try to visit first thing in the morning when they open, or late in the afternoon to avoid the huge tour-bus crowds.
  • Consider splurging on a guided tour. There are information plaques at each attraction, but nothing like the insight you’ll get from a local guide.
  • Tourists can no longer climb to the top of the Kukulkan Pyramid due to UNESCO status and a few deaths over the years from falling.
  • The sun is unrelenting. Wear a hat, apply sunscreen and take plenty of water. If possible, arrive as soon as the gates open in the morning.
  • The mediocre food on-site is expensive. You can get much better stuff down the street at the village of Pisté for a lot less.
  • Avoid the vendors selling souvenirs at the entrance. Yes, tourists support their livelihood, but many of them sneak in without authorization, and it’s become a bit of a circus.

Chichen Itza Map

Chichen Itza Map

Getting Around the Ruins

Bonus Video: Mysterious Chichen Itza


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USEFUL TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR CHICHEN ITZA
Location: Chichen Itza, Mexico
Cost: $242 MXN ($11 USD) Entry Fee
Book A Flight: Learn how I find the cheapest airline flights
Rent A Car: RentalCars.com is a great site for comparing car prices
Find A Hotel: My tips for booking affordable accommodation
Protect Your Stuff: WorldNomads.com can insure your trip & gear
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Yucatan
Suggested Reading: The Maya: Ancient Peoples & Places

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Here's everything you need to know before visiting Mexico's Chichen Itza archeological site! One of the 7 Wonders of the World.

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This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Horseback Riding & Tobacco Farms In Viñales

Vinales Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Riding through endless fields of green tobacco and fertile red soil in Viñales, we passed local farmers harvesting the leaves that would become Cuba’s world famous cigars.

Viñales is a small town located on the Western tip of Cuba. Set in a beautiful lush valley with funky looking hills and limestone caves, people have been growing tobacco in the area for over 200 years.

In Havana we hired Jose and his sweet red 1957 Ford Victoria to drive the four of us 3 hours out to Viñales, passing only a handful of other classic cars and a bunch of horse-drawn carriages on Cuba’s poorly maintained highways.

Vinales National Park

Vinales Cars

Welcome To Viñales

Viñales feels stuck in time. The main street is lined with small single story wooden homes with faded paint. Locals pass by riding old bicycles, horses, or driving colorful vintage American cars.

While there are some hotels in town, most travelers stay with locals in casas particulares, which are like guest bedrooms in other people’s homes.

Our host was Lay, a welcoming lady who turned her home into a guesthouse with two double rooms. This is how many Cubans make extra income beyond their communist government regulated salary of about $30 USD per month.

The town has plenty of small restaurants and bars with live music, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. In fact, Viñales is rumored to be Fidel Castro’s favorite part of Cuba!

Horseback Riding Vinales Cuba

Vinales Cigars

Viñales National Park

Viñales Valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 due to its dramatic landscape of karst limestone domes called mogotes, traditional agricultural methods of farming, and rich cultural history.

The valley was formed underwater, rising from the sea millions of years ago. Ancient ocean fossils can still be found in the caves that dot the landscape.

The New York Times called Viñales one of the top places to visit in 2016.

But aside from being a beautiful travel destination, Viñales is known for the quality of its tobacco. I’m not a “smoker” per se, but I do enjoy the occasional cigar at the end of a big trek or for special occasions.

So I was excited to learn how Cuba’s world-famous cigars are actually made.

Tobacco Farm Cuba

Vinales Livestock

Home Of Cuban Cigars

Why are Cuban cigars so special? Well, many people believe Cuba is the birthplace of cigars. Christopher Columbus encountered native Cubans smoking cylindrical bundles of twisted tobacco leaves in 1492.

The practice was eventually exported to Europe, and by the 19th century, smoking cigars became a popular pastime for wealthy men — who formed special cigar clubs called divans.

Cuba’s time-honored tobacco growing and production techniques were exported to places like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Then came the United States trade embargo, making Cuban cigars illegal — and increasing their value even more.

The fertile land and favorable climate of Viñales make for perfect cigar tobacco growing conditions. Most residents here are in the tobacco farming business.

Farmhouse in Vinales

Vinales Tobacco Farm Tour

Tobacco Farm Experience

We hired a guide and some horses to take a tour of Viñales National Park, learning about the traditional techniques used here for hundreds of years. No machines are used, which means crops are picked by hand and fields are plowed with oxen.

Passing through farms with pigs, chickens, and turkeys, we rode along green tobacco fields where local workers were harvesting the last of the season’s prized leaves. Tobacco grows fast, ready for harvest after 2-3 months.

The leaves are then hung in special curing barns, where they dry for about a month, turning a toasty brown color. The Cuban government buys 90% of the tobacco, while locals are allowed to keep 10% for themselves.

To prepare Cuban cigars, the center vein of the leaf is removed, where 98% of the nicotine resides. Next, leaves are sprayed with a special mixture of ingredients like pineapple, lemon, honey, cinnamon, vanilla, and rum for the fermentation process.

Three different types of leaves are used to roll the final cigar — filler (inside), binder (holding it together), and the wrapper (visually appealing outer layer).

Tobacco Barn Cuba

Vinales Cuba Cowboys

Adventures In Viñales

Visiting tobacco farms isn’t the only thing to do in Viñales though. As part of the farm tour, we also explored one of the many limestone caves in the area. Rock climbing these unique limestone formations is a popular activity too.

Aside from guided horseback riding, you can also rent a bicycle, ATV, or motorcycle and explore the valley on your own. There’s a popular cave called Cueva del Indio where you can ride a boat on the underground river that flows through the cave.

We heard stories about a nice little beach about an hour North of Viñales called Cayo Jutías, but didn’t have time to visit.

Vinales Ox Cart

Tips For Visiting

Viñales is located about 3-4 hours West of Havana. There are regular Viazul Busses that run twice a day for about $15 USD per person. But you often need to buy your ticket a day in advance.

Or you can do what we did, and rent a vintage taxi with room for 4 people for about $60-$70 depending on your bargaining skills.

While walking the outskirts of Viñales, you might be waved over to learn about the cigar making process at some random farm. It’s a fun experience, just understand that at the end your host will ask you to buy a bundle of 15-20 cigars for about $1 each.

Cuban cigars can cost $10-$20 each in the USA… so it’s a pretty good deal!

“If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go.” ~ Mark Twain

Watch Video: Viñales Farm Adventure

(Click to watch Viñales Farm Adventure – Cuba on YouTube)

More Information

Location: Viñales, Cuba
Accommodation: Casa Lay (email: layvinales@nauta.cu)
Horseback Farm Tour: 35 CUC ($35 USD)
Useful Notes: Our tobacco farm tour was done on horseback, but they also have ox carts or bikes available. It lasts about 4 hours, with an option for a short cave excursion for a few CUC more. In addition to cigars, you can also purchase cuban coffee at the end.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Cuba
Suggested Reading: The Other Side Of Paradise

READ NEXT: How To Visit Cuba For Americans

Are you planning to visit Cuba? Have you ever smoked a cigar?

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