As one of the Wonders of the World, the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico is at the top of many people’s bucket lists! It was on mine for the longest time, until I finally got to see all its wonder and mystery in person last year when our families came to visit us in Mexico over the Christmas holidays. We took a Chichén Itzá day trip from Valladolid, having already explored around the other iconic Riviera Maya hotspots like Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun.
Here are the top things to do and see in Chichen Itza and what to know before visiting!
Read what it’s like to visit Cenote Ikkil (Mexico’s most famous cenote near Chichen Itza) and find out the best places to eat and stay near Chichen Itza. I also jot down some itinerary suggestions for Chichen Itza day trips so you can plan your trip easily from wherever you are.
10 Things to See, Do, and Know When Visiting Chichen Itza
Visiting Chichen Itza can be much smoother if you know a thing or two before you go. Otherwise, you might end up sacrificing on time or overall good experience. Here are 10 tips for visiting Chichen Itza on a day trip.
1. Line up before opening time
Like other World Wonder’s, Chichen Itza attracts the masses. So going early doesn’t even cut it. You need to get there even before the entrance gates open to line up with the crowd. If that doesn’t sound appealing, just know that the line will continue to grow in size and number throughout the morning as more tour buses arrive. Getting in line at Chichen Itza even before they open the gates will give you a (short) headstart on visiting the ruins! It gave us just the time we needed to snap a few family photos in front of El Castillo without other people in the shot.
Save time waiting in line! Get a unique skip-the-line admission ticket to Chichen Itza when you pre-book.
2. Visit the site counter-clockwise starting with El Castillo
Beyond the gates begins the Chichen Itza archaeological site. First, you’ll walk a few minutes until the path opens up to a clear field and you start to see ruins. I noticed some people going off in various directions, but we headed straight to El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan) – the most iconic structure representing Chichen Itza. And I’m glad we did, as this set us on a counter-clockwise track that naturally guided us to some of the most popular sites at Chichen Itza right from the getgo.
3. You can tour Chichen Itza on your own
Can you visit Chichén Itzá alone without a guide? Sure! But is it a good idea? That depends. If you’re like us, we do a bit of research and studying up on popular sites so that we can tour them on our own. Touring Chichen Itza without a guide might give you the flexibility to explore on your own, but the downside is that you miss out on lots of the storytelling side to all the fun facts. Hiring a guide is better if you want to learn about the site in real-time, and is especially handy if you’re in a group to offset the costs.
Alternatively, you can book an all-inclusive Chichen Itza tour here with a guide and transportation.
4. Don’t miss seeing the Temple of the Warriors (and other structures)
El Castillo isn’t the only thing to see in Chichen Itza, Mexico! Lots of tourists are surprised to realize how large the ancient Maya city really is. There are at least a dozen top attractions to see, one of which is the Temple of Warriors. This structure is actually quite massive, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like at the height of its existence. The site was named as such because of the near 200 columns adorning artistic depictions and carvings of warriors. It lies on the north-east corner of the Chichen Itza grounds.
Here are other highlights and attractions to see in Chichen Itza, other than El Castillo:
- Temple of Warriors
- Tomb of the High Priest
- Temple of the Skulls
- Sacred Cenote
- Temple of the Bearded Man
- House of the Deer
- El Caracol
- La Iglesia
- Akab Dzib
- Great Ball Court
- El Mercado
- Casa Colorada
- and more!
Temple of Warriors
5. Wear sunscreen or take a sun umbrella
Chichén Itzá is spread out across a large plain. With that in mind, there is hardly any shade to seek relief from the sun’s blistering rays. Lots of people find themselves exhausted from walking around Chichen Itza.
Here’s what you can expect and good-to-know tips for visiting.
- Expect to walk for at least 2-3+ hours
- Bring protection from the sun, either sunscreen or an umbrella
- Take plenty of water in a small day backpack
- Bring your own shopping bag if you plan to buy from vendors and merchants, which leads me to…
6. Be wary of vendors & scammers (& bring your own bag)
I was quite surprised to see just how many vendors had set up their own little stalls all around the grounds at Chichen Itza. I mean, it’s quite astonishing, actually! Being a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, it would make much more sense to keep merchants from selling goods at nearly every attraction. You’ll know what I mean once you walk down the road to reach the Sacred Cenote! But be that as it may, just know there are lots of local vendors trying to earn a buck or two. As such, not every vendor offers fair prices. In fact, shopping inside Chichen Itza can go one of two ways. You can get a good deal at a fair price if you can haggle a bit in Spanish, or you walk away buying the same souvenirs you could find offsite for half price.
Tip: Just in case you find a good deal, bring your own reusable bag to store your souvenir in.
Vendors setting up for a full day of tourists at Chichen Itza
7. Learn about the Sacred Cenote beforehand
The cenote at Chichen Itza isn’t for swimming, at least it’s not anymore. What used to be the sacred site to the underworld and place of immense spiritual and ritual significance for inhabitants of Chichen Itza, is now a site to marvel at from a distance. The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza now looks like a thick-green pool. At the depths of the cenote, researchers found a number of sacrificial artifacts like gold, gems, and other treasures; most of which were found alongside the remains of many women, warriors, and even children who had been sacrificed.
Tip: There are no signs explaining the interesting history and rituals behind the Sacred Cenote. So it’s wise to learn about it beforehand from blog research or on-site with a tour guide. Otherwise, you’re kinda just staring at a green pool of water shrouded in mystery.
8. Beat the lunch rush and eat in Pisté
Beating the lunch rush definitely has its perks. For one, you get to go to lunch earlier. And two, you really don’t want the lunch crowd to catch up with you. All the restaurants near Chichen Itza, especially the ones on-site, are going to be packed. Trust me, I know. So if you have a rental car, drive just five minutes up the road to a nearby town called Pisté. In Pisté the restaurants will be way less crowded and touristy. You can get an authentic Mexican meal without feeling like you’re at a weird buffet-style cafe, unlike the restaurants near Chichen Itza.
9. Don’t even try to swim in Cenote Ikkil in the afternoon
Most Chichén Itzá tours will take you to Chichen Itza mid-morning, provide lunch on-site, and then whisk you away to arguably the most iconic and popular cenote in Mexico: Cenote Ikkil. But if you enjoy nature without a crowd, or even just enjoy swimming without a hundred pairs of legs competing with you, then hear me out: Do not visit Cenote Ikkil in the afternoon! If you want to go, then early morning is your best shot. We went around 2:00 pm and decided to wait to get in the water until 5:00 pm (an hour before closing). Despite waiting, the crowds never dissipated and more buses rolled in every half hour.
Tip: Going in the morning to the cenote and visiting Chichen Itza afterward might mean you will sacrifice on having more people at Chichen Itza. But a bigger crowd at Chichen Itza doesn’t spoil the experience as much as it does at Cenote Ikkil.
10. Stay overnight or nearby if you can
The best way to optimize your time at Chichén Itzá (and nearby cenotes and attractions) is to stay overnight nearby Chichen Itza the day before you visit. Alternatively, you can spend the night nearby after your visit, and save the cenote (for example) for the next morning.
There are only a couple of places to stay with ideal an ideal location at Chichen Itza or in Pisté:
Chichén Itzá Day Trip Itineraries
So if you only have one day to visit Chichen Itza, what’s the best way to see and do all there is to well…see and do?! Here are some popular day-trip itineraries to tour Chichen Itza.
You can still see the original reddish color of the carvings (underneath the protected roof). Unlike today, Mayan temples used to be adorned with color.
Tulum to Chichen Itza
Reaching Chichen Itza from Tulum takes about 2 hours driving. Lots of people are strapped for time, so you might wonder which is better? Tulum Ruins or Chichen Itza?
If this is you, just know Chichen Itza deserves at least one full day to appreciate, including driving time to get there and back. You could wake up early and visit through the afternoon, swing by a cenote in the evening, and then make it back to Tulum before sundown.
From Cancun to Chichen Itza
Apart from an alternate route, it’s possible to visit Chichen Itza from Cancun. The drive takes 2.5 hours by car, making a day trip to Chichen Itza still feasible if you plan accordingly. Since you pass just outside of Valladolid, you could consider stopping here for a late lunch or quick jump in the less-crowded cenote in town.
From Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, like Tulum, is only a 2-hour drive to Chichen Itza, making it a popular day trip for lots of travelers. The only downside with staying 2 hours away is that you have to condense your sightseeing and activities within daylight hours to avoid driving at night.
Chichen Itza from Merida
Yucatan’s sprawling capital of Merida is a beautiful place to visit. If you are coming from Merida to Chichen Itza, the drive will only take an easy 1.5 hours. It’s a quick drive and you can easily work in other activities into your day, like exploring the cenotes of Cuzama or visiting the yellow city of Izamal (since it’s more or less along the same route).
Wherever you are in Mexico, getting to Chichen Itza will be an extra step unless you’re staying close by. But with buses and group tours, visiting Chichen Itza in one day is largely hassle-free if you don’t mind less flexibility.
It was the first time either of one of our families traveled in Mexico. Me & mom. <3
Have you ever been to Chichén Itzá, Mexico? If not, is it on your bucket list?