From the World Heritage inscription:
The town of Chichen-Itza was established during the Classic period close to two natural cavities (cenotes or chenes), which gave the town its name “At the edge of the well of the Itzaes”. The cenotes facilitated tapping the underground waters of the area. The dates for this settlement vary according to subsequent local accounts: one manuscript gives 415-35 A.D., while others mention 455 A.D. The town that grew up around the sector known as Chichen Viejo already boasted important monuments of great interest: the Nunnery, the Church, Akab Dzib, Chichan Chob, the Temple of the Panels and the Temple of the Deer. They were constructed between the 6th and the 10th centuries in the characteristic Maya style then popular both in the northern and southern areas of the Puuc hills.
The second settlement of Chichen-Itza, and the most important for historians, corresponded to the migration of Toltec warriors from the Mexican plateau towards the south during the 10th century. According to the most common version, the King of Tula, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulkan as the Maya translated the name, reportedly took the city between 967 A.D. and 987 A.D.
Following the conquest of Yucatán a new style blending the Maya and Toltec traditions developed, symbolizing the phenomenon of acculturation. Chichen-Itza is a clear illustration of this fusion. Specific examples are, in the group of buildings to the south, the Caracol, a circular stellar observatory whose spiral staircase accounts for its name, and, to the north, El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulkan). Surrounding El Castillo are terraces where the major monumental complexes were built: on the north-west are the Great Ball Court, Tzompantli or the Skull Wall, the temple known as the Jaguar Temple, and the House of Eagles; on the north-east are the Temple of the Warriors, the Group of the Thousand Columns, the Market and the Great Ball Court; on the south-west is the Tomb of the High Priest.
I think Chichen Itza suffers from Citizen Kane Syndrome.
Citizen Kane is the film which was ranked #1 on the Sight and Sound survey of directors, which is conducted every 10 years. As such it has been given the label of the “greatest movie ever made”.
More often than not, when people see it they are disappointed because it isn’t the greatest movie they’ve ever seen. The expectations are so high that they feel let down, even if they would have otherwise thought it was a great movie.
Chichen Itza was recently named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. As such, when you visit it you have very high expectations.
Chichen Itza is absolutely deserving of its world heritage status. The main pyramid is the best preserved Mayan structure I’ve seen and also the most impressive. The ball court is also the largest and most impressive I’ve seen of all the Mayan ruins I’ve visited. It is almost as if you could play there today.
Given its status as one of the ‘wonders of the world’ I guess my expectations were higher than they should have been.
Usually the only images you see when you read about Chichen Itza is the pyramid. In fact, when I did research before the trip, I had a hard time finding photos of anything other than the pyramid.
If you take the city as a whole, I’d say it is less impressive than Tikal or maybe even nearby Tulum. That being said, it is still one of the best Mayan ruins you can visit.
My suggestion for visiting isn’t to come with expectations of this being one of the greatest things in the world. It is a top notch Mayan ruin, and that is what you should expect.
Getting to Chichen Itza is easy, but might take a bit of time if you are coming from Cancun or Playa Del Carmen. It is about a 2-2.5 hour drive from Cancun. Expect to pay tolls 4 times on a round trip from Cancun. There are many guides you can hire for an hour once you are on the grounds. There are many day trip options available from Cancun if you don’t want to rent a car. Expect to pay around $100-150 for the trip.
If you are a world heritage hunter, this will probably be your top attraction if you are in the region. If you just want to see Mayan ruins, Tulum and Coba are closer and are also impressive.