Chichen Itza was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and it’s easy to see why. It was built before Jesus walked the earth and still looks like it was just finished yesterday. The white stones gleam under the hot Yucatan sun and the entire Chichen Itza complex brings the past to life. A visit to Chichen Itza is a popular thing for tourists staying in Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, or anywhere in Mexico.
Personally, I’ve wanted to see Chichen Itza for as long as I can remember. My favorite movie, an animation by DreamWorks, is called El Dorado and the setting is practically Chichen Itza. So when my cruise stopped in Cozumel and there was an excursion option that included Chichen Itza, I immediately swooped in on it. I had been to Cozumel once before and visited the ruins that were on the island because a visit to Chichen Itza wasn’t feasible in the short time frame that a cruise offered. But now, a new highway had been built that meant cruisers with a stop in Cozumel could make it to see the latest wonder of the world.
In typical Marisa luck, there was a caveat. Since the ruins were so far away from Cozumel, we would only get about an hour and a half at Chichen Itza. My parents (who were on the cruise with me) and I were upset but decided that a short amount of time was better than no time. We had accounted for that, but we failed to account for the other huge variable.
The age of the other people on the excursion.
You see, this cruise wasn’t like most. It was Royal Caribbean’s smallest ship – the Empress of the Seas. The ship was tiny because its main destination was Havana Cuba. Every single passenger on the ship had booked this cruise because they wanted to go to Cuba and this would be the very first cruise ship from Tampa to dock in Cuba. But the high demand and steep prices meant that it was mostly older people who were on the cruise. Consequently, it was mostly older and slower people on the Chichen Itza excursion.
If you’ve ever been on an organized tour or excursion, then you know that the tour only moves as quickly as the slowest person. I have nothing against older travelers but it’s just a matter of human physics and anatomy that dictates that they will likely move slower. I know they can’t help it and I have no problem with them. But if I only have an hour and a half to see a whole city that involves a lot of walking, I know I’m going to be faster than most.
When we boarded the bus that would take us to Chichen Itza early in the morning, it took everyone a very long time to board. I sat there, sweating in the 90-degree heat, thinking about how we were wasting time that could be spent in Chichen Itza. The bus finally got on the road but the driver never hit the speed limit. As we approached Chichen Itza, the tour guide announced that we all needed to stick together as a big family and not wander away. If we happened to get lost, we needed to meet back at the bus at 1:00 p.m. or else we may get left behind. It was 11:53 as he was making his announcement and we hadn’t even arrived yet. That meant we would only have around 1 hour to see ruins that could easily take 3 hours to explore.
My mother and I were blessed with the ability to never follow instructions. So we made a plan to ditch the tour group and see Chichen Itza on our own. By now, the temperature was reaching 100 degrees with at least 70 percent humidity. We were all dying and I knew that the heat would only make everyone else go slower. As soon as the bus stopped, my mom and I grabbed our tickets from the guide and took off. My dad elected to stay behind for some reason but she and I were not going to wait for him. This was a matter of life or death.
Entering Chichen Itza
Mid-day is the busiest time to visit Chichen Itza. If you’re on an excursion with a cruise ship, you won’t have an option and will be forced to arrive at mid-day. However, if you’re staying in the area, you have the opportunity to arrive early in the morning. That will be the best time to go because there will be very few people. By the time I arrived at noon, the entry line to enter the site had bottlenecked and was moving extremely slowly. Just look at how many people are crowded here together in the heat!
As soon as you pass through the security and into the actual site, you’ll need to keep moving quickly in order to see it all. The path takes you past dozens of stands selling identical trinkets. The trinkets aren’t anything spectacular – models of Chichen Itza, blankets, figurines, jewelry, and these wooden jaguar heads that when blown into, make a sound like a jaguar. The owners will call out to you and try to get you to purchase something but just ignore them and keep walking. If you do want to buy something, try and speak to them in Spanish. I had one man offer me a statue for 5 dollars, then lower the price to 2 just because I spoke to him in Spanish. It’s worth a shot.
Once you pass by all the trinket stands, you’ll come face-to-face with one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Kulkulcan Temple, which is commonly known as the great pyramid of Chichen Itza. It’s a beautiful temple and on sunny days, the pyramid is like a beacon of shiny white stones.
Exploring Chichen Itza
My quick exodus from the tour bus meant that my mom and I were beating all of the slow people who were on the tours. We stood and enjoyed a few peaceful minutes of admiring the pyramid and taking pictures before we could see the waves of tourists heading our way. The plan was to always stay a step ahead of the tour groups since we knew that they would all be moving at the same slow speed.
From the pyramid, we headed around to the backside of the site, where there were lots of trees. Vendors vied for our attention once again but we were on a mission. My mom and I passed the square of a thousand columns, which looks exactly like one would expect – a thousand columns. It’s pretty cool to see them all and realize that hundreds of years ago, this was one of the holiest sites for the Mayans. Even today, it’s still one of the seven wonders of the new world.
There’s a small clearing on the other side of the columns. From there, you can see where even more columns spread into the trees. You can see the base of another temple, as well as additional ruins. If you want somewhere secluded at Chichen Itza, most cruise ship tours don’t make it there. Unless you’re with me. I made it there.
I wish I could have seen more of those ruins and relaxed in the shade but by this time we only had 30 minutes to see the rest of Chichen Itza. So my mom and I started jogging. Keep in mind it was noon, roughly 90 degrees, and 70 percent humidity. Who even needs a sauna?
Next up was the cenote, or the massive water hole where they sacrificed pretty young women. Even though I was exactly what the ancient Mayans looked for in a sacrifice, I still went to check out where I would have probably been sacrificed. (Yes I know I think highly of myself but it’s a joke guys). In order to get to the cenote, you have to walk down a path lined with vendors all trying to get you to stop. We literally did not have time so we just kept going. It’s a fairly short pathway from the pyramid to the cenote, but it’s narrow so it can be difficult to maneuver through tourists.
Apparently some cruise tour groups do in fact make it to the cenote. Ours did not. We did. There isn’t much to see when you get there. It’s a massive hole in the ground that is filled with water and algae. The cenote is very pretty and has vines and trees growing around the edge. That being said, it’s pretty much just something to look at for a few minutes before heading out. And if you’re on a tight schedule like I was (T-minus 10 minutes to make it back to the bus), then you shouldn’t spend much time here.
After the cenote, my mom and I headed back to the pyramid. We were practically running because our bus was supposed to leave in 5 minutes and it was at a 10-minute walk away. Thankfully, we just happened to run into my dad. He was a good person and followed the rules and followed the tour. In other words he was boring and didn’t see the rest of the sites. He told us that the guide had given us all an additional few minutes so we didn’t have to rush.
Now that we had this abundance of extra time a small amount of additional time, my mom and I went to check out the ball court. Aside from the pyramid, this was one of the main reasons we were here at Chichen Itza. If you’ve ever seen El Dorado, it’s easy to see why. So back in the Mayan times, they didn’t have football, soccer, or anything remotely entertaining. Consequently, they built massive ball courts where the object of the game was to knock a ball through the hoop. Which hoop? That hoop. Yes, this ball through that tiny little hoop way up on top of the building. The hardest part is that the players couldn’t use their hands at all and the losing team was killed. Doesn’t it sound fun?
The ball court itself is massive; it’s the biggest one in the Americas. The high walls and large expanse dwarfed all of the tourists milling around. There is a box seat at the front of the court where the high priest would sit and preside over the game. According to the tour guide, there was a sweet spot just in front of the box seats. If you face the wall and scream at it, the noise reverberates perfectly around the court and everyone can hear you. My mom and I tried to get it to work but it didn’t so we just stood at a wall screaming at it in vain.
We were really running behind on time after the ball court so we hurried through the sweltering Mexican humidity to our bus. Thankfully, our guide was still standing in front of it handing out cold Coca-Colas. We each got one and visited with the guide as we waited for more people to return. Yes, there were people slower than us. All I could think was you mean we didn’t have to run and hurry like we did? The stragglers took at least another 15 minutes to meander to the bus. That irritated me because if you’re given a time, STICK TO IT! Like I said earlier, the hard part about tours is that you’re only as fast as the slowest person, and sometimes the slowest person is really slow.
Once the slow people finally made it on the bus we left immediately. It was still about another two-hour drive to Playa del Carmen plus another 45-minute ferry ride to Cozumel, where our ship was docked.
My Chichen Itza Advice
If you aren’t on a cruise ship, I recommend giving yourself a few hours at Chichen Itza. It’s really a beautiful place and should be explored in-depth, not hurrying to see the sites.
If you’re unfortunate and are only there because of a cruise port, get an excursion through your cruise ship. There will be other tantalizing offers that are cheaper than your cruise line but don’t use them. That’s because if there is a problem and your tour is delayed or running late (like mine), then you won’t miss the ship. A cruise line’s excursions will wait for the excursion to return before leaving port. A third-party excursion isn’t as reliable and could leave you stranded.
For those of you who do decide to go to Chichen Itza while in port, congrats! You’re a fun person who wants to explore and doesn’t need to just sit on a beach all day. I highly recommend going to Chichen Itza because it’s doable while in port. If you’re in the area for longer, why aren’t you going anyways?? Be prepared for the heat and humidity and bring water because it gets HOT. There isn’t a lot of shade around the pyramid but there still is some shade around the side. Websites I had researched before I went said that there was virtually no shade. They lied. There is some shade but everyone is vying for it in the warmer months.
Although I don’t really advocate leaving your tour group to do your own thing, sometimes it can be necessary. Chichen Itza may be one of those occasions, especially if you’re short on time. The decision is yours. If you decide to leave your group in order to actually see the sites you went there to see, then that’s just the price of traveling.
Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to see Chichen Itza in one hour.