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Bucket list experience:

Last updated: 02 March, 2023
Expert travel writer: Alex Robinson

The UNESCO world heritage-listed Maya city of Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most iconic and spectacular attractions – a global must-see worthy of any bucket list.

The site is littered with stunning, monumental buildings – the towering and perfectly proportioned Castillo pyramid, decorated with plumed serpents, the colonnaded Temple of a Thousand Warriors, vast ball courts and exquisitely carved palaces. These formed the ceremonial heart of a far larger city – built between AD 750 and 1200 – whose ruins extend into the wild forest surrounds.

Know before you go…

Every spring equinox (20 March) a sinuous snake-like shadow descends the serpent-headed staircases on Chichen Itza’s main pyramid – an event deliberately planned by the temple’s Maya builders. The shadow is said to signify the descent of the god of trance, Kukulcan. Around 70,000 people gather annually to witness the event and enjoy the pre-Columbian dance and music.

While you’re there

Allow some time to drive on to Merida, the ‘White City’, an old and very Mexican city with beautiful churches, great markets and far better shopping than the Mayan Riviera. Also stop by Cenote Ik-Kil for a swim with a difference.

Price from: £20
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 8+
When: All year around

Getting there & doing it

Chichen Itza lies 80 miles from Tulum on the road to Merida (about 2 hours’ drive). Hotels and tour operators organise tours here but it’s arguably better to hire a car and go independently.

It’s straightforward to hire guides at the park entrance, and collect maps which show you the various temples and palaces. Understanding a little about the pre-Columbian Maya really brings these sites to life. You could read Michael Coe’s The Maya, and/or Joyce Kelly’s An Archaeological Guide to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula before you go.

The site can be explored comfortably in 2 hours; 3 or 4 to really soak up the atmosphere.

For refuelling after, head to Ix Cat Ik in Valladolid’s 40km east on the road to Cancun for fabulous, authentic Mayan food and is well worth a detour. Most of the organic ingredients are grown in the restaurant’s kitchen garden.

If you want to stay close to get there before the hordes, the luxurious Hacienda Chichen Resort has beautiful mock-Spanish-colonial rooms in garden surrounds. The Le Muuch Boutique Hotel, 40 minutes’ drive away in pretty Valladolid town, has rooms in a converted Spanish townhouse and a great restaurant serving traditional Yucatec food.

When to do it

The site is open all year around, seven days a week. Gates open at 8am and close at 5pm.

It gets increasingly crowded and hot in the middle of the day. Be there for opening (8am), when you’ll have the ruins to yourself for half an hour.

The rainy season from May through October sees the fewest visitors to Mayan Riviera – and fewer crowds here. The dry season – November through April – gets busy. If you can, avoid peak season in December to January, when it gets oppressively crowded, especially around Christmas and New Year.

Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay near this experience, closest first

Coco Tulum

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico[129.7 miles]

Beachside party hotel with great value rooms in traditional barefoot-chic Tulum beach cabanas, with comfort. Adults only.

Official star rating:

Kai Hotel Tulum

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico[129.8 miles]

A good value hotel on the choicest stretch of sand and in the shadow of Tulum ruins. Its cabanas come with ocean views.

Official star rating:

Ma’Xanab Tulum

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico[129.8 miles]

This boutiquey Tulum beachfront blends with nature and offer modern, modish toes-in-the-sand stays in comfort. Adults only.

Official star rating:

Villa Pescadores

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico[129.8 miles]

Tulum ruins perched on a cliff and turquoise sea lapping talc-white sand: it’s all about location in this rustic beach-cabin retreat.

Official star rating:

Destination guides including or relevant to this experience

Mayan Riviera


Talc-white beaches, reefs teeming with life, ruined temples in misty rainforests – the Riviera Maya offers a family or romantic beach holiday with a dash of Indian Jones adventure.

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Round-ups that include this experience

101 World’s greatest historic buildings

Multiple countries

The great civilisations of the past have left a legacy of constructions that still stand out and inspire. Built without the wonders of 20th-century technology, many are also monumental feats of engineering; others offer such grace and beauty, that they’ll literally take your breath away.

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