Chichen Itza is one of the new Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. It’s a fascinating ancient city, where you can learn about the mysteries of Mayan culture and theology.
It’s also definitely not a secret. And since it’s one of the few major Mayan sites in a safe country, near a major international airport (Cancun), it can get downright crowded.
Which of course means locals try to capitalize on the tourist dollars. They’ll sell you kitschy tourist crap. You won’t be able to walk five feet without hearing one of their toy jaguars roar.
All this means a visit to Chichen Itza is sometimes less an atmospheric stroll through an abandoned city and more a game of ‘dodge the tour groups and the hawkers following them around.’
Nevertheless, you can still have a reasonably secluded experience. Here are some tips on how to beat the crowds.
1. Stay in Valladolid
You can do a day trip to Chichen Itza from practically anywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula. So most travelers come from Cancun or elsewhere along the Mayan Riviera. Tour agencies in Playa del Carmen and Tulum sell round-trip packages bringing in busloads of tourists. And a steady stream of independent travelers come over from Mérida for the day.
But there is a better way — and for some reason, hardly anyone uses it. You can stay in the small city of Valladolid, only 45 minutes down the road from Chichen Itza.
Valladolid has a handful of hostels (La Calendaria is my favorite), good restaurants, and a generally provincial vibe. Despite its location so close to such a major tourism destination, it doesn’t feel touristic at all. Plus, the first minivan leaves for Chichen Itza at 7 am — meaning you’ll be at the gate when it opens.
2. Regardless of where you stay, get to Chichen Itza as early as possible
I’m serious about this. Ideally, you want to be at the gates by about 7:45 am so you’re walking into the park by 8. If you’re coming from further afield and you’re public transport-reliant, 8:30 may be more realistic. Later than 9 and you’ll miss the chance to have El Castillo (the most famous structure) to yourself.
Even the hawkers don’t start coming out in full force until the tour buses start showing up. So not only does getting there early mean you’ll get better, tourist-free photos of El Castillo — it means far less hassle as you walk around.
3. Start with El Castillo, the Temple of Jaguars, and the Ball Court — then make your way around the other side
These three monuments near the entrance get the first massive influx of tourists. If you can finish up with them before about 9:30 am, you have a good chance of having them to yourself.
By the time you get over to El Caracol, on the opposite end of the park, the throngs of tourists (and the hawkers who accompany them) will be just starting to make their way deeper into the park.
If you’d like more time with a particular structure, get your photos early and come back later to examine it more closely.
4. Bring your guidebook (or other reading material) with you
Many tourists show up to Chichen Itza with nothing but their cameras and their wallets. But you’ll get much more out of the site if you try to dig a little deeper.
Most guidebooks have basic explanations of each structure. They’re far better than the signposted ones in the park.
Even better, if a hawker or wanna-be guide approaches you, you can immediately stick your head into your reading materials and pretend you don’t speak English!
5. Finish up early — then head to the cenotes to cool off
It takes about three hours to do Chichen Itza justice. If you got there by 8, that means you’ll be done just as some of the later buses from Cancun are arriving.
As a reward for your early morning, head to one of the region’s cenotes (underground swimming holes) to cool off. The most accessible are Dzitnup and Samula, a short bike ride from Valladolid.
Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most rewarding day trips. Don’t let huge tourist crowds and persistent hawkers ruin it for you. Get the site (mostly) to yourself — and save time for the rest of the attractions in the area!