Introducing Chichén Itzá

The most famous and best restored of the Yucatán Maya sites, Chichén Itzá, while tremendously overcrowded – every gaper and his grandmother is trying to check off the new seven wonders of the world – will still impress even the most jaded visitor. Many mysteries of the Maya astronomical calendar are made clear when one understands the design of the ‘time temples’ here. Other than a few minor passageways, climbing on the structures is not allowed.

At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (March 20 to 21 and September 21 to 22), the morning and afternoon sun produces a light-and-shadow illusion of the serpent ascending or descending the side of El Castillo’s staircase. The site is mobbed on these dates, however, making it difficult to see, and after the spectacle, parts of the site are sometimes closed to the public. The illusion is almost as good in the week preceding and following each equinox (and draws much smaller crowds), and is re-created nightly in the light-and-sound show year-round. Some find the spectacle fascinating, others think it’s overrated. Either way, if you’re in the area around the equinox and you’ve got your own car, it’s easy to wake up early for Dzibilchaltún’s fiery sunrise and then make it to Chichén Itzá by midafternoon, catching both spectacles on the same day.

The heat, humidity and crowds can be fierce; try to explore the site (especially around El Castillo) either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Hold on to your wristband ticket; it gives you in-and-out privileges and admission to that evening’s sound-and-light show. The 45-minute show in Spanish begins each evening at 8pm in summer and 7pm in winter. It costs M$75 if you don’t already have a ruins wristband, and it counts toward the admission price the following day. Devices for listening to English, French, German or Italian translations (beamed via infrared) rent for M$39. Specify the language you need or it may not be broadcast.