Getting to know Chichén Itzá, the heart of the Maya Empire in Mexico

The Maya have long awakened travelers’ curiosity on account of the many mysteries enshrouding this pre-Hispanic civilisation.

For one thing, the city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico was abandoned by its inhabitants – seemingly without explanation – centuries before the Spaniards arrived at the shores.

The relationship between the Maya and spirituality, water and their notion of the underworld, has inspired many legends that archaeologists have set out to investigate – and several have proven true.

The Temple of Kukulcan, also known as El Castillo, is on many travel bucket lists, but it is the complex as a whole that exceeds travelers’ expectations.

Here's more about Chichén Itzá’s history and significance to help you get the most out of your visit.

What is Chichén Itzá?

Chichén Itzá is a city where the Maya lived from around 550 to 1200 CE, although it should be noted that estimates vary greatly.

While the Temple of Kukulcan is its most famous structure, it is certainly not the only pyramid in the compound. Its sheer size is one of the things that sets it apart from other archaeological sites.

It currently occupies about 4 sq miles (10 sq km), but its original size was probably closer to 10 sq miles (25 sq km).

For this reason, it is believed that many more structures could be hidden by the jungle. At its peak, the city was home to some 35,000 people.

Archaeologists believe a “sacred geography” led the Maya to design Chichén Itzá.

There appears to be a correlation throughout Mesoamerica between the landscape beneath the earth’s surface and the Maya constructions above it.

The pattern seems to be that structures are built near caves, tunnels or cenotes (natural sinkholes).

Caves were important to the Maya cosmos – they're where eternal darkness reigned and important deities lived. If a balance wasn’t maintained between them, misfortune could occur.

If, on the other hand, order prevails in that region, riches are bestowed on the land, such as rain. El Osario building, for example, is built over a natural cavern.