Chichén Itzá, 116km/72mi east of Mérida, is one of Mexico's largest and best restored archaeological zones. With only the briefest of interruptions it was a sacred Mayan site for over 700 years, and in the 11th and 12th centuries ad was the political and religious capital of a renascent Mayan empire under Toltec rule. Today Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO world cultural heritage site.
Chichén Itzá (Mayan: "near the well of the Itzá") was probably founded around ad 450 by Mayan tribes migrating from the south. Experts assume that the site continued in occupation beyond the end of the Mayan Classic era (around AD 900), in contrast to those in central and southern Mayan regions (Campeche, Chiapas, Guatemala, Honduras) which, up to that time, had been of far greater importance. The most recent research suggests that tribes from the central Mexican highlands had already penetrated eastward into this part of Yucatán as early as the 7th or 8th centuries, mingling with the resident Maya before perhaps returning whence they came a century or two later - which would explain the strong Mayan elements to be found at Tula. Archaeologists had previously believed that the Toltecs first made the 1200km/745mi journey from Tollán (present-day Tula) to north Yucatán in about ad 1000, at which time they established themselves at Chichén Itzá (or Uucil-abnal, Mayan: "seven bushes", as it was then known). According to old Nahua chronicles these latter migrants were led by the legendary Prince Ce Ácatl Topiltzín, called, as were several Toltec rulers, Quetzalcóatl, or Kukulkán (Náhuatl and Mayan: "plumed serpent"). He is said to have been driven out of Tula for being too peaceable.
In the following two centuries the merging of these two advanced civilisations, the Toltec and the Mayan, resulted in a post-Classic renaissance of Mayan architecture. With Toltec influence dominant throughout this golden age, Chichén Itzá's buildings, despite many Mayan features, show a remarkable similarity to those of the old Toltec capital of Tollán. Unfortunately this chapter of Chichén Itzá's history remains rather obscure. Mayan records, such as the Books of Chilan Balam, the "Jaguar Prophet" (records which in many respects are at variance with the Nahua chronicles), speak of a three-fold alliance (the Mayapán League) being forged between Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán, persisting from 1007 until 1194. Modern research throws doubt on this however, since Uxmal was already abandoned in the 11th c. and Mayapán is believed to have been founded only in the 13th c. The evidence relating to Chichén Itzá's demise is also somewhat contradictory. The site appears to have been abandoned in about ad 1250, following, it is thought, a second migration of Itzá Maya, the tribe, long influenced by the culture of the central highlands, to whom Chichén Itzá owes its name. This second invasion again took place under a leader called Kukulkán (or Quetzalcóatl), the link with Toltec tradition being thus preserved. Soon afterwards the Itzá seem to have dispersed. Some of the tribe, led by the Cocom family, founded Mayapán, from where they continued to control the north of the Yucatán peninsula until about 1450. Chichén Itzá apparently played no significant role at this time, building having to all intents and purposes ceased and a large part of the site lying abandoned.
At the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1533 Chichén Itzá was virtually uninhabited, though it remained a frequently visited place of pilgrimage. Bishop Diego de Landa journeyed there in 1566, describing some of the buildings.
In 1841 and 1842 the American John Stephens investigated the ruins, followed in 1876 by the French archaeologist Le Plongeon. After that came the Briton Maudslay, and then the Austrian Maler, before, in 1885, Edward Thompson, the U.S. consul in Mérida, opportunistically acquired the entire site. Between 1904 and 1907, on behalf of the Peabody Museum, he commissioned divers to search the Holy Cenote for sacrificial treasure. During the 1920s an outstanding contribution was made to the excavation and restoration of Chichén Itzá by the American Sylvanus Morley. Later, in the 1960s, further investigations were carried out mainly by the National Geographic Society of America and the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History (I.N.A.H.).
The archaeological zone covers an area of almost 8sq.km/3sq.mi. Here, as at virtually all pre-Columbian sites, only some of the buildings have been excavated. The frequently misleading names by which the buildings are known were bestowed on them either by early Spanish sources or various archaeologists. The historic Mayan names have for the most part been lost or forgotten. at the main entrance are a large visitor centre with an interesting museum, an auditorium, a restaurant and bookshop.
How to get there
By bus or car via the MEX 180 from Mérida (1.5-2.5 hours; 116km/72mi) or Valladolid (1 hour; 42km/26mi). An air taxi service is also available.