Chichén Itzá

Join this Expedition to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site and learn about the ancient Mayan civilization.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Chichen Itza forest (2005) by CyArkCyArk

Chichén Itzá in Yucatán State, Mexico, was a pre-Columbian city built by the Mayans. The area was originally settled around 450 C.E.  It became a center of Mayan culture and society and remained so for nearly 1,000 years. Excavation of the ruins began in 1841.

Ballcourt at Chichen Itza (2015) by GMP teamBritish Museum

By then, over 100 years had passed since the city was abandoned, but the building materials and techniques used by the Mayans assured that much has survived. 

Many of the sites structures are notable for their beautiful proportions and their remarkable carved decorations. Buildings constructed after that time show a great deal of Toltec influence.

Archeological Complex

Here we are above the archaeological site at Chichén Itzá  in Mexico. Chichén Itzá  was a Mayan city dating from the 5th century A.D.. In the late 10th century, the Toltec people who lived north of Chichén Itzá  appear to have conquered the city. 

Temple of Warriors

Archeologists spent 4 years excavating the Temple of Warriors, finishing their work in 1928. Before they started, all they saw was a tree-covered hill 50 feet (15 meters) high. 

Great Ball Court

The Great Ball Court, which is approximately 550 feet long and 225 feet wide, was used for game called tlachtli, or pok-ta-pok. The rules of this game are unknown, but it’s very likely that it was similar to modern-day racquetball.

Temple of the Jaguar

This temple is close to the Great Ball Court. Murals painted on its walls show battles that may be symbolic or may be actual battles fought by the Mayans.

Platform of Eagles and Jaguars

Built during the Toltec period, this site has pictures of jaguars and eagles eating human hearts.  

Temple of Kukulkan

You’re standing at the base of the Temple of Kukulkan, a 4-sided pyramid-shaped building used by the Mayan people in the 11th century. 

This building honors the Toltec leader Kukulkan, also known as Quetzalcoatl. When the Spanish arrived in Central America, they called it El Castillo, which means “the castle.” 

365 Steps

The Maya were advanced astronomers and mathematicians. The Temple of Kukulkan stands 79 feet tall, and has 365 steps if you count the platform. That’s the same number of steps as the number of days in a solar year. 

Serpent Sculptures

Sculpted serpents adorn the pyramid’s base. Serpents were important symbols to the Toltec people who conquered the Maya in the late 900s, and whose presence influenced the architecture of the Temple of Kukulkan. Kukul means “feathered,” and kan means “serpent.”

Serpent Shadows

The Temple of Kukulkan was built to synchronize with 2 annual equinoxes. On those 2 days,  the sun casts shadows that look like serpents. As the sun sets, the “serpents” appear to slither down the sides of the temple. 

El Caracol

You’re standing south of the Temple of Kukulkan, looking at El Caracol, a building in the older part of Chichén Itzá, built around 900 A.D. El Caracol is believed to have been an observatory. 

The Mayans knew a lot about the stars and planets, including the equinoxes and solstices, and when to expect eclipses. 

The Viewing Tower

El Caracol’s tower stands about 15 meters (49 feet) tall. From the top, high above the treetops, the 10th-century Mayans could view the night sky without obstructions, and expand their knowledge of astronomy.

The Stairs

A long flight of stairs leads to El Caracol’s entrance. The stairs don’t line up with the other buildings at Chichén Itzá. Instead, they’re aligned with the northernmost point that Venus reaches as it appears to move across our sky. 

The Window Openings

Look closely at the top of El Caracol and you’ll see what looks like windows in the stone wall. The Mayan builders placed them to line up with various celestial events—probably involving the planet Venus.

The Snail

Caracol means “snail” in Spanish, and probably refers to the winding staircase inside the dome that you’re looking at. The winding stairs lead to the top tower, the best place for viewing the night sky.

Temple of Warriors

Go east from the Temple of Kukulkan and you will arrive at the Temple of Warriors. Built around 950 A.D.., the temple rests on top of 4 platforms that measure 136 square feet (41 square meters) at the base and rise 37 feet (11 meters) high. 

It’s very similar to a structure in Tula, where the Toltecs who conquered the Maya came from.

The Columns

Many of this temple’s columns originally supported a roof. There are 200 of them, all about 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) high. They were once painted in bright colors, and they still sport carvings of Toltec warriors. 

Chac Mool

Atop the pyramid is a statue known as Chac Mool. It depicts a male figure, head turned to face you. On his belly there’s a platter, which some think was used to hold the hearts of people who were sacrificed. 


At the top of the big staircase are carvings of male figures. It’s believed that they held flags on ceremonial occasions. 

Plaza of a Thousand Columns

Just outside the Temple of the Warriors is the Plaza of a Thousand Columns. There aren’t actually 1,000 columns—more like 200. Parts of a frieze that formed the base of a roof were found among the columns. 

Like the Temple of Warriors, the columns were built in the early period of Chichén Itzá’s history. 

The Columns

Columns vary from round to square. All have carvings, including bas relief sculptures of warriors. One group of the columns may have formed a small temple. It surrounds an open rectangle decorated with carvings of godlike figures, animals, and serpents.

Las Monjas or the Nunnery

This complex of buildings is called Las Monjas, or the Nunnery, but that’s not what it was. When people from Spain arrived at Chichén Itzá , they thought the building seemed like a monastery because it had so many rooms.  

Today archeologists believe it was a palace, built in the 7th century A.D., before the Toltecs took over Chichén Itzá.

The Iglesia

At the Nunnery complex’s eastern edge is a small building called the Iglesia (church). This is the smallest building in the complex, with just 1 room. Its hook-like carvings are thought to represent the nose of the rain god Chac.

The Stairs

The steps on Las Monjas’s north side rise about 32 feet (10 meters), and lead to a warren of small rooms. Some were painted with bright murals, while others were decorated with stone mosaics. The doorways were decorated with hieroglyphs.

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