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Just over 100 miles from the glamorous resorts and pristine beaches of Cancun, rests Mexico’s most celebrated historical site. Chichen Itza, once a prominent regional capital of the Mayan civilization, is a sprawling complex of pre-Columbian ruins. Though the city lay neglected until archeologists began exploring and preserving the site in the 1920s, the Mayan capital has become one of Mexico’s most visited attractions. Chichen Itza – meaning “at the mouth of the well of Itza” – is also a World Heritage Site and finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The most well-known structure at the Chichen Itza site is the Temple of Kukulcan, also known as El Castillo. In addition to being one of the most famous remains of the Mayan civilization, this wonderfully preserved step pyramid once served as a monument to the culture’s greatest mythical creature. Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity more commonly known as Quetzalcoatl, is celebrated in an incredibly unique architectural flourish. During the spring and fall equinoxes, the structure casts ornate shadows in the form of a feathered serpent along the northern staircase.

Demonstrating a common Mesoamerican architectural tradition, El Castillo was actually constructed atop another smaller temple. At the base of the northern staircase, visitors can enter a tunnel to the interior temple. The small room at the top of the staircase still houses King Kukulcan’s Jaguar Throne, carved from stone and painted red with jade spots.

These temples are at the heart of the debate surrounding the age of the city and the year of its decline. For decades, it was believed that the interior temple dated to a period just before 1000 AD, soon after the ruler of the Toltec civilization of central Mexico – who would later call himself Kukulcan in honor of the god – came to Chichen Itza. The historical belief held that Kukulcan, working with his Mayan allies, expanded Chichen Itza into the most powerful city in the Yucatan region. While many of the remaining structures at Chichen Itza represent a mixture of Mayan and Toltec styles, advanced technology has shown that the city most likely rose to prominence around 600 AD. Furthermore, while Mayan chronicles reference a revolt and civil war in 1221 – the previously held date of Chichen Itza’s decline and Mayapan’s rise – archeologists now believe Chichen Itza may have fallen by 1000 AD, creating a mysterious historical gap between the peaks of these Mayan capitals.

El Castillo and its inner structure are not the only temples at Chichen Itza. The High Priest’s Temple – a smaller version of El Castillo – served as the burial site for elite members of society. The Temple of the Warriors is another well-preserved step pyramid surrounded by carved columns with depictions of Mayan fighters. The Temple of the Warriors is also near the large plaza now known as The Great Market.

To the northwest of El Castillo is a large open space that might seem like another market at first glance. However, this area is the largest Mesoamerican ballcourt in all of Mexico, measuring 545 feet by 232 feet. The field is lined with sculptures of athletes, most notably a depiction of the losing team captain being decapitated. On the ballcourt’s exterior wall, The Temple of the Jaguar and another jaguar throne – similar to the interior of El Castillo – were built into the structure.

Another pair of popular structures is the complex known as Las Monjas (The Nunnery) and El Caracol (The Snail). Though referred to as a nunnery by Spanish conquistadores, Las Monjas was actually the primary governmental palace of Chichen Itza. El Caracol – a large round building on a square platform – served as the city’s observatory.

Called “the snail” for its spiral staircase, the Mayans incorporated many unique features into El Caracol. From the doors aligned for viewing of the vernal equinox to the stone cups designed to hold water and reflect the stars, Mayans based their understanding of the universe on this observatory’s technology.

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