Whether you’re peeling yourself off of your Cancun beach chair after four straight days of sun or just arrived in the Yucatan, the towering structures of Chichen Itza are calling. Combine a visit to this Wonder of the World with a swim in a cenote and hands-on food and art experiences to educate yourself about Mayan culture both past and present.

Morning: Sunrise at Chichen Itza

Beat the crowds to enjoy sunrise at Chichen Itza

Beat the crowds and the heat with a sunrise tour of the monuments at this stunning site. 

Translating to “at the brim of the well where the Wise Men of the Water live,” this ancient complex has been around for nearly 1,000 years. Once one of the largest Mayan cities and home to a diverse population until it was abandoned for unknown reasons in the early 1200s, Chichen Itza now considered one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. You’ll get up bright and early to wait for the sunrise, when the site is practically empty and the first light of the day touches the ancient stones. 

There are a total of 26 ruins to explore across the ancient city with a range of architectural styles. The main pyramid, known as El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulcán, is the site’s most impressive building, with its nine terraces reaching nearly 98 feet (30 m) high. There are also 13 ball courts, including the Great Ball Court, the largest and best-preserved in Mesoamerica. Wander through the Temple of the Warriors, with its reliefs of warriors, eagles, and jaguars consuming human hearts, or the vast quadrangle of the Thousand Columns.

Get the full experience by traveling with a guide who will let you in on Chichen Itza’s secrets. They’ll take you through the history of the site, discussing the main buildings, how they were built, and what they were used for at the height of the Mayan empire. You’ll learn how the Mayans lived from day to day and their traditions, and even why they chose to build at this spot — and how the site was later excavated.

Early Afternoon: Cenote Swim in Yokdzonot & Cultural Experience at Yaxunah

Immerse yourself in the peaceful Yokdzonot cenote

Now that you’ve worked up a sweat, head to the community project at Yokdzonot. In 2005, a group of women from this rural community organized to transform their cenote into a unique eco-tourism site.

Pause for a well-deserved breakfast at Yokdzonot after your morning of exploring. Then you’ll be guided to the beautifully conserved cenote for a swim. 

The Yucatan peninsula’s famous underground cenotes were the main water supply for the Mayans, as well as sacred spaces where they performed rituals of rain, life, death, rebirth and fertility. Swim amidst the limestone walls or just float inside the tranquil space, taking in the sounds of the water and natural life. 

Learn about the history and traditions of corn in Yaxunah

Next, dry off and head to the community of Yaxunah. Yaxunah, which means "the first house" in Mayan, is surrounded by cornfields and dense vegetation, marking its previous status as an important center for the cultivation of corn, the sacred food of the gods. Your guide, along with the residents of the community, will show you the production process of this important ingredient. Learn about the tasks of cleaning, planting, and harvesting and taste the beverages that can be prepared with corn, like potzoles, pinoles, nixtamal, and atoles. 

The Mayan community here has preserved their cultural identity and developed sustainable practices to promote solidarity community tourism. In the community cultural center of Yaxunah, you can visit the botanical garden, a library specializing in the Mayan language, and a small museum where you will find replicas of the archaeological zone.

You’ll also visit the archaeological site of Yaxunah itself, built around 400 BCE — making it even older than Chichen Itza. One of the ancient sacbé (white roads), the longest in the Mayan world, linked the city with Cobá. Check out the detailed artistic engravings that are still in good shape alongside a local guide as you wander the more than 650 structures. 

When you’re ready for lunch, the traditional cooks at Yaxunah will serve up a spread of traditional Yucatan dishes such as cochinita pibil slow-roasted pork, savory relleno blanco stew, and freshly made tamales alongside handmade tortillas and fresh salsa.

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Late Afternoon/Evening: Valladolid

Stroll through the colorful streets of Valladolid

After spending some time with their ancient civilization, it’s time to get a look at modern Mayan culture. You’ll visit a Mayan community outside Valladolid with a guide who will lead you to two different houses.

At the first stop, learn about the traditional Yucatan handicraft of hammock weaving and try your hand at assisting in the process. Then head to your second stop, where you’ll learn about colorful garment embroidery and sew a souvenir yourself to take home. Finish your interactive experience by making your own corn tortillas, preparing and kneading the dough by hand, and then savoring the fruits of your labor for dinner.

You can also opt to head to the town of Valladolid. Enjoy dinner in town or simply an evening stroll through the colorful streets or aisles of the Mercado Municipal.  Depending on your timing, you may be able to catch a traditional dance performance or an evening light show on the Convent of San Bernardino of Siena.

Either way, you’ll return to your lodging well-fed and full of a greater understanding of Mexico’s rich Mayan culture.

Planning a trip to Chichen Itza?

Learn more about what Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula have to offer here, or visit the Chichen Itza official site.

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