As one of the seven modern wonders of the world, Chichen Itza is in Yucatan, Mexico. Contrary to popular belief, the pyramid at Chichen Itza is not a tomb or a religious altar; it is a calendar and an oratory box. Talk about amazing engineering of the ancient Mayans! The faces of the pyramid are used like a calendar and the speaking box at the top of the pyramid is where the leader/king would speak his speech that could be heard as far as 7 miles from the pyramid.
To get to Chichen Itza, you have the following options: large tour group, semi-private tour group, private tour, or going on your own. Since we were staying in Isla Mujeres and did not rent a car, it made more sense logistically to go on a tour. Normally, we try to stay away from doing organized group tours as we like having the freedom to do whatever we want, but planning this proved to be too much work for us. As much as we would have liked a private tour or even a semi-private tour, the price was out of our range (~USD 350-510 for two people, depending on options), so we ended up going on a large tour group. This was definitely not ideal, but the price was right (USD 50 per person) and we did not have to worry about the logistics and corrupt cops pulling us over for bribery as we read numerous times online.
We booked with Tripper on Isla Mujeres, based on Juan the vendor’s word that the tour operator is different from all others in that we would be visiting the Ik Kil Cenote first to avoid the crowd, that we would not be making any long stops for shopping, and that cool towels and umbrellas would be provided. He also said that the tour operator would either be Xichen or Tio Nene’s (both had very good reviews online). We paid USD 34 to Juan as a deposit and were given instructions on when and where to meet the driver in Cancun.
Reality: Our tour operator was NOT Xichen or Tio Nene’s, but Manolo Tours, which we did not find out until later on. We had to go on the 6:30 AM ferry to be picked up by a driver in a van at the Puerto Juarez terminal. There was already another passenger in the van and the driver picked up another tourist from a hotel and drove all of us to an indoor mall in the hotel zone in Cancun. We were greeted by some Manolo Tours staff members who led us up the escalator to a very touristy restaurant and souvenir shop, where we checked in and paid the remaining balance of USD 66. We were given VIP bracelets (breakfast, drinks on the bus, and drinks at lunch included) and told to eat breakfast at the restaurant. The food was mediocre at best (orange juice or coffee, bread, old fruit, very salty omelet), which I could not finish. There were four large tour buses (air conditioned, reclining seats, curtains, toilet on board for number one only), and the VIP tourists all got on one bus (about 50-60 people in one bus).
The tour was bilingual in Spanish and English, and the majority of the tourists on the bus were English speaking. The staff from the tour company consisted of a driver, tour guide, and an assistant who was responsible for drink service. There were sodas, water, and beer for drinks, and small bags of chips and cookies for sale.
We were told that the drive to Chichen Itza would take about 2.5 hours from Cancun and the first hour of the drive, the guide encouraged for us to take a nap. Once we got to Yucatan, we stopped by a rest stop for a restroom and drink break. Now, I had anticipated that our day would be a very long day, but I did not know exactly what was to come. The guide claimed that he got word from his company that there were “5,000 school kids at Chichen Itza,” so to spare us from the huge crowd, they decided to change our itinerary and drive us through a Mayan pueblo first. Initially, it was interesting to hear about how the Mayans live and the discrimination that they face in Mexico. But throughout the trip, the guide’s speech sounded less and less genuine and truthful, and more and more commercialized, constantly trying to sell us something by playing on our emotions. For example, the guide claimed that he was an atheist and does not believe in any supernatural powers, however, when his autistic son with down syndrome and kidney failure was cured by a shaman who gave him a special black rock to massage his son’s back with, then took us to a Mayan souvenir store with the “fifth most important shaman” and tables full of these rocks, I became suspicious and wary of this guide’s claims. If his story is true, then I wish the best for his son, but if it isn’t, then I don’t know how the guide can live with himself selling out his son or imaginary son day in and day out.
During the entire tour, it felt like everyone was looking for an opportunity to sell us something, but in a pretty sneaky way, which I did not appreciate. I understand that many tours in the world, whether big or small, take you to businesses and restaurants where the tour companies get commission off of tourists’ purchases, but the Mayan souvenir shop took it to another level. This Mayan souvenir mall had a restaurant where we were supposed to have a buffet lunch (again, very mediocre at best) that was included in the package. Before we could enter the restaurant, we were all forced to line up and take a picture with a Mayan couple dressed in their traditional warrior garb, without giving us any explanation as to what the picture was for. We tried to avoid taking the picture, but the staff would not open the door unless we took the picture and we just wanted to get inside to eat our mediocre lunch. No one ever mentioned the pictures afterwards and we did not see them, so I had forgotten about them. After the visit to cenote, the guide introduced a teenage boy to the group and said that he is a Mayan boy who just learned Spanish 6 months ago and needs money to go to college. He then tried to sell everyone a bottle of some Mayan liquor that is said to have some digestive healing attributes. The kicker here is that the front of the bottle was plastered with—yes, you guessed it—the picture we were forced to take to get our lunch! So that’s where the picture went! Some may find it as just a sales tactic or even cute to have your picture on the bottle, but most of us did not appreciate this sneaky sales strategy, as only a few people purchased the bottle (for USD 20).
Now, onto the actual visit to Chichen Itza…
After passing by many vendors trying to sell you something for “one dollar,” we were split into two groups (English speaking and Spanish speaking) and taken to a different guide (perhaps employed by Chichen Itza?) who gave us a 30 minute tour of Chichen Itza. Despite going on a non-hot season, the sun was beating down on us and we were sweating bullets. I can’t imagine how hot it gets in the “hot season”! There were many, many tourists, as well as many, many tour groups, and we saw some smaller groups who got to shield themselves from the blazing sun with an umbrella. The umbrella that we were promised but never received. 🙁 Our guide spoke English very well and was knowledgeable about the ancient Mayans and Chichen Itza, but it felt like he cut the tour short compared to other groups. Also, he seemed to concentrate mostly on the Mayan Ballgame and the Great Ballcourt (see picture below), which were very interesting, but a more balanced explanation of the Mayan civilization and other parts of Chichen Itza would have been more enlightening. At the end of the tour, the guide also drastically changed his demeanor and became irritable and almost ornery when not all tourists tipped him. Yikes.
When the tour was over, we were given about an hour of free time, of which we spent to walk down to see the first observatory of the Western world and taking pictures of the grounds and pyramid. As it is with visiting the remains of any ancient civilization, it was amazing to be walking around and seeing the ancient ruins, imagining what life would have been like for the Mayans centuries ago. It was also great that we got to tick off one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
Perhaps it was due to the unbearable heat, the crowd, and the mercenary atmosphere of the place, that I was kind of looking forward to getting back on the bus. From the moment we stepped into Chichen Itza to the moment we got on the bus, we found ourselves in a perpetual déjà vu, repeatedly passing by and politely declining rows of vendors trying to sell something for “one dollar.” I understand that every country is different and that tourism is one of the major revenues for the locals and the government, but this whole experience felt very commercialized and money-oriented (both the tour operation company and Chichen Itza itself).
A side note about buying souvenirs from the vendors inside and outside Chichen Itza: I don’t know how accurate the tour guide’s claims are, but he strongly discouraged everyone on the bus from purchasing souvenirs from Chichen Itza. According to the guide, these were made in China; any wooden items have termites and you will be bringing them home with you; anything with paint on it is made with toxic chemicals, etc. Now, the souvenirs that I saw in Chichen Itza looked EXACTLY like the ones I saw at the Mayan mall the guide took us to prior to Chichen Itza, but then again, the Chinese are maestros in counterfeit products. Maybe he is right, maybe he is not. Who really knows for sure? But in my eyes, they all looked very similar and the items at the Mayan mall were very pricey. It is entirely up to you to buy whatever you want, wherever you want, but I thought I would just share what the guide said.
After Chichen Itza, we spent 45 minutes at the nearby Ik Kil Cenote and about 20 minutes at a park in a town called Valladolid, where we snacked on elotes and tamales. Tamale was good, but elote was kind of disappointing. It seemed like the elotes at the cart that sells tamales were much better than the little cart that only sells elotes, which I did not realize until I had already finished my less than stellar elote from the elotes-only cart. Then we were on the bus for about 2 hours to return to Cancun, where we transferred to a van to get dropped off at Puerto Juarez to catch our ferry around 9:00 PM. Our whole day with the tour company (from pick up at the ferry terminal to drop off) lasted around 14 hours.
One positive thing to note about the tour guide: he made a short announcement regarding tips at the end of the trip, but surprisingly, it was not an impassioned speech about how much they struggle and how lucky the tourists were to be on vacation, etc., as I have read from tour reviews online. After the announcement, he just left the tip basket in the front so that people can tip at their discretion. No passing around the tip basket, no chasing after tourists to tip. Although we were not thrilled with the tour, we left a pretty generous tip since it was being divided among the three (guide, driver, and assistant).
Overall, I was thankful to have been able to see one of the seven modern wonders of the world and to learn briefly about the ancient Mayan culture, however, I probably won’t return. I would recommend that you do some research and shop around to find a tour operating group that fits your needs. Remember that the more affordable tours (like ours) will be an all-day excursion on a tour bus with multiple stops and sales pitches.