Although not the largest, the most significant and representative archaeological site of Mayan-Toltec architecture in existence is Chichen Itza, located in the north-central area of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. The second most visited site in Mexico, it is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive or about 161 miles (260 kilometers) from Cancun.
Chichen Itza was founded in the Early Classic period of 495 AD and became an eminent Mayan city around 600 AD. Continuing to grow, it became the region’s capital at the end of the Late Classic and beginning of the early Terminal Classic periods. Later, the city was conquered by the Itza Mayan tribe who migrated to Yucatan when the Mayan civilization collapsed at the end of the Classic Period around 1000 AD.
They named their newly conquered city Chichen Itza (meaning “at the mouth of the well of Itza” in the Itza Mayan language), which became part of their expansive trade empire. Chichen Itza was largely abandoned by the time the Spanish conquerors arrived in the Yucatan in the 16th century, but its Cenote Sagrado (sacred cenote) continued to be a place of pilgrimage by the Mayans.
The best known and tallest structure is the Kukulkan Pyramid also called El Castillo (the castle), rising 79 feet, with 365 steps representing the days of the year. Given the Mayan’s affinity to astronomy and architecture, the pyramid was built deliberately so the sunlight would fall along the northern steps of the pyramid, creating a shadow of a serpent gliding down the steps during the spring equinox (March 21) and the autumn equinox (September 21) near 3:00 p.m.
Structures here were not only inspired by the Mayans but also the Toltec civilization from central Mexico, when they dominated Chichen Itza from 900 AD to 1150 AD. The Toltec influence is seen in some architecture, such as the Kukulkan Pyramid, and the Temple of the Jaguars and the Tzompantli. There are many ruins to see at this site; among them is the Ball Court (Juego de Pelota), the largest of the eight ball courts on site; the Hall of a Thousand Columns (Grupo de las Mil Columnas); and the sweat bath house (Temazcalli).