The most significant and representative archaeological site of Mayan-Toltec architecture in existence is Chichen Itza, located in the north-central part of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and 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.
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Chichen Itza was founded in the Early Classic period of 495 AD and became an important 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 for the Mayans.
The best known and tallest structure is the Kukulkan Pyramid also called El Castillo (The Castle). El Castillo is 79 feet tall with 365 steps representing each day of the year. Thanks to the Mayan’s advancements is astronomy and architecture, the pyramid was built so the sunlight would fall along the northern steps of the pyramid, creating a shadow of a serpent gliding down the steps on the spring equinox (March 21) and the autumn equinox (September 21) around 3:00 p.m. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb El Castillo.
There are many structures to see at this site; among them is the Ball Court (Juego de Pelota), the Hall of a Thousand Columns (Grupo de las Mil Columnas) and the sweat bath house (Temazcalli).
Located in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, Coba (meaning “waters stirred by the wind”) and was most likely named for its four surrounding natural lakes. The archaeological site is 105 miles (170 kilometers) away or about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cancun.
Although there are mysteries surrounding its history, Coba was allegedly built during the late Classic period between 500 AD and 900 AD and was one of the largest (over 80 square kilometers) and most populated Mayan cities in existence at that time with over 20,000 structures and a population of 50,000.
Coba was largely a Mayan trade city and was formed by a main pyramid connected to several smaller pyramids by Mayan “white ways” or raised roads known as sacbeob. The main pyramid, Nohoch Mul, (meaning “big mound”) is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan measuring 136 feet high (42 meters). It rises up from the center of the jungle, overlooks two lagoons, and can be climbed for a spectacular view from the top.
Many structures at this archaeological site are not well preserved and have yet to be excavated, but incredible temples, pyramids, and castles are still visible. Two very nice ball courts, one partially excavated, can be seen, in addition to the Temple of the Church (Templo de la Iglesia), the second tallest pyramid in Coba, rising to 65 feet (20 meters).
Originally known as Zama (city of dawn), the archaeological site of Tulum (Mayan word for fence, wall, or trench) with its surrounding walls, may have been built to defend against both invasion and to separate classes. The third most visited archaeological site in Mexico, just after Teotihuacan (40 kilometers north of Mexico City) and Chichen Itza, it is located 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Cancun at the end of the Riviera Maya, about a two-hour drive.
Constructed along the coastline on a 39-foot (12-meter) cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Tulum was a prominent trading and navigational port for the city of Coba during the Postclassic period (1200 AD to 1500 AD). Unlike most other cities, Tulum was still occupied at the time of the Spanish invasion in the 16th century.
Tulum contains structures that are characteristic of Mayan cities on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula, but relatively condensed in size, which is uncommon of a typical Mayan city. One of the most significant structures is El Castillo (The Castle) a temple to the Mayan god Kukulkan, which appears to have doubled as a lighthouse for incoming boats. It measures 25 feet tall (7.5 meters) and was built on the highest point of the site. Many excavated structures can be seen in Tulum, such as the Temple of the Frescoes, the Temple of the Descending God, the House of Columns, House of the Well and the watchtowers at the western wall corners.