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Chichen Itza Pyramid

Updated on February 1, 2015
Chichen Itza Pyramid
Chichen Itza Pyramid | Source

El Castillo - the Step Pyramid of Chichen Itza Dedicated to Kukulkan

Chichen Itza is an ancient city built by the Mayan civilization. Dominating the center of Chichen Itza is the pyramid commonly known as "El Castillo" (the castle).

This step pyramid (yes it has lots of steps to climb!) was dedicated to Kukulkan (the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity whose name means "feather-serpent"). It is a square based pyramid that has stairs going up each of the four sides to Kukulkan's Temple on the top. It was designed so that, at the equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent that slithers down the northern side of the pyramid to the serpent's head at the base. Cool but somewhat creepy I think!

Who Built this Pyramid at Chichen Itza?

Chichen Itza was built by the Mayan people. They were a Mesoamerican civilization and are noted for having the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas. The art, architecture, and sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems of the Mayan culture are amazing, especially considering the age in which they were developed - at least 3,000 to 4,000 years ago!

Mayan culture was established in the period from around 2000 B.C.E. to 250 C.E. Mayan cities, like Chichen Itza, located in the northern center of what is now the Yucatan state of Mexico, reached their highest state of development during the period from around 250 C.E. to 900 C.E. and continued their dominance until the arrival of the Spanish. Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence approximately 600 C.E. and declined between 1000 and 1200 C.E., with rulership over the Yucatan shifting to Mayapan.

Mayan column in Chichén Itzá
Mayan column in Chichén Itzá | Source

The Maya who built Chichen Itza were much influenced by the more Northerly Toltec culture, as shown by the presence of Chac Mool statues. Chac Mools are statues of a human figure in a reclining position, holding a tray over the stomach and with the head turned to one side. The purpose of the tray is unknown, although speculated to be related to sacrifices.

Chac Mool statue from Chichen Itza
Chac Mool statue from Chichen Itza | Source

As wonderful as the Maya probably were, it is undeniable that they were also rather bloodthirsty. They were apparently into sacrifices in a big way, most likely including human sacrifices, which is one of the purposes of their pyramids. I think some of their art is a bit weird too - that's a lot of skulls carved into the walls!

These carvings of human skulls mounted on poles completely surround the Tzompantli (Skull Platform) in the Great North Platform region at Chichen Itza
These carvings of human skulls mounted on poles completely surround the Tzompantli (Skull Platform) in the Great North Platform region at Chichen Itza | Source

Anyway, one of the things the Mayan people did rather spectacularly was to build pyramids. These are not really like the Egyptian pyramids, like the Great Pyramids of Giza, but are intricately carved stone pyramids featuring stairs on the outside. Chichen Itza has one of the most famous Mayan step pyramids, known today as "El Castillo," the castle.

Great Book on the Chichen Itza Pyramid

The mysterious Chichen Itza pyramid has a profound effect on everyone who visits. If you're a traveler going to the Chichen Itza pyramid, you'll want this excellent guide. If you've already experienced the pyramid's power, you'll treasure this unique memento of your journey.

Climbing the Pyramid: Rediscovering Maya Mysteries from Chichen Itza's Great Pyramid
Climbing the Pyramid: Rediscovering Maya Mysteries from Chichen Itza's Great Pyramid

Climbing the Pyramid is a charming account of the site that contains information and insights into the mystery and history of the pyramid according to Maya shamans and archeologists. The 135 stunning black and white photos almost give you the experience of being on the pyramid yourself.


Chichen Itza Pyramid - El Castillo

The Mayan people often placed their most important religious temples at the top of their towering pyramids, as in the Chichen Itza pyramid. Presumably the top of the pyramid was viewed appropriate for worship, being the closest place to the heavens.

The temple atop the step pyramid at Chichen Itza is known today as "El Castillo" since it clearly resembles a castle. From its imposing location, dominating the center of Chichen Itza, this step pyramid has a square base and stairways up a series of terraces to the Temple of Kukulkan (the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl) at the top, a height of about 75 feet.

El Castillo at Chichen Itza
El Castillo at Chichen Itza | Source

The pyramid is constructed with a series of nine terraces, and four stairways of 91 steps each. The total number of stairs is thus 364 plus an extra one to enter the temple at the top, a total of 365. Remembering that the Maya were into astronomy and calendars, this is obviously related to the number of days in the year!

Image of Kukulkan at the Classic Maya site of Yaxchilan
Image of Kukulkan at the Classic Maya site of Yaxchilan | Source

Who Is this Kukulkan the Chichen Itza Pyramid is Dedicated to?

Kukulkan is the "Feathered serpent," a god in Mayan mythology, more well-known by his Aztec name Quetzalcoatl. For the Mayans, the serpent was a very important social and religious symbol. The shedding of the serpent's skin made it a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

The "Vision Serpent" was the most important of the Mayan serpents. For them, the Vision Serpent was a direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world of men. Participants in special rituals would experience visions in which they communicated with the gods who emerged from the serpent's mouth. Kukulkan has been identified as the Vision Serpent of Classic Maya art.

Serpent's Head at Bottom of Great Pyramid, Chichen Itza

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The cult of Kukulkan was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend linguistic and ethnic divisions, facilitating communication and peaceful trade. This cult originated in the ancient city of Chichen Itza where Kukulkan's temple sits atop a great pyramid.

Chichen Itza doesn't just have a temple on top of a pyramid dedicated to this Kukulkan. There is also the Great Ball Court, the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. The imposing walls are almost 40 feet (12 meters) high and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents and other figures.

Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza
Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza | Source

But the great ball court at Chichen Itza was not built just for playing the great Mesoamerican ballgame. There was also the Mayan prophecy that on December 22, 2012, the great warrior serpent Kukulkan would rise up from the ground beneath it and this would signify the end of the world. I guess that didn't happen, or at least no-one saw Kukulkan, but if you head for Chichen Itza and Kukulkan's pyramid you might want to keep an eye out for strange happenings!

Image of the famous descent of the snake at the equinox in March 2009
Image of the famous descent of the snake at the equinox in March 2009 | Source

The pyramid is designed so that, at the equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a serpentine looking shadow that slithers down the northern side of the pyramid to the serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Pretty clever!

The Chichen Itza Pyramid El Castillo Today - Still Impressive!

So the archaeological site of Chichen Itza is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the buildings have been restored or at least preserved. And its open to tourists, which is great!

Ancient Mayan Ruins, Chichen Itza, Mexico

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So, El Castillo looks pretty good today although not as splendid as it no doubt was in its heyday. But with a bit of atmospheric weather I think it's quite an impressive sight!

Chichen Itza - the storm is coming
Chichen Itza - the storm is coming | Source

On a nice sunny day looks like a nice little climb to get a good view doesn't it?

Chichen Itza Castle

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Watch out though, those steps are really steep!

Looking up the steps of El Castillo
Looking up the steps of El Castillo | Source

Climbing up looks pretty hard but going back down is even more scary!

In fact, a woman fell to her death from the pyramid in 2006, causing the authorities to prohibit tourists from climbing the steps to the top.

© 2009 Jennifer P Tanabe

How do you like this pyramid at Chichen Itza?

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    • jptanabe profile imageAUTHOR

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      3 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Yes, isn't it amazing how they designed it to see the serpent descend - I need to go see it!

    • Emese Fromm profile image

      Emese Fromm 

      3 years ago from The Desert

      Nice article! I like the fact that you added historical data to it. I'm fascinated by the Maya, have visited Chichen Itza just about every few years for along time (sadly I haven't been there for a few years now, but miss it). Once my family and I had the opportunity to see the Vision Serpent descending the Castillo. It really is great to see in real life! I know it sis crowded during the actual equinox, but the shadow is still visible up to a week before and after. We were there about four days after and saw it.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Hi. I enjoyed very much your lense. I found it very interesting with lots of interesting details. If you have time please check mine about Chichen Itza and Holbox and share your thoughts.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I once attended a history lecture. The Mayan civilization is very interesting.

    • bluelily lm profile image

      bluelily lm 

      5 years ago

      It's amazing to see how Mayan civilization have erected such a huge construction with no modern tools and devices but they possessed the advance knowledge of mathematics and astronomy which is reflected from their calendar and architecture expertise.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      My dad has been to the Egyptian pyramids, and several times to Chichen Itza. He always calls the one in the Yucatan, "Chicken Pizza."

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Super amazing, I hope to go to the Yucatan someday. Although I've never been there, I once made a map of the area for a former employer, and it was fun to research and learn about.

    • casquid profile image


      5 years ago

      This is fascinating, my dream is to visit. Thanks for the peek.

      Angel Blessings!!

    • malualhati profile image


      5 years ago

      we visited chichen itza this past august. it was as grand as we have imagined it to be and more :)

    • blessedmomto7 profile image


      6 years ago

      I went there on my Honeymoon. I climbed up but my groom was feeling rather ill that day, so he stayed on the ground.

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 

      6 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      Yes, I went in 2002 and climbed the steps twice! Went inside the pyramid too, and stayed and watched an ancient Mayan ceremony. Very cool place, but inside the pyramid was creepy!

    • manutara69 profile image


      6 years ago

      I loved it! Yes, I have visited Chichen Itza recently. Awesome! I think I will create a lens about my trip over there.

    • MayaIxchel profile image


      6 years ago

      Very fascinating information about Mayan history! Great photos!! Greetings from 'the land of eternal spring'!

    • chadklass lm profile image

      chadklass lm 

      6 years ago

      Awesome pics and great lens!

    • HomeschooledKid1 profile image


      6 years ago

      So cool! I've always liked this pyramid, but it's always neat to see pictures of it again. Great lens!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I really need to go here! I hope to score cheap tickets to Cancun and hop on a tour bus to the ruins.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Amazing, I did a lot of research on the Mayan pyramids for a story I wrote and they are fascinating. They were a truly amazing people. Thanks for a great lens.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      7 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I would love to visit Chichen Itza, the Mayan and Aztec civilizations have always fascinated me. I have been to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan outside Mexico City, and also to the Mayan cities of TIkal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras. It just leaves me wanting more though. Did you know that Kukulkan sounds like the ancient Irish mythical figure Cuhullan, and has similar characteristics? Excellent lens, love the photos, blessed and featured on my Zecharia Sitchin lens.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      7 years ago

      We visited Chichen Itza some years ago, it is really impressive. It is fantastic that so much is left for us to see and study.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      7 years ago

      We visited Chichen Itza some years ago, it is really impressive. It is fantastic that so much is left for us to see and study.

    • Fabio Sanna profile image

      Fabio Sanna 

      7 years ago

      Great article, thanks for sharing these notions. I would love to go there sometime in the future! Faved, lensrolled to my Mayan Calendar article: Peace,


    • best-intentions profile image


      7 years ago

      My sweetheart and I visited Chichen Itza a little over a year ago. We were one of the very first people there that day...we were able to be all alone in the main ball court. Our guide Rafael was amazing...both his father and grandfather worked as archaeologists at the site, and shared so much information with us I couldn't even process it all. Now I need to go and look at my pictures!!! My profile picture was taken that same Ek Balam. I climbed all the way to the top of the temple. I'm afraid of heights and was shaking like a leaf!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      7 years ago from UK

      I've never been there but I recently made an origami model of Chichen Itza so I was fascinated by this page. Especially the snake!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      There are so many places I want to go in this life! So little time! :) (I guess that's why we live many lives..............)

    • jolou profile image


      8 years ago

      Very interesting lens, with great photos. I've never been there.

    • VarietyWriter2 profile image


      8 years ago

      Blessed by a SquidAngel :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Excellent lens. Great photos too. I went to Chichen Itza a few years ago.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Informative article & great pics! If you haven't been to Chichen Itza to see the Kukulkan Pyramid, it's awesome.

    • profile image


      8 years ago


      That Pyramid is looking amazing in these pix.

      We Alan and I had been in Egypt in the year of 2008; it is a great country to explore.

      We first time saw any Pyramid in our life.

      It is a great masterpiece.

      We took help of to book our holiday package and flights to Egypt.

    • CoolFoto profile image


      9 years ago

      Yes, I visited this pyramid in 1983 on a side trip while on a cruise out of Tampa, Florida. The climb to the top was too much for me to try. Congrats on making Giant so quickly.

    • dustytoes profile image


      9 years ago

      The slithering snake shadow is very clever. Interesting information and great pictures!

    • KOrazem profile image

      Seeking Pearls 

      9 years ago from Pueblo West

      Fantastic lens Jennifer. I love the photographs. The mayans were certainly an interesting culture.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Fantastic job Jennifer! I want to go there someday!

    • RustyM62 profile image


      9 years ago

      Great job.I'd love to go see it in person!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Another wonderful topic! 5*

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      It is magnificent. Would love to have seen it brand new -- but not to have lived in those weird times. :)

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      9 years ago from United States

      Inspiring Lens! Now if I just had a little vacation time:)

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 

      9 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Really nice lens on Chichen Itza. We visited this pyramid several years ago when we were on a vacation in Cancun. I really enjoyed seeing the pyramid and exploring the area. 5* lens.


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