I think Chichen Itza gets a bit of an unfair rap. Guidebooks describe it as over-crowded. Some blogs recommend staying away and hitting up some of the smaller sites instead. Descriptions of tour buses descending from Cancun make it sound as though you won't be able to see the pyramid from inside the throng. Even my beloved Lonely Planet has a snobbish edge to it's section on the famous site. But do you know what?
I thoroughly enjoyed it there.
There's a reason some sites are so popular. Machu Picchu appearing out of the early morning mist is beautiful. That first glimpse of the Treasury at Petra is breathtaking. Karnak temple is one of the most incredible man-made creations I have ever had the privilege to wander through. And Chichen Itza is one of the best examples of a Mayan city we saw on our trip (and we saw many). Although it admittedly doesn't have the atmosphere of the jungle-thick ruins, it's famous because it is genuinely impressive.
We knew the crowds would be heavy, so we set off early to arrive at the site before eight, when it opens. Although it meant a very early start from Merida, the drive through the sleepy city and the long, empty highways was relaxing and quicker than usual. There were a few other people hanging around at the entrance, but even half an hour after opening we still spotted but a few people walking around. The coaches began arriving just after nine, and it was only as we finished at lunchtime that the site became crowded. The main pyramid, immortalised on every souvenir, is lovely, given even more character by the group of workmen in charge of its reconstruction who sat in lines on its steps and cheerily measured and laboured in the growing heat.
Every corner turned along the route round the site revealed new buildings and structures, some elaborately carved, others showing signs of reclaiming by the surrounding environment. Information presented in each new area was clear, and helped create a better visual picture of the original city. Souvenir sellers set up stalls, catching our eye but soon leaving us be when they realised we weren't in the market for truckloads of obsidian figurines.
The real highlight, however, was the ball court. The only large and complete example we saw during our travels, it completely captured my imagination. Carvings surrounded the vast walls, with the tiny hoops mounted up high. A truly imposing structure in the centre of everything.
If you can get to Chichen Itza early in the morning (or perhaps late in the afternoon), the site is yours. And ignore the travel snobs - it's a bloody good one.