This lost Mayan city is a site of astronomical genius and ancient secrets.

Secrets of Chenchen Itza
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Of all the Mayan wonders hidden within Mexico's jungles, none is more well-known than Chichen Itza. Easily the best restored Yucatan archeological site, it's also a new Wonder of the World and boasts UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The ruins span 2.5 square miles and are halved into two sites: the South and the Central archeological zones. The South Zone dates back to the 7th century, while the Central Zone was built around the 10th century. Tourists should head first to the Central Zone, where notable structures include the ball court, several temples, and El Castillo. Also known as the Pyramid of Kukulkan, or Quetzalcoatl, this 80-foot stone pyramid is a physical depiction of the Mayan calendar.

Throughout Chichen Itza's 1,000-year history, various groups have shaped it and left their mark, including the Toltecs. So if you thought Chichen Itza was just another archeological site crawling with tourists, think again. This lost jungle city houses secrets that span centuries and entire civilizations.

It's not just a Mayan city

Chichen Itza is widely regarded as a Mayan archeological site, but another indigenous Mexican group also had major influence on its development. The Toltecs arrived to Chichen Itza around the 10th century and were integral in developing the Central Zone of the site, which shows off a fusion of highland central Mexican and Puuc architectural styles.

A giant snake crawls across El Castillo

The feathered snake deity, Kukulkan, climbs across the pyramid of El Castillo twice a year. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, shadows align on the temple's 365 steps (one for each day of the year) to create the image of a serpent. With the setting sun, the snake slithers down the steps to join a stone serpent head that sits at the base of the great staircase.

Sinkholes lie beneath the complex

Chichen Itza was built around a series of sinkholes, called cenotes. The most important—and the largest—is Cenote Sagrado, which still exists today. It is believed the cenote was used by Mayans for ceremonial purposes, including human sacrifices to the Mayan rain god. Archeologists have uncovered bones and jewelry from the site.

Chichen Itza is painted with blood

One of the most popular Mayan sports included a game where losers lost their heads. The ball court at Chichen Itza is one of the largest ever found and is adorned with carvings that tell the complex (and brutal) rules. Across from El Castillo, atop the Temple of Warriors, is a stone where human hearts were left as offerings to the gods.

The Mayans followed Venus

In addition to two platforms in Chichen Itza dedicated to the planet Venus, an observatory-like structure, El Caracol, was specifically aligned to trace the Venus's orbit across the skies.

Its demise remains unknown

Chicen Itza was a thriving and prosperous city for centuries, as well as a hub for trade. But in the 1400s, its inhabitants left the city, leaving behind beautiful works of art. Yet there's no record of why they left. There have been several theories, including drought and quests for treasure, but nothing has been confirmed.