Spring Equinox In Chichen Itza

Last Updated Jan 25, 2024

Everything you need to know to get ready for your visit to Great Mayan City!

As you may have heard, Chichen Itza isn’t only one of the best well-preserved ancient Mayan cities in all the Yucatan Peninsula, but it’s also one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

El descenso de la serpiente en Chichén Itzá

A multi-faceted Mayan archaeological site.

There are several reasons for why this enigmatic archaeological site has captivated the imagination of so many people around the world.

Obviously, the rich history of the city that extends up to nearly 1,000 years back and the wide variety of buildings in good conditions located in Chichen Itza, are among the most mentioned when discussing the importance of this Mayan city.

Thousand-year-old history, extraordinary preservation of the various temples, guided tours in many languages, places of interest in direct proximity such as cenote Ik Kil.

There are also one day tours from Cancun and the other towns in the Riviera Maya that includes the visit to Chichen Itza along with the discovery of the colonial city of Valladolid or with a culinary experience in the heart of an authentic Mayan village.

For more information: click here.

Kukulkan's Pyramid: the mysterious temple.

Although there are many other Mayan archaeological sites of great interest throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s a peculiarity unique to Chichen Itza that puts it in a whole different level when compared to other extraordinary Mayan cities. That is the great Temple of Kukulkan.

The great temple of Kukulkan is one of the most impressive buildings in the city of Chichén Itzá. It has a unique architecture based on the vast astronomical knowledge developed by the Mayans. It’s the unique design of this Mayan pyramid which has contributed more than anything else to its worldwide fame.

More than its architecture, it is its relationship with the Mayan astronomy and cosmogony that fascinates scientists and visitors. The transition from winter to spring is a perfect example because at the time of the spring equinox an extraordinary phenomenon occurs on the temple's façade.

Keep reading to learn more about Chichen Itza, its amazing history and extraordinary architecture, what makes El Castillop so unique, and why you should visit this place during the Spring Equinox.

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Chichen Itza: The Great Mayan City

Founded in the 5th century A.D., the city was strategically located near two big cenotes that provided with fresh water to the inhabitants of the city and gave the place its name as Chichen Itza means “At the edge of the well of the Itzaes”.

During the 10th century A.D., this great Mayan City received an influx of migrant Toltec warriors from Central Mexico and by 987 A.D. Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, the King of the Toltec city of Tula, took Chichen Itza changing the course of history forever.

The influence of the rich Toltec culture modified completely the Mayan way of life and religious beliefs. Quetzalcoatl became a centerpiece of the Mayan mythology, although known by its Mayan name of Kukulkan.

After a period of expansion and stability, Chichen Itza started a steady decline and by 1440 A.D. it was completely abandoned. It wasn’t until 1841 A.D. that the ruins of what was once the greatest Mayan city of them all was re-discovered and its mysteries started to being revealed.

The Mystery of Kukulkan

When talking about ancient peoples, it’s common that history and myths blend to tell a single story. What we know from them comes from a few texts, paintings, or carved buildings open for interpretation by archaeologists and historians alike.

Some of this happen with the Toltecs’ main god Quetzalcoatl or “the feathered serpent”. As you can read lines above, Quetzalcoatl is also thought to be the Toltec king that conquered Chichen Itza, which highlights the veil of uncertainty about the true nature of this all-important character in Mesoamerican culture.

What we know for sure is that Quetzalcoatl has Toltec origins, that it’s known as Kukulkan in the Yucatan Peninsula, and that it became a mainstay in Mayan mythology ever since.

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The Temple of Kukulkan

Let’s not forget that the Toltecs were great architects with outstanding astronomical knowledge and that they built the great cities of Teotihuacan and Tula as early as 400 B.C... So, it’s no surprise that the Mayans received all this Toltec wisdom and used it themselves in the construction of their own cities.

Kukulkan's Temple by night

The Temple of Kukulkan is the best example of the execution of these architectonic skills and the application of this astronomical knowledge into one single building.

El Castillo, as the pyramid of Kukulkan is also known, has a total height of 99 feet. Each of the 4 stairways has 91 steps that added together make 364 steps, which once you add the temple platform and final step make a great total of 365 steps representing the number of days in one year.

The base of the pyramid is 175 feet wide and it has nine stages that when cut in two by the stairways made 18 stages, representing the 18 months of the Mayan calendar year.

All of these make the scientists believe that the Temple of Kukulkan was much more than just a temple, but a kind of huge calendar that guided the Mayans decisions through the different seasons and help them to watch and understand the movements of the planets and stars in the sky.

El Castillo en Chichén Itzá

The Spring Equinox

Perhaps the best example of that understanding is what happens on the pyramid of Kukulkan during the Spring Equinox. But before getting to that unique event, let me explain exactly what’s and equinox and why it was so important for the Mayans.

An Equinox occurs when the day has the exact same length as the night. This phenomena happens twice a year, one in the Spring and another one in the Autumn.

Another way to understand the Spring Equinox, also known as Vernal Equinox, , is that it occurs when the Sun is located exactly above the equator. During the Equinox, the trajectory of the Sun crosses the celestial equator going from south to north.

What’s the celestial equator, you may ask? Well, the celestial equator is just an imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator.

During both Equinoxes, both the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere receive equal amounts of light as neither of them “is tilted more toward or away from the Sun than the other.”

In the Northern Hemisphere the Spring Equinox occurs every year on March 20 or 21, and that’s the reason this is when it’s considered that Spring officially starts on this day. As you can imagine, for a corn-based society dependent on the cycles of nature for their survival, getting right the beginning and end of the seasons was crucial.

The Descent of the Feathered Serpent

Which brings us to the astonishing spectacle that takes place every year on Chichen Itza during the Spring Equinox.

Do you remember the story of the Toltec God/Warrior Quetzalcoatl, known in the Mayan world as Kukulkan? Well, as mentioned before his name means “feathered serpent” and archaeologists tell us that when the Toltecs arrived to the Yucatan Peninsula they built the Temple of Kukulkan to worship their main god, but also as a way to cement their power grab in the region.

Once the pyramid was finished, the Toltecs waited for the Spring Equinox to arrived and then gathered people from all over the peninsula and explained them that their god Kukulkan “would come down to the earth at a cetrain time.”

Although those ancient Mayans thought that they were seeing Kukulkan itself coming down the pyramid, what they actually saw was an optical effect of sunlight and shadows. The spectacle takes place when the sunlight hits directly the 9 platfoprms of the pyramid, which cast their shadow onto one of the stairways. The triangles generated by the shadows of the platform create the illusion of a feathered serpent descending through the stairways all the way to the ground where a stone snake head completes the extraordinary experience.

One can only imagine what those ancient Mayans thought at the moment, but considering that even these days people from all over the world gather at Chichen Itza to watch this spectacle, it’s safe to assume that they were pretty impressed by the clever trick of the Toltecs.

The total length of the descending effect of the feathered serpent is about 45 minutes. It usually takes place from around 3:45 pm to 4:30 pm, but every year the hours can vary slightly. As the sun keeps moving, the triangles start disappearing giving the effect that the feathered serpent is moving. At the end, all that’s left is the head of the serpent still illuminated by the sunlight, until even that is covered in shadows and the Spring has officially arrived!

Things to Know

If you want to see the descent of the feathered serpent through the stairway of the pyramid of Kukulkan and feel the energy that such an event produces in this Mayan sacred land, remember to arrive early in the day as the Spring Equinox is the most popular day to visit Chichen Itza. Besides that, the Mexican authorities have set a limited amount of visitors for March 20 and 21 in order to preserve this historical site and avoid getting overcrowded.

There are many tours available especifically designed to visit Chichen Itza during the Spring Equinox, but you have to book well in advance to guarantee your place to watch this unique spectacle.

Chichen Itza Infographic

There are many tours available especifically designed to visit Chichen Itza during the Spring Equinox, but you have to book well in advance to guarantee your place to watch this unique spectacle.

Finally, during the Spring Equinox most Chichen Itza visitors usually wear white clothes in order to attract positive energy from the new sun. Obviously, this is just a tradition that has become popular in recent years, but if you want to blend with the locals and have the full Chichen Itza experience on Spring Equinox, it might be a good idea to wear white clothes too.

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