Chichen Itza is a popular tourist destination, and one of the most culturally significant archaeological sites in Mexico. It's just a couple of hours from popular cities like Cancun, making it a fun and easy day trip.
What is it?
Chichen Itza is a pre-Columbian Mayan city inhabited from roughly the 8th to 15th centuries. The city was a key trading post, bringing all sorts of diverse people to the area. You can still see the influence today in the architecture that remains. The town both preserved and spread culture throughout the Yucatán region from the 10th to the 15th centuries.
Why would I go see that?
Because it's awesome! The Mayans achieved wonders of culture and construction that are almost unthinkable without the skills and tools that we have today. It's one of the best-restored archaeological sites in the country, and it draws 1.2 million people every year. Besides, if you're going as a day trip from some party vacation in Cancun, it won't kill you to get a little bit of culture during your stay.
What all is there to see?
Lots of things. El Castillo, for instance, an enormous stone pyramid with a serpent's head at the base. The pyramid is cool enough on its own, but during the spring and autumn equinox, the sun hits the pyramid in such a way that shadows play along the banister leading to the head so that it looks like Kukulkan, the Mayan serpent god. There's also an ancient ball court—actually, there's thirteen of them, but one of them's huge. There are all kinds of ancient temples replete with statuary. There's even the odd bit of intriguing landscape, like the Cenote Sagrado, a natural well that appears to have been a place to sacrifice everything from jewelry to people.
When should I go?
It's up to you. The weather is coolest from October to April, but that's also going to be the time with the most tourist traffic. Many birds migrate to the region around late October or mid-May, so that's a good bet as well. The equinoxes are when you can see the serpent crawling down the steps of the pyramid, but they're also going to be the heaviest days for tourist traffic during the year.
What do I need to know?
You can go on your own, or you can go as part of a group. Many resorts offer all-inclusive trips, including transportation, for a fee. You can also go as part of a travel agency tour. You can go on your own, but you'll need to either take public transit or be prepared to pay a small parking fee. The fee to gain entry goes up a little every year, and it's higher for non-Mexicans, but it's still pretty small—210 pesos, which is less than $14. Going as part of a tour is a good way to make sure you have a guide, but there are also guides on-site for hire.
What should I bring?
Honestly, the big thing is water. You won't want to bring a ton of stuff with you since you're going to be walking around. Sunscreen never hurts. Another thing to note is that tripods aren't allowed without a permit from the governing body, INAH. Unfortunately, the office is slow to respond, and you shouldn't count on that permit ever actually happening. Bring a monopod disguised as a walking stick or a tiny, pocket-sized tripod if you want to take stable photos.