A magnificent complex inundated by buses, vendors and thousands of tourists
The beaches aside, Mexico’s ancient Mayan culture is one of the country’s biggest tourist draws. It’s no surprise, then, that the 1,500-year-old Mayan city of Chichen Itza, a 2½ hour drive from Cancun, is an overwhelmingly popular attraction. Located in the state of Yucatan, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a common day trip for vacationers who take a break from swimming or snorkeling to get a dose of history. There’s no doubt that the 740-acre Chichen Itza site (about 30 percent of which is open to the public) is impressive, with its vast complex of pyramids, temples and other buildings, several of which are decently preserved. Most prominent in size and significance is the 100-foot pyramid of El Castillo, also called the Temple of Kukulkan. Each of its faces has 91 steps; with the single step they share at the top, Kukulkan has 365 in all.
Travelers who are keen on seeing Chichen Itza will have to contend with heavy-duty crowds: The site had more than 2.7 million visitors last year and is infamous for its parking lot jammed with large tour buses and the crush of vendors calling and whistling to get visitors’ attention. “Coming to Chichen Itza in a bearable way means leaving Cancun before 6 a.m. to get there just as it opens, and even then, you’ll have hordes of people to contend with,” says Matteo Luthi, COO of Journey Mexico.
Location: About 120 miles southwest of Cancun, near the town of Piste in Yucatan. wapo.st/ChichenItza
These elaborately carved ruins offer visitors space to wander, marvel and even climb
Going to the Mayan city of Uxmal means taking the road less traveled. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, it had around 248,000 visitors last year — less than the 254,000 Chichen-Itza saw that January alone. Yes, it’s almost a five-hour drive from Cancun, making a day trip a challenge. But Merida, Yucatan’s capital, is about an hour’s drive from Uxmal and is a somewhat undiscovered gem itself; travelers will find plenty of appealing and affordable hotels there.
Uxmal, which is about 1,300 years old, is set in the Puuc hills and was the center of the region’s economic and political power. Most Mayan cities follow a geometric order, but the 150-acre main ruins of Uxmal, more compact than those of Chichen Itza, are oriented according to astronomical patterns, such as the cycles of Venus. Its pyramids and temples are better preserved than those at Chichen Itza, and their intricate hieroglyphic carvings can be clearly seen.
Uxmal’s tallest and most central structure, the 115-foot Pyramid of the Magician, is decorated with symbols depicting the god of rain, Chaac. Almost as notable are the four elaborately carved palaces surrounding a courtyard; that section is called the Nunnery Quadrangle because of its resemblance to a convent. The Great Pyramid, to the west of the Governor’s Palace and at the rear of the site, also is a can’t miss — visitors can climb to the top, provided that they don’t mind the steep steps, and take in the spectacular views of the Puuc hillside. There’s also a large court where the Maya played their ancient Mesoamerican ballgame.
A visit to Uxmal is intimate, devoid of tour buses and pushy vendors. Travelers may be among just a handful of people at the site. There’s so much room to roam free at Uxmal that Journey Mexico can organize a scavenger hunt through the complex to teach kids about the Maya who lived here. “You’re much more restricted at Chichen Itza, because there’s always the danger of getting lost in the crowd,” Luthi says.
At Uxmal, visitors have the breathing room to fully appreciate an astonishing ancient city.
Location: About 50 miles south of Merida, near the town of Santa Elena in Yucatan. wapo.st/Uxmal
Vora is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Instagram: @shivanivora78.
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