Most people going to Central America will want to visit some of the ancient ruins left by the Mayan empire and other Mesoamerican civilisations.
Sadly, most visit only Chichen Itza in Mexico, which may be the best-known but not at all the most worthwhile site.
Be sure to consider some of the alternatives…
Firstly: why Chichen Itza sucks
If you are on holiday in hyper-touristy Cancun and want to go on a day trip, then Chichen Itza is a good option that will probably leave you quite satisfied.
But if you are a traveller on a journey through Mexico or Central America then you have much better Mayan sites to choose from… and Chichen Itza may just not be the best choice. Personally, I think the place has just been commercialized to a point where it fails to retain any sense of mystique or authenticity.
A few reasons why Chichen Itza sucks:
- 1,5 million people visit annually. You will not be alone.
- Vendors, vendors, vendors everywhere! And yes they do indeed have an annoying noise-making souvenir they use to attract customers. (The puma noise maker officially joins Khao San Road’s frog noise maker on my list of Most Annoying Tourist Tat.)
- “But it’s one of the 7 new wonders of the world!”, they say. Well… that was actually a contest run by a company as a stunt to celebrate the new millennium, and it wasn’t a list chosen by merit. (Though it is also a UNESCO site.)
- There are guys walking around in fake ‘Mayan costumes’ for your photo opportunities, much like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.
- It has a light show in the evening. A LIGHT SHOW!!!
The main thing to see at Chichen Itza: other tourists.
Some way better ruins
Tikal is the real deal. I’m super serious here: you need to visit Tikal.
It’s a huge and impressive Mayan archaeological site, and while it is just as well preserved as Chichen Itza it is also right in the middle of the jungle with some of the ruins are partly overgrown. You will be able to hear many tropical birds and howler monkeys in the distance, giving it a wonderful Indiana Jonesy feel.
Tikal genuinely feels like a world heritage site the way Angkor Wat does in Cambodia. The site is huge, there are dozens of temples to see and you can climb on top of most of them.
Go to Tikal in the morning and you will be sharing the site with only very few other people; essentially it will feel like you have the whole place to yourself. It gets busier after midday however as flights from Antigua with day-trippers start to arrive.
Temple IV at Tikal. (Also a location used in the original Star Wars trilogy!)
Palenque is perhaps Mexico’s most compelling Mayan site. It may lack the scale of the likes of Teotihuacan, but its charm lies in how its tucked in between jungle-covered hills – so rather than having an expansive open layout, its a Mayan city that was very much shaped by its environment.
There’s also a beautiful waterfall on the site, as well as a worthwhile museum showcasing many well-preserved Mayan murals and objects.
Stay in one of the jungle huts in El Panchan (near the park entrance) to wake up in the morning to the sound of howler monkeys.
A much-visited Mayan site due to its proximity to Mexico City, but still doesn’t get quite as crowded as Chichen Itza. What Teotihuacan lacks in detail it brings instead in sheer scale: today it’s the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids. You can climb on top of them for a great view of the surrounding landscapes.
Scientists are not agreed on whether Teotihuacan was an individual city or the heart of an empire rivalling that of the Mayans. What’s certain is that it has a different style and layout to the other archeological sites in the region.
You don’t need to go on a tour to get to Teotihuacan if you coming back Mexico City. Simply take the subway to the north bus terminal. From there you can take one of the inexpensive shuttle buses going to Teotihuacan.
This relatively quiet site sits just across the border from Guatemala in Honduras. It makes either for a great stop along the way if you are travelling the wider region, or it makes for a great mini excursion from Guatemala if you are travelling there.
Copán is a relatively smaller site, but there is more sculpture here than any other Pre-Columbian city, and there are many well-preserved hieryoglyphics.
It doesn’t get too busy even in midday, though it’s recommended to visit in the morning (the site opens at 8AM) as it can get very hot in the afternoon. The surrounding river valley with farmland is nice for some hiking as well.
I am including Tulum mainly as a curiosity here. It should by no means be the only Mayan site you visit, but it can make for an interesting additional stop if you are in the neighbourhood.
This is the fun-size chihuahua of Mayan sites, but what makes it special is that its right on the coast. In fact, you can bring swimming gear and take a jump into the ocean from the back of the park.
And many others…
There are tons of other options out there: Uxmal, Altun Ha, Calakmal, Coba, the list goes on and on. You may even find some Mayan ruins where the only other people you will meet are local farmers, so don’t be afraid of going off the beaten track.
Note: Mexico is part of North America though by some definitions the lower third belongs to the Central American region. I’ve lumped things together here merely for convenience.