by Hank Leukart
September 29, 2014
How I saw ancient Mayan cities, Egyptian temples, and other world wonders without pesky tourist crowds.
A single souvenir vendor remains at the end of the day in the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, Mexico. (view all Chichen Itza, Mexico photos)
HICHEN ITZA, Yucatán, Mexico — I’m staring at El Castillo, marveling at the large stone pyramid towering over the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, listening to the whistling sound of grasshoppers in the surrounding forest. My walk through the ruins feels like a trip back in time, as though I’m a turn-of-the-century archeologist — because I’m the only tourist here.
It wasn’t like this when I first arrived. I found the Chichen Itza parking lot at 4 PM packed with tour buses, and I was disappointed, because I thought I had already applied my best strategies for avoiding other tourists. First, I decided to visit the Yucatán during the tourist low-season and during a time when the US government has issued stern travel warnings about Mexico, noting that 70 US citizens were kidnapped in Mexico in the first half of 2014 (though not in Chichen Itza’s state, Yucatán). Second, I hoped that by arriving late in the day, the tour buses would have taken most tourists back to their hotels. But, my plan went awry when, after being at Chichen Itza for only 15 minutes, a guard told me to leave, explaining that the site would close 90 minutes early due to a lack of staff during the tourist low-season.
“But I’ve only been here for 15 minutes,” I said, pleading with the guard in Spanish. “No one told me that you’re closing so early today!”
“It’s possible to get more time,” the guard explained, in Spanish. “All tourists must leave, but we’ll reopen in a half hour, and you can buy a ticket for the night if you’re not with a tour bus.” Suspicious that he might be trying to extort money from me, I went to the official ticket office, where a woman confirmed everything the guard told me. She sold me an authentic ticket for the (unpublicized) evening visit, and when I walked into the ruins site, it was with only a few other tourists who took some photos in front of the pyramid and left.
While I walk through the near-empty Mayan city, I think of some of my other trips to quintessential historical sites, and I realize that I have become an accidental pro at visiting the wonders of the world while avoiding crowds of tourists.
By traveling to Egypt only one month after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down due to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, my friend Quinn and I found ourselves standing in front of Cairo’s Egyptian pyramids by ourselves, because no other tourists were brave enough to make the trip. We toured a near-empty Egyptian Museum and stood in King Tut’s tomb, in Luxor’s Theban Necropolis, completely alone. In India, by arriving at the Taj Mahal before dawn, I was able to photograph the world’s most beautiful symbol of eternal love at sunrise with a group of less than ten other photographers. In Nepal, when my brother and I arrived at Everest Base Camp after 10 days of hiking, we were the only ones there, because we completed the hike in December, outside of the standard hiking season.
I keep reminiscing as I walk through Chichen Itza’s Great Ball Court, a huge field used to play an ancient Mayan sport that required its players to keep a solid rubber ball in the air with only their hips, thighs, or upper arms and bouncing it off the court’s side walls. The captain of the losing team — the one that lost the most points by letting the ball fall to the ground — was sacrificed. (Though some literature says that all of the losing team was sacrificed and some says that both team captains were killed.) Regardless, as I walk alone through the Ball Court (the largest in Mesoamerica), I’m struck by its size; it’s obvious that the sport was central to Mayan life, religious and otherwise. Afterward, I take a 10-minute walk to a cenote, a natural limestone sinkhole mostly associated with the Yucatán Peninsula. This Sacred Cenote (also known as The Well of Sacrifices) at Chichen Itza was a place where Mayans were known to have sacrificed human beings to the rain god, Chac, as evidenced by the remains of men, women, and children found in the pit by archeologists. The silence surrounding me is a little bit magical — and a little bit eerie.
By the time I decide to leave Chichen Itza, the hundreds of souvenir vendors have been gone for over an hour, except for one. He’s sitting near the entrance quietly, with most of his trinkets packed up, looking out at the ruins. It’s clear that he’s not trying to sell anything — there are no tourists left — and it occurs to me that maybe, he, too, enjoys Chichen Itza most when all of the tourists have gone and the ancient Mayan city is poignantly silent.
A few days later, I head out on another see-the-world’s-wonders-without-tourists expedition by driving toward Ruta Puuc, a road that leads to the infrequently visited Mayan ruins of Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná. On the way, I drive through multiple checkpoints guarded by Mexican Federal Police, which always make me nervous. But the Federales ignore me, presumably because they can’t imagine someone trying to hide anything illegal in a rental car as ridiculously small as mine.
I decide to stop first at popular Uxmal, the impressive ruins of a Mayan city which include “The Magician’s House,” a restored, 127-foot oval structure with a large mask of rain god Chac over its entrance. I watch a scrubby-looking tourist couple dance and bow down in reverence in front of Chac, seemingly deriving some kind of spiritual energy from the structure and the mask. Knowing Chac’s penchant for human sacrifice, his gaze makes me uncomfortable, and I wonder whether the dancing couple know what they could be getting themselves into with him. After seeing more carvings of Chac’s face at the impressive House of the Turtles, I head to Uxmal’s beautiful Governor’s Palace. At the Palace, however, I’m disappointed to see tens of construction workers crawling over it like ants, working to “restore” the structure with modern concrete. I lament the inevitability of scaffolding, orange vests, concrete mixers, and, worst, gaggles of tourists that manage to ruin the magic of the world’s most impressive historical sites.
But, when I leave Uxmal and start driving down the Ruta Puuc, I’m relieved that I don’t see any other cars. At Labná, I’m the only tourist visiting the intricate palace and the imposing arch at the end of the city’s plaza. I’m the only person at Xlapak too, and when I arrive in the parking lot at Sayil, my car is alone. But, when I reach Sayil’s entrance gate only 15 minutes before closing, the guard tells me that it’s too late to visit the ruins. I chide myself for getting such a lazy start in the morning, thinking I should have learned my lesson when I got kicked out of Chichen Itza in the evening two nights ago. But, after begging the guard to let me have just a quick look around, he takes pity on me and relents.
Alone among the ruins, I head immediately to Sayil’s Palace, a large, three-tiered structure with more carvings of Chac’s face and distinctive columns. I’m exploring slowly, taking photos of the Palace’s intricate designs, when I hear footsteps behind me. I turn around, half expecting an ancient Mayan ghost to be coming to sacrifice me and throw me into a sacred cenote to please the rain god. Instead, I see the guard who sympathetically let me into Sayil by myself. He’s relaxed, gazing at the palace.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” he says in Spanish. I smile, and he smiles back. “Without people, I mean,” he adds. This guy seems to get it too.
Shimmering beams of sunlight shine through threatening, dark clouds gathering behind the elaborate palace in front of us. Lush green leaves on a nearby tree sway in the warm, tropical breeze. The eerie face of the rain god Chac stares at the two of us, seemingly ominously. Except for the soothing hum of insects from the jungle surrounding us, the ancient Mayan city is silent. The evening feels otherworldly.
“Yes,” I say, as rain begins to fall. “It’s perfect.”
COMING SOON: In the next essay in this series about my road trip through the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán, I celebrate Mexican Independence Day with a Mexican medical student.
Souvenir vendors pack up their stalls at the end of the day in front of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Mexico.
The face of the Mayan rain god Chac looks out from the Palace at Labná on the Ruta Puuc in Yucatán, Mexico. (view all Ruta Puuc, Mexico photos)
How Independent Travelers Can Avoid Tourist Crowds
- Visit tourist attractions in places that most tourists and organized tours avoid due to their logistical, security, and liability issues (while still taking real risks seriously, of course). Locals living in a country can often provide a more nuanced assessment of the places that are dangerous in a location, as compared to the (still useful) blanket warnings issued by the US State Department, so try to talk to people living in the destination before you go.
- Travel to a destination outside of its normal tourist season. Often the reasons people travel to a destination during a given “season” aren’t necessarily sensible. For example, people tend to travel places when the weather is hot, but traveling (and hiking) in cooler weather is often more pleasant. Out of season, prices are lower, attractions are less crowded, and locals are less annoyed with tourists.
- Avoid visiting a tourist attraction just because it’s a “name brand” attraction and focus instead on places just as good but not as well known. For example, Mexico’s Mayan city of Ek’ Balam is not as well known as Chichen Itza, but it’s almost as good and has many fewer tourists.
- Visit tourist attractions as soon as they open in the morning or late in the day just before closing; most bus tours bring tourists to sites in the middle of the day.
- Grab an umbrella or rain coat and travel to popular sites on rainy or overcast days. Many people hate to leave their hotels in the rain.
How to Visit Yucatán’s Best Ancient Mayan Cities
- OVERVIEW: Chichen Itza, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered one of the greatest Mayan cities in the world and one of the most important examples of the Mayan-Toltec civilization in the Yucatán. The ruins of nearby Ek’ Balam, is also an impressive Mayan ruins site worth visiting. (Though tourists are no longer permitted to climb to the top of the ruins at Chichen Itza, visitors may still climb to the top of the Acrópolis at Ek’ Balam.) The Mayan cities of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná near Mérida are not as popular, which makes them even more worth visiting, especially beautiful Uxmal and Labná.
- RENTING A CAR IN QUINTANA ROO OR YUCATÁN: The easiest fastest way to visits these sites is to rent a car, and driving in Yucatán and Quintana Roo is surprisingly easy and safe. Nevertheless, as always, renting a car outside the US is a frustrating and slow process, so make sure you’re knowledgeable about the insurance you need and the terms of your contract. My customer service representative at the Cancún Hertz became combative when I declined their expensive car insurance, took an hour to supply a car for me, and brusquely demanded that I pay an extra US $44 when I returned the car an hour late, a charge not agreed upon in my contract.
- CHICHEN ITZA AND EK’ BALAM: On the 180D toll highway, it’s an easy drive to Ek’ Balam and Chichen Itza from either Cancún (2 hours) or Mérida (1.5 hours). Oriente buses will also take travelers to Pisté (the town near Chichen Itza) from Mérida (M$120, 1 3/4 hours) or Cancún ($M202, 3 hours).
- UXMAL, KABAH, AND THE RUTA PUUC: From Mérida by car, follow 261 south toward Muna to Uxmal (1 1/4 hours) and Kabah (20 more minutes). From Kabah, it’s a 5-minute drive south to the left turn onto the signed Ruta Puuc, which leads to Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná. ATS also offers a bus tour to these sites on Sunday from the Mérida 2nd class bus station.