This isn’t our first trip to Mexico. We had our honeymoon here in Jan/Feb 2009 and rather than spend it in a beautiful hotel on an amazing beach, we spent it checking out some of the most interesting Mexican ruins whilst tasting as much mezcal and tequilla as we could. This trip has also taken in a number of ruins so I thought I’d share a few with you:
Our first ever Mexican ruin was the Aztec TEOTIHUACAN (birthplace of the Gods), located about 40km from Mexico City. It’s the most visited of all the archaeological sites in the country and it’s obvious that this is about more than proximity to the capital city. It’s immense. It was established around 100 BCE and inhabited until about 700 CE.
One of the benefits (we include this as a pro although maybe others don’t) is that you can climb up stuff here. Both the Sun and Moon Pyramids are open for climbing and they’re immense in both senses of the word. I don’t have any of my own photos of Teotihuacan here so I’ve faithfully replicated my favourite for your delight: it’s Col lying over the top of the Sun Pyramid as the actual sun beats down relentlessly. I’m sure it conjures up everything for you.
This site is huge and there isn’t much shade so water and a hat are vital. Well worth a visit.
In 2009 our next stop was Oaxaca to visit MONTE ALBAN. It may be obvious that we are quite smitten with both the city and the ruin since we began our 2016 trip with a month in Oaxaca and two day trips to Monte Alban. To be honest, it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. There’s even a photo of Col and me there on the wall in our London bedroom. The first time we went we made a mistake and forgot to take hats or sun cream. We paid with our dignity as we spent the next few days looking like lobster tourists. People, don’t forget the hats when visiting these places!
Monte Alban is an easy bus ride from Oaxaca. I even heard people at our language school discussing walking there although I think they might have been a bit bonkers. It’s a good 40 minute bus ride UP from town.
Monte Alban is the Zapotec city from whence they ruled the central valleys of Oaxaca. It seems to have been occupied from 500 BCE to about 900 CE. It stands on the hills about 400m above the surrounding valleys and has the most incredible views.
It never seems to be very full and this adds to the magic – there really is something magical about walking around an ancient site without hordes of others around. Monte Alban is basically a huge (and I mean huge) flat area with a few buildings (this isn’t a history lesson, ok, I have no idea what they were/are) on each side and one in the middle. One can climb up massive steps at either end to explore a bit more and marvel at the incredible views over the surrounding area:
See, empty. The cafe isn’t bad and there are loads of humming birds everywhere. Monte Alban was the first place we saw the ‘clapping trick’ – all Mexican guides love to demonstrate the majesty of the sites by getting people to clap and hear how the sound is amplified around the site (I always think of Hitler, Stalin and Scar here I’m afraid). Once is fascinating but seeing the same thing done by every group at every site gets annoying.
This was the first ruin our kids visited and they loved it. SB absolutely fell in love here. His enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed. Every single one we visit is declared his favourite yet as he rushes off to find something else to climb and explore. Small girl was even persuaded to climb down (if not up) the monumental steps.
MITLA is a much smaller site about 50kms from Oaxaca. We visited here as part of a day trip that took in Hierve El Ague and other things in the area. We did enjoy it but I’m not sure it’s worth a 50km drive just to see this small ruin.
It seems to have been an area reserved just for important groups of Zapotecs. We had a guide here so Col listened as for once it was actually interesting, while I distracted the kids from their task of annoying everyone by making them chase me around the site. We did really enjoy climbing the small flight of steps and hiding amongst the small rooms. We also took lovely photos of all the cacti on the site. I don’t have much else to say.
PALENQUE – a wonderful site in Chiapas region. It was inhabited from around 200 BCE to about 700 CE. We know we visited in 2009 but we can’t really remember if we flew or drove from Oaxaca. These ruins are considered to be a national treasure and are one of the best examples of Maya architecture in Mexico (sentence swiped directly from the Lonely Planet). There are loads of buildings to explore in this jungle site and even some that can climbed. Much of it hasn’t been excavated yet.
You can almost feel the humidity and the sun pulsing down on you just looking at this picture.
Our final amazing ruin on our honeymoon was YAXCHILAN, right on the border with Guatamala. We drove here, getting more and more pissed off with the topes (speed bumps) that littered the road and prevented a smooth drive from Palenque. This is a much younger site than others we have visited. It seems to have been built in the 4th century CE.
To get here you drive to the town of Yaxchilan, on the river Usumacinta, and then take a forty minute boat ride from Frontera Corozal. These small boats take you through the jungle and drop you off by the ruins. I remember this feeling like one the remotest places I’d ever been (Tibet was yet to come in our exploration but Namibia had been visited to give context). We were almost entirely alone on this jungle site, playing at being Indiana Jones as we explored and jumped and played as only newly weds on a super romantic honeymoon(!) can do. We saw monkeys, commented on how British health and safety teams would find much to complain about, and Col swung on massive vines hanging from massive trees.
We move to the Yucatan Peninsula (and 2016) – home to the most famous of all Mexican ruins: CHICHEN ITZA. Although it’s the most famous, and many British children will know it thanks to the Go Jetters rescuing it from Grand Master Glitch’s wily ways, it’s probably the least fun of all to visit. Just for you I created a table of Yucatecan ruins full of all the information you might need before visiting the peninsula.
It’s truly an amazing site and the buildings would be mind-blowing if there weren’t hundreds of tour bus loads of people (mainly Americans) everywhere. We drove here from Mérida with six of us squashed in our teeny car. Our arrival was a rude awakening to the touristy side of the peninsula. Thus far we’ve not really had much interaction with that part of Mexico, deliberately keeping away from places like Cancun and Playa so it was a shock to be surrounded by it here. And to see how Mexico deals with it too: this was the first ruin we’ve visited with so many hawkers, seriously, stalls everywhere. It was also our first Yucatan state ruin so the first time we’ve dealt with such high prices to visit a ruin. In the other states the ruins cost between 60 – 120 pesos for an adult and are free for kids. Not so Chichen Itza where it’s about 220 pesos for an adult and we even had to pay something for SB to go in too. SG was still free as she’s not quite three. In Yucatan there is the site cost and the government cost to pay, no idea why. So we queued for tickets and then queued to get in. Once in the site you walk along a track lined with stalls selling tourist tat until you reach the frankly, amazing site:
Chichen Itza is also quite young, with El Castillo (the pyramid above) being built in about 800 CE. There’s no climbing here at all since someone fell and died in 2006. The site is huge and beautiful. Chichen Itza also boasts the largest pelota court in all of Mexico.We saw iguanas and some wonderful birds of prey but there is just no magical feeling here at all. It’s too touristy for any atmosphere. That said, we did spend a good few hours here despite the heat and bus loads of people wearing matching t-shirts and following people carrying umbrellas. We also didn’t let the kid buy any souvenirs here, assuming they’d be cheaper in Mérida. Error. Actually, with hard bargaining, they’re not badly priced here at all. One extremely expensive ice-cream later and we left, heading for one of the incredible cenotes in the area for a cooling dip in a 43m deep hole in the ground.
EK-BALAM is a much smaller and much less visited site on the other side of Valladolid. It was abandoned in the eight century and much of it is still covered with jungle but what has been excavated is wonderful. There were far fewer people here so the magic I was so missing at Chichen Itza returned in droves. We really enjoyed exploring here and climbing the acropolis for some great views of the surrounding jungle. Again, being in Yucatan, it wasn’t a cheap site to visit at about 181 pesos per person but at least is was quiet and we could visit in peace. We drove here on our way back from a trip to Holbox island.
DZIILCHALTUN is a far smaller site not far from Merida. It was the longest continuously utilised Maya administrative and ceremonial city, in use from around 1500 BCE until it was conquered by the Spanish in around 1540 CE. Twice a year, on the equinoxes, the sun shines directly through the main temple. Clearly we didn’t see this, but we did see the temple and we did have fun clambering around the bits we could climb on. It also has its own cenote on site, which would be fabulous if it weren’t so packed with those annoying tour loads of people who have decided to visit this teeny site. We decided they must go there because it’s an opportunity to see a ruin and swim in a cenote at the same time, making it perfect for tours from cruise ships.
The rules at this site make it less pleasurable to visit than it should be: no bags bigger than a teeny tiny rucksack can be taken in and they only tell you this once you’ve walked ten minutes from your car carrying all your swimming stuff in a big bag full of water and snacks. It’s free to leave bags in the closets but it’s annoying to then have to figure out how to carry life jackets for little kids, towels, costumes, water and everything else, with no bag in which to put it. It’s almost as if they want you to have an horrible time walking in 30 degree heat with all this stuff.
The restaurant here is a total joke. Up a ramp to an area that looks as if it might be serving school dinners. Hah! You wish it was school dinners. Instead, it’s soggy old burritos, nachos with fluorescent orange cheese and dry looking meat or dry and floppy salbutes, all at $10 USD a portion. Yeah, you heard it, $10 a portion. So that would have been about $80 to feed and water us all there with shit food. Hah. We queued, we saw the food, asked the price, laughed and left. We couldn’t believe it was quoted in USD or how many of them they wanted for such shit food. Instead we returned to the car, gorged on crisps and apples and drove home to have lunch there instead. So at least it was close enough to Merida we could go home for lunch, something in its favour.
What a shame that the tourist board managed to create such a miserable experience at such a beautiful site. It’s still worth a visit but only if you rein in your expectations (and take food, or lots of dollars!).
In to Quintanaroo, the state alongside Yucatan, and we found more amazing ruins.
Right next to Tulum is the TULUM ruins. These are fabulous primarily because of their setting along the spectacular Caribbean coast. They are touristy but somehow now in the same way as Chichen Itza. Maybe it’s something about the different states but here all the tourist tat is kept a long way from the ruins themselves and even though there are loads of people on the site all the time, it actually didn’t feel horrendous. The ruins are just outside of town. Once you reach the car park you can either walk or take the trenecito (little train) the 500m walk to the entrance. The ruins include a teeny tiny beach that is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It might be except it’s always ram-packed with tourists, and an iguana pooed on us when we were there.
This site is much younger than many others and isn’t considered to be as special but I think I’d beg to differ: the setting is just magical and there’s loads of space to play for the kids (SG did get attacked by biting ants and iguanas did chase us off when we tried to have a picnic but apart from that it’s pretty awesome).
MUYIL is a far lesser known site on the other side of Tulum. It isn’t even in the Lonely Planet and I think I’m glad. It is so beautiful and there’s something special about wandering through the jungle to explore a ruin knowing you’re almost the only people there.
It’s one of the earliest and longest inhabited Maya sites on the peninsula (from 350 BCE to around 1200 CE) but there’s very little actually visible: a pyramid temple thing and then some other structures deeper in the jungle. We saw some huge spiders on our walk through and there were little cavey type things we’d have explored except we were scared there might be more spiders in them (we’d just had a tarantula in our house at this point).
Muyil is the perfect ruin: surrounded by jungle, quite and empty. Just magnificent to wonder around alone and feel the magic of history and the jungle at the same time.
The last (for now) ruin on our list is COBA. And wow, what a place to finish. Also popular with tourists but we got there very early so had much of it to ourselves before tour buses began to arrive. This is an enormous site that the Lonely Planet describes as being ‘cool because you feel like you’re in an Indiana Jones flick’. It’s true. The setting deep in the jungle, that you’re allowed to climb up Nohoch Mul (the great pyramid) and the chance that you could stumble across a jaguar at any moment all do make you feel like a bit of an explorer…even if you are sitting in a bike carriage thing being driven by a small guy who clearly has the strength of a giant.
We had so much fun here, we explored lines of ants, counted frogs, saw weird caterpillars and even looked at the ruins sometimes too.
We didn’t start with the usual starting point, instead, we finished with Grupo Coba, the area that includes a church thing and the pelota court. We had a great time running and exploring here before collapsing back in the taxi. Before that though we climbed the great pyramid and jumped through other jungle covered ruins.
Uxmal: About one hour drive from Mérida, one encounters the incredible Uxmal. It is an incredibly beautiful site with relatively few visitors. There were a number of coach groups so it was busier than, say, Ek Balaam, but much, much quieter than Tulum or Chichen Itza (look at me, name dropping famous ruins as if they’re my buddies). We had a wonderful time strolling around and climbing on things getting extremely sweaty. Sadly, I didn’t know about Uxmal’s secret garden when we visited. If you want to know about this hidden gem, check out this link: Uxmal’s Secret Garden, but, beware, it may be a little more risqué than you’re expecting!
And that, my friends, is a wrap. All the ruins we have visited thus far. It may not be a traditional new year’s blog but it’s what I’ve got. I thought about telling you more about the history of each site but actually, for me, the history isn’t the most exciting thing; it’s the exploring with my kids that really sets me alight. I love watching my two little ones run and jump and take it all in. Sure, we tell them a little bit about what used to be on these sites but they don’t care and I don’t think they need to care yet. That they are excited to be there and that they are experiencing such wonders at such a young age is enough for all of us. I would hate to bore them in to apathy towards such wonderful places.