words by Rachel
“Not another ruin”, our kids cried as we bundled into the car to visit the ruins of Tulum in the Yucatan peninsular of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Ok, so this was the sixth ancient site in less than four weeks, seven if you include the overwhelmingly impressive Museo de Anthropology in Mexico City, and they knew we still had Chichen Itza on the list AND a host of other sites awaiting in nearby Belize and Guatemala. But despite the grumbles, we piled into the car and found ourselves standing on the edge of the Caribbean Sea wondering about how life would have been all those centuries ago.
The kids have loved exploring the ancient Aztec and Mayan sites, almost as much as we have. Not just for the sheer size and scale of the sites, but also for the stunning settings, the incredible wildlife and at times the utter mind-blowing effort these civilisations went to to build cities, study the skies and worship their gods. For Gary and I, we have been amazed by the ingenuity of the architects of both the Aztec and Mayan cultures. My two favourites overall have been Palenque & Calakmul.
In Palenque, there was a certain peace to the site, which is set in the lush jungles of Chiapas. We got their early and the mists were still rising out of the jungle and the howler monkeys were in full chorus as we clambered up and down the ancient ruins. It was also where we saw our first toucan in the wild, which was a huge thrill – they are such beautiful yet strange creatures.
Calakmul was a different experience altogether, yet just as wonderful. It is so remote you really do need a car to get there, which is definitely part of its charm. The site itself is 60km from the main road and only 30m from the Guatemalan border and so visitors are few. There are no hawkers or stalls – you can’t even buy water. On the day we journeyed there we saw 4 other people. Yes, four! In a site that is around 22km square. The pyramids that have been excavated are huge, and visitors are allowed to climb all over the structures (unlike many of the more popular sites). We climbed the main pyramid – 55m in height – without a person in site. In a country as populated, and as popular, as Mexico, to get such a private experience was magical.
Given there are plenty of blogs and websites that can tell you all about the history and details of these magnificent sites, I’m going to let the photos tell the story. Here’s my homage to our tour of ruins over the past couple of months. I recommend visiting them all if you can, they really are worth it and each one holds its own special kind of magic.
Teotihuacan, Mexico State
An awesome Aztec site just north of Mexico City. You can visit the site from Mexico City on a day trip, but we recommend staying the night prior so you can get up early and beat the tour buses and the heat of the day. The highlight is climbing the Pyramid of the Sun and looking out over the north end of the site. Teotihuacan is huge so allow at least half a day.
Cholula Pyramid, Cholula, Puebla
Almost unrecognisable, the base of this pyramid is even bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. We were lucky enough to see a once a year dance performance of Quezacoatl at the base of the pyramid for Spring Equinox. The highlight is really the town of Cholula itself, which sits in the shadow of Popacatapetl, an active volcano. There are great outdoor food markets, a vibrant nightlife, and with puffing Popacatapetl as a backdrop the entire setting feels like it is out of a storybook. We stayed at the Hotel Xoxula, a funky new boutique hotel with the best wifi in Mexico.
Monte Alban, Oaxaca
How those ancient Aztecs managed to cart so many stones up to the site of Monte Alban without pack animals, machinery or the wheel doesn’t bear thinking about. The result is a stunning hilltop city with wonderful views over Oaxaca and beyond. You can clamber up most of the structures and see some of the artefacts in the onsite museum. We stayed in Oaxaca at El Diablo y la Sandia, a unique and very well run B&B, which we recommend.
Set in the green and lush jungles of Chiapas, only a part of this incredible ancient city has been excavated. The famous sarcophagi of the King Pakal was discovered here and is so well preserved that it now resides in temperature controlled Museo de Anthropologica in Mexico City. Like most of the sites, arrive early before the tour groups to really enjoy the tranquility of the jungle setting. We arrived when the site opened and felt like we almost had the site to ourselves. There are plenty of structures to climb up to get a good perspective of the site, and with the jungle encroaching on all sides there is plenty of wildlife to spot and listen out for. Breathtakingly beautiful! We stayed at at Hotel La Aldea about 5km from the site. The pool offers a welcome cool down after the heat starts to build up in the jungle.
Calakmul is hardly excavated and so remote that very few people venture there. Archeologists are saying that this was perhaps the biggest Mayan city that there ever was. Yet despite this, very few people have even heard about Calakmul. It was discovered in the 1930s and so far only a few of the buildings have been excavated. The most impressive is the 55m structure two, a pyramid which soars high above the jungle canopy. Climbing to the top you can see only jungle in every direction. Set deep in the jungle on the road that runs along the southern border of Campeche and Quintana Roo, the only way to get to Calakmul is by car. Once you arrive at the turn off you enter a national park, and six kilometres from the park gates is a camp site where you can bring your own tent or rent one that is already erected. The entrance to Calakmul is another 20km away, and then it’s another 30km drive or so to actually get to the site. We spent two nights camping in the jungle, surrounded by spiders (you can see their beady eyes shining at you with your head torch as you walk to the loo) and being constantly woken by the cries of howler monkeys, which are very loud indeed. We found a local English speaking guide who chaperoned us and shared a very comprehensive history as we explored the site. In the few hours we were there we saw four other people. Yes, four. We had the pyramids to ourselves and felt like we were the only people in the world. On the way back to the campsite we stopped by a the water hole which was set behind the road, where we saw a huge wild deer quenching its thirst, crocodiles wallowing and toucans flying. Worth a mention is the bat cave a few km up the road, where each night 4 million bats come out to feed was just another amazing site to behold. We had that to ourselves also, it was really quite something. We recommend stopping for lunch at the Hotel Puerta Calakmal – the rib eye was out of this world (and a great price), and even let us cool off in the pool after lunch.
Tulum, Quintana Roo
Probably one of the most famous ruins from a tourist’s point of view, solely because of the jaw dropping location. Set on a cliff overlooking the crystal clear blue waters of the Caribbean a visit to the Tulum ruins is worth it just for the view. You can swim at the beach there also, which is a bonus, given the heat. We’d been spoilt with the ruins we’d visited so far, so Tulum probably sits further down the list, but still worth a visit if you’re in the region.
Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo
So many people visit these ruins, and for good reason. They are beautifully maintained and the main pyramid sits alone on a grassy plain jolting your mind to imagine what life might have been like all those years ago. We had the good fortune to stay at the Mayaland Hotel, which is right at the entrance to Chichen Itza. The private entrance was a bonus and we arrived right on opening to beat the tour groups (the kids now call me Clarke). But even better than that was the on site observatory at the hotel, built to imitate the observatory at Chichen Itza. We were treated to a laser light movie in the dome of the observatory, which took us through the astronomical learnings of the Mayans. Even the kids were enthralled, and it made the visit to the site the next day all the more meaningful.
Unfortunately we did’t make it to Uxmal in Yucatan, the kids were just all ruined out. Give it a few weeks, and we’ll spoil them again with Tikal in Guatemala.