Enough about food poisonings for now (even though we have suffered a couple more), time to focus on serious stuff – ruins. Pyramids, temples, houses, ancient privy systems and did Mayans really disappear into space?
Each continent or country offers one or two typical activities for travelers and after a while you feel like you have seen them all. "Them" being:
- Waterfalls (South-East Asia)
- Temples (South-East Asia)
- Gorges (Western Australia)
- Ruins (Mexico, Central America)
But to my surprise, I got more excited the more ruins we saw and could have continued forever. I even considered booking a 6 day trek through the jungle to see the biggest Mayan city, El Mirador, that is mostly still uncovered. It’s not a surprise though that my travel companion has had enough ruins so I’m not sure if I could’ve stomached a cranky Irishman for six days in addition to all the mosquitos and not showering. One day, I’ll be back for El Mirador..
After weeks have passed I do have a bit of trouble telling all the ruins apart and there’s really not that much to tell about them that Wikipedia can’t help with so I will save you from millions of photos and explanations similar to the very informative signs at the ruins (“Here is a building. It might have been a temple or a house or a palace. It faces west and it has five stories.”) We stopped reading the signs after a while.
Here is a quick summary from best to “worst” experience to help you choose if you need to!
1. Tikal, Guatemala. Mayan.
2. Xunantunich , San Ignacio, Belize. Mayan.
3. Palenque, Mexico. Mayan.
4. Tulum, Mexico. Mayan.
5. Teotihuacan, Mexico. Not known.
6. Chichen Itza, Mexico. Mayan.
1. Tikal, Guatemala.
Best. Ruins. Ever. Massive area in the jungle, a lot of it is still covered in hills and trees. Has the tallest pyramid (70m) after El Mirador. And a Star Wars scene was filmed from the top of that pyramid! The experience is so much better than any other ruin because there are no souvenir sellers inside the area. The guided tour was also excellent, it lasted almost 4 hours, the guide knew everything from animals and nature to the actual history of Mayans and Tikal. Also, we got to see toucans!
Cost: 34 USD including transportation, entrance and a guide
2. Xunantunich , San Ignacio, Belize.
This was not on our “to-do” list but as we were in San Ignacio and the owner of our hostel was the best ever and offered a drive to these ruins, why not see them?
This place is also very much in the jungle and a lot of is not restored yet. There was almost no-one there and we got to explore the pyramids on our own. Climbing the highest pyramid was a bit nerve-wrecking as it was pouring down rain which made all the rocks very slippery.
Cost: 6 USD including entrance, bus back to town
3. Palenque, Mexico.
Same story as with the previous ones, it’s good because it’s in the middle of the jungle. You can climb some of the buildings. Our tour guide was not the greatest through and there are souvenir sellers here inside the area.
Also if you have ever heard of stories about Mayans and aliens or Mayan disappearing to space, this is one of the places where “evidence” of this was found. And by evidence, I mean that some self-trained pseudoscientist Erich Anton Paul von Däniken told everyone that a decoration of the Mayan ruler K'inich Janaab Pakal, found in his tomb in Palenque, depicts him riding a spaceship.
Cost: 4.40 USD entrance only, we did it as a part of a wider tour and added a guide for 10.50 USD each.
4. Tulum, Mexico.
The ruins here are not that impressive, it’s more about the setting next to the beach. I do remember studying Mayan culture a lot during upper secondary school but I can’t remember us learning about the culture being a naval one.
There are no souvenir sellers here inside the area either which is a bonus but then a huge minus is hordes of American tourists everywhere. Go very early or very late to avoid this (we went very late).
Cost: 3.6 USD entrance only
5. Teotihuacan, Mexico.
This was the only non-Mayan place we visited. And to my surprise it’s still not known which culture built Teotihuacan.
You can climb the Pyramid of the Sun (biggest one) and half-way to the Pyramid of the Moon.
Bonus fact: The Pyramid of the Sun was destroyed with dynamite in the hopes of finding gold. Thus majority of it as of today is not original but restored. And during the restoration they build one terrace too much.. talk about making mistakes at your job!
Cost: 8 USD including entrance and round-trip bus from Mexico City
6. ...and the last place goes to Chichen Itza!
Maybe the most famous Mayan ruins and thus also the most touristic one. Souvenir sellers fill all the paths and areas and you can’t walk anywhere without hearing a sales pitch. Massive tourist busses coming from Cancun multiple times a day, people posing for photos (and boyfriends going above and beyond trying to take the perfect pyramid photo of their girlfriends). We also heard that the guided tours offered by hostels & hotels were pretty average, guides abandoning the groups after 1 hour of basic stories and cliché’s.
We opted for self-organised bus trip there and eaves-dropping on other groups here and there.
Coolest part was the biggest ball-game field and knowing that during the Spring and Autum Equinox light hitting the main pyramid staircase forms a serpent.
I don’t know if I would skip this as it is “a 7th Wonder of the World” but also those lists change every year and Chichen Itza got into the list through a corporate sponsoring. Definitely the worst overall experience.
Cost: About 25 USD entrance + round-trip bus from Tulum to Chichen Itza
Now we'll be ruin-free for a while and have to fill our days with something else. That has lately been waterfalls, laying on the beach or pool and re-reading Game of Thrones books (god I forgot how boring the fourth book is).