The beaches aside, Mexico’s ancient Mayan culture is one of the country’s biggest tourist draws. It’s no surprise, then, that the 1,500-year-old Mayan city of Chichen Itza, a 2½-hour drive from Cancun, is an overwhelmingly popular attraction. But that is far from the only cultural heritage site to see.
Chichen Itza. Located in the state of Yucatan, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a common day trip for vacationers who take a break from swimming or snorkeling.
The 740-acre complex of pyramids, temples, and other buildings -- about 30 percent of which is open to the public -- is undeniably impressive. Most prominent in size and significance is the 100-foot pyramid of El Castillo, also called the Temple of Kukulkan. Each of its four faces has 91 steps, so with the single step they share at the top, it’s 365 in all.
But anyone keen on seeing Chichen Itza will have to contend with heavy-duty crowds: The site had more than 2.7 million visitors last year and is infamous for its parking lot jammed with tour buses and the crush of vendors calling and whistling to get visitors’ attention.
"Coming to Chichen Itza in a bearable way means leaving Cancun before 6 a.m. to get there just as it opens, and even then, you’ll have hordes of people to contend with," says Matteo Luthi, COO of Journey Mexico.
About 120 miles southwest of Cancun, near the town of Piste in Yucatan. Admission: $25 between separate state and federal tickets.
Uxmal. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, this Mayan city is about twice as far from Cancun, but only an hour from the Yucatan state capital, Merida, which is a worthwhile visit in itself; travelers will find plenty of appealing and affordable hotels there.
Last year, Uxmal had fewer visitors total than Chechen Itza had in January alone. A visit to Uxmal is intimate, devoid of tour buses and a wave of vendors.
Uxmal is set in the Puuc hills and was the center of the region’s economic and political power. The 150 acres are oriented according to astronomical patterns, such as the cycles of Venus. Its pyramids and temples are better preserved than those at Chichen Itza, with clearly visible intricate hieroglyphic carvings.
Uxmal’s tallest and most central structure is the 115-foot Pyramid of the Magician, decorated with symbols depicting the god of rain, Chaac. Almost as notable are the four elaborately carved palaces surrounding a courtyard; that section is called the Nunnery Quadrangle because of its resemblance to a convent.