When the media talks about the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, it is all Chichen Itza, Chichen Itza, Chichen Itza. You can hardly read a report about Mexico without this famous site coming up time and time again.
We understand why the hype for these ruins is the way that it is- the ruins of Chichen Itza are large and incredibly well preserved. But when such rapid-fire promotion comes out to the world, the crowds are sure to follow. If you are one of those people who just cannot stand the sight of 50+ tour groups in one day, I’m sorry to say that Chichen Itza may not be for you.
Luckily, the ruins of Uxmal just a few hours away offer a wonderful alternative that we think all visitors to the Yucatan should check out. (Okay, maybe not all visitors since that would defeat the purpose, but definitely the amazing readers of our blog).
Chichen Itza is Like Disney World
It wouldn’t be out of place to say that we felt like the outsiders after arriving to Chichen Itza via the public bus from Valladolid. At 9 am, the 5 or 6 visitors that got off the bus with us saw an incredible sight- a sea of parking for cars and tour buses that was absolutely empty.
I call ourselves outsiders because we knew that the hordes of visitors would be arriving at any minute to fill up those dozens of available parking spots, and we had to get in and enjoy the peace while we could.
We rushed in and were blown away by what we saw. There is no other way to say it, the ruins of Chichen Itza itself are spectacular. I’m not going to lie, they’re truly beautiful. From the central pyramid to the ruins at the far corner of the grounds, every historical ruin you see is incredibly well preserved and taken care of. If you want to see wonderful Mayan ruins and have to make Chichen Itza your only stop, we’re not going to be mad at you.
You just have to be prepared for the crowds.
The serenity we enjoyed in our first hour of touring the grounds was put to a halt just an hour later as the tour buses had arrived, the intense August heat was in full force, and the hundreds upon hundreds of vendors were almost finished setting up for the day ahead.
From this point forward Chichen Itza becomes a nightmare. The crowds of people never leaving the side of their guide (and the shade of the tree) are overwhelming, the vendors line the narrow pathways from ruin to ruin to get your attention, and the heat is almost impossible to deal with.
The only relief we can report is that the grounds of Chichen Itza are massive, and since the heat forces the hordes back into the trees, those brave enough to endure the direct sun get the wide open spaces of the ruins all to themselves (making for some great photos as you can see here!).
But for us, this was too much and we found ourselves heading back to Valladolid just 2 1/2 hours later, and crossed the entirely full parking lot to the bus stop as we made our escape.
Thankfully, Uxmal saved our sanity a few days later.
Uxmal – Just Like Chichen Itza, But No Crowds
The ruins of Uxmal are not as easy to get to as Chichen Itza, but are worth the effort for those who make the journey. Buses leave from the city of Merida quite frequently, and the 90 minute ride will end with you standing on the main road just outside the grounds.
Before entering you’ll notice the first difference immediately. Rather than being a sea of parking spots for cars and buses, the car park at Uxmal is only two rows. Even better, most of those spots were also empty when we got there at 12pm.
You can tell where this one is going already.
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Upon entry to Uxmal, the first sight you see is exactly like what you see at Chichen Itza- the main pyramid standing bold and majestically on its own. The main difference comes from the fact that while a few hundred visitors may be standing around the outskirts of the pyramid taking photos, at Uxmal you may only see 10-20.
The best part is that the first few moments after entering Uxmal is also the only time you’ll likely ever be surrounded by a “crowd” during your whole visit. Head over to other popular sights, like the Nunnery Quadrangle or the other pyramids you’re actually allowed to climb, and you may see only 5-10 visitors at any given time. In many places it feels like you have this whole park to yourself and are not making your way through the hordes or pushing off touts at every corner.
Although the histories are a bit different, and the two cities have slightly different architectural design, the feel of Uxmal was much more intimate and interesting to us when compared to Chichen Itza. It is really hard to place our finger on the exact reasons, but it all comes back in to how the parks are managed and the traffic they receive.
Chichen Itza, being the most popular ruins around, is a spread out complex that receives thousands of visitors each day. Uxmal, a much smaller complex, is a concentrated burst of ruins that only receives a few hundred visitors each day.
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Visiting each has its merits, but if you have the chance to only visit one and are turned off by the idea of large crowds and annoying touts, we highly recommend considering Uxmal as the place to go. Although if you have to go to Chichen Itza, as we did (and still thoroughly enjoyed), consider adding in Uxmal during your stay for a much more rewarding experience!
The public bus to Chichen Itza from Valladolid is around 26 pesos per person ($2) each way and the entry to the site is 204 pesos per person ($16). The public bus from Merida to Uxmal is around 54 pesos per person ($4) and the entry to the site is roughly 188 pesos per person ($15). All prices are from September 2014.