Editor’s Note: CNN Original Series “Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico” airs on CNN Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Sign up to CNN Travel’s four-part Unlocking Mexico newsletter for more on the country and its cuisine.
You join a long line at the ticket turnstile, run the gauntlet past aggressive souvenir vendors, then emerge into a clearing to see … thousands of other tourists gathered around the Mexican ruins.
Wouldn’t it be nice to visit one of these archaeological sites without the kind of crowds you normally see at an outdoor rock festival?
Chichén Itzá received more than 2.5 million visitors in 2022, which averages out to more than 6,800 per day. If you choose alternatives to the mobbed famous sites such as that one, Tulum and Teotihuacán, though, that wish for serenity is easy to grant.
You may see a smattering of other visitors at the less famous sites, but the parking lot won’t be filled with tour buses, and you won’t have to use Photoshop to post a pyramid photo with no people in it.
Here are our picks for eight Mexican archaeological sites that you can have to yourself (especially on weekdays) – places where you will count your fellow visitors in double digits, not in the thousands.
Cobá, Quintana Roo
For an excursion from Cancún or the Riviera Maya, pass up the popular trips to crowded ruins and head to Cobá, where vegetation is barely held back and some pyramids are still just mysterious mounds. There you’ll feel like a true explorer as you walk the original stone paths where the Maya priests and rulers once strolled and admire the tallest pyramid in Quintana Roo.
This site is only about 30 miles (48 kilometers) inland from the less impressive Tulum ruins, but gets a tiny fraction of the crowds. It’s just off a major highway between Tulum and Valladolid, so it’s easy to stop off here on the way to Ek Balam. Arrive early or late in the day, especially during the Riviera Maya high season, for cooler temperatures and fewer fellow visitors.
Ek Balam, Yucatán
Thanks to a location 43 miles (69 kilometers) by car from Chichén Itzá, the most famous archaeological site in Mexico, Ek Balam misses out on the day trip crowds from Cancún. Most visitors are travelers staying in nearby Valladolid.
This is an impressive Mayan site to experience, however, with key structures including defensive walls, a ball court and multiple temples. The largest structure contains a ruler’s tomb that has intact paintings and writings from the site’s peak period between 770 and 840 AD.
A full car of visitors is no problem here: adult admission is 90 pesos (currently about $5) as opposed to $31 to enter Chichén Itzá.
While Uxmal and Dzibilchaltún receive a steady flow of visitors who are staying in Mérida or on cruise ship excursions from Progreso, Mayapán is a mostly unknown site. When this writer traveled the 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of Mérida with a vanload of people on a recent visit, there were just eight other tourists walking the grounds.
This extensive site has a grand pyramid in the center that you are allowed to climb, a circular observatory and remains of a wall that was 5.65 miles (9.1 kilometers) long. The Mayan city housed as many as 17,000 people during its peak period from the 1220s until the 1440s. For Yucatán travelers who want to travel slowly, Mayapán is the final destination on the Camino del Mayab five-day walking route where you stay in local villages along the way.
Located about 34 miles (55 kilometers) southeast of the historic capital seaside city of Campeche, the ruins of the Mayan city Edzná are so little known that the English results for it in search engines die out after the first page.
Yet the city may have housed as many as 25,000 people, an active community that thrived from roughly 200 to 1000 AD, with some inhabitants sticking around through the 1400s.
The main pyramid structure in the Gran Acropolis is on five levels reaching about 130 feet (40 meters). The whole Edzná complex takes up nearly 10 square miles (26 square kilometers), with a variety of buildings and stelae to explore, along with the remains of an intricate water collection and management system.
Calakmul, in southern Mexico just 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the Guatemala border, was among the most powerful kingdoms of the Mayan Classic period from 250-900 AD, with more than a million people under its wide-ranging rule. It was the main rival of Tikal until it eventually lost a war with that city’s rulers and went into decline.
The site feels more dramatic than some in the ultra-flat Yucatán state because its two largest structures are crowning two hills.
Despite its importance in the Mayan world and its extensive excavations, it receives relatively few visitors because of its remote location with only a few small hotels and camping areas. This UNESCO World Heritage site is truly in the jungle: it’s surrounded by 2,792 square miles of protected land (7,231 square kilometers), the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.
Located right on the Usumacinta River that forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala, Yaxchilán was an important Mayan city and trading center between c. 580 and c. 800 AD. It is not nearly as well-known or visited as Palenque, however it’s a three-hour drive away.
Yaxchilán is notable for its detailed sculptures and limestone lintel carvings, which depict the region’s history and rulers. It’s easy to combine a visit to Yaxchilán with one to Bonampak, which is known for its vivid tomb paintings that have survived for centuries.
Cañada de la Virgen, Guanajuato
While it shares some tendencies with the Mayan ruins to the east, this temple structure outside of San Miguel de Allende in the middle of Mexico was a city serving various other ethnic groups such as the Otomi. It thrived for more than 500 years before abandonment around 1050 AD.
While San Miguel de Allende is a popular tourism and retirement destination, this historic attraction stays relatively tranquil due to the effort it takes to visit. The site itself is administered by the government archaeological agency that oversees most archaeological sites in Mexico, but it’s like a doughnut hole sitting in the middle of private land. Access is restricted to those visiting on organized tours.
This collection of circular pyramids 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Guadalajara is a long way from the civilizations of the Maya or Aztecs, but the pyramids probably pre-date both. Estimates put the founding of this city at around 350 BC and the region thrived for close to 1,000 years.
Many of the structures are still buried under dirt and vegetation and the ones that are visible are a relatively recent excavation, much of the work completed less than 20 years ago. UNESCO included the area in a World Heritage site designation in 2006. Few people seem to know that this site is even here, much less visit it, but it’s an easy day trip from Guadalajara or the town of Tequila. Admission is 50 pesos, less than $3, including the museum.