Latin America is famous for it’s vibrant and interesting culture, but one thing many people have forgotten is the history that has helped create this culture, long before the Spanish ( and Portuguese) colonized the continent. From the Mayans to the Incas, no trip to Latin America would be complete without visiting at least a couple of the many ancient ruins. However, nobody has time to visit all the ruins in Latin America and narrowing down which ones to see can be a difficult task.
Out of all of the different ruins that I checked out while travelling in Latin America, I have narrowed it down to my three favourites. Ones that you should consider checking out too!
1. Tikal – Flores, Guatemala
Tikal is my favourite of the ruins in Latin America, and many other travellers seem to agree with me on this one. In fact, I heard about Tikal from another traveller in a hostel which made me decide to check it out for myself – and I’m glad that I did!
Why is Tikal so great?
Tikal is special for a couple of reasons, the first being that it is located within a protected national park. This park is home to lots of wildlife. While exploring the ruins, it is possible for visitors to see a variety of different animals and insects. Although I only spent a couple of hours at Tikal, during that short time I saw toucans, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, a tarantula, and a peacock!
Another reason the Tikal ruins are special is that visitors are allowed to climb many of the pyramids! When I climbed the tallest one I was astounded at just how high these pyramids went, I could see over the top of the jungle!
Because Tikal is one of the less famous ruins, it isn’t very busy typically. Expect to see only a few other tourists as you explore the grounds and climb the ruins. The lack of lines and chaos of picture-taking tourists makes any visit to Tikal feel more enjoyable.
Important Information for visiting Tikal
It is important for those wanting to see some wildlife to go to the park early and with a guide! The animals are most active during the early hours of the morning just after sunrise. Going with a guide will also increase the chances of seeing animals as these guides are experts at spotting them! The guides know what kinds of species to look for and where.
Luckily, a visit to Tikal is easy from the nearby touristic town of Flores. Flores is a gorgeous little town on a lake. Although Flores itself is quite isolated in Guatemala, once there organizing a tour to Tikal is easy with one of the many tour operators in the area.
Choosing a tour operator is also easy as most of them will send everyone on the same one or two buses anyway. Just look out for the price and be ready to barter as they try to charge as much as possible! We got a bus to Tikal including pick-up from the hotel, a guide for two hours once there, and an open ticket back for just over $10 USD.
The entrance fee to see Tikal is 150Q (or $20 USD) for an international tourist. You MUST bring your passport, or a photocopy of it, in order to enter the ruins.
2. Machu Picchu – Cusco, Peru
Machu Picchu is definitely the most famous of the Inca ruins in Latin America. Recognized as one of the “Seven Wonders of the World” tourists come from all over the world to specifically see the famous Machu Picchu.
Why is Machu Picchu so great?
Machu Picchu is located at 2,430m above sea level. It was once an Inca village for the most important people, being at such a height was an honour as they were then closer to god.
The site itself is an engineering masterpiece. It is puzzling today to think of the lack of tools and technology the Incas had in the 15th century and how they managed to craft such beautiful and functional buildings.
Much of Machu Picchu has been carefully restored to show its original beauty before time and weather had worn it down. However, some of Machu Picchu is displayed exactly as it was found just over 100 years ago, untouched and available for visitors to see what the Incas were actually capable of.
My tour guide explained to me which areas were restored and which were original. He explained how the Incas carefully carved each stone to fit perfectly with the next making seamless connections between bricks on the buildings.
It was also explained to me how the different levels of grassy platforms were once gardens. The different levels allowed spring water to flow with gravity as a self-watering system. The plants which required more heat and sun were planted at the top levels where ones requiring more shade and cooler temperatures were planted near the bottom.
Machu Picchu was once a self-sustaining community up in the mountain peaks. A home for the Royals, protected by the army. A village so remote that the Spanish never found it when they came to Peru. Machu Picchu wasn’t discovered until 1911 by an American explorer.
Important Information for visiting Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is most easily accessed from the town of Cusco. Day trips can be organized with a train and bus combination from Cusco. However, most people prefer to mimic the Incas and walk there.
There are several different hikes from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The most famous is, of course, the Inca Trail. This route is also very expensive as it is highly sought after and has a limited number of visitors each day. The Inca Trail hike must be done with a guide and must be booked several months in advance.
An alternative hike is the Salkantay Trek. This route is the route that the Incas with religious importance would take to get to Machu Picchu as it took them the closest to god at 4,600m above sea level. The Salkantay Trek is easily booked in Cusco a day or two beforehand for around $200 USD.
The actual Machu Picchu ruin site now only allows people to enter with a guide and at allocated time slots. If you are booking a hike such as the Salkantay or Inca Trail then the hiking guide will also accompany you to Machu Picchu on the final day. The entrance ticket to Machu Picchu with an allocated time slot should be included in the total tour price.
3. Chichen Itza – Yucatan Penninsula, Mexico
Chichen Itza is the only ruin I have actually been to more than once! Many years ago I went to Chichen Itza on a family holiday, and I just had to return once more when I was in the nearby area. Chichen Itza is just that good that a second visit seemed totally worth it!
Why is Chichen Itza so great?
Chichen Itza is a Mayan ruin and therefore shares many similar characteristics with Tikal, but there are also many differences as well. Many of the ruins at Tikal are still covered with dirt, unable to be seen by visitors. At Chichen Itza, everything is uncovered and clean. The jungle around the ruins has been cleared and write-ups on each of the ruins are displayed.
The main pyramid called the Temple of Kukulcan is just massive! It sits in the centre of the village. This pyramid is important because it relates directly to the Mayan calendar and astronomy.
Although the Temple of Kukulcan was huge and interesting to learn about, my favourite was the Grand Ball Court. At this court, a game called Pok ta Pok was played. It is a mix of soccer and basketball (except the hoops face the opposite way and the winners are said to be sacrificed.)
Important Information for visiting Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza can be accessed from many different places in Mexico. Some of the most popular include Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Merida, and Valladolid. Tours can be organized from any of these locations which often include transportation each way and a guided tour of Chichen Itza. This is a great way to get lots of information on the history of Chichen Itza.
It is also possible to visit Chichen Itza on your own via the ADO or Oriental buses. They stop at Chichen Itza and go to and from various locations. This would definitely be the cheaper option but will be very time-consuming as the buses are slower and make many stops.
The normal entrance fee for Chichen Itza is 237 Mexican Pesos and the opening hours are 8 am to 5 pm.
There is also a Chichen Itza night show every day of the week except for Mondays. I went to see this on my most recent visit to Chichen Itza and I loved it, it was such a unique way to explore ruins. Walking around under the moon and stars was fantastic.
Tikal, Machu Picchu, and Chichen Itza were my favourite ruins in Latin America – but there are so many more! Those of you with a strong passion for history may enjoy visiting some of the less popular sites in addition to the famous ones I’ve written about here. But for me, and many others, visiting a few outstanding ruins in Latin America really ticks off on the bucket list!
If you’ve visited any other ruins in Latin America which you think are noteworthy, comment below. We would love to hear from you!