South and Central America have some fantastic Aztec, Inca and Mayan ruins. One really can feel the history when exploring these ruins. Generally speaking, these ancient cultures peaked before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. The meanings of many of the remnants of these ancient ruins remain a mystery. Where is the most magical?
The Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru are Latin America’s most famous, and most frequently visited. The setting is quite amazing, as are the Inca ruins themselves. Machu Picchu is a UNESCO world heritage site that is very threatened - too many tourists visit, and the ruins are at risk of actually falling of the mountain in the future unless the Peruvian government acts to control the tourism effeciently. Machu Picchu is the highlight of any vacation to Peru - save your visit until the end of your trip.
Personally, I have found the Mayan ruins of Tikal to be more magical. In Tikal, the jungle really has taken over, enveloping many of the ruins themselves. The Mayan site of Tikal really needs at least a day and a half to fully explore. There’s also a plethora of wildlife at Tikal - many of it quite tame as it’s so accustomed to humans now. Monkeys swing between the trees and run around the Mayan ruins themselves. My Tikal travel tips would be to try to get into the site after dark, which I did when we visited in 2001. See the main Tikal page for tips on who to get into the site after dark.
Guatemala’s Mayan ruins of Tikal
I’d rank visiting Tikal during the night, under a full moon, smoking spliffs atop of temples when there is nobody else around as by number one travel experience in all of Latin America. It really can’t be beaten. I slept in the Bat Palace, in a strung up hammock.
There’s other Mayan ruins throughout Central America - other highlights being at Copan in Honduras, Caracol in Belize, and Palenque in Mexico. While great in themselves, none really compare to Tikal’s Mayan ruins. I made the mistake of visiting Tikal first - it’s best to save these ruins until last I think.
Chitzen Itza in Mexico is also well known ruin - another Mayan ruin. The setting is very different, and while the ruins are quite spectacular, the site is spoilt by the abundance of tourists - day trippers from Cancun. What a shame - I would have loved to visit Chitzen Itza 50 years ago, before package holidays had arrived in Mexico. Just outside of Mexico city, the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan make for an excellent day trip. The only problem is the number of hawkers and vendors. Other ruins worthy of mention in Mexico include Uxmal and Kabah, both of which are near Merida, and Tulum, on the coast. Tulum is magical in the sense that the ruins are right on a magificent beach. The ruins themsleves aren’t amazing, though the setting is great. Try and visit during the off peak tourism season though - again day trippers from Cancun can overwhelm the site at times.
On a final note, Ciudad Perdida in Colombia is worthy of mention. It’s a gruelling 5 day trek there and back, but the attraction is that there are very few tourists who visit. It’s off the beaten track, the security situation is debateable, but it’s a magnificent site.
I can’t stress how great the Mayan ruins of Tikal are (especially at night). There’s direct flights to Flores (40 minutes from Tikal) from Guatemala City, Belize City and also Cancun. You really are missing out if you don’t visit these most magical ruins in South America.