When it comes to Mexico's Maya ruins, Chichen Itza is the big kahuna. Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, this sprawling pre-Columbian city is a convenient two-hour drive from Cancun. Unfortunately, this combination of notability and accessibility means it's almost permanently clogged with tourists. Last year it received more than 2.7 million visitors, which can make a day-trip a gruelling endurance test of queuing and jostling.
Thankfully, the Yucatan Peninsula is blessed with several other spectacular Maya sites and it's possible to visit two of them on a day-trip from Cancun or the Riviera Maya (the popular, resort-peppered coastline south of the city).
Tulum is Mexico's best preserved coastal Maya site, an impressive jumble of crumbling limestone ruins perched on a 12-metre-high cliff. It's only an hour from my hotel on the Riviera Maya, which means I can rise at a sensible time and still be there when it opens at 8am. A small tram ferries us to the ancient city, which we enter through one of five small openings in an eight-metre-thick stone wall. Fernando, my guide from Chimu Adventures, explains that this elaborate defence system was necessary because the site was an important trading hub. It was also one of the last cities built by the Maya and is thought to have been inhabited from the 13th century until about 70 years after the Spanish conquered the region in 1521.
As we wander between the impressive grey and white limestone buildings, he points out a stone court used for "pok-a-tok", an ancient sport played with a rubber ball that often ended with the sacrifice of the winning captain. He claims this would have been considered a great honour because the Maya believed in reincarnation and the afterlife. Personally, I would have settled for a trophy.
Tulum's most imposing structure is El Castillo ("The Castle"), a seven-and-a-half-metre high stone edifice that once would have been covered in stucco and painted bright red. Nearby, steps lead down to a small but idyllic white sand beach lapped by the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean. Even at 10am, it's full of people enjoying a respite from the humidity.
Make no mistake, Tulum is no hidden gem. Last year it was Mexico's third most-visited archaeological site but its compact size means you can see most of it in a couple of hours. The key is to arrive early. When we leave at 11am, tourists are arriving by the busload.
From Tulum, it's only a 45-minute drive inland to Coba, a sprawling city scattered over 80 square kilometres of thick jungle. Coba is the only Maya city to feature a network of limestone roads called sacbes. More than 50 have been discovered and the longest is about 100 kilometres. Given Coba's scale, it's well worth renting a bike or hiring a three-wheeled rickshaw-style taxi.
Coba peaked between 500 and 900AD, when it is estimated to have had 50,000 inhabitants. Unlike Tulum and Chichen Itza, most of the site hasn't been excavated, so the jungle is still peppered with dozens of mysterious grass-covered mounds.
Another compelling feature is that you're still allowed to climb Coba's tallest pyramid, the 42-metre-high Ixmoja. Going up the 120 uneven stone steps is relatively straightforward (thanks to a rope) but coming back down is a perilous affair. Still, the view from the top is worth it – dense jungle stretches to the horizon, its foliage occasionally punctuated by the peak of an ancient stone pyramid.
Around 1000AD, Coba started a long power struggle with Chichen Itza – a battle it eventually lost, rendering it a less prestigious secondary city. It goes some way to explaining why it gets less than a third of the visitors today. Of course, for most people, that is its appeal. As I admire another feat of Maya engineering with not another soul around, I know where I'd rather be.
Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Houston with onwards connections to Cancun. See airnewzealand.com.au
Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Mexico itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 773 231; see chimuadventures.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Chimu Adventures.