As one of the New Wonders of the World many visitors are concerned with how to avoid the crowds. Local hotels are now capitalizing on this concern by offering high priced private and group tours that enter the park before the official 8 a.m. opening time. While there are still fewer people at this early hour, this has become a popular alternative and you will be sharing the grounds with others willing to shell out the extra pesos for the privilege.
When is the Best Time to Visit?
I visited the site twice to compare the morning and afternoon conditions, first at 3 p.m. on Dec 10 and again the following morning, splurging for the early private tour beginning at 5:30. Each offer advantages and disadvantages.
At 3PM the site was well lit, there were of course a number of tour groups but it wasn’t overly crowded. What crowds there were diminished considerably nearing closing time. An added bonus at this late hour is the souvenir vendors start to pack up at 4 resulting in a more tranquil setting. In December, however, the sun starts to dip below the trees at around 4:30. In the summer the sun sets closer to 7:30 so the site should be well lit until closing time.
The pre-opening tours start in the dark. That doesn’t change in the summer. Because of day light savings time the sun doesn’t rise until after 6 thus the first part of the 2 hour tour is in the dark. Visitors wait around the main temple, El Castillo, for the sun to rise. Generally they like the view of the sun rising over the temple. I preferred the other side with the light of the first rays on the temple. On this particular morning the sunrise was not spectacular, with little color in the sky and the sun partially hidden behind the clouds.
The crowds dispersed after sunrise and we didn’t see many people as we continued the tour with our guide. The greatest benefit of the guided tour was the explanation and demonstration of the sound effects. In front of El Castillo the guide clapped a certain way and it sounded like a bird squawk coming from the top of the temple. When the temple was active, this effect was done with drums on the performance platforms to fool the masses into believing that the temple had supernatural powers.
The ball court was also designed acoustically. Conversations spoken at a certain spot can be clearly heard from the other end of the court.
For photographers the downside of an early morning tour is that many of the structures remain in shadow early in the morning. The front of the Temple of the Warriors was in darkness the entire time of the morning visit. It is beautifully lit in the last rays of the day. In the morning, however, the south side has some carvings that are well lit with the columns on the platform below lit from the side, my favorite shot from the complex.
Morning has the advantage of good light for the Nunnery, a Maya style wall of well-preserved carvings. That said, if I had to choose morning or afternoon I would choose afternoon unless you will be too uncomfortable in the hot afternoon sun of the summer.
Highlights of the Visit
El Castillo (1)
Different sides are lit both in the morning versus afternoon. As the front faces north I don’t know if it is ever lit.
Temple of the Warriors (7)
A beautiful structure with myriad columns, access is now strictly restricted. The front is best lit in the afternoon and remains in shadow on the early morning tours.
Ball Court (2)
Most notable for its size, the explanation of the games and its acoustical design. It remains mostly in shadow early in the morning.
The Carvings on the Platforms (3,4,6)
El Osario (14)
Nunnery Complex (17,18)
One of my favorite sections of the site for the Maya style carvings, I missed it on my afternoon visit. Thankfully it is well lit in the morning.
Sacred Cenote (5)
Kind of dirty and not worth the effort unless you have time to kill, want to go for a walk or just really need to see the cenote. Certainly there are prettier cenotes to explore.
December 10 and 11, 2019
For links to all the posts in this series see the Yucatan Peninsula page.