6 Alternate Options to Famous, Crowded Ancient Ruins
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
Remote regions of the world are continuously becoming more accessible through improved transportation and more connected through the internet and social media. One result of this is unprecedented popularity and crowds at the world's most famous ancient ruin sites.
So while you'll need a set entry time to enter Machu Picchu and may find yourself navigating big bus tour groups in Angkor Wat, there are still plenty of lesser known ruins to appreciate. Most of the iconic ruins were part of large civilizations which also contained nearby sites that get far less attention and far fewer tourists. Here are some alternate sites to either complement these bucket list spots of replace them all together.
Alternate to Chichen Itza - Coba
It's impossible to travel to Cancun and miss the tours offered to the Mayans' most famous site. While Chichen Itza may be the most popular and most manicured, there are many Mayan sites spread across Central America. Depending on where you stay, others may be closer.
The ruins at Coba are much closer to both Playa del Carmen and Tulum and equidistant from Cancun. The site is larger than Chichen Itza, but admittedly less significant and impressive. However, the lack of tourists and unrestored portions of Coba feel much more rugged and adventurous. The most notable difference is you can still climb the main pyramid in Coba. In 2006, Chichen Itza banned climbing of its pyramid, which is actually smaller than Coba's. There are always rumors that Coba will change this rule, but for now it's still allowed.
The ruins at Tulum are also much more accessible and come with access to a fantastic beach, but the site is much smaller and can feel as crowded as Chichen Itza. If you're willing to travel further, the Copan ruins in Honduras are far less crowded. I only saw a handful of tourists during my entire visit.
Alternate to Machu Picchu - Ollantaytambo
The picture of Machu Picchu set in the Peruvian Andes with Huayna Picchu towering over the city has become as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty. There is no more sought after ancient ruin site, and the ruins are feeling it. Trekking the Inca Trail and hiking Huayna Picchu are both booked up months in advance, and a new guided, timed entry policy has been implemented for Machu Picchu.
The town of Ollantaytambo is a 2.5 hour bus ride from Cusco and features its own impressive Incan ruins which are missed by most tourists in a hurry to reach Machu Picchu. A series of terraced fortifications line the mountainside up from town, and the steep climb to the top is rewarded with a well-preserved Incan temple and stunning views of the Sacred Valley. Visit the ruins in early morning or late afternoon to avoid the tour bus crowds.
For the broke backpackers whose cheap South American budget can't handle the disruption of prices for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo also has some free Incan ruin sites. The Incan grainaries across the valley from the fortress are free of charge, although signs will warn you the sketchy hike up to them could cost you a lot more than money. If you attempt the climb, be extremely careful on these narrow paths and wear proper footwear.
Even a stroll through town is reminiscent of Incan times. Water rushes audibly through water ducts built by the Incans and still supplies the town with fresh mountain water.
Alternate to Acropolis - Meteora
The ancient citadel Acropolis looms over Athens from its rocky hill - a picturesque icon visible from much of the city and especially impressive when lit up at night. Many, including myself, believe the Acropolis is more impressive viewed from afar than within the actual site. However, when it comes to Greek, man-made structures dramatically positioned on cliffs, the Acropolis lags far behind Meteora.
The natural stone pinnacles of Meteora are unique enough to warrant a visit, but the main attraction is the six Eastern Orthodox monasteries that remain of the over 20 that once teetered atop Meteora's pillars. In the Middle Ages, monks built these inaccessible monasteries as a refuge from raiders. For centuries, they could only be accessed by ladders and nets, controlled completely by the monks that inhabited them.
These days, while they are still functioning monasteries, stairs have been carved and bridges built to make them accessible to the public, but the climb can still seem harrowing.
Each monastery can be entered for three euros, but like the Acropolis, the panoramic views of their setting are most impressive. Meteora can be visited as a long day trip from Athens (four hours each way), but give yourself a night nearby to fully appreciate the landscape from all of its angles.
Alternate to Angkor Wat - Banteay Chhmar
While Angkor Wat may have spent centuries buried in the jungle, the largest religious monument in the world is no longer a secret. The ruins were first popularized in the west by a 19th century French naturalist who described them as "grander than anything left us by Greece or Rome." Yet war and conflict in the region kept popularity at bay through most of the 20th century. However, the recent relative stability of Cambodia's government, the movie Tomb Raider (which was filmed here) and the connectedness of the internet have exposed this buried treasure to the world, which now seems to be filing through one tour bus at a time.
Just two hours away, a much different experience awaits at other Khmer ruins. The site of Banteay Chhmar faced heavy damage from looting and was only fully cleared of civil war landmines, restored and reopened in 2014. The complex resembles something you'd find in the Angkor region, minus the masses of tourists.
Another alternate option is the ruins of Hindu temple Preah Vihear, which predate Angkor Wat by 100 years. The temple sits proudly atop a cliff near the border with Thailand and has been the subject of territorial conflict until recently. That coupled with the ongoing process of clearing landmines meant it has only been considered safe to visit in the past few years.
Alternate to Borobudur - Candi Sewu
Considered the largest Buddhist temple in the world, Borodudur Temple in Indonesia is the country's most visited attraction. The temple stands as a single, grand monument, but its compactness means it is also impossible to escape all of the other admirers.
A visit to Borobudur is usually coupled with a stop at the equally impressive Hindu temple of Prambanan. However, just a 15 minute walk from Prambanan is the somber remains of Indonesia's second largest Buddhist temple Candi Sewu. Although it's included with an entrance ticket to Prambanan, most tourists never venture to Sewu. Perhaps it is because the complex sits in various stages of restoration and signs of looting such as headless Buddha statues are impossible to ignore. And with the pristine Borobudur nearby, people may believe Sewu doesn't necessitate a visit. But rather than sit like Borobudur as a pristine snapshot to a flourishing time in history, Sewu gives glimpses of an entire timeline. It's possible to imagine Sewu in all of its glory, but the toll of natural elements such as jungle overgrowth and volcanic eruptions along with human looting is also impossible to ignore. The perspective is a fascinating alternative to Borobudur.
Alternate to Stonehenge - Avebury
Stonehenge is a site of tremendous archaeological significance, but if archaeology isn't significant to you, admiring a small collection of massive rocks from behind a rope with thousands of other visitors may seem underwhelming.
Avebury Henge provides visitors a much different experience. For one, Avebury is an actual henge (Stonehenge isn't!), and you are allowed to walk freely among the stone circles without an entrance ticket. What makes Avebury uniquely interesting is the small town that exists within the largest of the stone circles. The rock formations themselves are admittedly less impressive than Stonehenge, but the coexistence of ancient human history with modern history is intriguing in its own right. The museum and manor, which require entrance tickets, can be skipped. But within the stone circle you can find the Red Lion pub - a perfect spot to debate Stonehenge versus Avebury over a pint.
World famous ruin sites got their reputation for a reason. I'm not suggesting you pass up these ancient marvels, but the experience can be dampened by a saturation of t-shirt vendors and luxury tour buses. These alternate sites may not be as massive or contain the cultural significance of their more popular counterparts. However, the feel of a visit to an alternate site could more closely resemble what the original explorers of more popular sites felt before mass tourism arrived.
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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash