As photographers, we all have our specialties: the subjects, locations, or events that really get our creative juices flowing, and inspire our best work. For some, it’s wildlife photography. For others, landscapes. Or seascapes, sunsets, misty mornings. Sports! Kids’ birthdays? Mardi Gras? I have a lot of favorites, personally, but there’s one type of subject matter that excites me like nobody’s business: Mayan ruins! Or any kind of ruins, really. The whole notion of crumbling stone cities hidden by the jungle, rising up out of the mist? Wow. Just wow. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I go ga-ga over that stuff, and a recent trip to the Yucatan, during which I visited no less than 14 Mayan Cities, was enough to put me in orbit.
Shooting photos of Mayan ruins is not a particularly complex assignment. You don’t need any special equipment, no special lighting. You can do it pretty much any time of day, or any day of the year. You need no special permits, no special arrangements, no complicated transportation (although some sites are much easier to get to than others). There are variables, of course, including the weather, but unless you’re faced with a torrential downpour, you should be able to work with whatever the fates assign you on the day that you decide to go.
All of that said, there are some things that you can do to improve your odds of bringing home a prizewinning photo. I’m going to focus on the famous ruin of Chichen Itza, which has the virtue of being the largest, the most famous, and the most often visited of all the Maya sites in Mexico. Chichen Itza is located just three hours west of Cancun, the popular Mexican beach resort, so it makes an easy day trip, or, even better, an overnight excursion, with a stay in one of the nearby hotels. You can rent a car in Cancun, and drive to the ruins–which is by far the best way to go if you’re planning to stay overnight. Most visitors, however, get there on a tour bus. Dozens of comfortable, air-conditioned buses leave Cancun every morning. They take you to Chichen Itza, they wait for you for the three hours or so it takes to tour the ruins, and then they take you back to Cancun. You can also get there quite easily on a tour from Merida, the capital of the Yucatan, and the largest modern city in the region.
Here’s the downside to that approach: there are dozens of buses, and each bus carries dozens of tourists. They start pouring in at about 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning, and for the rest of the day, the place is teeming with visitors. Depending on the season, there will be people EVERYwhere! I’m not sure about you, but I like my photos of Mayan ruins to convey the mystery and ambiance of an ancient city, and hordes of tourists kind of spoil that effect. Crowds of people dressed in bright tropical colors, baby carriages the size of small cars, and selfie sticks! OMG! It’s impossible to so much as look at any of the monuments at Chichen Itza without someone taking a selfie within your line of sight. I’m not going to knock the selfie craze. Adding cameras to cell phones was absolute genius. There are more people taking more pictures, everywhere in the world, than at any time in history, and if they want to take pictures of themselves? That’s their business, truly, but I’d have to say that when you’ve got hundreds of people doing the same thing in the same place, it gets a little annoying!
El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, around mid-afternoon on a day in mid-October. That’s still the off season, so the crowd is small. Click for a larger view.
The best solution to this problem involves timing. If you can swing it with your schedule, don’t settle for the day trip–make a two day excursion out of Chichen Itza. Travel to the ruins on the first day. There isn’t much of a town there–a small village called Pisté, but there are a number of decent hotels, so book yourself a room, and then head out to the site. Take your time, wander the whole big complex and familiarize yourself with the lay of the land, the location of the most interesting buildings and sculptures, the best camera angles. There will be people all over the place, so you may not get the kind of photos you were hoping for–but that doesn’t matter. Remember, you’re coming back! The site closes at 5:00. If the weather cooperates, and it usually does, you’ll get some good pictures in the afternoon light in the last hour before you leave. They clear everyone out well before the actual sunset, but you’ll still get stronger contrast, brighter highlights, and deeper shadows from a sun that’s lower in the sky, rather than directly overhead.
The next morning, get to the park before it opens at 8 AM. Skip breakfast if you have to, but make an effort to be first in line (or close to it). There will only be a handful of other visitors, because none of the tour buses will have arrived yet. You’ll have the place practically all to yourself for as much as two hours! Shoot the Castillo, the big iconic pyramid, from every angle. There won’t be a single selfie stick in sight.
El Castillo at 8:00 AM, just after the site opened for the day. No people at all! Click for a larger view.
Next, head for the ball court. Ball courts are a common feature of the Mayan cities. A natural rubber ball nearly the size of a man’s head had to be knocked through a goal, a carved stone ring mounted high on the wall of the court. (Note that all the photos below can be expanded by clicking them).
Players couldn’t touch the ball with their hands or their feet, only their hips and elbows, and they had to wear thick leather armor to avoid being injured by the heavy ball. The game was more ritual than sport–and it was deadly serious. The losing team was sacrificed, as part of the spectacle–but it wasn’t all bad–such a death was considered a great honor. The ball court at Chichen Itza is the largest ever found at any pre-columbian site. (The game was also played by the Aztecs, and numerous other cultures throughout Mexico and Central America). The goal rings are 30 feet above the court, and the holes in the rings aren’t much bigger than the ball would have been, so in this venue, an actual goal would have been very rare indeed! The ball court is quite a popular thing to see at Chichen Itza, and because it’s right by the main entrance, it’s always crowded with visitors:
The ball court in the afternoon
Which is why it’s better to get there first thing in the morning, when it looks like this:
The ball court just after 8:00 AM
Shoot the Platform of Skulls:
The Temple of the Warriors:
and the mysterious Group of a Thousand Columns:
Luxuriate in the emptiness of the place, because you know that won’t last! When you’re finished, walk through and beyond that area to the back end of the site where you’ll find the Caracol, the observatory:
as well as the Nunnery and the Iglesia, the Church, buildings with some of the most astonishing detail of any Mayan site anywhere:
That part of the ruin will stay empty for awhile even after the buses arrive, because most of those bus passengers head straight for the snack bar before they do anything else. And then, to the Castillo, to take those all-important selfies. So it will be another hour, at least, before any significant crowds invade the south forty–and by that time? You’ll be done.
If you can’t spare two days for Chichen Itza, and the only time you can be there is at the same time as everyone else? All is not lost. Creative use of a wide angle lens will allow you to get in close and crop out the crowds.
A good wide angle lens can get you in close enough to crop out all the people, even in the middle of the day. It does, however, distort the perspective a bit.
Creative camera angles will accomplish the same thing:
The base of the main staircase at El Castillo, with the famous serpent’s heads, and a crowd of brightly dressed tourists in the background, spoiling the ambiance.
Get in closer! It’s still a great picture, and the people are all out of the frame.
El Castillo, with the Platform of the Jaguars in the foreground, and a crowd in the middle distance.
All you have to do is step to the left and use your zoom. Much better!
Closeups of the astonishing detail can be easily captured with no people in the picture.
The lower wall of the ball court. This was shot at mid-day. There were people everywhere, but none in the picture.
Another trick: Set up your shot, and wait for your moment. With any luck at all, the woman in blue jeans will walk out of the frame on the right before the guy in the bright red shirt strolls in from the left. And if you don’t quite catch that empty moment?
Darn! The woman in blue jeans is still in the picture on the lower right!
There’s always Photoshop. With a steady hand and just a little practice, removing the odd tourist from your photograph is a piece of cake.
Same shot, with the unwanted elements removed–including those pesky fence posts. Click the photo above to see the image with a “before and after” slider.
No matter how or when you do it, Chichen Itza is an amazing place to visit. Morning or afternoon, winter or summer, rain or shine, I can all but guarantee that you’ll take home wonderful photographs!
Click the thumbnail photo (above) to open a gallery of Chichen Itza photos (most without people)!