The Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, St. Marks Square, Tower of London, Ankor Wat, Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, Chichen Itza, the Great Wall of China: the images of these places are etched in our minds. We’ve seen a hundred pictures of each before we even hit an age where we can travel on our own. Some have been major landmarks for hundreds of years, while others went from zero to sixty (in thousands of visitors per month) in a few decades.
Many of these places have lost much of their magic because they have been loved to death and are swarming like a summer beehive. Ask people what their biggest disappointment was in their travels and it will often be one of these famous monuments. There are strategies (time of day, time of year, paying more for special access) that can mitigate the crowds, but here are some “path of less resistance options.” All of them are located in The World’s Cheapest Destinations.
Sukothai in Thailand
The sites around Bangkok are almost always crowded and Ayutthaya is better if you spend the night since it gets busloads of Bangkok day-trippers at other times. Sukothai is much further off the beaten track though, so you’ve got to make it your destination to see it’s serene collections of Buddhist monuments and temples. [Flickr photo by gemma.amor]
Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia
These two sites on the island of Java near Yogyakarta aren’t exactly unknowns and you’ll probably share your day with lots of local schoolkids, but reality is that Indonesia just doesn’t get all that many international tourists outside of Bali, so these two spectacular sites—one Buddhist, one Hindu—seldom get really packed with people. One of the real highlights of my travels in Southeast Asia. [Borobudur Flickr photo by Victor Kaposi]
Dilwari Marble Jain Temples of Mt. Abu in India
I’ve been top to bottom in India and seen a hundred amazing things, but this one blew me away because I had heard so little about it. These incredible marble temples are off the radar for most tourists, even though in lesser countries they would be the main attraction on every tourist brochure. Built mostly between the 11th and 13th century, they display an intricate craftsmanship and attention to detail that is simply mind-boggling. (And unless things have changed lately, admission is free. ) [Flickr photo by w3p706]
Uxmal in Mexico
More impressive than Chichen Itza but with 1/10 the crowds, this great Maya site is easy to reach from Merida, the capital of the Yucatan state. Because you can’t do it on a day trip from the beaches around Cancun, most visitors are those staying in Merida—a great city that doesn’t get all that many tourists. Spend the night at one of the hotels right outside the gates and have the place to yourself part of the day. (For an alternative to Chichen Itza you can reach from Cancun, check out Ek Balam.)
Guanajuato and Zacatecas in Mexico
These two central Mexican cities a few hours apart are both UNESCO World Heritage locations, but nearly all of the visitors to Guanajuato and Zacatecas (pictured above) are domestic. So there are crowds in the summer and on school breaks, yes, but they’ll all be speaking Spanish and they’ll disappear the rest of the year. A tourist town for Mexicans is priced very differently than a tourist town for Americans too: just compare hotel rates in these two places to those of Gringo town San Miguel de Allende.
Choquequirao in Peru
Some places are not crowded because you have to really want to get there. Choquequirao is probably the largest set of Inca ruins that exist in South America, but the only way to reach them is on a long multi-day hiking and camping trip. [Flickr photo by Roubiceck]
There are plenty more where these came from. Got a favorite mind-blowing site of your own? Add it to the comments! Then subscribe to this Cheapest Destinations blog.