Ancient Mexico - Teotihuacan to Oaxaca
The varied landscapes of Mexico were the homeland of many distinctive cultures. Journeying from Mexico City to the Oaxaca highlands, we explore the legacy not only of the Aztecs and Teotihuacan but many other fascinating peoples: the Totonacs, Toltecs, the Cholulans, Zapotecs and Mixtecs.
Sometimes allies, sometimes bitter enemies, they all shared the same calendar systems and worshipped many of the same gods. Yet they produced an array of strikingly individualistic styles of architecture and of art, many examples of which we see displayed in some marvelous local museums.
- Beyond the Aztecs - a fascinating and unique journey discovering the myriad peoples of ancient Mexico
- Vast hilltop city of Monte Alban, recently named ‘World’s Best UNESCO Heritage Site’ by Which? Magazine
- From the jungles of Veracruz to the uplands of Oaxaca - superlative sites and some of the world’s finest museums
- The New World
- Historic Churches
- Special Access
- Small Group
- All Inclusive
We arrive in the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, in the high plateaus of the Valley of Mexico. We take time to adjust to our new surroundings, and enjoy our first taster of the delectable local cuisine with a welcoming Mexican meal.
Today is all ours to explore the many sights of Mexico City. The modern capital was built over the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán on Lake Texcoco, and a number of old buildings can be observed clearly sinking into the waterlogged clay beneath them. A surreal and captivating scene.
As well as entering some of Mexico City’s intriguing museums and touring the Centro Histórico, we enjoy access to the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, to the north of the central plaza. A great temple was established here in the early 14th century and rediscovered in 1933. Legend states that it was constructed on the exact spot at which the god Huitzilopochtli instructed the Mexica people they had reached the promised land.
We depart Mexico’s capital and journey to the vast expanse of Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city, and one of the most impressive archaeological sites in all the Americas. Among its formidable monuments are the enormous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, as well as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, under which some 100 bodies – most probably sacrificial victims – were discovered in the 1980s.
The site covers approximately 32 square miles in total, and includes a fantastic museum, in which artefacts and dioramas can be studied at close range.
Following breakfast we visit the remains of El Tajin, a pre-Columbian settlement surrounded by rainforest which flourished from 600 to 1200 AD. The site is best known for its intricate Pyramid of Niches, and is treasured for its exceptional architecture and layout, which was designed to mimic the interior of a seashell. Excavations here continue to reveal ever more about the mysterious lords of this city and their rituals of kingship.
This afternoon our journey takes us to the Costa Esmeralda, a stunning stretch of mangrove forests, sandy beaches and clear emerald waters.
Today we “meet” the Totonacs, the people who first befriended Cortes on his conquest, and who are thought by some to have constructed El Tajin. As prosperous agriculturalists, the Totonacs continued to thrive during the disastrous Mexican famine of the 15th century – and were sold slaves by the Aztecs in exchange for their maize.
At Quiahuitzlan, in the hills above the Gulf Coast, we discover the tombs of the Totonacs. In this breath-taking setting, surrounded by jungle and commanding rock formations, a series of unique miniature temples and carved monuments make up the remains of an ancient cemetery.
We are treated this morning to a full tour of the Anthropology Museum in Xalapa, which contains over 250,000 pieces representing the diverse cultures of the Gulf Coast, and spans a period of almost 30 centuries. Highlights include semiprecious Olmec masks and elegant Huastec sculptures.
Our next stop is the buzzing colonial city of Puebla. Founded in 1531, Puebla is home to more than 70 churches and a dazzling mix of competing architectural styles, with many buildings featuring the painted ceramic tiles for which the city is famous. A hub of art and literature in the central highlands of Mexico.
This morning we make a short trip to the ritual landscapes of Cholula, home to the largest known pyramid in the world – with a base four times bigger than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Though it may look like a hill at a distance, Cholula Pyramid is merely overgrown, and contains a large network of tunnels, some of which are open to the public. The south side has also benefitted from excavations. The amazing church at Tonantzintla is our next destination, with its riotous sculpted interiors set to stun.
Following that, our afternoon is free to enjoy the streets of Puebla in our own time. Take a culinary tour of the food stalls – perhaps sampling the famous mole – or pay a visit to one of its many museums, such as the interactive Amparo Museum of Mexican history.
We begin the day exploring the sprawling palaces of Cacaxtla, an astounding set of ruins featuring vivid Mayan frescoes, and former capital of the Olmeca-Xicalanca region. At the centre of the site is a large natural platform some 25 metres high – an excellent defence against potential invaders.
On to nearby Xochitecatl, a purely ceremonial site which sits atop a volcanic dome, and is home to both the Serpent Building and the Pyramid of the Flowers. Thousands of clay offerings were found within this pyramid, as well as the bodies of over 30 children.
After breakfast today we venture to the rock carvings at the remote Olmec site of Chalcatzingo. Its numerous reliefs include the famous representation of “El Rey” (The King), who sits, life-sized, within a wide-mouthed cave. We also see the “Water Dancing Group” and a grotesquely-rendered feathered serpent.
Our tour continues to Xochicalco, a UNESCO World Heritage site that stood at the religious, political and commercial centre of numerous civilisations at the end of the Mesoamerican Classic period. Though the city was largely destroyed by fire in approximately 900 AD, many significant structures remain, such as the Astronomical Observatory, and the ornate Temple of the Feathered Servant.
Tonight we return to Mexico City.
We spend a day up north in Tula, capital of the fearsome Toltecs in the post-Classic period, a people considered by the Aztecs as honoured ancestors. Here we discover a pyramid topped by basalt columns, carved into the images of warriors. There are also traces of three great halls, as well as two ball courts, on which matches were played in order to win the privilege of becoming a sacrificial offering to the gods.
An on-site museum sheds further light on the city’s extraordinary past, as well as the intriguing lives of its residents.
Our second full day of exploration in Mexico City begins with a visit to the superlative National Museum of Anthropology, the country’s largest and most visited museum. It would be easy to spend several days here. We enjoy a rich morning acquainting ourselves with some of its highlights, such as the original Aztec Sun Stone, and a detailed replica of the lid of Lord Pacal’s tomb.
We have the afternoon to spend at leisure.
A morning flight transports us to Oaxaca, in the unspoilt terrain of the south-western Mexican highlands – an area overflowing with archaeological gems.
On arrival, we visit the Baroque complex of Santo Domingo Church, the interior of which has been lavishly decorated with over 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf. A museum here displays a significant collection of pre-Columbian artefacts, including the contents of a tomb from Monte Albán, which we visit on Day 14. A useful introduction to the area.
We journey from Oaxaca to Dainzu, an ancient Zapotec village just a short ride from the city, with structural remains boasting an unusually high artistic quality. Our next stop is Mitla, a famous and graceful late post-Classic site with unique stone mosaic designs on its facades – a decorative technique found nowhere else in Mexico. As a religious centre, Mitla was the primary site of the Zapotec culture. Its buildings are encircled by cacti, and feature a religious complex in which ritual human sacrifices would once have been made.
Before the day is done we stop at Santa Ana del Valle, a quiet and friendly town known for its vibrant hand-woven rugs.
We continue into the highlands to Oaxaca’s principal archaeological destination: Monte Albán, the first truly urban centre in ancient Mexico. Founded in around 500 BC, the city was inhabited by various diverse peoples for a period of 1,500 years. Its great plaza measures an astounding 60,000 square metres and is characterised by a number of stone monuments depicting mutilated figures, thought to be the victims of ritual sacrifice.
This afternoon we take a trip to the Museo Rufino Tamayo to view pre-Columbian artwork once owned by the 20th-century artist. An exceptional collection.
Today, we begin our journey home.
We arrive in London.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Meals - All meals included with wine at dinner
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in programme; tips included
- Field Notes
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