Mexico | The Maya
Of all Mesoamerican civilisations, the Maya have enjoyed the most enduring hold on the popular imagination. For a long time, their jungle-clad ruins remained intriguing, yet shrouded by mystery. However, recent progress in the decipherment of Maya writing has unlocked many of their secrets, revealing a society as complex and fascinating as their art, and architecture had previously suggested.
This is one of Andante’s most adventurous trips, starting with the superb museums of Mexico City, travelling via the uplands of Chiapas, along the great river of Usumacinta, before driving up the Yucatan peninsular. This is a thrilling journey through the rich and colourful landscapes of Mexico.
- Travel by plane and 4x4s to deep jungle sites
- View the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor
- Explore lost cities and spectacular temples
- Visit Frida Kahlo’s iconic Blue House in Mexico City
- Witness the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá
- The New World
- Historic Churches
- Special Access
- All Inclusive
We land in the awesome capital of Mexico City and transfer to our comfortable hotel at the centre of it all. ¡Bienvenido a Mexico!
After a delicious breakfast we venture out to explore the sights of the capital. Built on the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, and atop a sacred lake, the city’s waterlogged foundations can’t quite support some of its older buildings, which we see at odd depths and angles, partially sunk.
As part of our introduction to Mexico City we enjoy special access to the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, just north of the central plaza, which are personally presented to us by a local archaeologist. This was one of the main temples for the city’s Aztec inhabitants, and is said to have been built on the spot at which a snake-carrying eagle landed on a cactus: apparently a sign from the god Huitzilopochtli that the Mexica people had reached the promised land.
On our second day in Mexico City, we encounter a wealth of artefacts at the National Museum of Anthropology, one of the finest museums in the world, with collections spanning every era of Mexico’s richly-textured past. Don’t miss the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Sun Stone, a prized sculpture unearthed from Mexico City cathedral in 1790, the precise purpose of which remains a tantalising mystery…
After lunch, we journey to the city’s artisan quarter to visit Frida Kahlo’s iconic Blue House. Kahlo grew up here, and lived in the building for years with her husband Diego Rivera, before passing away in one of its upper rooms in 1954. Inside we find dazzling interiors and original artwork from both Kahlo and Rivera – a visual feast.
This morning we fly south to the Chiapas Highlands, a dramatic region of plateaus, pine forests, volcanoes and mountains. On arrival we drive to the handsome colonial town of San Cristóbal, nestling in the verdant Hueyzacatlán Valley. Known in the Tzotzil and Tzeltal languages as “the place in the clouds”, the town is home to a large indigenous population, some of whom are involved in the production of local arts and crafts. This afternoon we take a look at the handiwork of some of the many hundreds of local weavers that reside here. A delightful way to get to know the area.
A relaxed day begins with a visit to the Mayan town of Chamula. Uniquely within Mexico, the town is autonomous and has its own indigenous police force – no Mexican military or police personnel are allowed within its limits. We stop at the enchanting Church of San Juan, which comprises both Mayan and Catholic features. Instead of pews, the floor is covered with pine needles, and thousands of candles usher in the light.
This afternoon we have more time to discover the charms of San Cristóbal, strolling along its cobbled streets and delving into bustling local markets.
We drive east to Toniná, a spectacular pre-Columbian site in the fertile Ocosingo valley. Here we find one of the largest pyramids in Mexico – an architectural giant at 74-metres high – and various traces of a ruthless Mayan civilisation, including sculptures of decorated rulers, reliefs of bound captives and images of savagely-murdered victims.
Evidence has shown that the people of Toniná were engaged in sporadic warfare with the inhabitants of Palenque. Tomorrow we visit the seat of their greatest rivals…
We spend a full day amid the ruins of Palenque, nestling in the wilds of the jungle. The city possesses original art and architecture of remarkable quality, most famously the Temple of the Inscriptions, where Palenque’s greatest king, Pacal, lies buried in a massive sarcophagus. The hieroglyphics here have been crucial in piecing the story of Palenque together. Established in around 226 BC, the city flourished for centuries, and frequently engaged in combat with other states such as Toniná and Calakmul.
It is believed that little more than 10% of the total city area has so far been uncovered away from the central acropolis. Who knows what secrets still remain beneath the forest floor?
This morning we journey to the wonderfully-preserved site of Bonampak, treasured for its colourful murals and detailed carved stelae. We marvel at the vivid scenes on display in the aptly-named Temple of the Murals: witness women engaged in ritual bloodletting, musicians performing, and figures involved in a tortuous cull.
We then enjoy an adventurous journey by motor launch along the wide Usumacinta River to the jungle site of Yaxchilán, a shaded assortment of dynastic hieroglyphics, carved stalactites, and ornamental lintels. A thrilling opportunity to channel your inner Indiana Jones!
Today we drive north to the coastal city of Campeche, which was founded by Spanish settlers in 1540. The city achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1991 thanks to its magnificent Baroque colonial centre. Prepare for magical cobblestone streets, model mansions, illuminating museums, and fortified ramparts – all complemented by the refreshing sea breezes of the Mexican Gulf.
We begin our day with a visit to the remote Puuc site of Edzná, with a grand plaza and a complex system of dams and canals. It is thought that a settlement was first established here in around 600 BC, and continued to thrive until the colonial era. Abandoned, the city lay undiscovered until 1907.
Our next stop is Sayil, a ruined Late Classic city believed to have been governed by a dynasty financed by agricultural successes. At the height of its power, some 10,000 inhabitants lived here.
We round off the day at Kabah, a site famed for its Palace of the Masks – a structure decorated with hundreds of stone masks of the long-nosed rain god Chaac; an effect seen nowhere else in Mayan architecture.
This morning we reach Uxmal, a Mayan city renowned for its elegant architecture and exceptional state of preservation. The name of Uxmal translates to “thrice-built”, a title which refers to its highest building, the Pyramid of the Magician, which was constructed on top of existing pyramids. The layout of the city indicates architects in possession of significant astronomical knowledge: its spaces are organised in relation to phenomena such as the transit of Venus. Highlights here include the House of the Turtles and the enormous Governor’s Palace.
We continue to colonial Mérida, the Yucatán’s cultural capital, enjoying a free afternoon to explore the pristine city centre.
We remain in Mérida this morning, and pay a visit to the new Mundo Maya Museum. This fabulous museum was built to celebrate Mayan culture and does so in a highly engaging way. Get up close to priceless artefacts such as a reclining chac-mool sculpture from Chichén Itzá, and learn how the culture of the region has transformed throughout the ages.
This afternoon we head for Izamal to visit the impressive Franciscan Monastery, the atrium of which is second only to that of the Vatican in terms of size. Pay close attention to the hills surrounding this city – not naturally formed, they are, in fact, the remains of ancient pyramids.
Prepare for an encounter with one of the Seven Wonders of the New World: staggering Chichén Itzá is the most famous of all Maya sites, and wows travellers from far and wide with its striking images of sacrifice and feathered serpents. View the well of the Sacred Cenote, from where a plethora of gold, jade, pottery and human remains has been recovered, and observe the bizarre echo effects which are experienced at the ballcourt and temple stairway.
After lunch we continue to the walled city of Ek Balam, a lesser-known archaeological site, which was the once the seat of a Mayan kingdom. Here it is possible to climb the steep steps of the pyramid for a marvellous view of the surrounding jungle.
We spend our morning at the Cobá ruins, where intriguing figures of the “diving god” adorn the ancient architecture, and brave visitors clutch ropes in order to ascend the crumbling steps of Nohoch Mul Pyramid. Astounding views of the Yucatán and nearby lakes make for an ample reward.
Our day’s adventures come to an end at the coastal site of Tulum, a pre-Columbian port and city situated spectacularly against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. Here lazy iguanas sun themselves on the open grass, and clifftop temples take the breath away.
Our last morning in Mexico sees us luxuriating, iguana-like, at our beach-side hotel, before we take a transfer to the airport for our return flight home. It is time to make our fond farewells.
We depart from London at lunchtime and fly to Mexico City. Upon arrival in the evening, we then transfer to our hotel situated close to the main plaza in the heart of the Spanish Colonial city.
Our day begins as we explore the extensive surviving elements of the Aztec Templo Mayor, the sacred double temple to Huitzilopochtli, the God of War, and Tlaloc, the Rain God. We visit the impressive Templo Mayor museum and we enjoy special access, guided by local archaeologists, to areas of the city where they are currently working.
On our second day in Mexico City, we encounter a wealth of artefacts in the enormous National Museum of Anthropology, one of the finest museums in the world, with collections spanning every era of Mexico’s history.
After lunch at the museum, we travel to the city’s artists’ quarter of Coyoacan and to the house of the artist Frida Kahlo. She grew up and spent most of her short life here, in the so-called ‘Casa Azul’ or Blue House. The house is now a museum that commemorates her career, her considerable triumphs over physical adversity and her relationship with the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1928.
This morning we fly south to the Chiapas Highlands and drive through pine forested hills to the handsome colonial town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. San Cristobal is famous as the great focus of present day Maya culture and home to a large indigenous population. For visitors, the town is perhaps most notable for maintenance of an extremely fine and tenacious weaving tradition that is traceable back into pre-Columbian times. Weavers from surrounding villages bring into San Cristobal textiles they have made to sell.
The day begins with a visit to the small Tzotzil-speaking Maya town of Chamula. Strikingly independent and still very traditional, Chamula is largely autonomous and has its own indigenous police force. We walk though the town, admiring the market that covers many of its streets and entering the striking church of San Juan Chamula. The Catholic establishment has little influence here and the atmosphere inside the church is strongly Maya. There are hardly any pews. Instead the bare floor is covered with pine needles and arrangements of candles and amongst them traditional Maya priests receive very small family groups and offer prayers on their behalf in Tzotzil.
In the afternoon we return to spend some free time in San Cristobal and its colourful local markets.
A drive east into the mountains to Toniná, a spectacular Maya site that lies at an altitude of some 1,000m in the fertile Ocosingo valley, a transitional zone between pine forest and jungle. The ceremonial heart of Tonina covers a series of hills. Buildings rise impressively and can be seen for miles. One of the longest lasting Maya sites, perhaps because it lay on the periphery of the Maya world, it possesses the latest of all dated Maya monuments that survive, with a ‘Long Count’ date of 909 AD. It is evident from Maya inscriptions that the people of Toniná were engaged in sporadic warfare with Palenque, their great local rivals.
We spend a full day amongst the ruins of Palenque, nestling in the jungle, on the very edge of the Chiapas highlands and with spectacular views over the flood plain of the Usumacinta river to the north. The city possesses art and architecture of unique quality and originality, most famously the Temple of the Inscriptions, where Palenque’s greatest king, Pacal, lies buried in a massive sarcophagus. It was here at Palenque, working from its abundant panels of hieroglyphs, that the first great strides were made in deciphering the Maya writing system.
This morning we journey to the small but rightly famous site of Bonampak, treasured for its wonderfully well preserved mural paintings and the detail of its stone stelae, carved with images of the city’s kings. The Temple of Murals that can be found here boast yellows, turquoises and rust colours that depict images of royal life, and archaeologists have been able to learn more about the Maya civilisation from studying them.
We then enjoy an adventurous journey by motor launch down the Usumacinta river to the site of Yaxchilán, known for the beauty of its position, the standing remains of its architecture and quality of its stone monuments. It is from here that the explorer Alfred Maudslay removed the ‘Yaxchilan Lintels’ that are to be seen in the British Museum.
Today we drive north to reach the coastal city of Campeche, founded by Spanish settlers in 1540. It possesses a fine Spanish Colonial centre and extensive remains of its original city walls, built in part to resist the depredations of British pirates such as Drake and Hawkins, who were active along these coasts.
The day begins with a visit to the remote Puuc site of Edzná, with grand plaza surrounded by impressive structures and which originally possessed an unusually complex system of dams and canals to provide enough water to see it through the dry season. It is thought that a settlement was first established here in around 600 BC and it continued to thrive until the colonial era. It was then abandoned and the city lay undiscovered until 1907.
Our next stop is Sayil, a beautifully situated Late Classic period city, its main groups of structures connected by causeways, much like Edzna. At the height of its powers, 10 to 15,000 inhabitants lived here.
We finish the day at Kabah, a site best known for its Palace of the Masks – a structure whose facade is decorated with countless stone masks of the long-nosed rain god Chaac, an effect seen nowhere else in Mayan architecture.
This morning we visit Uxmal, a Maya city renowned for the unique elegance of its architecture and the exceptional state of preservation of the buildings. Much of the layout of the centre accords with what, to the Maya, were clearly significant astronomical alignments connected with rising and setting points of the Sun and, above all perhaps, the movements of Venus. Highlights here include the House of the Turtles and the enormous, easterly orientated Governor’s Palace.
We continue to colonial Mérida, the north western Yucatán’s political and cultural capital, founded by Francisco Montejo the Elder in 1542 on top of the original Maya city of Tihoo. We enjoy some free time to explore the city centre.
We remain in Mérida this morning, and pay a visit to the Mundo Maya Museum. This marvellous new museum was built to celebrate Maya history and its cultural inheritance and it does so in a highly engaging way. The museum successfully integrates some wonderful objects, such as reclining ‘chac-mool’ sculptures from Chichen Itza, with brief and attractive explanatory panels.
This afternoon we head for Izamal to visit the impressive Franciscan Monastery, built on top of an original Maya pyramid. The first bishop of Izamal was the notorious Diego de Landa, who in the early 1560s led a great extirpation of Maya idolatries, destroying Maya ‘idols’ and burning their precious manuscripts of bark paper. Summoned back to Spain to explain himself, he later wrote in his own defence the famous Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, now seen as a uniquely valuable source of information on Maya society at the time of the conquest. The Relacion has also greatly aided the process of Maya decipherment.
Chichén Itzá is the best known and most visited of all Maya sites. Its architecture is staggering in scale and the sculpture here includes arresting images of human sacrifice and feathered serpents. Highlights include the Sacred Cenote, a sink- hole in the underlying limestone from where a great range of offerings of gold, jade, pottery and human remains have been recovered. Then there is the truly vast Chichen Itza ballcourt, so large that it is almost impossible to think that any kind of ball game could have been played here, and the great Temple of the Castillo, orientated towards a causeway leading to the Cenote.
After lunch we continue to the walled city of Ek Balam, a lesser-known, more recently discovered archaeological site which was the once the capital of a Maya kingdom. Here it is possible to climb the steps of the main pyramid to see the location of a major burial whose contents are displayed in the Mundo Maya museum. From here too we gain a marvellous view of the surrounding jungle.
We spend the morning at the dispersed Cobá ruins, where intriguing figures of the so-called “diving god” adorn the highest pyramid. The same pyramid offers wonderful views of the dense but stunted forest of the northern Yucatan and nearby lakes.
The day comes to an end at the coastal site of Tulum, a pre-Hispanic port picturesquely situated against the backdrop of the Caribbean and which was briefly described by the first Spaniards who sailed up this coast in 1519.
The morning is free to relax before we head to the airport for an early evening flight to London.
We arrive in the UK.
- 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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