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.
- View the Aztec Templo Mayor and Frida Kahlo’s famous Blue House
- Travel by boat and 4x4s to remote jungle sites
- Explore ‘lost cities’ with spectacular temples and palaces
- View the vast Maya ball-court and Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá
- Encounter enduring Maya traditions among the Chiapas communities
- The New World
- Historic Churches
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 visit the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, just north of the central plaza. 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 fly from Tuxtla and drive to San Cristobal.
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 spend our day in Uxmal, a Maya city, renowned for its elegant architecture and exceptional state of preservation.
We start 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 fly in to Mexico City and transfer to our hotel close to the Plaza de Armas in the Spanish Colonial centre.
The day begins with exploration of the remains of the Templo Mayor, once the sacred heart of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, combined with a visit to the excellent museum. In the afternoon we walk a short distance to the National Palace to see Diego Rivera’s magnificent murals.
Most of our day will be spent 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. Having our lunch at the museum allows us to continue our visit here. Later in the afternoon we return to our hotel with some free time to relax ahead of dinner.
This morning we fly south to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, on the edge of the beautiful Chiapas Highlands. Stopping for lunch in Chiapa de Corzo, we drive on to the handsome Colonial town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the great centre of traditional Maya culture. Later in the afternoon we can take a look at the products of the many hundreds of local Maya weavers who come in here from nearby villages.
A full day begins with a visit to Chamula, one of the most fiercely independent of all Maya towns. Here, famously, the local community have been largely left to run their own affairs. The use of the church of San Juan is a symbol of this. The Catholic clergy are absent most of the year and instead traditional Maya priests or shamans minister to the local population. On most days the interior of the church is packed with chanting priests and their clients. Candles flicker, pine needles cover the floor and on occasion a chicken will be sacrificed. We return to San Cristóbal for lunch with some free time to enter Santo Domingo church, stroll along the cobbled streets of the local market or visit a small new museum devoted to Maya textiles. In the early evening we visit the museum at the Casa Na Bolom, where we also have dinner.
We drive east to Toniná, a spectacular site perched in the hills above the fertile Ocosingo valley. On the periphery of the Maya area, it seems to have been one of the longest lasting Maya cities, possessing the very latest Maya ‘Long Count’ date known, from 15 January 909 AD. Other hieroglyphic evidence points to Toniná having engaged in sporadic warfare with Palenque, some 100 kilometres to the north and the direction in which we are heading.
A full day amongst the ruins of Palenque, beautifully positioned on the lower slopes of a range of jungle clad hills and with magnificent views across the floodplain of the Usumacinta River. The city possesses art and architecture of remarkable quality, most famously in the well preserved ‘Palace’ complex and the ‘Temple of the Inscriptions’, where Palenque’s greatest king, Pacal, lies buried in a massive sarcophagus. Abundant hieroglyphic texts here have been crucial in piecing together the story of Palenque’s rulers, a dynasty that lasted from c. 430 to 800 AD.
This morning we travel in 4x4s first to the famous Maya site of Bonampak, best known for the remarkable preservation of its vividly painted murals. From Bonampak we continue to the Usumacinta River and a journey by motor launch downriver to the jungle site of Yaxchilán, constructed within a horseshoe bend in the river. It is a remote and atmospheric place, many of the buildings well-preserved though devoid of some of its famous carved lintels. A number of these were removed by the British explorer Alfred Maudslay in the 1880s and are now to be seen in the ‘Mexican Gallery’ of the British Museum.
Today we drive north to the coastal city of Campeche, founded by Spanish settlers in 1540 and with a fine Colonial centre which we will explore in the afternoon.
We begin our day with a visit to the still remote site of Edzná. It has a very grand plaza, a five-storey main temple complex or Acropolis and it also originally possessed a complex system of dams and canals constructed as early as 150 BC. The city endured until the time of the conquest but was then abandoned and lay undiscovered until 1907. Our next stop is Sayil, a ruined Late Classic city extensively mapped in the 1980s which led to estimates of a peak population here of some 12,000 at the city’s height around 850 AD. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood came here and were impressed by the seemingly Old-World style and proportion of the architecture, especially the multi-roomed palace structures, their façades decorated with pillars and clusters of columns. Before travelling on to Uxmal, we finish the day at Kabah, a small site best known for its ‘House of the Masks’ – a structure whose façade is decorated with hundreds of stone masks that probably represent the long-nosed Maya Rain God Chaak.
We devote the morning to Uxmal, especially renowned for the elegance of its architecture and the exceptional state of preservation of the buildings, commented upon by visitors from the 16th century onwards. John Lloyd Stephens was greatly impressed and felt that it formed a completely ‘new order’ of architecture, ‘not unworthy to stand side by side’ with the architectural traditions of the Old World. The tallest structure, looming above the site, is the so-called Pyramid of the Magician, built in five separate stages. But the city’s two major glories are the so-called ‘Nunnery’ quadrangle, made up of 4 rectangular range structures with multiple doorways around a central courtyard, and the magnificent House of the Governor, constructed on a broad platform and at a different angle to other structures, facing east towards the most southerly rising point of Venus as Morning Star. A recently deciphered inscription above the central doorway confirms this purposeful astronomical orientation. In the afternoon we continue to Mérida, the Yucatán’s cultural capital, where we will have some free time to investigate the city centre.
We remain in Mérida in the morning to visit the new Mundo Maya Museum. This very good and comprehensive museum covers the history of the Yucatan from earliest times to the Colonial period. It has some splendid exhibits, such as an arresting, larger than life-size ‘chac-mool’ sculpture from Chichén Itza, depicting a reclining warrior with head twisted dramatically sideways and with a large receptacle for offerings in his belly. This afternoon we head for Izamal to visit the impressive Franciscan Monastery, built on top of a large Maya pyramid, which is most famous as the home in the 1550s and 60s of the great Spanish chronicler and extirpator of Maya ‘idolatries’, Diego de Landa.
Today we encounter one of the most visited and impressive of all Maya cities: Chichén Itzá. It is a vast and still mysterious site where archaeological work has been ongoing for many years. We will enter early in the day to marvel at the immense Ball Court and the ‘Castillo’ or Temple Pyramid at the heart of an enormous plaza and to follow the great stone causeway to the sacred ‘Cenote’ or well. Into this natural sink hole in the limestone the Maya cast jades, precious metalwork and sacrificial victims which lay undiscovered until the early 20th century, even though the site was known and marvelled at by early Spanish visitors, including Diego de Landa. After lunch we continue to the walled city of Ek Balam, a lesser-known site, but where major discoveries have been made over the last decade or so. These demonstrate that Ek Balam was a major power in northern Yucatan in the Maya Classic period and may have had close ties to Chichén Itza. Here one can climb the steps of the largest pyramid for a marvellous view of the surrounding jungle.
We spend our morning at the ruins of Cobá, which was once a very important city. More than 30 carved stelae have been found here, some with images of Cobá’s rulers. But the limestone is very soft and very few inscriptions are readable. Thus, the details of its history are lost to us. The site is characterised by clusters of buildings linked together by sakbes or stone causeways. At the end of one of these is the tallest Pyramid here, known locally as ‘Nohoch Mul’ or the ‘Big Hill’. At its summit is a temple structure with a stucco image of a figure plunging to earth, known as the ‘Diving God’. Further Diving Gods are to be seen at the small walled coastal site of Tulum, which we visit in the afternoon. Tulum seems to have been an important port late in the Maya period and is described from the sea by the first Spaniards who sailed along here in 1518, just before the conquest of the Aztecs. We spend our last night here in a hotel on the beach not far from Tulum.
A leisurely morning at our beach-side hotel, before we transfer to the airport in Cancún for our flight home.
We arrive in the UK.
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