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Central Mexico

Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past is legendary. Temples, cities and pyramids of Mesoamerican civilizations dominate the landscape, peeking out from vast jungles and perching atop remote hilltops. From the Toltecs to the Aztecs, we explore the remains of these ancient civilizations and delve deeper into their history.

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Tour Description

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Stroll through Teotihuacan, ‘birthplace of the gods’
  • Explore the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon

  • Uncover the elaborate carved reliefs at El Tajín

LED BY

December 2018
Prof. William Saturno

WHAT TO EXPECT

The impact of pre-Hispanic civilizations in central Mexico is impossible to miss. From the Toltecs to the Aztecs, we explore the remains of these ancient civilizations — towering pyramids and temple structures galore — and delve deeper into their history. Discover stunning examples of vibrant artwork across sites and museum exhibits; and compare how styles have changed, and in some cases stayed the same across time. Archaeology is, of course, our focus, but there’s so much more to Mexico. From the breath-taking dance of the flying men; to Mexican basket weaving; and the fusion of Mesoamerican and European tastes that make Mexican food simply irresistible.

2018 ITINERARY

December 1: MEXICO CITY
We arrive in the vast metropolis of Mexico City, and transfer straight to our five-star hotel amid the leafy boulevards of the center. We take the rest of the day to relax after our flight, before coming together for dinner as a group.

December 2: MEXICO CITY
The morning begins with our first enlightening lecture of the trip, after which we head for the city’s superb Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park. As the largest museum in the country, the site demands more than a flying visit, and we take our time to explore its many halls before and after lunch. Don’t miss the famous Stone of the Sun, thought to be a 16th-century Aztec calendar, or the colossal Olmec heads: giant prehistoric sculptures that easily dwarf those who come to see them.

Tonight we enjoy dinner at one of Mexico City’s wonderful local restaurants, for a feast of regional cuisine.

December 3: TULA
The ancient Toltec capital of Tula is our first destination of the day – we make our way to it soon after breakfast. Here we view impressive stepped pyramids, warrior figures, ball courts, and plazas; the grand remnants of a long-lost empire. We also stop at Tula’s excellent museum, which expands on this settlement’s importance to Mesoamerica.

After lunch at Tula, we return to Mexico City for an afternoon exploring the Zócalo (main square) and its surrounding streets. These were once the site of an Aztec ceremonial center, and remain an exciting hub of activity and outstanding architecture.
This evening we enjoy a second lecture from our Guide Scholar before heading out for our evening meal as a group.

December 4: MEXICO CITY
This morning we return to the Zócalo, for an in-depth look at Templo Mayor – a site considered to be the center of the Aztec universe. In its 15th-century opening ceremony alone, some 4,000 prisoners were offered to the gods as human sacrifices. The Templo was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 in order to pave the way for the new cathedral. Tantalizing traces of a bloody and brilliant past still remain.

We find further echoes of colonial destruction amid the tranquility of the nearby National Palace, where we view the vast murals of Diego Rivera’s highly-politicized series, The History of Mexico.

Following lunch at the Zócalo, the afternoon is left free for us to wander the rest of the center at our leisure. Step into the city’s cathedral, explore the bustling shops and boutiques, or marvel at some of the lop-sided buildings which are slowly subsiding into the marshy ground beneath the capital. A truly arresting sight.

December 5: TLATELOLCO
We depart for Tlatelolco this morning, a ruined Aztec city at which a mass grave dating from the Spanish conquest was unearthed in 2009. Around 50 bodies have so far been found here, with analysis and accompanying artefacts suggestive of a group of warriors.

We drive on to Teotihuacán, stopping for lunch before we set off on our explorations. Teotihuacán was once the largest city in pre-Columbian America, and its sacred remains cover an amazing area of some 32 square miles. We begin to take in its highlights before checking into a nearby hotel and catching up over dinner. Our tour of Teotihuacán will continue in the morning…

December 6: TLATELOLCO
Today is devoted to Teotihuacán, starting with visits to the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Moon – three world-renowned structures located alongside the intriguingly-named Avenue of the Dead.
In the afternoon our tour continues, and includes a stop at the Mural Museum, which showcases dazzling original murals and reconstructions from the site. Later we have free time to wander this ancient landscape at our leisure.
This evening we enjoy our third illuminating lecture before dinner enjoying dinner at our hotel.

December 7: EL TAJίN
The morning of our seventh day begins with a scenic drive east to El Tajín. Here we pause for lunch, and an afternoon spent in the amazing jungle ruins. Occupied since the 6th millennium BC, it is thought that, at its height, El Tajín was a flourishing city with some 20,000 inhabitants. Destroyed by fire, it was lost to Hispanic Mexico until the 18th century, when a local official stumbled across the elaborate Pyramid of the Niches.

After exploring what remains, and touring the informative exhibits of the site’s modern museum, we round off our day by watching the Voladores de Papantla, pole-flying Totonac dancers who wow us with their gravity-defying performances. An unmissable scene.

December 8: XALAPA
Today we set off for Xalapa, a vibrant city in the foothills of the extinct Macuiltepetl volcano. The town is famed as being the namesake of the jalapeño pepper, but it is not spice that we are seeking in the afternoon – instead it is the treasures of Xalapa’s Anthropology Museum. Here we learn all about the many pre-Columbian civilizations that have populated this section of the Gulf Coast, including the Olmecs, the Totonac and the Huastec, with a remarkably rich collection second only to that found in Mexico City. Highlights include El Señor De Las Limas, a wonderful Olmec sculpture of a lord holding a jaguar, which was stolen in 1970 and subsequently found abandoned in a Texan motel.

This evening we savor our fourth lecture of the trip, before dinner at our hotel.

December 9: CANTONA
After breakfast we make our way to Cantona, a breath-taking archaeological site thought to date from the late Classical period – and the largest city to be discovered in Mesoamerica. During a comprehensive tour we stroll across lush grass to multiple ball courts, a series of small pyramids, a network of cobbled roads, and residences.

Pausing for lunch in a local hacienda, we resume our journey with a drive down to Puebla City, a UNESCO World Heritage site best known for its ornate colonial cathedral, and colorful tiled houses. A brilliant base for the next two nights.

December 10: PUEBLA
This morning we head for Cacaxtla, ancient capital of the Olmeca- Xicalanca people, at a site rediscovered in the 1970s. Cacaxtla is famed for its intricate painted murals, most notably the “Battle Mural”, which depicts bird warriors engaged in combat with their jaguar counterparts – a detailed scene with several grisly elements. Elsewhere, we find murals featuring Venus symbols that are thought to have served calendrical purposes. We also take in the 25-meter high Gran Basamento, a grass-covered platform on which the city’s principal buildings would once have stood.

Returning to Puebla for lunch in the Zócalo, this afternoon we pay a visit to the Museo Amparo, a superb historical museum charting the development of Mexico from the prehistoric era with a wide array of artefacts dating back as far as 2,500 BC. Alongside pre-Columbian figures and utensils, the Amparo also features Colonial rooms, showing examples of post-Hispanic art and décor arranged by the century.

We walk to Barrio del Artista, or the artists’ quarter, where we come across an ever-changing outdoor exhibition of cultural works. From here we enjoy free time to explore the rest of Puebla at our own pace, perhaps watching the street performers, dipping in to some of the many local churches, or viewing the interiors of its magnificent 16th-century cathedral.

December 11: OAXACA
We leave Puebla this morning and drive to Oaxaca – a long but thrilling ride south, punctuated by stops along the way. In the afternoon we arrive at Oaxaca in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, and discover another prized city boasting UNESCO World Heritage status. Characterful markets, mountain scenery, colonial grandeur – Oaxaca has it all.

We begin our stay with a visit to the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, a set of engaging exhibitions spectacularly housed among the cloisters of a 16th-century monastery. We pay particular attention to the Miztec hoard retrieved from Tomb 7 in nearby Monte Albán: a dazzling royal display of jewels, carved bone and crystal goblets – even a human skull decorated with turquoise. (We will be visiting Monte Albán itself on Day 13.)

The rest of the afternoon is free for us to wander the streets of Oaxaca at our leisure, before coming back together for our fifth lecture and an evening meal.

December 12: OAXACA
This morning we rise for a trip to the tombs of Yagul, one of only four attractions declared to be Natural Monuments by the Mexican government. At Yagul we find a verdant, sprawling site, occupied from around 500 BC until the time of the Spanish conquest. Some 30 tombs have been discovered here since excavations began in the 1950s, many bearing beautiful decorative reliefs.

After lunch we proceed to Mitla, a location renowned for its elaborate mosaics and fretwork – a striking assortment of geometric patterns unique in all of Mexico. Evidence suggests that Mitla was an important religious center for the Zapotec people, and was home to a high priest with Pope-like status.

Our day continues at Teotitlán del Valle, where we are privileged to view a demo of local weaving techniques – a craft for which this friendly village is well-known. We return to Oaxaca later this afternoon.

December 13: OAXACA
Our final morning begins with a trip to Monte Albán. For almost a thousand years, this site was the prosperous socio-political center of the Zapotecs. Today its impressive collection of ruins makes it one of the country’s top archaeological destinations, with a vast ceremonial plaza, enormous defensive walls, pyramids, tombs, ball courts; even dams and canals – a real gem of early Mesoamerican planning. While here we also explore the site’s museum, which displays finds from the complex, including original stone carvings.

In the afternoon we travel back to Oaxaca for a free afternoon. Dip into its lively local markets, discover the charms of its finest churches, or rest in a shady corner of the Zócalo, being entertained by its various buskers and bands.

We reunite this evening for a special farewell dinner at our hotel, complete with drinks – the last of our celebrations as a group.

December 14
We depart for the airport to catch our return flight home.

Additional Information

Scholar

Prof William Saturno is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Boston University. He discovered the remote site of San Bartolo and the oldest intact Maya murals. He has conducted research in Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.

Calendar Year

2018

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