For archaeology-enthusiast travelers the fascination of our tour will be rooted primarily in the almost mystical legacy left by the fabulous Aztec Empire and its influential Toltec and Olmec predecessors, vividly recorded in tales of the grandeur of Tenochtitlan, their island capital. The mighty Aztec culture and highly organized society remained dominant for 200 years – only to be brought to a sudden and violent end in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors. Traveling south, we also visit a panorama of provincial towns, each built upon regional cultural traditions with ancient pre-Aztec roots – none more impressive than the vast Zapotec site of Monte Alban.
Mexico’s days of gold-bedecked warriors in resplendent headdress may have long vanished but its distinctive cultural heritage still finds vibrant expression in a wealth of lively festivals, markets and craft and mural-painting skills.
- Trace the story of the ancient civilizations of the Aztec, Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations amid the wide horizons of middle Mexico
- Stroll through legendary Teotihuacan – ‘birthplace of the gods’ – and explore the awesome Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon
- Uncover the elaborately carved reliefs etched into the columns and frieze at El Tajín, among Mexico’s most important Classic-era sites
- Enjoy a remarkable performance of the Danza de las Voladores de Papantla, a dizzying high-flying ritual dance
WHAT TO EXPECT
Mar 2nd – 15th led by William Saturno
Saturday, March 2: ARRIVE IN MEXICO CITY
We arrive in the vast metropolis of Mexico City and transfer to our first hotel. We take the rest of the day to relax after our flight, before coming together for dinner as a group.
Sunday, March 3: MEXICO CITY
We spend the full day at Museo Nacional de Antropología, one of the finest museums of its type. The Museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of archaeological and anthropological artefacts from pre-Hispanic Mayan civilizations to the Spanish conquest.
The site demands more than a flying visit, so 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.
Monday, March 4: MEXICO CITY
This morning we will depart early driving north to the wonderfully preserved pyramid site of Tula, which reached its height as the capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. As we explore the Temple de Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, atop which stand the giant basalt figures representing Quetzalcoatl dressed as a Toltec warrior, we will try to unravel the many legends that surround the city.
We enjoy lunch in Tula, before returning to Mexico City to spend the afternoon in the city’s central square and surrounding streets. The Zocalo, the political and religious heart of the city, was once the site of an Aztec ceremonial center, and remains an exciting hub of activity and outstanding architecture.
Tuesday, March 5: 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 temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 in order to pave the way for the new cathedral.
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.
Wednesday, March 6: TEOTIHUACAN
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.
Afterwards, we continue on to Teotihuacan, known as the “place of the gods.” We will have two days to explore this magnificent ceremonial center. Teotihuacan appeared between the years 200 and 150 BCE and reached its highpoint of development between 300 and 600 CE, when it was the most influential political, religious and cultural power in Meso-America. We begin to take in its highlights before checking into a nearby hotel and catching up over dinner.
Thursday, March 7: TEOTIHUACAN
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 or relax at our hotel just outside of the site.
Friday, March 8: POZA RICA
The morning of our seventh day begins with a scenic drive east to El Tajín. Covering an area of over four-square miles, the “sacred city of the god of thunder,” was one of the most important urban, political and religious centers in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The city’s history begins in the 4th century BCE, but it wasn’t until after the 6th century CE that the major construction was launched. We will explore the site in-depth, including the spectacular Pyramid of Niches, decorated with 365 niches, leading to the speculation that they had astronomical significance.
After exploring the amazing jungle ruins 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.
Saturday, March 9: XALAPA
This morning our drive to Xalapa will take us through the mountainous countryside of Veracruz arriving into Xalapa late in the morning. Home to the University of Veracruz, the city is renowned for Neoclassical buildings and lively cultural life. We have come for it’s fabulous Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, considered to be the second-best museum in Mexico. This huge museum houses some 3,000 archaeological finds from the state of Veracruz displayed in three sections corresponding to the three great civilizations that occupied the region. The museum’s centerpiece is the 17 colossal Olmec heads from San Lorenzo.
Sunday, March 10: PUEBLA
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 a local lunch, 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.
Monday, March 11: 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.
Tuesday, March 12: 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.
Wednesday, March 13: 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.
Thursday, March 14: 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.
Friday, March 15: DEPART OAXACA
We transfer to the airport for our individual flights home or onward travel.