A definitive answer remains elusive, despite extensive excavations that have exposed the sites of towering Maya ruins whose temples and palaces (many in distinctive stepped pyramid shape and enhanced by elaborate reliefs and inscriptions) bear evidence of ritual human sacrifice. Although the unique Maya civilization is long gone, its pervasive influence remains embedded here in the landscapes and lifestyles of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
With extensive exploration of the forested northern lowlands our tour will attempt to unravel some of these many enigmas, introducing you to the Maya skills in hieroglyphic writing, architecture, mathematics, astronomy – and more! We’ll discover some of the Classic period’s finest architecture at Palenque and Yaxchilán (perhaps the grandest cities of the era), Uxmal and Chichén Itzá (among the last to suffer decline), as well as visiting other lesser-known but equally impressive sites. We end in the southern highland town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, renowned for its lovely colonial buildings, poignant reminders of the impact of Spanish invasion upon the Maya world.
- Wander through atmospheric ancient ruins, including those of vast Calakmul, lost in thick jungle and known as the ‘Kingdom of the Snake’
- Relax on a memorable river trip on the Río Usumacinta, amid tree-forest draped with vines and orchids
- Discover amazing Uxmal, the Yucatan peninsula’s most spectacular ancient Maya city
- Look out for colorful parrots and macaws flying overhead and monkeys scampering through the trees of the nature reserves through which we pass
WHAT TO EXPECT
Dec 7 – 20 with Dr. Franco Rossi
Saturday, December 7: ARRIVE IN CANCÚN
We arrive in the seaside city of Cancún, a place known to its Mayan inhabitants as Nizuc – a word which translates to “promontory” or “point of grass”. These days the area is famed for its sandy beaches and azure seas. There is time to explore or relax in the city this afternoon, before the group comes together for a first night’s dinner.
Sunday, December 8: CHICHÉN ITZÁ
Our second day begins with a trip to the Museo Maya de Cancún. This brilliant museum holds a priceless collection of Yucatán artifacts, including ceramics and jewelry, as well as exhibits on the modern-day Maya community.
From here we head to the ruins of Ek Balam, a once flourishing Maya kingdom swathed in jungle, where we find a selection of stelae and reliefs, as well as a towering acropolis. As the day draws to a close we arrive at our comfortable hotel near Chichén Itzá, in preparation for tomorrow’s extraordinary adventures…
Monday, December 9: UXMAL
We divide one of the world’s greatest wonders into New Chichén and Old Chichén today, for a fully immersive encounter with this remarkably well-preserved Mayan complex. This morning it’s in with the new, as we tour buildings dating from the Toltec period of 1000-1200 AD, while the afternoon sees us exploring the older Classic structures.
Together we wander skull-carved platforms, admire iconic pyramids, peer into the sacred cenote, and listen to tales of Chichén Itzá’s thrilling, extensive, and sometimes bloody past; a perfect opportunity to connect with the heart of Mexico’s most prized archaeological site.
Tuesday, December 10: UXMAL
Following breakfast we venture into the jungle for a full day’s encounter with Uxmal, a late-Mayan World Heritage site famed for its Temple of the Magician, an imposing yet graceful structure with an origin story shrouded in mystery. At the height of its influence, Uxmal was home to around 25,000 inhabitants. It was also allied with Chichén Itzá, making it the most powerful site in all of western Yucatán. Here we discover a host of pre-Hispanic ruins, carefully laid out in accordance with astronomical phenomena. Don’t miss the House of Turtles or the beautifully-carved Governor’s Palace; a unique and significant destination.
Wednesday, December 11: CAMPECHE
This morning we pay a visit to Kabah, a settlement connected to Uxmal by a sacred road. Kabah is best known for its Palace of the Masks, an awesome structure decorated with masks of the rain god Chaac. Though the site was inhabited as far back as the 3rd century BC, the buildings here date mainly from the 9th century AD, at which time the city reached the apex of its powers.
After lunch we make our way to Labna, a Mesoamerican ceremonial center situated in the forests of the Puuc hills. More carvings of the hook-nosed god Chaac can be found here, along with the remains of both a two-storey palace and a decorated archway.
Later today we drive to Campeche, a city which was founded by the Spanish in 1540. Surrounded by old fortifications, and brimming with colorful colonial architecture, Campeche makes for an excellent stop-off point for dinner and a comfortable night’s stay.
Thursday, December 12: CALAKMUL
We spend the morning at Campeche’s Archaeological Museum. Located in an 18th-century fortress beside the Gulf of Mexico, within the museum’s majestic walls we discover an array of discoveries from regional excavations, and relics from Calakmul, including two impressive jade death masks.
We bid farewell to the city and make the long but scenic drive inland to Calakmul itself. Tomorrow we explore all that this exceptional site has to offer.
Friday, December 13: CALAKMUL
As promised, this morning we take in the ruins of Calakmul, also known as the “Kingdom of the Snake”. Situated in thick jungle near the Guatemalan border, Calakmul was once one of the largest Mayan lowland cities in Mexico and covered an area of around 27 square miles. In its prime it also governed settlements up to 90 miles away. Today the core of the site is just under one square mile in size yet contains approximately 1,000 structures. Highlights include Yucatán’s tallest pyramid, and an amazing array of stelae and murals.
Following lunch, we go wild on a tour of the Calakmul Reserve, one of Mexico’s largest swathes of protected land. This is our chance to spot native fauna such as toucans and howler monkeys; or perhaps, if we’re extremely lucky, a roaming jaguar.
Saturday, December 14: CALAKMUL
Our first destination today is Becán, a pre-Columbian site that was rediscovered in the 1930s. Occupied from around 550 BC until the 1200s, Becán has a long history as a ceremonial center and holds some of the oldest defenses in Mexico. We explore it all, not forgetting the site’s two lofty pyramids, from which we enjoy superb views of the surrounding jungle.
The nearby Xpuhil is our second and final stop of the day. Though less well-known than Becán and Calakmul, it too enjoyed a long period of occupation, and features ruins of elaborate structures, such as the three-towered Structure I. Xpuhil is also another great place to look for some of this area’s protected animal species.
Sunday, December 15: PALENQUE
We begin this morning at Balamkú, a small site which contains the longest surviving Maya frieze in the world: over 16 meters of painted stone reliefs depicting the surface of the earth. This epic sight dates back as far as the 6th century and lay undiscovered until the 1990s.
We depart the area and drive south to Palenque in preparation for our next two days of archaeological adventures.
Monday, December 16: PALENQUE
Our busy day begins at Bonampak, an Early Classic site famed for the richly-decorated interiors of its temple. View vibrant murals showing ritual scenes, performances, and gory representations of death.
From here we make our way to Frontera, where we board a boat to take us up the Usumacinta River, once an important trade route for the Mayan civilization. Cruising through the tropical forest, we arrive at Yaxchilan, the ancient city which once dominated this region, and dealt in dyes and resin. Celebrated for its remarkable stone lintels and freestanding stelae, the site also presents some of the earliest surviving depictions of violence and conflict in the Mayan world.
Tuesday, December 17: PALENQUE
Today is all about Palenque, one of the most outstanding ceremonial centers we will see during our trip. Rising out of the jungle, Palenque’s fine set of ruins includes a stately observation tower, as well as the tomb of King Pacal the Great, who ruled these lands for an incredible 68 years from the start of the 7th century. It is estimated that much of the site still lies beneath the surrounding vegetation. What has so far been revealed serves as a jaw-dropping testament to the former might of the Maya.
The site yields more to us this afternoon by way of the Palenque Museum, which displays statues, reliefs, an ancient throne, and a copy of the lid of King Pacal’s sarcophagus.
Wednesday, December 18: SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
We leave Palenque this morning, embarking on a journey to the Central Highlands, and San Cristóbal de Las Casas. En route we stop at the Classical period site of Toniná, where we admire groupings of pyramids and monuments bearing evidence of the city’s previous status as a rival to Palenque. Its tallest structure – a complex of temples and staircases – easily dwarves the majority of its contemporaries, and peaks at an astonishing 74 meters.
In the afternoon we arrive at the gleaming colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, and enjoy a leisurely walking tour of its historic center. San Cristóbal is a gathering place for the region’s many indigenous cultures, and there is much here to keep us all wandering in wonder. Later we come together for a lively farewell dinner as a group.
Thursday, December 19: SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
The final full day of our tour sees us traveling to San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil Maya town famed for its unusual church: a place carpeted with pine needles, that glows in the light of hundreds of colorful candles. Animal sacrifices take place here to this day. We also pay a visit to the charming town of Zinacantán, another modern-day indigenous settlement, where Catholic and Mayan traditions both show their influence.
We return to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the afternoon, where we use our free time to explore the city at our own pace. Peruse local handicrafts at the market, marvel at the 18th-century cathedral, or delve into the Maya Medicine Museum, to learn more about the history and practice of its healers.
Friday, December 20: DEPART FROM TUXTLA GUTIÉRREZ
We transfer to the airport for our individual flights home or onward travel.