Highlights of Mexico and Guatemala
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Discover the highlights of southern Mexico and Guatemala
This journey traces the main archaeological and cultural attractions of Central America. The Mayan culture is immediately apparent near Mexico City where we view the huge Sun and Moon pyramids at Teotihuacan. We travel on to Oaxaca to discover the cultural ancestry of the Zapotec people and spend time in the rarefied climes of San Cristobal de la Casas and the magnificent Sumidoro Canyon. Before entering Guatemala we visit the stunning ruins at Palenque with its dramatic Mayan step pyramid architecture. We travel on to Flores and to the ruins at Tikal where forest trails lead to a plethora of stone ruins that rise above the thick jungle canopy. Continuing to the World Heritage listed UNESCO city of Antigua, we also visit Lake Atitlan - one of the world’s most beautiful lakes – and the rich and colourful Indian markets of Chichicastenango.
- Sun and Moon pyramids at Teotihuacan
- Explore the dramatic ruins of Tikal, Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan
- Boat trip on the picturesque crater lake of Lake Atitlan
- Bargaining in the colourful Indian markets of Chichicastenango
- Sightseeing in Mexico City, Oaxaca & Antigua
- Monte Alban, Sumidoro Canyon and St Christobal de la Casas
Day 1 Arrive Mexico City
Meet at the group hotel, unless a transfer has been booked upon request. Mexico City, with a population of over 22 million, sprawls across some 2000sqkm. It is a giant cosmopolitan city, encompassing everything from colonial palaces to slums, and quiet plazas and parks juxtapose the unending stream of traffic. The sheer size of Mexico City is most definitely worth experiencing, and it will certainly leave you with a lasting impression. In the evening our guide will brief us on the itinerary, its activities and provide information relevant to the sites and areas visited.
Day 2 Mexico City and Teotihuacan
The city’s Museo Nacional de Antropolgia is one of the world’s great anthropological museums, and the best place to start to immerse ourselves in the ancient cultures and ethnology of Central America. Mayan pottery, jade beads and elaborately carved stelae can be seen, as well as the famed Mayan calendar. The huge Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan are one of the great sites of the ancient world. The Pyramid of the Sun stands at 70m high along the Avenue of the Dead: lining the way, there are temples and palaces, ornately encrusted with exquisite frescoes, bas reliefs and statuary. The large Citadel complex, thought to have been home to the city’s supreme ruler, is full of small alcoves and maze-like corridors to explore. Teotihuacan was Mexico’s largest ancient city, with a population at its peak of 200,000. The giant Pyramid of the Sun was built around AD 150, with the remainder of the city (built on a grid pattern) constructed between AD 250 and 600. The city reached its peak in the 6th century, but it quickly declined and was virtually abandoned by the 7th century.
Day 3 Mexico City tour, then drive to Oaxaca
We take a closer look at the density and bustle of Mexico City. The city’s focal point is the Zocalo – an enormous plaza that houses the presidential palace, the cathedral and the remains of the main temple of Tenochtitlan. We start here and then venture around some of the city’s other highlights before travelling to the southern state of Oaxaca. The scenery along the way, through winding mountain roads, is quite beautiful. The Spanish colonial town of Oaxaca is a relaxing retreat from the frenzy of Mexico City. The narrow streets all lead to a huge tree-filled zocalo, while the old stone buildings and open-air cafes and markets are wonderful for wandering and taking in the distinctive and colourful Indian culture. Many traditional Indian handicrafts and weavings can be found in the markets and on street corners, and the beautiful frescoes of Oaxaca’s traditional artists can be seen in the town’s museums.
Day 4 Monte Alban
Outside Oaxaca, Monte Alban (‘white mountain’) sits atop a dry, rocky landscape. These superb ruins – a jumble of tunnels and staircases just waiting to be explored – are divided into five stages, each reflecting the different periods of Monte Alban’s dominance. Temples and palaces made of huge stone blocks crowd around an enormous Grand Plaza; it is believed that they were painted red at one stage. Over one hundred and seventy tombs have been found here, many of them elaborately frescoed. This was the hilltop centre of the Zapotec people of Oaxaca – at its peak the population numbered some 10,000. Building began around 500 BC, and Monte Alban quickly became the centre of Zapotec power and culture. By AD 750, however, the settlement’s power declined and it was deserted. During its prominence between AD 300 and 700, Monte Alban was a priest-dominated society: the I-shaped ball court and the deeply inscribed edifices and walls reflect the complex religious practices of the Zapotecs. Return to Oaxaca for overnight accommodation.
Day 5 Visit Mitla and travel to Tehuantepec
Forty-six kilometres from Oaxaca, the village of Mitla is home to a number of palaces with pre-Hispanic stone mosaics. This was, perhaps, once the main Zapotec religious centre and the ruins still conjure up a feeling of a thriving priest-filled town. Human sacrifices took place here. Tehuantepec is a lively town on the Isthmus of the same name. Zapotec culture is still strong here and it provides a good introduction to a mid-sized Mexican town.
Day 6 Boat trip up the Sumidoro Canyon
From Tehuantepec we drive to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, from where we take a boat trip along the incredible Sumide Canyon, whose sheer cliffs rise 1200m out of the water. Herons, kingfishers, egrets, cormorants and vultures abound. We then drive up into the highlands, through cloud forests, to the rarefied climes of San Cristobal de Las Casas. A colonial town, surrounded by pine forests and mountain valleys, San Cristobal is home to an Indian population with strong Mayan roots. The women wear traditional elaborately-embroidered skirts and shirts, while many of the men still wear traditional pink tunics.
Day 7 Visit San Cristobal de Las Casas and Indian villages
San Cristobal’s imposing Templo de Santo Domingo is an ornately beautiful church whose pink facade is reminiscent of baroque Spanish churches. Outside, Chamulan women sit under trees selling their handicrafts and embroideries. The town’s small cobblestoned streets are lined with brightly coloured colonial buildings and they eventually open into a large main plaza. Artists, galleries, restaurants and markets abound. The cool highlands around San Cristobal are home to a number of traditional Indian villages – the tribes, the Tzotzils and Tzeltals, are descendants of the Mayans. Here the people still live subsistence lives, dressing traditionally and quietly tilling the earth. The women plait their hair and roll it in bizarre horns over their foreheads; pigs roam the village streets; and men sit around smoking in the shade. The village of Chamula is home to a large, blue-framed church. This once-Catholic building is now bereft of pews, and the local Indians sit among rows of burning candles, clouds of incense and piles of pine needles, chanting as they prostrate themselves and croon. Bizarrely, the images of saints look on. Chamulans believe that Christ rose from the cross to become the sun. Throughout Central America, traditional Mayan beliefs are entwined with Catholic ones, and this is perhaps most keenly sensed in Chamula and Chichicastenango. In Zinacantan the men wear pink and white striped tunics and flat palm hats, while in Tenejapa the women wear brightly-patterned shirts.
Day 8 To Agua Azul and Palenque
We leave San Cristobal and travel down from the highlands and through the jungle to Palenque. The drive is beautiful. We stop at Agua Azul to swim and relax. Located deep in the jungle, this is a series of enormous waterfalls that plunge into turquoise pools. Paths weave along the falls up into the hills – the place is enchanting and a welcome respite from travelling. We spend the night in the jungle town of Palenque. Teeming with Mayan architecture, this is a relaxed and rambling town with some fantastic food.
Day 9 At Palenque
The astounding beauty of the Mayan ruins at Palenque, deep in their jungle setting, is quite unforgettable. Palenque rose to prominence in the 7th century under the club-footed Mayan ruler, Pakal. It was his tomb, filled with treasures, that was discovered under a jungle shroud in 1952. Occupied more than 1500 years ago, the city was at its zenith between AD 600 and 800. The gloriously encrypted Templo de las Inscriptions, the Plaza del Sol, and the maze-like palace with its stairways and cavernous rooms all help to make Palenque one of the world’s greatest ancient sites. Jungle envelops the ruins that were once painted bright red; monkeys and mist surround around the temples; a waterfall rushes nearby. The sheer grandeur of the place is humbling.
Day 10 To Bonampak and Yaxichilan, cross border and continue to Flores
We travel by boat and vehicle today to Bonampak and Yaxichilan. Bonampak is on the Guatemala border, 155km south-east of Palenque. This little-visited place is definitely ‘off the beaten track’, but the ruins here, located in dense jungle, are a sacred site of the local Indians and notable for their magnificent frescoes depicting ancient Mayan ceremonies. From Bonampak we continue to Yaxchilan, which is probably one of the least visited but most surprising set of Mayan ruins in Central America. Its location on a great river in the jungle almost defies description. Huge ceiba trees dominates its many grassy plazas surrounded by classic Mayan architecture and stelae. Monkeys and toucans endlessly screech above us and move from tree to tree through the jungle canopy. We embark by boat across the river to the Guatemalan border town of Corozal where we meet our new Guatemalan guide. We continue onward by road to Flores. The interesting town of Flores is set on a small island in the Peten Itza Lake. Flores is connected to the mainland and to the twin city of Santa Elena by a 500m causeway. For many, the main reason to visit Flores is its proximity to Tikal, but the city itself is well worth a visit in itself. Colonial architecture, red-roofed buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, a historic church and Spanish plaza make this sleepy town an ideal stepping stone to Tikal.
Day 11 Tikal
The majesty of the Mayan ruins at Tikal is striking. The winding, mossy jungle paths open up to a surreal world of pyramids and temples, where howler monkeys, frogs and birds like toucans create a cacophonous crescendo. Tikal has a number of step pyramids whose forty-four or so metres you can climb to gain a view across the jungle canopy. From the maze of courtyards of the Great Plaza, temples spread out into the jungle, including the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, and the North Acropolis of King Moon Double Comb. The Mayans settled in Tikal around 700 BC and had started to build the grand North Acropolis by 200 BC. By the time of Christ, the Grand Plaza was being built from stone, but it wasn’t until AD 250 that Tikal became a religious and cultural centre. It reached its glory under King Great Jaguar Paw in AD 300 and underwent a renaissance around AD 700 under King Moon Double Comb, before falling into a mysterious decline, like other Mayan centres, around AD 900.
Day 12 Drive via Guatemala City to Antigua
From Flores we drive for 6-7 hours to Guatemala City and onward to the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. This highland city was recognized in 1979 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. take a tour of this noisy vibrant city before continuing to the beautiful highland town of Antigua.
Day 13 Antigua
We spend a full day visiting the churches, squares, markets and stunning colonial houses of this fabulous city. Surrounding the city are the huge volcanoes that make this part of the world so dramatic. Antigua satisfies everyone’s desire to see a perfect colonial city. It is a city where one can easily wax lyrical about its great beauty. Today we shall have the opportunity to explore this magnificent city and visit the Great Plaza, Cathedral, San Francisco Church, La Mercad Church, the Cultural Centre, Jade Factory and a coffee plantation.
Day 14 A day on Lake Atitlan
We drive the short distance to Panajachel, one of the most interesting villages set on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Surrounded by volcanoes, its shores are dotted with Indian villages, all of which have retained their distinctive cultures – the local dress and colours varies from village to village, much like the clans of Scotland, and market stalls line the narrow streets. We enjoy a boat trip on Lake Atitlan, considered to be one of the most picturesque lakes in the world. Our boat trip includes Santiago, where we can learn more about the local people, their famous weavings and their typical clothes.
Day 15 Market at Chichicastenango
Today we visit the superb market at Chichicastenango. Livestock, handicrafts, fruit and embroidery all give way in this bustling market to the focal point – the church, strewn with flowers and filled with genuflecting Indians whose elaborate rituals see them crawling to the altar, while ‘Cofradias’, or members of the traditional brotherhood, swing incense above their heads. We return to Guatemala City for the evening.
Day 16 Trip concludes in Guatemala City
The trip concludes after breakfast.
- 15 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 5 dinners
- Comfortable well located accommodation on a twin-share basis in 3 or 4 star hotels
- Private air conditioned transportation
- Sightseeing and site entrance fees as listed
- Expert bilingual guides
- Medical Kit
- 16 day trip
- 15 nights hotel
Trip Main Activities
- Adventure Touring
- Day Walking
Group Size Min
Group Size Max
Specialist gear required include walking boots and day pack (a comprehensive gear list is provided in the pre-departure information provided on booking).
What You Carry
You will be required to carry all your luggage between hotels and transportation. On sightseeing days you will be required to carry a day pack with your camera, water proof clothing and any other personal items you may require during the day.