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Treasures of Central America: Heritage of the Aztec and Mayan Empires

18 days from £3890pp

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Treasures of Central America: Heritage of the Aztec and Mayan Empires

18 days from £3890pp
 

Private Journey

 

Day 1

Arrive in Mexico City. Transfer to central hotel.
 
Mexico City was built on the site of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire, and it lies at 2,250m above sea level. Vast, chaotic and vibrant, this sprawling megalopolis of more than 20 million people has a multitude of attractions. You’ll be spending 3 nights here.

Day 2

Guided tour of Tula and Tepotzotlán.
 
Depart for the archaeological site of Tula, located 80km north of the capital. It was probably an ancient city of the Toltecs, at its peak between AD 900 and 1150. Its main attractions are its 4.5m-high stone warrior figures. Continue to the town of Tepotzotlán.

It has a lovely main square and one of Mexico's most ornate baroque churches - the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier, accessed via the adjacent huge monastery. The church and monastery combine to form the Museo Nacional del Virreinato - a collection of religious paintings, statues, chalices and furniture.

Tula

Day 3

Guided city tour and excursion to Teotihuacan pyramids.
 

Guided tour of the city centre and Teotihuacan.  The arrival of the Spanish conquistadores was seismic event in the story of the Aztec people.  Their magnificent causewayed city was razed, and the invading Spaniards rebuilt it in their own style; the development fuelled by silver mining.  This is all reflected in the cultural vestiges apparent all over the modern-day city which you’ll see during your guided tour. Visit the zócalo, or main square, monumental Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace with its murals by Diego Rivera.

Later, head into the countryside towards the megalithic archaeological site of Teotihuacan. Dating back over 2,000 years, it was once one of the largest cities in the world. It is hugely influential in the historical narrative of modern Mexico and, although abandoned by the time of the Aztecs, even this great empire held it in awe. Stroll along the imposing Avenue of the Dead, leading to the vast Pyramid of the Sun, and climb its vertiginous steps for a panorama of the ruins.

If you have time we suggest you visit the world-class Museum of Anthropology, exhibiting remarkable, well displayed Aztec artefacts alongside items from other ancient civilisations. There’s also a scale model of the lake-city Tenochtitlán. It’s a fantastic introduction to the superb and sometimes grisly artistic achievements of Mexico’s early inhabitants.

Teotihuacan

Day 4

By road to Puebla via Cholula and Tlaxcala.
 
It is a 3hr drive to Puebla, one of the cities which most evoke the country's Spanish colonial past.  It is groaning with baroque churches (70 in the centre alone) and thousands of other graceful buildings embellished with the hand-painted ceramic maiólica tiles which it manufactures.

A conservative, strongly catholic and very traditional community, it took the ' wrong' side in the War of Independence and has been involved in some bloody battles.

Visit the hilltop pre-Columbian site of Cholula. This huge pyramid is larger than the Egyptian Pyramid of Cheops, but today is not much more than a grassy mound. Drive on to the city of Tlaxcala where highlights include the government palace with its vivid murals, the beautiful pilgrimage site of the Shrine of our Lady of Ocotlán, and San Francisco Monastery.

Colonial church, Puebla

Day 5

Drive to Oaxaca; guided excursion to the ruins of Monte Albán.
 

Guided tour of the city centre and Teotihuacan.  The arrival of the Spanish conquistadores was seismic event in the story of the Aztec people.  Their magnificent causewayed city was razed, and the invading Spaniards rebuilt it in their own style; the development fuelled by silver mining.  This is all reflected in the cultural vestiges apparent all over the modern-day city which you’ll see during your guided tour. Visit the zócalo, or main square, monumental Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace with its murals by Diego Rivera.

Later, head into the countryside towards the megalithic archaeological site of Teotihuacan. Dating back over 2,000 years, it was once one of the largest cities in the world. It is hugely influential in the historical narrative of modern Mexico and, although abandoned by the time of the Aztecs, even this great empire held it in awe. Stroll along the imposing Avenue of the Dead, leading to the vast Pyramid of the Sun, and climb its vertiginous steps for a panorama of the ruins.

If you have time we suggest you visit the world-class Museum of Anthropology, exhibiting remarkable, well displayed Aztec artefacts alongside items from other ancient civilisations. There’s also a scale model of the lake-city Tenochtitlán. It’s a fantastic introduction to the superb and sometimes grisly artistic achievements of Mexico’s early inhabitants.

Monte Alban Ruins Oaxaca

Day 6

Visit Mitla and El Tule.
 
Depart Oaxaca for the Zapotec ruins of Mitla, 46km away. The main attraction is its impressive inlaid stone mosaics that decorate its palaces. Best preserved of the ruins are its half-dozen 38m long columns in its centre.

On the return trip, stop at the huge 2-3,000-year-old ahuehuete tree, one of the oldest in the world, which dominates the parish church of Tule village. With a girth of 42m and a diameter of 14m, it also claims to be the widest tree in the Americas.

A final stop will be at a mezcal distillery to learn about the production process of this agave-based spirit, made only in Mexico and mostly in Oaxaca.

Mitla

Day 7

Fly to Mérida, Yucatán.
 
Fly via Mexico City to Mérida in the Yucatán peninsula. The city was founded by the Maya and named Tiho. In 1542 it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadores who dismantled the Mayan pyramids and used the stones as foundations for the cathedral.

Mérida then became an immensely wealthy city, described as the ‘Paris of the New World’. Its money came mainly from the production of sisal, cactus fibres that are used to make rope, and it was culturally and geographically isolated from the rest of the country until transport infrastructure reached it in the 1950s.

Today Mérida retains a lovely colonial centre, with a mix of opulent and crumbly buildings but it is a modern, bustling, thriving city, with lots of local character, some excellent places to eat and good shops and markets. The inhabitants, descendants of the Maya and the colonists, love a good fiesta, and you may well find one going on, with live music and market stalls, while you are there.

Government  Palace,  Merida

Day 8

Guided visit to the ruined Mayan city Chichén Itzá.
 
From Mérida drive to Chichén Itzá (3 hrs), the best presented of all the Mayan sites, dominated by the huge, symmetrical, stepped El Castillo pyramid. The origins of the site are mysterious: it appears to have Toltec as well as Mayan influences.

The site hosts the largest and best-preserved ball court in the Americas, the venue for an ancient ritual game that was played throughout the continent, but which is still not fully understood. Archaeologists have not been able to determine whether it was the losers or winners who were decapitated, but judging from the gory carvings along the base of the court’s walls, someone certainly came to an unpleasant end. There is also a huge sacred well.

Chichen Itza

Day 9

Guided excursion to Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Kabah.
 
Guided excursion to the Mayan temple complex at Uxmal, 80km from Mérida. The site is dominated by the majestic Pyramid of the Magician, alongside which is an elegant ‘nunnery’ quadrangle with Puuc-style complex stonework pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. Strolling through the ruins, cradled in dense vegetation shading the visitor from the scorching sun is an almost mystical experience.

Continue to Kabah, with its incredible Palace of Masks, with intricate mosaics representing the face of Chac the rain god 260 times.

Uxmal

Day 10

Fly to Villahermosa, by road to Palenque.
 

Fly to Villahermosa, from where you continue to Palenque by road. Palenque is the jumping off point to visit the splendid Mayan ruins just east of town, as well as the lesser visited sites of Bonampak and Yaxchilán. It is essentially a relaxed, modern town with some colourful buildings and a good range of accommodation, restaurants and shops. 

Palenque

Day 11

Guided excursion to Palenque archaeological site.
 
Guided tour of Palenque ruins. The Mayan site of Palenque is set on a hill amongst lush green rainforest abundant with monkeys and birdlife, and a majority of the buildings remains unexcavated. The temples that have been renovated are in remarkably good condition, the most impressive being the Templo de las Inscripciones . Also impressive is Temple 13 that houses a tomb and red-coloured skeleton believed to have been a queen. 
Palenque

Day 12

Visit Bonampak and Yaxchilán; continue to Flores in Guatemala.
 
Rise early for the 2.5hr drive to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak, known for its very impressive well preserved murals and lintel paintings which can be seen at very close quarters. From here the journey continues to Frontera Corozal on the Mexico-Guatemala border. Board a motorised canoe for a 40min trip down the Usumacinta River to the almost-unvisited citadel of Yaxchilán, set in a clearing and surrounded by thick jungle.

Return upstream to the small town of Bethel in Guatemala, 45mins away on the other side of the river. Continue by road to Flores, in the dense sticky jungles of northern Guatemala, and from here you continue to your lodge.

Bonampak

Day 13

Guided tour of Tikal, Mayan ruined city.
 
There will be a guided tour of the archaeological site at Tikal. Steep-stepped and vertiginous temples emerge high above the rainforest canopy; the views over the site from one of these ancient skyscrapers are unforgettable. Spend the day wandering through the palace complexes.

Tikal was one of the largest and most important Mayan city states, reaching its peak around AD800 prior to its mysterious demise. The pyramids and temples seem frozen in time, but you’re brought back to the present by the roar of curious Howler monkeys and lithe Spider monkeys as they swing through the trees; and by flashes of colour as toucans and parrots take flight.

Tikal

Day 14

By land over the border to Copán, Honduras.
 
It is a 4.5-5hr drive to the Mayan site of Quiriguá. Here, some inscriptions relating to the measurement of time can be found. The principal features of these ruins are the enormous 'stelae' exquisitely carved with glyphs and 'zoomorphs' representing a dynastic history of its rulers. Continue to Copán, a further 2hrs. 
Copan Ruins

Day 15

Guided excursion to Copán, Mayan city.
 
One kilometre from town, Copán is one of the most outstanding Mayan ruins in the region. It is not as immense as the sites of Tikal or Chichen Itzá, but the Maya craftsmanship has survived the sands of time - evident on the intricate carvings of 21 stone columns, or stelae.

The 3m-high columns stand among temples, ball courts and the renowned hieroglyphic stairway with 1,250 blocks carved with glyphs - the longest inscribed text in the New World.  Copán is believed to have been in its 'golden era' between 553AD and 738AD, before falling into decline soon after.

Ball court at Mayan site of Copan

Day 16

By road to Antigua, Guatemala.
 
Drive via Guatemala City to Antigua. This once-great city was sidelined by the Spanish Empire following earthquake damage. Today, with its sunny backdrop of orchards and volcanoes, it's a colonial masterpiece, its shady plazas, baroque churches, boutiques and chic restaurants popular with visitors. It has, however, one of the most un-touristy fruit and vegetable markets in Latin America.
Volcano over Antigua

Day 17

At leisure in Antigua.
 
The city is a work of art, with cobbled streets, overhanging tiled roofs and a beautiful, leafy central plaza. There’s an abundance of huge ruined churches, convents and monasteries, testimony to a time when Antigua was the country’s capital and its main religious centre. It seems that every doorway opens onto a fragrant tiled courtyard.

A dramatic backdrop of smouldering volcanoes and ruined churches and convents surrounded by parkland bear witness to the city’s destruction a volcanic eruption in 1773.

Antigua is a welcoming place to relax and unwind, do some shopping in tempting boutiques and art galleries, and enjoy the excellent food in a large range of restaurants and pavement cafés. Wander around the courtyards and enjoy the floral displays in beautifully tended gardens. 

Day 18

Transfer to Guatemala City airport for international flight home.
 

18 days from £3890pp

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