Cantona archaeological site
Cantona archaeological site

Central Mexico: Mesoamerican Mysteries


14 days From $6,275

March 2 2019

You do not always have to cross oceans and continents to discover the world’s finest archaeological sites. Despite its relatively modest distances this journey through the lands of the ancient indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica crosses frontiers of time into lost pre-Columbian worlds whose dramatic history and great monuments can fire the imagination today as powerfully as any other further afield.

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.

What's included?

  •  Expert Scholar & Tour Manager
  •  Accommodation
  •  Meals - as per the itinerary
  •  Local Transport
  •  Entries & Tips

Led by...

Dr William Saturno

Dr William Saturno

Dr William Saturno received his BA from the University of Arizona and his PhD from Harvard University and has been leading tours with us for over eight years.

Book Now $6,275
Includes deposit: $1,250 Single supplement: $1,150

Tour highlights:

  • 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
  • Journey through jungle-clad ruins and immerse yourself into the rich culture and heritage of Mesoamerican Mexico

Tour details

Dates March 2 2019 - March 15 2019
Duration 14 days
Cost $6,275
Single supplement: $1,150
Deposit: $1,250 , balance due by December 8 2018
Activity Level Easy-Going
Tour code A19MEC

Book Now or call 866-740-5130 if you have any questions

March 2 2019: Itinerary

We arrive in the vast metropolis of Mexico City and transfer to our hotel. The remainder of the day is ours to relax before coming together for dinner as a group.

Meals include: Dinner

Hotel: Sheraton María Isabel, Mexico City

We spend a rewarding morning and afternoon at Mexico City’s outstanding National Museum of Anthropology, the country’s most visited museum. On a site extending over almost 20 acres, the many halls of its monumental building feature one of the world’s largest collections of archaeological, ethnological and anthropological artifacts from Mexico and the surrounding Mesoamerica area. Our carefully-planned visit allows an invaluable introduction to the cultures we shall be exploring on our coming journey - from pre-Hispanic Mayan civilizations to the Spanish conquest and the present day. Two especially fascinating exhibits are the famous monolithic Stone of the Sun, thought to be a 16th century Aztec calendar, and the colossal Olmec heads: great prehistoric sculptures carved from giant boulders, easily dwarfing admiring visitors!

Meals include: Breakfast, Lunch

Hotel: Sheraton María Isabel, Mexico City

An early start for our drive some 50 miles north to the wonderfully preserved archaeological ruins of the pyramid site at Tula, once a major city that reached its zenith as the capital of the pre-Aztec Toltec Empire from about 900 to 1150 CE, between the decline of Teotihuacán and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Here we learn about the many legends that surround Tula as we explore the Temple de Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli - on which stand the giant basalt figures representing the plumed serpent god Quetzalcóatl (dressed as a Toltec warrior), especially linked to Tula and one of the primary deities in the ancient Mesoamerican pantheon. After lunch we return to Mexico City to enjoy an afternoon in the city’s huge main square, the Zócalo, and the streets of the surrounding area. The political and religious heart of the capital, the historically-important Zócalo is a lively hub of activity, with a backdrop of outstanding architecture dominated by the historic Cathedral and National Palace.

 

All meals included

Hotel: Sheraton María Isabel, Mexico City

This morning we return to the Zócalo to learn the extraordinary story unfolded by the Templo Mayor archaeological site and its museum. The Templo is considered to have stood at the center of the Aztecs’ universe, in what was their capital city of Tenochtitlan. Here, in the 15th century opening ceremony alone, priests offered some 4,000 prisoners to the Aztec gods as human sacrifices. The temple was torn down by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1521 to make way for the new cathedral. In complete contrast, at the grandiose colonial-style National Palace nearby we can study vivid reminders of Mexico’s turbulent past as depicted in the vast murals of artist Diego Rivera’s highly politicized “The History of Mexico” series. After a relaxed lunch at the Zócalo, our afternoon is free for personal sightseeing in the city center. Explore the city’s cathedral (the largest and oldest in Latin America) or its bustling shops and boutiques - or simply marvel at some of the lop-sided buildings slowly subsiding into the marshy ground on which the city was built.

Meals include: Breakfast, Lunch

Hotel: Sheraton María Isabel, Mexico City

This morning we drive to the capital’s Tlatelolco district, site of a ruined Aztec city – where, after the massacre of thousands, the final Spanish conquest of the Aztecs took place in 1521. A mass grave dating from the period was unearthed here in 2009. We now head some 30 miles northwards to visit Teotihuacán - one of Mexico’s major archaeological complexes, with arguably the most architecturally important pyramids of Mesoamerica. Originally an abandoned city stumbled upon by the Aztecs, Teotihuacán (meaning “the place where the gods were created”) at its peak became the largest and most influential city in the pre-Columbian Americas, thriving for some 700 years until between 300 and 600 CE. On arrival we take in the scale and atmosphere of the complex before checking-in at our hotel just outside the site and catching up over dinner.

All meals included

Hotel: Villas Teotihuacan Hotel & Spa, Teotihuacan

Our day is devoted to ancient Teotihuacán’s magnificent site. Following its “main street”, the thought-provokingly named “Avenue of the Dead”, we visit three awe-inspiring structures: the Temple of Quatezalcóatl (the Plumed Serpent), the great Pyramid of the Sun (the world’s third largest pyramid) and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon. The last two have extensive views from their summits -, reached (with care) by steps. In the afternoon we visit the Mural Museum, which showcases dazzling original murals and reconstructions from the site. The remainder of the day is our own to wander Teotihuacán’s atmospheric landscape - or to relax at our nearby hotel.

 

All meals included

Hotel: Villas Teotihuacan Hotel & Spa, Teotihuacan

This morning we enjoy a scenic drive east to the state of Veracruz and the imposing jungle ruins of El Tajín, the long-abandoned city of the Totonac people. It was its height from the early 9th until the 13th century, becoming one of the largest and most influential centers of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. The many temples, palaces, ball-courts and pyramids of this sacred “City of the Thunder God” embody a distinctive architecture characterized by elaborately carved reliefs on columns and friezes. Especially impressive is the majestic “Pyramid of the Niches”, a masterpiece of ancient Mesoamerican architecture, with 365 symmetrical square niches of astronomical and symbolic significance. Our exploration of this major archaeological site includes a visit to the informative modern museum. Later there’s time to relax at a traditional Totonac pole-flying (and gravity-defying) dance performance by the amazing “Voladores de Papantla” before we transfer to our hotel in nearby Poca Rica.

All meals included

Hotel: Hotel Fiesta Inn, Poza Rica

We turn south this morning to Xalapa, capital of Veracruz, where we spend our next night. Home to the state university and set against a scenic backdrop of volcanic peaks and lush vegetation, attractive Xalapa is known for its handsome colonial buildings and lively cultural life. We visit the outstanding Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, surpassed in reputation only by its Mexico City counterpart. The collection’s focus is on the main pre-Hispanic civilizations from the Gulf coast, principally the Olmecs, the Totonacs, the Huastecs and Classic Veracruz. Set amid a 10-acre hillside garden, the museum houses 3,000 beautifully displayed archaeological finds, with its not-to-be-missed centerpiece the 17 colossal Olmec heads from San Lorenzo, Teotihuacán.

All meals included

Hotel: Hotel Posada Coatepec, Xalapa

After breakfast we travel west on our drive to Puebla, with a morning stop at the ruins of Cantona. A fortified city occupied for some 400 years until about 1000 CE, this important but lesser-visited archaeological site was one of the largest urban settlements ever discovered in Mesoamerica. Even now the major part of the site remains to be excavated. Here, in a breathtaking desert-and-mountain setting, we trace its story amid a series of small pyramids, multiple ball-courts, private residences and a network of cobbled roads. After a local lunch we resume our journey with an easy drive down to Puebla for our 2-night stay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, colorful Puebla is one of Mexico’s oldest cities, with a rich colonial heritage and a wealth of well-conserved architecture in its historic center - at its most distinctive in the ornate 16th century cathedral.

Meals include: Breakfast

Hotel: Hotel NH, Puebla

This morning we travel to one of Mexico’s most unusual ancient sites – at nearby Cacaxtla, whose vividly-painted murals depicting military life over 1,300 years ago are among the best-preserved of their kind from the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican world. After lunch we explore Puebla’s superb Museo Amparo, an attractive historical museum housed in an 18th-century baroque hospital and charting the history of Mexico by means of an excellent collection of pre-Columbian artefacts and colonial Mexican art. We then continue into the city’s “Barrio del Artista” (Artists’ Quarter), once part of a bustling colonial-era market, and today home to painters’ studios, exhibition halls, and cafés - an ever-changing outdoor exhibition. The remainder of our day is free to enjoy at leisure in Puebla.

Meals include: Breakfast, Lunch

Hotel: Hotel NH, Puebla

We set out from Puebla this morning on the 200-mile drive south-eastwards to Oaxaca – a long but interest-filled scenic ride, broken by stops along the way. After an afternoon arrival we begin our 3-night stay with an orientation visit to the city’s Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, an excellent regional museum located in an historic monastery, with displays bringing to life the history and cultures of Oaxaca state. Of special interest will be the Mixtec hoard – a dazzling discovery of royal jewels, carved bone and crystal goblets, retrieved from nearby Monte Albán (which we shall be visiting). Afterwards there’s time to relax at our hotel – or to explore a little more of attractive Oaxaca. Founded by the Spanish in 1521 and a UNESCO-listed site, the city has retained many of its native roots amid the fine colonial architecture of its ancient center. Cobbled lanes, quaint little shops and restaurants, the sumptuous Santo Domingo church and 16th century cathedral, the sunny plazas and Indian markets - these all contribute to Oaxaca’s unique charm.

All meals included

Hotel: Hotel Quinta Real, Oaxaca

The principal focus of today’s program is the indigenous Zapotec civilization that flourished here in the Valley of Oaxaca in pre-Columbian times. A short morning drive brings us to Yagul - one of just four locations named as Natural Monuments by the Mexican government and occupied from around 500 BCE until the arrival of the Spanish. Highlights of its peaceful sprawling setting are several multi-chambered tombs, a beautiful “juego de pelota” ball-court and the splendid views from the hilltop fortress ruins. After lunch we continue to neighboring Mitla, which rose to pre-eminence after nearby Monte Albán was abandoned, only to be largely dismantled later by the Conquistadors. Famed today for its intricate and symbolic mosaics and fretwork, Mitla (meaning “Place of the Dead”) was an important Zapotec religious center whose high priests almost certainly performed human sacrifices here. Our afternoon ends with a visit to nearby Teotitlán del Valle village to watch a fascinating demonstration of local weaving skills.

Meals include: Breakfast, Lunch

Hotel: Hotel Quinta Real, Oaxaca

Our final full day opens with a visit to Monte Albán, for almost a thousand years until its mysterious decline, the prosperous socio-political center of the Zapotec world. Today its extensive array of hilltop ruins puts Monte Albán among Mexico’s most prominent archaeological sites, impressive for the both the scale and variety of its intriguing remains of neatly laid-out palaces, temples and great stepped platforms, an observatory and a ball-court – all set against sweeping 360-degree views over the surrounding valleys and distant mountains. We visit the site museum, featuring original stone carvings and a wealth of other discoveries from the complex, before our return to Oaxaca for an afternoon at leisure. A time perhaps to wander through the lively local markets, discover the beauty of the city’s churches, or simply unwind in a quiet corner of one of the plazas. In the evening we meet up for a special farewell dinner at our hotel.

All meals included

Hotel: Hotel Quinta Real, Oaxaca

We transfer to Oaxaca airport for our individual flights home or onward travel.

Meals include: Breakfast

March 2 2019: Additional Info

March 2 2019: Accommodation

Offering an outdoor pool and a restaurant, Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel Towers has a privileged location and is set in the heart of Mexico City's financial district on Paseo de la Reforma Avenue. WiFi is available.

Each room here will provide you with air conditioning, a minibar and cable channels. The beds boast a custom-designed plush mattress, a comforter and plush pillows. The elegant and spacious bathrooms may either have a bath or a shower. Extras include a desk, a safety deposit box and ironing facilities.

Situated just outside of Mexico City, and moments away from the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán, Villas Teotihuacan Hotel & Spa features a tropical-style swimming pool, a gift shop and conference rooms.

Villas Teotihuacan Hotel & Spa is located right on the Avenue of the Dead, in the Teotihuacán archaeological zone. It is just seconds away from some of the country's most famous landmarks, including the Pyramid of the Sun.

Rooms at the Villas Teotihuacan Hotel & Spa feature colonial-style décor with wooden furnishings. All rooms offer views of the gardens.

Guests can enjoy a meal in the Poza Rica Hotel restaurant. There is also a bar and room service is available.

The hotel offers a laundry service and has a 24-hour reception. An airport shuttle service is available for an extra charge. There is easy access to the city’s main access motorways. 

Located in central Coatepec, this hotel offers an outdoor pool, as well as a hot tub and sauna, for an extra cost. Built in classic Mexican style, the rooms, suites and villa have traditional furniture.

All rooms in Posada Coatepec have a private bathroom with bath, as well as a cable TV. Free bottled water is provided.

The Maria Enriqueta Restaurant offers classic Mexican specialties, as well as international dishes. You can also choose to dine in your room.

About 60.3 miles southeast of Mexico City, this NH property is located just steps away from the magnificent Historical Center of Puebla, nominated “Cultural Heritage of Humanity”; also in walking distance from the downtown area, main shopping centers and industrial parks of this colonial city.

NH Puebla Centro Histórico´s 180 rooms are finely appointed with vanguard décor, complimented with fine gastronomy and free WiFi. 

This 100% smoke free hotel is located in Oaxaca de Juárez, just 150 yards from Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church. It offers a 24-hour reception and air-conditioned rooms with satellite TV and WiFi.

The rooms at the Quinta Real Oaxaca feature tiled floors, colonial-style décor and extra cushions. Each one comes with a safe and private bathroom with a hairdryer.

March 2 2019: Enquiries

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