Arrive in Mexico City, the capital of Mexico and truly the heart and soul of the country. With so much rich history to discover, the city is filled with historic buildings, landmarks and the largest number of museums in the world.
Due to the number of evening flights into the international airport, your Leader plans to do the welcome meeting on the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you'll need for the day. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive into Mexico City at any time. If you would like to receive an airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Mexico City International Airport (MEX) which is approximately a 30 minute to one hour drive from the hotel.
If your flight arrives earlier in the day, perhaps you might choose to have a stroll around Alameda Central, Mexico City's oldest municipal park, or visit the Templo Mayor Museum, which is known for its exhibits relating to the Aztec civilization. Stay: Hotel Fontan (Comfortable)
On our first day in Mexico City we'll be exploring like a local, on foot and by public transport. The Zocalo is the beating heart of the city; the main square that has been a cornerstone in public gatherings since the ancient times. We'll walk down to the centre from the hotel, taking a trip to a local pasteleria en route to try some traditonal sweet bread. The National Palace is located on the east side of the square - the President lives here as his permanent residence, so we'll take a look at it from the outside, along with the grand metropolitan cathedral. The Zocalo also gives us our first taste of Mexico's wealth of ancient history - the remains of the ancient Aztec Templo Mayor were discovered here and are still well preserved, right in the downtown of the city.
From the area around the central Zocalo, we take public transport to the enormous Chapultepec Park, Mexico City's main green space, and walk through to the National Anthropology Museum. One of the finest museums in the world, its exhibits offer a taste of the history ahead of us.
Our city tour ends here at the museum. Opt to stay here longer, or return together with your Tour Leader.
Today's walk in the city may reach approximately 10km including the time at the museum. Stay: Hotel Fontan (Comfortable) (B)
Our destination today is the mysterious pyramids of Teotihuacan. En route, we will visit the Basilica de Guadalupe - an important pilgrimage site for Mexicans, with a miraculous story behind it that our Tour Leader will recount. Continuing to Teotihuacan, we enter into this complex of ruins that were abandoned thirteen centuries ago. Once the largest city in the Americas with perhaps 100,000 inhabitants, its influence continued through Middle America, and Maya craftsmen borrowed its decorative motifs and building designs. Centuries later the Aztecs revered Teotihuacan as 'the Place of the Gods'. We'll have lunch nearby (not included), and we may have the chance to see some of the ancient uses of agave and obsidian in a workshop and craft shop nearby. We'll return to Mexico City in the late afternoon. If you wish, you may like the chance to climb the Torre Latinoamericana this evening - one of the tallest buildings in the city, with a panoramic viewing platform that gives fantastic views across the downtown and beyond. Stay: Hotel Fontan (Comfortable) (B)
Leaving the capital we drive south through cactus country to Oaxaca, one of the most charming colonial cities in Mexico. Our drive time will be approximately 8 hours, including several stops. During the latter half of the drive we'll have some beautiful views of the Sierra Madre mountains, and the cactus-covered landscape. We'll arrive in the late afternoon, and we can expect the historical centre to be extremely busy with people who have come from across Mexico as well as the rest of the world to take part in the Day of the Dead celebrations.
The origins of the Dia de los Muertos can be traced back as far as the indigenous people of Mesoamerica; the Zapotecs, Aztecs and the Maya all had ancient rituals for celebrating the lives of their ancestors. The modern day festivities take place between the 31st October and 2nd November each year, when it is believed to be easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. Relatives tend to gather in cemeteries where they build private shrines and altars and bring along food, drink, toys and other sentimental items to share with their returning relatives. The ceremonies are a fascinating insight into local culture and beliefs.
Oaxaca is one of the best places to witness the Day of Dead celebrations, as the traditions are very much alive in this part of Mexico. The city is often full at this time, and the streets will be busy - not just with local markets, street vendors, entertainers and parades (events change from year to year), but with visitors spilling out from cafes, restaurants and bars. Many of the festivities take place at night in the local cemeteries as well as in the streets of Oaxaca. Depending on your departure date, you will be in Oaxaca on one or two of the nights of the 31st, 1st and 2nd, and you will experience the different festivities taking place on those days. Stay: Casantica Hotel (Comfortable) (B)
As with many of the colonial cities in Mexico, Oaxaca was built in the 1500s with stones taken from ancient civilisations in the close surroundings. Today we'll visit Monte Alban, the most important site in the Oaxaca area, built by the Zapotec people who flourished here over 1,500 years ago. This impressive complex of temples, pyramids and enigmatic rock carvings was built literally on top of a hill, which means that there will be some hill walking and steps to conquer in the site today. The incredible views over the Sierra Madre and the fertile valley are well worth the effort. Unlike sites like Teotihuacan, Monte Alban was lived in until the arrival of the conquistadors, as the Mixtec civilisation took over from the Zapotecs and continued its use.
This afternoon we have free time at leisure in Oaxaca. Depending on your departure date, there will still be Dia de los Muertos celebrations to enjoy this afternoon in the beautiful historic centre. Stay: Casantica Hotel (Comfortable) (B)
It's a long journey today, through the winding roads of the mountainous Sierra Madre range, making several interesting stops en route. Our first port of call is close to Oaxaca - the 2000-year old swamp cypress tree in Santa Maria del Tule, which, at 54 metres in circumference, has the stoutest trunk of any in the world. We continue to the small town of Teotitlan del Valle, a region where the Zapotec language is spoken more commonly than Spanish. Here the people have been weavers since the ancient times, and we should be able to see how this fine work is created, as well as getting an understanding how natural colours are achieved from the plants that they have around them.
Our next short stop is at the ancient Mixtec site of Mitla, where we will have a short exploration of these ruins. The largest part of the drive is ahead of us, with our destination this evening being the hot and windy isthmus of Tehuantepec, a convenient stopping point on our journey towards San Cristobal. The journey today will take approximately 10 hours including stops. Stay: Hotel Calli (Comfortable) (B)
Leaving early this morning we have a roughly 5 hour drive to Cahuare, the starting point for our visit to the spectacular Sumidero Canyon, a unique rift 41km long and up to 1000mts deep, cut by the Rio Grijalva. This is the spot where, in the 16th century, some 1000 Chiapa indigenous people committed suicide rather than submit to Spanish rule. We take a trip on a speed boat to fully appreciate the towering gorge, before driving up a scenic mountain road to San Cristóbal de las Casas. At 2210m above sea level, it can get cold at night, a sharp contrast to the heat of Tehuantepec. Stay: Hotel Arrecife (Comfortable) (B)
There is a unique atmosphere to the small colonial town of San Cristobal, high in the scenic Chiapas range. The indigenous groups from the surrounding hills fill the town and marketplace with their colourful dress including the distinctive Tzotzil community who still retain much of their Mayan customs and language. We will be visiting San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, indigenous villages close to San Cristobal that practice an interesting blend of Catholicism and traditional Maya beliefs. This area is noted for the bright textiles and weavings in bold designs, and when we return to San Cristobal we'll have the afternoon free - you may like to bargain for some colourful souvenirs here.
Much like Oaxaca, San Cristobal is a charming town to explore on foot and has its fair share of museums on a variety of themes. The Na Bolom, House of the Jaguar, is dedicated to the preservation of the Lacandón tribe and displays many of their artefacts, while the Textiles Centre is a superb showcase of the weaving traditions found both in Chiapas as well as the rest of Mexico and Central America. There are also museums dedicated to amber and jade, that not only display historical pieces, but also give an understanding of the importance of these materials to the ancient civilisations. Stay: Hotel Arrecife (Comfortable) (B)
Leaving the highlands, we have a long driving day ahead of us, approximately 8 hours plus stops. The road is slow and winding, but there are scenic views as we descend to the jungles of Palenque. We'll be driving via the town of Villahermosa, where we stop for lunch. We'll also take a stop at the waterfalls of Agua Blanca, which tumble over a series of limestone hills, before continuing on to our hotel. Stay: Hotel Maya Tulipanes (Comfortable) (B)
One of the highlights of our tour is today's guided visit to the famous jungle ruins of Palenque, a fascinating and important Mayan site. Once the choking forest was cleared, the ruins revealed the tomb of the high priest Pakal, his body adorned with a marvellous jade death mask - one of the most prized relics of the Maya culture, discovered only in 1952. The entire site, shrouded by the steamy rainforest, has an aura of deep mystery. During the afternoon you can continue to explore the site, or take a bus back to the waterfall of Misol Ha for a refreshing swim (optional). The stunning 30m high waterfall was featured in the titles of the movie 'Predator'. Stay: Hotel Maya Tulipanes (Comfortable) (B)
Today we drive to Frontera Corozal on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. From the lodge we board our lancha (river boat) on the Ucumacinta River and head for the remote site of Yaxchilan, only accessible by boat and famous for its stelae and roof combs. The boat trip itself is a beautiful 40-minute journey, past banana plantations and through rainforest. After exploring the site we return by boat to our simple overnight lodge. The accommodation is a series of cabins with thatched roofs, en suite bathrooms and hanging mosquito nets; a no frills experience but perfect for visiting Yaxchilan and crossing the Guatemalan border. Listen out for the howler monkeys in the early hours of the morning. Stay: Escudo Jaguar (Simple) (B/D)
Our Maya rainforest experience continues up river by boat to the small settlement of Bethel, where we pass through Guatemalan customs formalities before progressing by road for approximately four hours to Flores, on Lake Peten Itza. The small island is colourful, beautifully picturesque and very laid back. You can while away the afternoon with a walk around the brightly coloured houses or people-watching in one of the cafes or restaurants. You may also like to take a boat trip on the lake itself, which can be done over sunset. Stay: Hotel Casona de la Isla (Comfortable) (B)
Today we visit Tikal, the great Maya metropolis set in the midst of the rainforest, which can justly be compared with the celebrated ancient cities of Egypt and Greece. Initially settled in about 600BC, Tikal was abandoned by its rulers around 890AD and totally deserted a hundred years later. The city covered an area of 16 square kilometres. Re-discovered in 1848, only a few of its great temples and pyramids have been excavated. The site is extensive, so we include a guided tour in the morning followed by free time to let you explore. We can appreciate the prolific birdlife in the surrounding rainforest and take in amazing views of the forest canopy from the tops of the pyramids. We drive back to Flores at around 3.30pm. Stay: Hotel Casona de la Isla (Comfortable) (B)
Today we drive over the border to San Ignacio in Belize, visiting the little known site of Xunantunich en route, with its fantastic array of pyramids and temples. We make our way to our hotel, where the rest of the afternoon is at our leisure. If you still have room for one more Mayan site, the ruins of Cahal Pech are worth a visit, high up on a hill near the centre of San Ignacio town. Alternatively, walk into the town and check out the lively local market (not Sundays). Stay: Midas Resort (Comfortable) (B)
We drive to Belize City for our first view of the Caribbean and board our water taxi for the one-hour journey to the enchanting tropical island of Caye Caulker. Once a pirate lair, this tiny but beautiful island lies 34km northeast of Belize City and about 1.6km inside the greatest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
Please note that the seven days in Caye Caulker and the Yucatan are designed as an extension to our Contrasts of Mexico tour, and some of your fellow group members may leave the tour today in Belize City. Whilst the extension has been designed to complement the trip, we wish to point out that it may not be a group experience and you may not be travelling with other customers. Your Tour Leader from the Contrasts of Mexico tour will be accompanying you throughout the extension. Stay: Anchorage Resort (Comfortable) (B)
The island remains uncrowded and unluxurious, and the local fishermen catch lobster, conch, fish and crab to supply domestic and foreign markets. It's a popular place with backpackers, so there is a proliferation of good, reasonably priced restaurants. There's time to relax or enjoy a number of optional trips. You may take a snorkelling trip out to the nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark and Ray Alley, or take a full-day trip out to Goff's Caye to observe manatee in their natural mangrove habitat. Scuba diving is also available. Stay: Anchorage Resort (Comfortable) (B)
We leave Caye Caulker by boat this morning, sailing back to the mainland and driving north to the Belizean border, crossing into Mexico via Chetumal. We then continue by vehicle to the small town of Bacalar, situated on the banks of the beautiful Lake Bacalar in the Riviera Maya. The lake is frequently named 'the Seven Coloured Lagoon' for its many different shades of blue, and has strikingly clear waters due to the white limestone bottom. Just next to the lake we plan to take a swim in the Cenote Azul, one of the Yucatan's famous water-filled limestone pools that have great spiritual importance for the Yucatan Maya people.
We have this afternoon free, with the possibility of taking a boat trip across the lake. Stay: Hotel Stone (Comfortable) (B)
We head northeast from Bacalar this morning, towards the dramatically situated site of Tulum, situated on its clifftop perch overlooking the turquoise water and golden sands below. The ruins of Tulum date back to the late period of the Mayan civilisation when there was developing enmity between Mayan provinces, so the city is guarded by thick ramparts and a watch tower.
After visiting the site we will continue on to the colonial city of Valladolid, arriving in the late afternoon. We'll be free here to enjoy the picturesque and colourful town centre. Valladolid even has its own cenote just a few blocks away from the main Zocalo, which is a great option for a late afternoon swim. Stay: Hotel Meson De Marquez (Premium) (B)
This morning we visit the ruins of Chichen Itza. Founded in AD432, re-founded in 987 and conquered by the Toltecs in the 10th century, the culture of the Maya and the Toltec gradually fused. The pyramids, palaces, temples and ballcourt (where death was the penalty for defeat) are adorned with astonishing sculptures. Under the pressure of the civil war, the great monuments deteriorated and the Maya civilisation collapsed, but undeniably Chichen Itza remains one of the most outstanding sites in the Americas, and its main pyramid was denoted as the Seventh New Wonder of the World in 2007.
After our visit to this extensive site, we will continue to the city of Merida, famed for its beautiful Spanish-Moorish style architecture. Stay: Hotel Colonial (Comfortable) (B)
We have our final site visit this morning; to those in the know, Uxmal is one of the Yucatan's most underrated ancient cities. Encircled by hills, Uxmal is expansive in its design with majestic palaces and pyramids, and long geometrical friezes that rank among the most splendid examples of ancient American Art. The incredible Pyramid of the Magician and the beautiful Governor's Palace are two of the finest examples of Mayan art found in Meso America.
Later in the day we return to Merida, where we have time to wander along the narrow streets watching the horse-drawn carriages rattle past. Alternatively there is an option to visit Celestun, the pink flamingo sanctuary. Stay: Hotel Colonial (Comfortable) (B)
The trip ends in the morning at our hotel in Merida.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Merida at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive an airport transfer today, you need to depart from Manuel Crescencio Rejon International Airport (MID) which is approximately a 20 minutes' drive from the hotel. (B)