A TASTE OF MEXICO | 14 DAYS
This holiday focuses on Mexico's distinctive cuisine, increasingly popular the world over. Recipes reflect a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European, especially Spanish, elements added after the Spanish conquest. On this private holiday you’ll have the opportunity to learn how to prepare some of the landmark dishes, guided by qualified Mexican food experts, and savour your culinary creations..
The basic staples remain native foods such as corn, beans and chili peppers, but the Europeans introduced a large number of other foods, such as dairy products and various herbs and spices. The result is uniquely Mexican.
Mexico is one of Latin America’s most vibrant and entertaining destinations, with a huge diversity of historical, cultural and natural attractions. In addition, explore Mexico City and visit a few of the colonial towns, where indigenous and Spanish heritages sit side by side. Continue to the Yucatán peninsula and explore the ruins of Chichén Itzá, the most grandiose testimony to the bygone Mayan empire. Round off your holiday lounging on the white-sand beaches that fringe the peninsula.
DAY 1 ARRIVE IN MEXICO CITY. TRANSFER TO HOTEL IN THE HISTORICAL CENTRE
You’ll be met at the airport by one of our local representatives and accompanied to your hotel. Mexico City was built on the site of Tenochtitlan, 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.
DAY 2 GUIDED TOUR OF MEXICO CITY AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY MUSEUM
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 tradition - 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. Stroll down elegant boulevards, or browse at a handicraft market.
You will also 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 Tenochtitlan. It’s a fantastic introduction to the superb and sometimes grisly artistic achievements of Mexico’s early inhabitants.
DAY 3 GUIDED EXCURSION TO TEOTIHUACAN PYRAMIDS AND MUSEUM OF TEQUILA
Today’s highlight is a guided tour of Teotihuacan. Passing through the northern suburbs of the capital, with a pause to visit the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, you head into the countryside towards the megalithic archaeological site of Teotihuacan which dates from the time of Christ and was once one of the largest cities in the world.
It is hugely influential in the historic narrative of modern Mexico and, although it had already been abandoned by the time of the Aztecs, even this great empire held it in awe. Soak up the history as you stroll along the imposing Avenue of the Dead, leading to the vast Pyramid of the Sun, and take the opportunity to climb its vertiginous, ancient steps for a panorama of the ruins and the surrounding countryside. Lunch will be taken in the traditional and renowned La Gruta restaurant which occupies a large natural cave.
Finally, back in Mexico City you'll visit the well-established Museum of Tequila and Mezcal, which processes and houses more than 300 different varieties of liquor – you’ll learn about the distilling process and get to sample different varieties.
DAY 4 VISIT TO XOCHIMILCO COOKERY SCHOOL
This is a unique opportunity to prepare a traditional Mexican meal in a kitchen in Xochimilco, Mexico’s kitchen garden on the fringes of the city. Visit a local market and purchase the necessary ingredients before preparing a traditional dish under the guidance of Doña Lupita. Enjoy eating your meal on a trajinera boat, punted along the canals of rural Xochimilco while being serenaded by mariachi musicians.
DAY 5 TRANSFER TO PUEBLA WITH MOLE POBLANO LUNCH
En route to the World Heritage Site of Puebla, situated 130km southeast of Mexico City, you'll stop in Tonantzintla to visit Santa María church, renowned for its elaborate and unique stucco interior - a beautiful example of indigenous artisan work combining Mexican and European Christian elements. Then you'll continue on to Cholula to visit the vestiges of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, larger in volume than Egypt's Cheops pyramid.
You'll arrive in Puebla in time for lunch at the traditional La Fonda de Santa Clara restaurant where you'll be encouraged to taste mole poblano, Mexico's national dish, which fuses a flavoursome array of chillies in a thick, rich, chocolate-based sauce. Finally, you'll explore Puebla's colonial centre, dotted with churches and provincial mansions adorned with the delicately hand-painted talavera tiles - Puebla's finest attraction.
DAY 6 GUIDED CITY TOUR OF PUEBLA WITH STREET FOOD EXPERIENCE. ON TO OAXACA BY ROAD
In the morning, you’ll be familiarised with Puebla’s wide array of street food. Few places on Earth can satisfy a sweet tooth like the Calle de los Dulces in Puebla. You can almost get a sugar fix just walking by the shops that line Avenida 6 Oriente, their windows and display cases stuffed with traditional candies and cookies.
Drive to Oaxaca (4-5hrs) along the new toll highway passing through the Sierra Madre mountains. There are dramatic rugged landscapes dotted with cacti plants and a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. The population in this area is still dominated by people of Zapotec and Mixtec descent, although the town has many examples of well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, some fine museums and a thriving artistic community, as well as a wonderful climate.
DAY 7 COOKING CLASS AND VISIT TO FOOD MARKET. EXCURSION TO THE RUINS OF MONTE ALBÁN
Oaxacan cuisine is famous for its complexity and rich variety of ingredients and flavours. You will learn how to prepare traditional Oaxacan dishes from a local cookery teacher using recipes passed down through the generations. First, visit the market to buy and sample the ingredients; unusual fruits and vegetables and regional herbs and spices. A light lunch is then provided in the market with a talk on Oaxacan food, after which it is into the kitchen to prepare a delicious 4-course meal.
In the afternoon, head out of town to nearby Monte Albán, the grand Zapotec ceremonial centre. Strategically located on an artificially levelled hill where three valleys meet, the site has superb views over the surrounding area. There is time to explore the pyramids, steep staircases, walls covered with strange carvings, burial chambers and temples. Although there is a theory that the main plaza was a religious ceremonial site, most of the imagery is decidedly militaristic, featuring tortured captives and devastated conquered settlements.
DAY 8 EXCURSION TO MITLA AND EL TULE WITH MESCAL TASTING
Depart Oaxaca for the Zapotec ruins of Mitla, 46km away. The main attraction is its impressive inlaid stone mosaics that decorate its palaces. 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 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, produced only in Mexico and mostly in Oaxaca.
DAY 9 FLY TO MÉRIDA, TRANSFER TO HOTEL
Fly to Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán, via Mexico City. The city was founded by the Maya and conquered by the Spanish 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 which 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.
DAY 10 YUCATÁN SLOW COOKING DEMONSTRATION AND TASTING
Off the back of the success of the international ‘slow food’ movement which originated in Italy over 20 years ago, chef David Sterling launched the regional chapter of this organisation known as Slow Food Yucatán. It was set up to enhance the enjoyment of food while supporting and maintaining local farming, craft production and regional culinary traditions.
You visit local producers of anything from rum and chocolates, to herbs, honey and chicharrón (fried pig skin) depending on the seasons and availability.
After exploring the stalls, you'll enjoy a meal in a popular local restaurant where you'll feast on an array of authentic regional Yucatecan foods.
DAY 11 GUIDED EXCURSION TO MAYAN RUINED CITY CHICHÉN ITZÁ; ON TO MAYAN RIVIERA
From Mérida drive to Chichén Itzá (3 hrs), the grandest of all the Mayan sites, dominated by the huge, symmetrical, stepped El Castillo pyramid. The origins of the site are mysterious, and appear to have Toltec as well as Mayan influences. It has 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 the losers or winners 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.
Drive on to the Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast. Drive to Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera (4hrs). As its name suggests, this stretch of white-sand coastline has been comprehensively developed for tourism, with varying degrees of success from an aesthetic point of view. Playa, an hour’s drive south of Cancún, is a pleasant, if very busy, family and entertainment resort with a lively pedestrianised centre overflowing with restaurants and bars. Your hotel is in a rather more peaceful location on the fringes of town.
DAYS 12-13 AT LEISURE ON THE CARIBBEAN COAST
The beaches are gorgeous here and there are loads of activities and excursions, from visits to other Mayan ruins to scuba diving. These are easy to book locally. You might even hire a car for a day or two to have more flexibility to explore.
DAY 14 TRANSFER TO CANCÚN AIRPORT FOR INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT HOME