SIGNATURE MEXICO: CULTURAL HEARTLANDS AND CARIBBEAN COAST (15 DAYS) Mexico is one of Latin America's most vibrant and entertaining destinations, with a huge diversity of historical, cultural and natural attractions. On this jam-packed private holiday lose yourself in the superb museums and teeming plazas of the megalopolis that is Mexico City, where Aztec and Spanish heritages sit side by side. Visit the indigenous communities of the remote highlands, wander through the cobbled streets and soak up the colonial atmosphere in Oaxaca and Márida. Go on to explore the evocative ancient monuments, testament to bygone Mayan empires, which lay hidden and silent for centuries amid the deep valleys and jungles of the south. Round off your holiday lounging on the white-sand beaches that fringe the Yucatán Peninsula.
Day 1 Transfer to central hotel. You'll be met at the airport by one of our local representatives and accompanied to your hotel. Mexico City, known by the local people simply as 'DF' (Distrito Federal), 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 walking tour of Mexico City. The arrival of the Spanish conquistadores was a 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.
If you have time after or before the tour 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 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; Guadalupe shrine. Guided tour of Teotihuacán and the Guadalupe shrine. Passing through the northern suburbs of the capital, you head into the countryside towards the megalithic archaeological site of Teotihuacán.Teotihuacán 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. Visit also the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most venerated shrine and pilgrimage site in Mexico. Here, the Virgin Mary appeared disguised as an indian princess appeared to the fabled indigenous Mexican Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, leaving her image impressed on his cloak. It is not certain that he ever existed, but he was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 2002 as the continent's first indigenous saint.
Day 4 Fly to Oaxaca; guided tour of city and market. Leave the capital by air and travel southeast towards the southern highlands and the city of Oaxaca, set among arid mountains. 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. The peace and quiet of the cobbled streets is a welcome contrast to the busy capital.
There's a guided tour of the colonial delights of Oaxaca. Much of the tour is on foot with the main square (zócalo), and the boulevard of Calle Alcalá being free from traffic. Visit the city's government palace, cathedral and Santo Domingo church, as well as its colourful food market. Oaxaca is a centre for Mexican art; there are also opportunities to buy gifts in some of its art and craft shops.
Day 5 Half day guided excursion to the ruins of ancient city Monte Albán. 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 6 Fly to Tuxtla Gutierrez, transfer to San Cristóbal via Sumidero Canyon. Drive to San Cristóbal de las Casas via a scenic drive through the Sumidero Canyon. The scenery becomes dramatic with some of the canyon walls towering over 800m. San Cristóbal is a delightful town on many levels. Its striking location in a fertile valley bound by chunky mountains and its pleasant climate (altitude 2,100m) enhance the rustic charm of the graceful baroque and neoclassical homes, churches and public buildings. But it is the málange of cultures, Spanish and indigenous, reflected in the markets and craft-shops that is perhaps the biggest draw. A great place to ramble and relax.
Day 7 City tour and the indian villages, transfer to Palenque. Guided tour of the town and nearby indian villages. Begin the tour at the pretty main plaza in San Cristóbal de las Casas. On the north side of the square is the cathedral, most recently restored in the 1920s after earthquake damage in the 1800s, with its five gilded altars. Continue to the Santo Domingo temple, an impressive 16th century church with a beautiful pink façade and a gilded baroque interior. Browse the local market before driving to the indian villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, about a ten-minute drive from San Cristóbal. San Juan Chamula is characterised by the local costumes: men in grey, black or light pink tunics, and women in blue. The local church, centre for numerous festivals and rituals, is also of interest. The Sunday market is colourful and a popular tourist attraction. In Zinacantán, traditional costumes are also still worn: men wear embroidered red jackets and women, blue shawls. Please note that photography is a sensitive issue with local Indians and permission should be asked before taking pictures. Later, drive to Palenque your base for two nights. An hour before reaching Palenque, over hills on a windy road you, reach the Tulijá River. Here are the picturesque limestone waterfalls of Agua Azul, surrounded by lush green foliage with a series of turquoise pools.
Day 8 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 theTemplo de las Inscripciones . Also impressive is Temple 13 that houses a tomb and red-coloured skeleton believed to have been a queen.
Day 9 Fly to Márida, transfer to hotel. Fly to Márida, capital of the state of Yucatán. 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. Márida 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 Márida 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 Guided excursion to Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. Guided excursion to the Mayan temple complex at Uxmal, 80km from Márida. 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.
Day 11 Transfer to Chichán Itzá. Guided visit to the ruined city. From Márida drive to Chichán 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. Accommodation is a short walk from the site and in the evening there is the option to return to the site for the Sound and Light Show.
Day 12 Option to re-visit the ruins. By road to Playa del Carmen, Mayan Riviera. 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. Cancún is a sprawling resort of high-rise hotels and Disney-like themed bars and restaurants. As you head south towards Tulum, the built up area thins out and there are some lovely exclusive hotel properties. Playa del Carmen, an hour's drive south of Cancún, is a pleasant family resort with a lively pedestrianised centre overflowing with restaurants and bars.
Days 13-14 At leisure on the Caribbean coast. The beaches are gorgeous here and there are loads of activities and excursions, from visits to 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 15 Transfer to Cancún airport for international flight home.
Optional excursions There are a number of half-day, full-day or longer excursions or activities you may wish to consider in order to customise your holiday to cater for your interests. Please contact us to discuss these further or to add them to your itinerary before you depart. A selection of these: