Cultural and Historical Holidays: Mexico explorer
Soak up Mexico's ancient culture on a journey through the heart of the Aztec and Mayan empires. Discover elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories - all built by the Mayans without metal tools.
Climb the 2000-year-old pyramids at Chichen Itza, Copan and Uxmal; explore the stunning ruins of Palenque; wander around the vast city of Teotihuacan; scramble into sacrificial sinkholes at Cenote; or cool off with a refreshing swim in the Caribbean beneath the famous walled Mayan fortress of Tulum.
Along the way, listen to howler monkeys and spot toucans, wild turkeys and peccaries in sub-tropical rainforests. Then hang out in an outdoor cafe with a margarita or two or enjoy a glass of red wine as you savour Mexico's famous tortillas, tamales and enchiladas. Shop for bargains in the numerous markets and perhaps stumble into one of Mexico's many lively village fiestas - join in the fun and learn a few traditional dance steps to show off when you return home.
Chichen Itza - Stay overnight at the 'City of the Water Wizards' to fully explore this UNESCO World Heritage site. Climb the Pyramid of Kukulcan (El Castillo) and be rewarded with a spectacular view of the city and surrounding countryside. Venture inside the pyramid to explore the humid corridors and dark chambers and don't be surprised if you interrupt an iguana enjoying a nap. Stroll among the columns at the Temple of the Warriors, explore inside El Caracol (the observatory) and discover bas-reliefs and paintings that decorate every square metre of wall of the Nunnery.
Cenote - Go east of Chichen Itza to discover sacred Mayan sinkholes where young girls were apparently thrown as sacrifices to the rain god Chaac. At X'Keken, descend a vertical hole down narrow stone steps into a dark underground world of red limestone stalactites hanging above a green pool of water that shimmers in the sunlight from a gap in the cavern roof. Cool off in the ice-cold water.
Teotihuacan - Stroll along the monumental Calle de los Muertos (Street of the Dead) in the capital of what was probably Mexico's largest pre-Hispanic empire. Along the way, climb up and explore the former palaces of Teotihuacán's elite. Marvel at the huge Piramides del Sol y de la Luna (pyramids of the Sun and Moon), and within the Citadel, view the striking serpent carvings in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the carved pillars depicting a hybrid bird-butterfly in the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl. Discover more sights in the Jaguar Palace and the Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells. Don't miss Teotihuacan's most famous mural, the Paradise of Tlaloc, found in the Tepantitla Palace.
Palenque - Sitting on a ledge surrounded by hills covered in lush rainforest lies the hauntingly beautiful Mayan site of Palenque, one of the most picturesque of all the Mayan ruins. Wander through ancient buildings with multiple piers and doorways. Marvel at the exquisite stucco facades in the Temple of Inscriptions above the crypt of a Maya king. Don't miss the Multilevel Palace and the Temple of the Count.
Uxmal - Stroll among the elaborate stuccowork and detailed facades in this World Heritage site, one of the best restored and maintained ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. Admire the entwined serpents in the Nun's Quadrangle, the House of Pigeons and the Ball Court. Climb the 30m to the top of the Pyramid of the Magician and explore the carvings of serpents, sculptures of the rain god Chaac and astrological symbols in the Governor's Palace.
Cholula - In the remains of the largest pre-Hispanic ceremonial pyramid ever built, wander the underground tunnels that honeycomb the original structure and discover ruins of earlier temples and steep ceremonial stairways.
Tula - Roam around the former capital of the Toltec empire - the largest city in central Mexico in the 9th and 10th centuries. Gaze up at the 5m tall figures of Quetzalcoatl, dressed as a heavily armed Toltec warrier and carved into columns that originally supported the roof of the sanctuary located on top of the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Temple of the Morning Star). Climb among terraced pyramids, wander around colonnaded buildings and reclining sculptures that may have been avatars of the rain god Tlaloc.
Calakmul - Partially restored and in the heart of the jungle, this enormous ruined city is probably the biggest archaeological area in Mesoamerica, with more stelae and pyramids than any other Maya city. Wander around the imposing and well-preserved structures and perhaps get an insight into life in an ancient Maya capital. Arrive early to spot local wildlife such as toucans, wild turkeys, peccaries and even jaguars, and listen to the booming of howler monkeys as they thrash around in the nearby forest.
Tulum - Stroll around the walled fortress of Tulum, an important Maya spiritual and cultural centre. Standing atop a bluff, this outpost of the Maya civilisation offers breathtaking views over the Caribbean. Wander around the Temple of the Descending God, El Castillo and the Temple of the Frescoes. Afterwards, cool off with a swim in the Caribbean from the white-sand beach right in front of the site.
Monarch butterfly sanctuary - Watch butterflies turn trees and the entire landscape a rich, velvety orange colour. From November to mid-April, more than 100 million monarch butterflies migrate from the US and Canada to the lush mountains of Michoacan to breed. The best place to watch is the butterfly sanctuary in the mountains above the village of El Rosario. Go early in the morning when the butterflies are just waking up or later in the day when they coat the ground in a carpet of blazing colour.
Day of the Dead - Celebrated on All Souls Day, the first day of November and into the next day, with intense passion throughout Mexico. Head out to the cemetery to see paper-mache statues of skeletons and locals enjoying picnics by the graves of their ancestors. For a truly vibrant spectacle, get yourself to Lago de Patzcuaro where the indigenous people paddle out to the island of Janitzio in canoes, a single candle alight in each one.
Oaxaca - The market in Oaxaca is renowned as offering some of the best shopping in Mexico, and the surrounding villages even more so - here you actually can watch the handicrafts being made. Head to Teotitlan del Valle, the most famous weaving town in Oaxaca: choose from a variety of bold-patterned and brightly coloured rugs and sarapes (woven woollen blankets).
Best time to go
Ideally visit Mexico in November, after the rainy season and before the
peak tourist season in December. Plan to visit the highlands in summer
and the coast in winter for the best weather conditions. Any time of the
year is good if you make allowances for the rain in summer, the cold in
winter, and for sudden changes in temperature from the low-lying coastal
regions to the elevated inland areas. Mexico's climate varies according
to its topography:
Mexico City ranges between 10°C in winter and 25°C in summer; Merida (near Chichen Itza) averages 20°C in winter and from 27°C to 32°C in summer; Acapulco and Cancun average 26°C year round but can reach 32°C in summer. Summer, from June to October, is the rainy season; winter, from December to February, is the traditional tourist season.
Good buys can be found almost everywhere in the local markets, including ceramics and pottery - look out for black clay dishes from the Oaxaca region, woven woollen blankets (sarapes), brightly coloured scarves in wool or silk (rebozos) and richly embroidered charro hats. Also look out for hammocks, rugs, baskets, carved wood and embossed leather. In Mexico City, head to the artisans markets in La Ciudedala and Plaza del Buen Tono for the best bargains. For women's clothing, check out huipiles (white Mayan dresses embroidered with colourful flowers).
For men, look for a guayabera (a fine pleated shirt in cotton voile) or huaraches (traditional sandals). Gold and silver is also a good buy: Taxco is renowned for its fine silver jewellery and silverware and Oaxaca for its gold. Pick up a hammock, string it from tree to tree and relax like the locals - Merida, in the Yucatan, is the best place to buy one.
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