Throughout Mexico are the stunning remains of former civilizations. But many are either unknown to the world of tourism or are so off the beaten trail that they are rarely visited. This intriguing 15-day itinerary will take you to these hidden places, along with several of the country’s gorgeous colonial cities.
Led by a renowned Mesoamerican scholar, journey from the Gulf Coast lowlands to Mexico’s Central Plateau. And along the way see nine UNESCO World Heritage sites: Veracruz’ colonial town of Tlacotlalpan; El Tajin with its eye-catching Pyramid of the Niches; the sacred Sanctuary of Atotonilco; the Padre Tembleque Aqueduct constructed in the 16th century; El Camino Real Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road that traversed 1,590 miles from Mexico City to New Mexico; and the historic colonial cities of Puebla, Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, and Mexico City. But there’s more! Also included is Cantona, one of the largest urban centers ever discovered in Mesoamerica, and Arroyo Seco, a cave decorated with multicolored prehistoric paintings, only recently opened to the public. Added highlights are the rarely visited, only recently explored archaeological remains of the Bajía region – El Cerrito, Plazuelas, Peralta, and Barajas.
Won’t you join Far Horizons and only 11 others on this very special expedition to the hidden sites of Mexico?
Study Leader to be Announced
Fly to Mexico City. Connect to flight to Veracruz, Mexico’s Gulf Coast port. Gather for Veracruzana típica cuisine at our welcome dinner. Overnight for two nights in the Gran Hotel Diligencias, within walking distance of the central plaza. (D)
Ideally located along the banks of the Papaloapan River, Tlacotlalpan was originally founded by the Totonac peoples, invaded by the Toltecs in the 12th century, and conquered by the Aztecs in 1475. In the 16th century the Spanish subjugated the river port; thus, establishing the colonial-era layout. After a series of catastrophic fires in the 19th century, the settlement was rebuilt.
Today, neoclassic buildings dominate the center, all enveloped in dazzling intense hues. As we stroll through the picturesque streets of this UNESCO World Heritage town, we will learn how the fusion of colonial Mexican and Caribbean architecture characterizes Tlacotlalpan. In the afternoon, we return to Veracruz to visit two citadels. Constructed by Spanish Conquistadores, San Juan de Ulúa is a complex of fortresses on an island overlooking the port of Veracruz. Baluarte de Santiago is all that remains of the city’s original walled defense system completed in 1635. The evening is free to enjoy this eccentric city. Due to the seaport, Europeans, Arabs, Africans, and people from the Caribbean islands all have contributed to the iconic Veracruz culture.
It is a very special, easy-going town. Its charm can be felt by simply spending an evening sitting in a sidewalk café sipping lechero while listening to the music of the festive danzón and spontaneous dance performances. Dinner is on our own to search for a perfect Veracruz seafood restaurant. (B/L/ )
Cempoala (Zempoala) is located only a few miles north of Veracruz. The capital of the Totonacs, it was the first New World city encountered by Hernán Cortés after he landed near Veracruz on April 22, 1519. The Totonacs were a pre-Columbian group that emigrated to the Gulf Coast of Mexico from the central Mexican highlands. Defeated by the armies of Moctezuma I in the mid-15th century, the community paid heavy taxes under their subjugation. And when the Spanish arrived on the Gulf Coast, the chief of the Totonacs decided to join forces to battle the Aztecs.
Therefore, Cempoala was a significant staging post in the conquest of Mexico. After viewing the archaeological site, we drive into the mountains to Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz. It is known as the “Athens of Veracruz” because of the strong cultural influence of its major university, Universidad Veracruzana. Our end point is the city’s Anthropology Museum, certainly one of the most beautiful in Mexico. The unique structure was designed by the architect Edward Durrell Stone, an early proponent of modern architecture in the United States. Huge, airy rooms pour down the side of a hill, each one home to artifacts of different ancient Mexican civilizations.
Spend a leisurely afternoon examining the splendid display of art, with a concentration of artifacts from the Olmec civilization, the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Overnight in the Fiesta Inn Xalapa. (B/L/D)
This morning, we return to the Gulf Coast to visit one of the most beautiful locales in Mexico. The remains of Quiahuiztlan are spectacularly positioned on the terraced slopes of a lofty volcanic mountain. This unusual archaeological site has breathtaking views over Villa Rica, where Hernán Cortés first landed, and the azure sea beyond. Once enclosed by defensive walls, Quiahuiztlan may have been a cemetery for the nobility of Cempoala.
While here, we will scrutinize the more than 70 miniature ‘houses’ spread over several levels that were most likely burial crypts. After our explorations, continue to Poza Rica and overnight at the Fiesta Inn for two nights. (B/L/D)
El Tajin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of the largest and most important ceremonial centers during the Classic era of Mesoamerica. Here, the impressive stone structures are glorious, many intricately adorned with decorative carved reliefs. There are two distinct areas of the city with the oldest constructed according to the cardinal compass points, and dominated by the Pyramid of the Niches. A masterpiece of ancient architecture, each of the pyramid’s four sides is covered with rows of small niches fashioned from blocks of stone. There are a total of 365, suggesting it was used as an astronomical calendar to track the days of the year. El Tajin was a center of trade.
The city’s multitude of luxury items were traded over a wide area throughout Mesoamerica. The delicate, alluring buildings still standing proclaim the former wealth of this lovely city. In the afternoon, we will drive to Papantla in order to see the Voladores. In this ancient ritual, brave men climb a tall pole and launch themselves tied with ropes to twirl upside down to the ground. One man remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum.
Move on to Castillo de Teayo, originally an ancient Huastec city. The primary pyramid towers three levels cut in the middle with a central stairway. During excavations in the late ‘40s, archaeologists found carved monuments depicting gods and rulers. And there is a small site museum containing some of these artifacts. Several of the sculptures are phallic in shape, very popular in some ancient Mesoamerican cultures. (B/L/D)
We depart the tropical lowlands and drive into Mexico’s central highlands. Here, awe-inspiring Cantona, is one of the largest urban centers ever discovered in Mesoamerica covering almost five square miles. At the height of its occupation, the city was enclosed by a fortified wall. And within have been found at least 24 ballcourts! Located along an old trading trail between the Gulf Coast and the Central Highlands, Cantona was the source of rich obsidian deposits extracted from the nearby Sierra de las Navajas.
After spending time onsite, we continue to Puebla. We spend the night in the Palacio San Leonardo, housed in an elegant 19th century former mansion located in the heart of the historic center. Dinner will be in one of Puebla’s excellent restaurants serving regional cuisine. (B/L/D)
Founded in 1531, Puebla’s stunning historic center is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the first city in central Mexico founded by the Spanish that was not built upon the ruins of a conquered Native settlement. During our morning walking tour, we will see graceful colonial mansions, the 16th-century Puebla Cathedral on the central square, or Zócalo, and Biblioteca Palafoxiana, a library dating from 1646.
Then, on the way to Querétaro, stop to see the Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of an extensive hydraulic system. Initiated by a Franciscan friar in the 16th century, it incorporates the highest single-level arcade ever built in an aqueduct. Continue to Querétaro and overnight for two nights at the Meson de Santa Rosa. (B/L/D)
A massive pyramid known as El Cerrito stands almost ten stories high towering over the outskirts of Querétaro. The city was originally settled by people of the enigmatic Chupicuaro culture around 300BC. The ceremonial center had a long history as a sacred sanctuary, seemingly honoring a mysterious and curvaceous deity of fertility, the powerful mother goddess. According to Franciscan records, devotees were still worshiping at the temple in the 15th century. Like the Castillo at Chichén Itzá, the pyramid has stairways on all four sides. And it is topped by the remains of an early colonial church much like the great pyramid at Cholula.
After visiting El Cerrito, spend the afternoon touring the historic town of Santiago de Querétaro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is divided into two distinct sections where the indigenous and Spanish lived peacefully during the 17th and 18th centuries. One section is the grid pattern street plan of the Spanish conquerors and the other the twisting, winding lanes where the multi-ethnic population lived. Many elaborately decorated civil and religious Baroque monuments from this golden age still stand in the historic center. Dominating the city’s skyline is an aqueduct created in the 18th century to channel water from a spring six miles away. Dinner is on our own. (B/L)
This morning, we drive to San Miguel de Allende, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was first established in 1542 to protect the Royal Route inland. It played a significant role as a onetime epicenter of the silver trade. And the past is revealed in the wealth of ornate baroque Spanish architecture of the 17th century to the 19th century Neo-Gothic. Sitting in front of the Plaza Allende, or Jardin Principal, is the Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel. It’s grand neo-gothic façade of pink limestone is crowned by soaring towers.
As we wander the streets lined with colonial-era homes and churches, stop to see the Casa de Allende Museum. This was the home of Ignacio Allende who was a principal figure in the early part of the Mexican War of Independence.
After lunch in one of the charming local restaurants, move on to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Guanajuato where we overnight for four nights. Dinner is on our own. (B/L)
The Bajío region includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro. Over the centuries, Native people settled here due to the fertile soil, temperate climate, and the presence of surface water for agriculture. And the remains of these ancient cultures are to be found scattered throughout the countryside. Ignored until recently, archaeological investigations within the past decade have found the Bajío, although still little known, to be an important part of the Mesoamerican universe.
Our morning jaunt takes us to Plazuelas. This large center was constructed on a high artificial platform protected by steep ravines on three sides. The central plaza is encircled by decorated structures. Three of them appear to have been intentionally aligned with three hills that can be seen in the distance. A massive ball court, in the shape of a capital I, has been uncovered. Stone serpent figures are at each corner, along with a marker in the center. Hundreds of petroglyphs are dotted throughout Plazuelas. Near the ball court, a rock engraving displays a diagram of the site. Finds of turquoise, copper bells, seashells, and jadeite indicate an extensive trade network spanning from Guatemala to the Caribbean to New Mexico. And artifacts from the excavations are displayed in the small site museum.
In the afternoon we explore Peralta, another Bajío site and one of the largest in the region. Surrounded by a multitude of terraced agricultural fields, the huge city once covered more than 300 acres. The primary structure is unique in Mesoamerica, merging a massive stepped pyramid with sunken patios and a circular structure built on top. (B/L/D)
Scattered over the northern side of Cerro Barajas is one of the largest and best-preserved architectural ensembles in the state of Guanajuato. During the Barajas phase (650-950 AD), hundreds of structures were built of andesite slabs, quarried nearby. Curiously, around 950-1000AD a massive planned abandonment occurred. But before leaving, the inhabitants inexplicably bricked up the doors of the buildings. The Camino Real Tierra Adentro, or Royal Road, was a 1,590 mile long trade route. Established by the Spanish between Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico, it was used from the middle of the 16th century to the 20th century.
In 2010, 55 sites and five existing UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the Mexican section of the route were collectively added to the World Heritage List. They included historic cities, towns, bridges, haciendas along with the thoroughfare itself. As we traverse Mexico’s central plateau, we will search out remnants of this age-old road. Dinner is on our own. (B/L/ )
We begin the day at Arroyo Seco. This cave was ornamented with many prehistoric polychrome paintings depicting scenes of hunting and dancing along with an assortment of beasts – foxes, coyotes, dogs, eagles, spiders, and more. The age of the pictographs is not definite but were most likely created by nomadic hunter-gathering people. Dinner is on our own. (B/L/ )
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Santuario de Atotonilco was begun in 1740 by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro. It has been said, he experienced a vision of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and walking with his cross. The padre worked with a local artist, Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, who covered the interior walls depicting scenes from the Bible. Today, Atotonilco is a venerated town with worshippers and penitents from all over Mexico visiting on pilgrimage. Lunch will be in a nearby hacienda where we will not only dine but will be able to taste the succulent tequila produced here.
Then we continue to Mexico City where we spend two nights in the Hotel Historico Central. Located in the historic center, the inn is housed in a beautifully restored 18th-century colonial building. (B/L/ )
The Museo de la Antropología is not only the finest museum in the country, but also ranks amongst the greatest in the world. We will spend this morning examining the museum’s great collections. Special emphasis will be on the often mysterious cultures in central Mexico. After time for lunch on our own at the museum café, move on to the vibrant Abelardo Rodriguez Market. This was the most important Mexican urban renewal project of the 1930s.
Originally designed as a cultural and educational space, it houses not only a market but also a daycare center, theater, pharmacy, dance hall, and library. Unknown by tourists, the interior is a jewel of classic murals painted by acolytes and students of Diego Rivera, including American sisters Marion and Grace Greenwood. Our farewell dinner will be at one of Mexico City’s renowned fine restaurants. (B/ /D)
Transfer to the airport for our flights home. (B)
Price is based on double occupancy and includes:
Trip prices are based on a minimum number of participants. If this minimum number is not met, trip prices are subject to change. Should the prices need to change, Far Horizons will reach out to registered guests to discuss directly.
Should a roommate be requested and one not be available, the single supplement must be charged.
As a tour company that benefits from the cultural and natural riches of our destinations, we have a policy of donating to the scientific and cultural sites and projects which we visit. This has created a bond between Far Horizons and the academic and local communities that has helped us establish an extensive list of lecturers and contacts in each of our destinations. We ask that each participant donate to the noteworthy project we designate. The donation amount is $150.00 per person. Note that the donation is required as part of your registration for the trip and that it is non-refundable.
Prices are based on currency exchange rates keeping below a projected level. While it is unlikely, if the exchange rates should change substantially, Far Horizons reserves the right to charge an additional amount to the trip cost.
A deposit of $1000 per person is required along with your registration & health forms, which will be linked in the email confirmation you receive once you pay your deposit on our booking platform. Final payment is due 120 days before departure. Prior to departure, you will be sent a reading list and a tour bulletin containing travel information.
Cancellations received in writing at least 120 days before departure will receive a refund less a $500 per person administrative fee. Cancellations received less than 120 days before the departure date will not receive a refund. If for any reason you are unable to complete the trip, Far Horizons will not reimburse any fees. Upon registering for the tour, the purchase of travel protection with both trip cancellation and emergency evacuation is strongly advised. Links to recommended insurance policies will be included in the email you receive confirming receipt of your deposit.
International round trip flights are not included in the cost of the trip. If Far Horizons must change the trip dates or cancel the trip for any reason, Far Horizons is not responsible for any air ticket you may have purchased. Please send your complete air schedule as soon as you have it. NOTE: Please contact Far Horizons if you would like for us to handle your air ticketing.
The private tours of archaeological sites and talks by specialists are scheduled in advance and include a donation to each. Specialists working at these sites are excited about showing their work to interested enthusiasts. However, please be aware that there may be times when the director or a member of the staff may not be on site when our groups arrive due to other commitments.
Far Horizons expects all participants to be physically active and able to walk and climb independently throughout the full touring days. This includes walking over uneven terrain (uphill and downhill) for a mile or more at each site. You should expect to be on your feet for much of each day, averaging 3-4 miles of walking. As such, each participant should be able to walk unaided at a pace of 3 miles per hour for at least half an hour at a time, and to stand unsupported for at least 30 minutes. Bearing this in mind, we suggest that, if you have not already done so, you begin walking for a mile or two every day. We feel that this preparation will increase your enjoyment of the trip. If you have questions about your ability to keep up with the group or the strenuous nature of this trip, please contact the Far Horizons staff.
This tour is designed for flexible, energetic people who like to be active, have a spirit of adventure and a positive attitude. We have designed this trip to be as comfortable as possible, while also aiming to visit some remote or unique sites that other companies do not attempt to include in their itineraries. There may be days where we have very long drives and the conditions of the roads may vary. Hotels and transportation in some remote areas may not be up to western standards. There may be times when no bellhops are available; please pack with the understanding that you need to be able to handle your own luggage at times. At times we may be walking over uneven trails for a mile or more; hiking boots are strongly recommended. Not every meal will not be haute cuisine and several lunches may be picnics or box lunches. By maintaining a flexible attitude we will soon be captivated by the beauty of the natural scenery, the hospitality of the local people, and the fascinating sites we will see. Your flexibility and patience will be appreciated.
Changes in our itinerary, accommodations, and transportation schedules may occur. While we are committed to keeping as close to the published details as possible, sometimes it is simply not possible. Weather events, government affairs, or other factors out of our control sometimes come into play. A good book to read as well as patience, flexible attitude, and a sense of humor are essential.
In Mexico’s central plateau at altitudes of 6,000 to 8,500 feet. In the tropical lowlands, it will be hot and muggy, but in the highlands the climate will be mild with cool evening temperatures. If you have questions about your ability to handle this sort of itinerary, please call us.