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2017 NEW Mexico’s Ancient & Colonial Heritage

Oaxaca • Palenque • Merida

Sold out in 2017

Trip Itinerary

Ancient ruins and colonial charms await you as you discover Mexico, from Oaxaca’s cobblestone streets to “The White City” of Merida.

Courtesy Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - Monte Alban

Discover the mysteries of the ancient Zapotecs when you wander through Monte Albán’s stone ruins.

Courtesy Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - Santo Domingo

Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo Church transfixes visitors with its baroque style and tranquil aura.

Courtesy Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - Day of the Dead

Local Oaxacans celebrate the dead with flowers, music, and food during a unique Mexican festival.

Courtesy Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - El Arbol Del Tule

Marvel at the widest tree in the world, which has been growing for over 2,000 years.

Courtesy Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - Hierve El Agua

Explore the breathtaking natural landscape of Hierve el Agua, including the calcified waterfalls.

©2010 The New York Times
The Frugal Traveler: Hidden Mexico

Follow the Frugal Traveler off the tourist track and discover a small, friendly town in Oaxaca.

Courtesy of Bob Krist
Oaxaca - The Day of the Dead

Get swept up in the festival atmosphere of Oaxaca’s unique Day of the Dead celebration.

Sold out in 2017
Extend Your Trip

Discover Chichen Itza and other Mayan mysteries on our NEW 2017 trip


Get a head start in Oaxaca before your Land Tour begins.

NEW: Activity Level

Our NEW Activity Level rating system ranks our trips on a scale of 1 (easiest) to 5 (most difficult) to help you determine if a trip is right for you. The information below is a general guide to our rating system, but see our itineraries for much more detailed physical activity information about each trip.

Activity Level 1:

1 2 3 4 5


Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 2:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 3:

1 2 3 4 5


Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

Activity Level 4:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

1 2 3 4 5


Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

Itinerary Overview

Mexico. It is white sand beaches, crystalline waters, warm sun. But it is also a land layered with history—from the ancient Maya to Spanish conquistadors. On our NEW Land Tour, begin your journey in Oaxaca, as you wander traditional markets, admire 16th century architecture, and sample authentic cuisine. Continue to Palenque, where outside the city ancient temples rise from the jungle. Finally, arrive in Merida, the vibrant capital of the Yucatan peninsula, to feel the heart of Spanish colonial culture and gaze upon its past at the mystical step pyramids of Chichen Itza.

Day-to-Day Itinerary

  • 4 nights from only $695

    Begin your travel in Mexico by exploring its heart—Mexico City—the country’s cosmopolitan capital. Discover a wealth of culture, from its grand National Palace to the National Museum of Anthropology, home to one of the world’s largest collections of pre-Hispanic artifacts. You’ll also journey beyond the buzzing metropolis to “the Venice of the New World”—Xochimilco—a magical city connected by tranquil canals and floating gardens. And you’ll visit the Spanish colonial town of Coyoacan, birthplace of Mexican artist Frida Khalo.  

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Oaxaca Merida Expand All
  • A Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport and assist you to your hotel, where you'll be joined by fellow travelers who took our optional pre-trip extension to Mexico City, Mexico. After check-in, you may choose to join your Program Director on an orientation walk.

    Tonight, dinner is on your own.

  • Arise this morning for your first full day in Oaxaca, a Spanish colonial-era gem with deep indigenous roots. This convergence of cultures creates a lively, colorful atmosphere felt throughout the elegant city.

    After breakfast you’ll set off on a walking tour, stopping to admire Santo Domingo Church. Construction on the impressive church began in 1555, but wasn’t completed for another hundred years. Its relatively simple 17th-century façade belies the extravagance that awaits within—its lavishly decorated interior is a magnificent example of baroque architecture.

    Then explore Oaxaca’s zocalo, or main square. Officially known as the Plaza de la Constitucion, this tree-filled square is the heart of the city. Bursting with cafes, restaurants, and a bevy of street entertainers and vendors—the zocalo is full of tempting options for authentic meals and shopping experiences, both of which your Program Director can recommend for your leisure time.

    Next you’ll get a taste, figuratively and literally, of one of Oaxaca’s most famous contributions to the culinary scene—chocolate—during an exclusive Discovery Series visit to a local chocolate factory. The chocolate made in Oaxaca is known world-wide as simply “Mexican chocolate,” but it is here where the distinct recipe was created. Typical Oaxaca chocolate is ground with sugar, almonds, and cinnamon before being formed into bars. Wonderful in both hot and cold chocolate beverages alike, Oaxaca chocolate is also used in savory dishes, such as spicy mole sauce.

    You’ll soon discover that chocolate is only the beginning of Oaxaca’s strong ties to its culinary culture. On our next exclusive Discovery Series event, explore bustling Benito Juarez mercado (market) where vendors sell everything from dried chili peppers and fresh queso (cheese) to traditional clothing and hand-woven baskets. Food stalls are also plentiful, offering warm tortillas, grilled meats, even spicy chapulines (grasshoppers toasted with chili). 

    The remainder of the day is yours, with lunch on your own. Then gather with your fellow travelers this evening for a Welcome Dinner.

  • After breakfast this morning, you’ll get your first glimpse of pre-Hispanic civilization when you visit Mitla, an ancient Zapotec religious and ceremonial site. These fascinating ruins are adorned with ancient hand-cut stone mosaics, believed to date back to the last two or three centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mitla is comprised of five sections of ruins—the best-preserved groups being the church and columns. Mitla also features 14 occurrences of the same intricate geometric design that can be found carved into buildings throughout the site.   

    Next, depart Mitla and head to the small weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle where you'll visit the home of a local artisan for an exclusive Discovery Series event. Teotitlán weaving has been sought after since pre-Hispanic times when villages had to pay tributes of cloth to the Aztecs. Nowadays, the techniques for weaving the brightly hued textiles have remained remarkably unchanged, many artisans still using natural dyes—reds, for example, are made with pulverized cochineal (a small insect that lives on cacti), while blues are created with indigo.

    After your demonstration, enjoy an included lunch at the artisan's home. 

    Your next stop will be the Don Agave Mezcal Distillery for another exclusive Discovery Series event. Learn the centuries-old art of distilling mezcal—similar to tequila, but distinguished by a smoky finish—from the harvest and slow roasting of the spiny agave plant to a taste of the final result.  

    After your tour, you'll return to your hotel. The rest of the afternoon is free, and dinner is on your own.

  • Your exploration of Oaxaca’s ancient wonders continues today as you discover the ruins at Monte Alban, or White Mountain. But first, stop on your way to admire the Fountain of the Seven Regions for a more modern example of Mexican heritage. Constructed in 1927, the fountain features seven figures meant to represent the seven indigenous regions of Oaxaca.

    Next you will arrive at your main destination—Monte Alban. Gaze upon the ruins of a once-majestic Zapotec capital city; its lofty mountain-top location offers both spectacular views and insight to the location’s importance during its time. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Monte Alban stretches out around you—a dizzying expanse of temples, plazas, residential areas, and majestic pyramids.

    This afternoon, you’ll return to your hotel and enjoy the rest of the day at leisure, with lunch on your own. Then in the evening, gather with your fellow travelers for dinner at a local restaurant.

  • After breakfast this morning, you'll be transported to the airport for your flight to Villahermosa Airport. Your flight includes a layover in Mexico City, where you will have time to seek out lunch on your own in the airport. After your arrival in Villahermosa, you will travel to Palenque, where you'll check into your hotel and join your Program Director for an orientation walk of the area. Tonight, dinner will be at your hotel. 

  • After breakfast this morning, set off to discover the Maya ruins of Palenque.

    Rising from the jungle, the Palenque ruins are considered to be one of the best examples of ancient Maya architecture. The largest Mesoamerican step pyramid on the site—the Temple of Inscriptions—is adorned with hieroglyphics that have contributed significantly to our understanding of Maya civilization. More intimate in scale than other ruins you will experience in Mexico, Palenque boasts the the most intricate and mesmerizing Maya art. That, plus its primordial jungle setting, give Palenque a definite air of mystery. 

    After your explorations, savor lunch at a local restaurant. Then return to your hotel for a few hours of leisure to relax or wander the hotel grounds on your own.

    You'll then head off to modern day Palenque where you'll enjoy a tour of the city, during which your Program Director can point out authentic dining options for you to try out during dinner on your own tonight.

  • Say adios to Palenque this morning. After breakfast, you will be transferred to the airport for your flight to Merida—the lively capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. After checking into your hotel, enjoy an included lunch before settling into your room.

    Afterwards, get to know Merida, known as "The White City," during an orientation drive around the area. Famous for its charming white-washed buildings and exquisite Spanish colonial architecture Merida also features a wealth of cultural offerings—including fine restaurants your Program Director can suggest for dining options. During your drive, you’ll first discover Paseo de Montejo, the city’s main boulevard. Then stop to witness the Monumento a la Bandera, or Flag Monument. Designed by Mexican sculptor Romulo Rozo, the large monument depicts the country’s history from the founding of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan through the mid-twentieth century. End your explorations at the city’s tranquil, tree-lined zocalo, or square. 

    The rest of the evening is at leisure and dinner is on your own. 

  • Today, journey to Yucatan’s jungle and discover the spellbinding ruins that stand amidst the lush forest. Behold the ancient city of Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most important Maya settlements in Yucatan. A veritable treasure-trove of pre-Hispanic culture and history, the layout of Uxmal’s temples, platforms, and other buildings reveal the ancient Maya's understanding of astronomy. Many of the buildings are decorated with a profusion of intricate carvings, which tell the story of the Maya's culture. Most notably featured is Chaac, the god of rain, who was very important to the city as it lacked its own water source.

    Dominating the ancient cityscape are its pre-Hispanic pyramids, the tallest of these being the Piramide del Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician). The creation of this particular monument is where Uxmal gets its name—meaning “thrice built”—as it was constructed in three phases. As you gaze up at this towering spectacle, it is easy to imagine the sacred importance this city once held in the ancient world. These days, its sole inhabitants are giant iguanas, which you may see sunning themselves atop the crumbling temples.

    Next, you’ll depart the ancient world and set off for Hacienda San Pedro Ochil—a sprawling estate that was built atop an ancient Maya settlement and now features the stately Spanish-colonial architecture popular in the late 19th century. Here you will savor a lunch of Yucatan specialties before enjoying a guided tour of the grounds. Once known for fiber production, the hacienda now hosts modern art installations as well as a folk art museum honoring the work of past artisans.

    You’ll arrive back to your hotel later this afternoon where you can enjoy the rest of the day at leisure, making independent discoveries or simply relaxing by the pool. Dinner is on your own.

  • Today is yours to explore the city of Merida at your own pace.

    Or, you may choose to join our optional Celestun Biosphere Reserve tour. Travel west to the serene coastline of the Yucatan peninsula, home to the quaint fishing village of Celestun, stretches of breathtaking beaches, and the Celestun Biosphere Reserve—a sprawling 146,000 acres of natural beauty. It includes a protected estuary, where fresh and saltwater meet to create a delicate eco-system perfectly suited to over 300 species of birds, including a vast flamingo colony. Admire the graceful pink birds during a boat ride then stop to enjoy a seafood lunch at a local restaurant—included in the cost of your optional tour. Afterwards, enjoy some time to relax on the beach before heading back to Merida in the mid-afternoon.

  • This morning, the mysterious ruins of Chichen Itza beckon you. Depart after breakfast for the UNESCO World Heritage site that contains the massive step pyramid known as El Castillo (the castle)—named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Once a seat of power in the ancient world, the site now attracts millions of visitors every year who come to admire the city’s spectacular and beautifully preserved ruins. The Maya people were exceptionally advanced: They were skilled farmers, astronomers, and developed what may have been the first written language native to the Americas. They were also great mathematicians and were the first to develop the concept of zero—a theory that had eluded the ancient Greeks.

    Another striking feature of Chichen Itza is its enormous ball court. Measuring 225 feet wide and 545 feet long, the remains—known as The Great Ballcourt—are the largest ever discovered in Mesoamerica. While no record of the rules of this ancient game exist today, the carvings on the court’s stone walls reveal images of players carrying the ball with their hands; the ball itself being a little larger than a basketball and made of solid rubber. The sheer size of the court alone gives insight into how significant these games were to ancient Maya culture. 

    Later, enjoy an included lunch at a local restaurant.

    Return to your own hotel late this afternoon for a bit of leisure time before rejoining with your fellow travelers for a Farewell Dinner this evening at a local restaurant. Raise a glass to each other, as you share stories and memorable moments from your time together in Mexico.

    • Meals included:

    After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight home. Or begin your post-trip extension in Tulum, Mexico.

    Tulum, Mexico

    3 nights from only $595

    Slip into the easy pace of Tulum on this post-trip extension. Its spectacular coastline awaits you, offering sugar-sand beaches, turquoise waves, and the lively resort town of Playa del Carmen. But Tulum is more than just a tropical escape—it is also a window to the past. Situated high above its famous shores are the ruins of an ancient Maya city, a fascinating testament to the indigenous culture that is still very much present in Mexico today.

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Click below to read our Travel Planning Guide on NEW Mexico’s Ancient & Colonial Heritage

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