Step back in time …Mexico’s historical sites
Inspired by a trip from Mexico City through to the Yucatan peninsula, Cox & Kings travel consultant Ian Jordan guides us around the best of Mexico’s many historical sites with some handy advice on nearby luxury lodgings.
Xochimilco, Mexico City
Set in the southern region of Mexico City, Xochimilco is a beautiful patchwork of orchards criss-crossed with canals, all set against a mountainous backdrop. It provides a glimpse into the origins of the city, which was a lake until the Spanish Conquistadores filled the area in. Xochimilco is known for its party scene at the weekends, but head to the quieter areas to experience the authentic pre-Hispanic agricultural areas, known as chinampas, and see traditional farming techniques that are still practised today. The chinampas are best viewed early in the morning as the sun rises and reflects in the water.
Sunrise boat ride, Xochimilco, Mexico City
Where to stay:
I would recommend the Four Seasons Mexico City for its inner courtyard alone, which provides a peaceful, green escape from the bustle of Mexico City. Built in a colonial hacienda style with huge rooms, the hotel maintains the high standards of the luxury Four Seasons brand. Add to this the unique creations of Mexico City’s number one rated cocktail bar, Fifty Mils, and you have a first-class stay.
Four Seasons courtyard, Mexico City
Hidden away deep within the jungle in the state of Chiapas, Unesco-listed Palenque is one of Mexico’s most impressive Mayan sites. At the height of its power the city’s population reached over 100,000 inhabitants. It now stands abandoned and overgrown with over 85% of the ruins still to be fully excavated. This is a magical place to explore. For a truly special experience, an out-of-hours visit can be arranged to avoid the crowds.
Where to stay:
Ideally located just a few kilometres from the archaeological site of Palenque, Quinta Cha Nab Nal is a boutique hotel built in a traditional Mayan style to reflect the history of the nearby ruins. There are just eight suites, including a Presidential Suite, an excellent restaurant and even a traditional temazcal (Mayan steam bath).
Quinta Cha Nab Nal, Palenque, Chiapas
Yaxchilan & Bonampak, Chiapas
Set on the border river with Guatemala, Yaxchilan is a truly special site that brings out a real sense of adventure. It can only be reached by boat up a crocodile-infested river, surrounded by jungle where howler and spider monkeys leap through the canopy and large snakes lurk below. This ancient city was one of the most powerful of the Mayan era, frequently warring with and dominating the neighbouring settlement at Bonampak and the larger city of Palenque. One of the most impressive monuments here is the South Acropolis, which stands at the site’s highest point and features extremely well-preserved carvings and hieroglyphs depicting the rulers Bird Jaguar IV and Shield Jaguar II.
Ruins at Yaxchilan, Chiapas
An hour’s drive from Yaxchilan lies the smaller site of Bonampak. Less impressive than its larger counterparts in Chiapas, the real highlights here are the extremely well-preserved and restored Mayan murals depicting a trio of major social events of the period. These include ritual crownings, sacrificial ceremonies and the preparation for war. The colours and etchings were protected by lime and water that naturally sealed the walls after the city was deserted; as with most Mayan sites, it’s uncertain as to why the settlement was abandoned so abruptly.
How to visit:
Yaxchilan is a 3-hour journey from Palenque by car and boat while Bonampak is a further hour’s drive – be prepared for a bumpy ride!
Murals at Bonampak, Chiapas
Another of Mexico’s many Unesco-listed archaeological sites, this is also one of its most important. The structures here are so well preserved that little restoration work has been needed. This is one of the few sites where you can get a real sense of how the entire ceremonial centre looked and functioned in ancient times. What’s more, it is much less visited than Chichen Itza and its counterparts so it’s definitely worth a visit.
Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal, Yucatan
Where to stay:
Chable Resort & Spa Yucatan is by far the best hotel I have ever stayed in. Unrivalled in terms of facilities and standards in the area, each individual casita enjoys its own private plunge pool to help combat the heat and iPad controls to operate the high-tech room amenities. The hotel is set within its own private 300-hectare estate and includes tennis courts, a small golf course and even its own apiary (the honey that’s served at breakfast is harvested from here). Health and wellbeing is the main focus of the property, evident from the sheer size and quality of the spa. But there are other ways to unwind too – the hotel boasts the world’s largest private collection of Tequila and Mezcal.
Chable Resort & Spa Yucatan
Chichen Itza, Yucatan
Chichen Itza is by far the most celebrated of all the historical sites in Mexico, and perhaps the Americas as a whole. This city was a major economic power in the Maya lowlands during its peak. Its ruins have been substantially restored in order for the 2.6 million tourists per year to get a real sense of the scale of this great civilisation. The principal structure is the massive pyramid called El Castillo, or Temple of Kukulcan, which dominates the main plaza.
How to visit:
The site is roughly a 3-hour drive from either Merida or the Riviera Maya. It’s best to aim for a special-access visit before sunrise to escape the scorching heat and the crowds. This means an early start from Merida or from your hotel on the Yucatan peninsula. Alternatively, stay at Hacienda Chichen for ease of access to the site.
El Castillo. Chichen Itza, Yucatan
Cox & Kings’ Highlights of Mexico is a comprehensive group tour of the major historical sites including Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.