Discover Mexico from the Capital to the Beach: Palenque, Nahá, Calakmal & Bacalar - 15 Days
- Visit the museums of Mexico City and sample its street food
- Take a boat tour down the Grijalva River through Sumidero Canyon
- Cook native cuisine in Chiapas and swim at colorful waterfalls
- Tour the ruins of Palenque and visit a Maya community
- Sail around Lake Bacalar and laze on the beaches of Cancún
|Day 1||Arrive in Mexico City, History, Culture & Gastronomy Tour||Mexico City|
|Day 2||National Museum of Anthropology, Optional Activities||Mexico City|
|Day 3||Coyoacán & Frida Kahlo Museum, Boat Tour of Xochimilco||Mexico City|
|Day 4||Fly to Tuxtla, Visit Sumidero Canyon, Transfer to San Cristóbal||San Cristobal de las Casas|
|Day 5||Cooking Class in Zinacantán, Free Time in San Cristóbal||San Cristobal de las Casas|
|Day 6||San Cristóbal to Palenque via Agua Azul & Misol-Ha||Palenque|
|Day 7||Tour Palenque, Transfer to Nahá & Tribal Workshop||Nahá|
|Day 8||Explore the Nahá Reserve, Return to Palenque||Palenque|
|Day 9||Visit the Cenotes of Miguel Colorado, Transfer to Calakmul||Calakmul|
|Day 10||Maya Seed Workshop, Transfer to Bacalar||Bacalar|
|Day 11||Sailing Lake Bacalar, Transfer to Cancún||Cancún|
|Day 12||Free Day in Cancún||Cancún|
|Day 13||Free Day in Cancún||Cancún|
|Day 14||Free Day in Cancún||Cancún|
|Day 15||Depart Cancún|
Day 1: Arrive in Mexico City, History, Culture, & Gastronomy Tour
Welcome to Mexico! This culturally rich and beautiful Latin American nation is full of history, art, music, and some of the most delicious food in the world. The adventure begins in the heart of it all: Mexico City, the nation's capital. Upon arrival at the airport, a personal driver will pick you up for the transfer to your hotel. There's no time to waste because after settling in, you'll head right back out and stretch your legs on a four-hour walking tour of "DF" (Distrito Federal), as the locals call this city. On tour, you'll marvel at the historic architecture while enjoying Mexico's world-renowned gastronomy.
It begins in the Centro Histórico, an area home to so many historic landmarks (some from the Aztec era) that it's earned UNESCO World Heritage status. You'll visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes (a white-marble cultural center and concert hall built in 1905), the pedestrian-only Madero Street, and the Plaza de la Constitución, better known as Zócalo. This massive public square is home to historic buildings like the Metropolitan Cathedral (built over 250 years beginning in 1573), the 16th century National Palace, and the ruins of the 14th century Templo Mayor, once a principal temple of the Aztec Empire.
Day 2: National Museum of Anthropology, Optional Activities
Today you'll enjoy a 2.5-hour guided tour of one of the most important museums in Latin America. The Museum of Anthropology is an architectural marvel built in the '60s by architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez. Its 23 rooms and outdoor exhibit spaces are home to the world's most extensive collection of ancient Mexican art. There are many pre-Columbian sculptures and ethnographic exhibits about modern-day indigenous groups. Highlight items include the Aztec Calendar, The Olmec colossal head (a giant stone head carved out of basalt), and the jade Mask of the Zapotec Bat God.
After the museum, you can explore Mexico City on your own. Perhaps visit Chapultepec Park. At 1,695 acres, this is one of the largest urban green spaces in the world. It's also one of the oldest, as it was once a retreat for Aztec rulers. Besides lakes and gardens, the park contains nine museums, a zoo, and an amusement park. Or visit one of DF's many markets selling fresh produce and other goods. The biggest is Central de Abasto, which contains 2,000 businesses across 810 acres. Afterward, relax at a café in the bohemian enclave of La Condesa and admire the stunning art nouveau architecture.
Day 3: Coyoacán & Frida Kahlo Museum, Boat Tour of Xochimilco
In the morning, head out on a half-day tour of the most historic cultural sites around Mexico City. First up is Coyoacán. Located in the city's south, this neighborhood is famous for its cobbled streets, shady plazas, and colorful homes. The area has retained its colonial charm, as it was its own municipality from the early 16th century through the 19th century. Here you'll visit the 16th-century San Juan Bautista Church, plus stop at a local craft fair. Then continue to La Casa Azul, the house where Frida Kahlo spent much of her life and is now a museum displaying works by Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Next, travel further south to the outskirts of the city and Xochimilco. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been settled since pre-colonial times. It's known for its tranquil canals—remnants of the rivers that once crossed Mexico's valley floor and were used by the Aztecs for transport. A popular activity you'll enjoy here is traveling down the canals on a trajinera (painted, gondola-like boat). As you float down this half-natural, half-artificial landscape, you'll nibble on antojitos (Mexican snacks) and learn about Mexican history as boats filled with mariachi musicians float past and serenade you.
Day 4: Fly to Tuxtla, Visit Sumidero Canyon, Transfer to San Cristóbal
In the morning, a driver will pick you up and transfer you to the airport in Mexico City. From there, you'll take a 1.5-hour flight south to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas. This state is one of Mexico's main coffee-producing regions (along with Oaxaca and Veracruz). It is known for its rich indigenous heritage, which reveals itself in the people's food, culture, and dress. Upon arrival at the airport, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel in the city. Right after checking in, another driver will pick you up for a five-hour tour of nearby Sumidero Canyon National Park.
It takes 25 minutes to reach the town of Chiapa de Corzo, which sits on the Grijalva River. A nearby dock is the embarkation point for boat tours into Sumidero Canyon. Here, you'll board a motorboat and begin the adventure. Few sites in Mexico are as incredible—the canyon's vertical limestone cliffs soar as high as 3,300 feet (1,000 m) and are covered in lush vegetation. You'll see a wide diversity of flora and fauna, like bromeliads and spider monkeys. There are even families of giant crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbanks. The boat also passes by cascading waterfalls and through natural caves.
After the tour, you'll drive for approximately one hour up into the mountains to the charming colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Day 5: Cooking Class in Zinacantán, Free Time in San Cristóbal
First thing in the morning, you'll head just outside San Cristóbal to Zinacantán (an indigenous Tzotzil word that means "land of bats"). This highland town in Chiapas has been inhabited since pre-colonial times and remains populated mainly by the Tzotzil Maya indigenous people. And since one of the best ways to experience any culture is through its food, today, you'll participate in a four-hour farm-to-table (literally) cooking experience.
It begins when you arrive at a local home in Zinacantán. After the requisite introductions, your hosts will show you the kitchen where you'll prepare the meal. If it's milpa season, you'll accompany them on a tour of the fields to learn about this ancient farming system in which different species, like corn and beans, are intercropped and share resources such as water. You'll harvest the requisite ingredients from the fields and then return to the home where, with your hosts' help, you'll prepare a 5-course traditional meal that celebrates local indigenous culture.
Day 6: San Cristóbal to Palenque, Stop at Agua Azul & Misol-Ha
Leave San Cristóbal early on a full-day tour through the Chiapas highlands. Your final destination is the ancient Maya archeological site of Palenque, but you'll break up the 5-hr drive with various stops. First is breakfast at a roadside café, then the waterfalls at Agua Azul. Located on the Xanil River, these terraced falls are famous not for their height—the most significant plunge about 20 feet (6 m)—but for the vivid turquoise water. Take a dip in its pools before continuing to the much larger Misol-Ha waterfall, which cascades 115 feet (35 m) off a limestone cliff into an emerald lagoon. Feel free to swim here, too.
From Misol-Ha, it's another 12 miles (20 km) to Palenque, the remains of an ancient Maya city from around 226 BCE to 799 CE. Though not as large as other famous ruins in Mexico (Palenque is 1 sq mile/2.5 sq km, compared to Chichén Itzá's 4 sq miles/10 sq km), it is one of the most fascinating. Archeologists have learned much about Maya history from Palenque's well-preserved epigraphic records, sculptures, and bas-relief carvings. You'll reach the site in time for sunset, which is an ideal time to visit as there are no crowds. Also, the warm hues bathe the temples in a spectacular golden light.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Day 7: Tour Palenque, Transfer to Nahá & Tribal Workshop
After breakfast, you'll take a two-hour tour around some of the 800 structures that comprise Palenque. Like many ancient cities, when Palenque was abandoned in the 8th century, it was reabsorbed by the surrounding jungle. Only in the early 1950s was it discovered by Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. Since then, excavations revealed various royal tombs (including that of ruler Pakal the Great) and glyphic texts on temples that map nearly 200 years of history—by far the most such text of any Maya archeological site. For these reasons, Palenque enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status.
Day 8: Explore the Nahá Biosphere Reserve, Return to Palenque
In the morning, venture deep into the jungle as a Lacandon guide accompanies you on a 3-hour tour through the remarkable Nahá-Metzabok Biosphere Reserve. This 52 sq mile (135 sq km) reserve exists to protect the area's lakes, montane rainforest, pine-oak forests, and some 40,000 plant and animal species found here. Your guide will share their knowledge of the animals and plant life of the area as you enjoy a boat ride on tranquil Lake Nahá.
Afterward, you'll disembark for a short jungle trek near the water, where, with a bit of luck, you'll be able to spot a variety of local wildlife, including turtles and crocodiles. Other exotic animals that call this biosphere reserve home include jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, and ocelots. After the hike, you'll leave from the village o Nahá to drive back to Palenque, where you'll overnight.
Day 9: Visit the Cenotes of Miguel Colorado, Transfer to Calakmul
After breakfast, drive northeast from Palenque into the state of Campeche and the base of the Yucatán Peninsula, the gateway to the Caribbean coast. First, however, you'll stop in the village of Miguel Colorado, whose main attractions are its cenotes. Known to the Mayans as dz'onot or "water caverns," these limestone sinkholes are fed by the currents of underground rivers. You can go swimming at Cenote Azul, plus hike a trail that leads to two more cenotes—keep an eye out for howler monkeys in the trees. At Cenote Azul, you can also take a kayak ride and soar over the water on a 278-foot (85-m) zip-line.
After the cenotes, your driver will take you to Calakmul, a biosphere reserve and archeological site at the base of the Yucután. It comprises over a million acres of tropical forest and is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico. It's home to dozens of indigenous communities and the archeological site of Calakmul. This ancient Maya city was abandoned in 900 and is one of the largest such sites ever discovered. Upon arrival, you'll check into your accommodations, where you'll spend the night.
Day 10: Maya Seed Workshop, Transfer to Bacalar
Today, you'll visit a Maya community in El Veinte, in the jungles of Campeche. The people here are known for making quality clothing and handicrafts, which you'll witness during a cultural exchange. You'll also participate in a seed workshop led by a group of community women. During this experience, they'll reveal the myriad uses of the local flora, including medicinal herbs. These women also make jewelry and other decorative items with seeds, feathers, and other things the jungle provides. You'll even get to pick out some seeds according to symbolic value, and the women will plant them for you after you're gone.
Later, you'll take a 3-4-hour drive east to Bacalar. This town in southeastern Yucatán sits on Lake Bacalar, also known as the "Lagoon of the Seven Colors" due to the various shades of blue in its waters. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel and can spend the rest of the day enjoying this slice of tranquility. Take a stroll along the lake, go for a swim, and visit Fort San Felipe, an 18th-century Spanish castle built to protect the Yucatán from English colonizers. There are also cenotes in the area, plus the Maya archeological site of Chacchoben, whose ruins date to around 700.
Day 11: Sailing Lake Bacalar, Transfer to Cancún
In the morning, hit the water for a four-hour sail across the vivid blue waters of Lake Bacalar. These tours are on traditional sailboats, which are a great alternative to motorboats since there's no pollution. The excursion begins with a visit to Pirates' Channel, a waterway between the Hondo River and the lagoon known for its clear waters. The Mayans supposedly built this channel as a commercial link to connect the people of the south with those of the north. As a result, pirate attacks became frequent, hence the name. Here you'll have the opportunity to swim and snorkel.
After enjoying the waters at Pirates' Channel, you'll continue to Cenote de la Bruja, also called Cenote Negro ("black cenote"). Here you can dive into the water for a refreshing swim. Finally, pay a visit to the Isla de Los Pájaros, an island and bird sanctuary home to herons, parrots, snail-hawks, mockingbirds, larks, and more. When you return to shore, you'll hop back in the car for the 4-5-hour drive north to Cancún, the liveliest spot in Yucatán.
Day 12: Free Day in Cancún
Cancún is the hottest destination in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. This city is known for its all-inclusive resorts, world-class nightlife, premier shopping and dining, and its miles of white-sand beaches fronting turquoise Caribbean waters. Cancún is also at the doorstep of Mexico's famous Riviera Maya, a beautiful coast spanning over 100 miles (160 km) and includes resort areas like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the latter of which is home to the most stunning Maya archeological sites on the Yucatán coast.
Today, you'll be free to enjoy Cancún at your leisure. There are many great beaches along the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) that you can enjoy. These include Chac Mool Beach, Playa Caracol (close to many restaurants and shopping options), and Gaviota Azul (surrounded by great nightlife). When night falls, you can stay at the northern tip of the Hotel Zone—Punta Cancún—and indulge in the bars and nightclubs lining the streets. There's also great dining in this city, with Michelin-starred restaurant options along the Hotel Zone.
Day 13: Free Day in Cancún
Today is another free day to relax and recharge. You can grab a book and spend the day lazing under a palapa at a Blue Flag beach like Playa Delfines. Or embark on a day trip to nearby slices of paradise-like Cozumel or Tulum. There are also many cenotes in the area worth visiting, like Cenote Zaci and Cenote Azul. You also don't want to miss a trip to Chichén Itzá, the awe-inspiring Maya archeological site that dates to the 5th century and is famous for its 98-foot-high (30-m) El Castillo pyramid.
Day 14: Free Day in Cancún
Enjoy the third day, availing yourself of all the beaches, activities, tours, dining, and shopping options of this incredible city.