With its multitude of mystical and magical sites featuring temples and tombs, palaces and pyramids, Mexico is an archaeology enthusiast's dream. While most people may be aware of the pyramids outside Mexico City (Teotihuacán) and others on the Yucatán Peninsula (Chichen Itza), there are relics of Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and Olmec culture located further afield and well worth the drive, flight or bus trip to get there.
Palenque, in the southern Chiapas region is a spectacular Maya site that attracts day-trippers from San Cristobal de Las Casas, some 140 miles to the south west. It dates back to 100 BC and remained occupied until approximately 800AD. Consisting of a series of temples, palaces and minor buildings, its features breathtaking views of the surrounding valley and rainforest and is covered in a dense fog most morning so as the fog lifts, the sheer beauty of the site becomes apparent. Just below a waterfall on the Otulum river, is a natural pool known as the Queen's Bath which is still used as a local bathing spot. You will likely come across monkeys and toucans who inhabit the surrounding jungle. There are several quaint guesthouses and traditional inns in San Cristobal, like Sol Y Luna (tel. +52/967-678-5727; www.mexonline.com/solyluna.htm) which offers double rooms that open on to a peaceful flower-filled courtyard, with open fireplaces and free Internet access. Prices start at $55 per night including a continental breakfast. For an overnight trip, there are several hotels in the neighboring town also named Palenque. El Panchan -- Chato's Cabañas (www.palenquemx.com/elpanchan/index.htm) is located just over a mile from the ruins. The property features 20 bungalows with hot water, private bathrooms and screened windows. Cabanas are priced at $12 for a double but reservations are not accepted between December and April or in July and August. There are two natural streams and a swimming pool at the hotel as well as a traditional Temescal (steam bath).
El Tajín is a mainly Toltec site located in the northeastern Mexican state of Veracruz near the town of Papantla. It was inhabited from the second to the 13th centuries AD with its peak being around 750AD with a population of some 50,000. It is known for its unique and intricately carved niche pyramid which has 365 niches, coinciding with the number of days in the solar year and its ball courts featuring sculptured depictions of ball players and human sacrifice, quite similar to the ball game carvings of the Toltec section of Tula in Central Mexico and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. El Tajín was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 and unlike Chichen Itza, it is not crowded and is a little bit off the tourist track. You can reach the site by flying to Poza Rica and then taking a bus or taxi ten miles to the town of Papantla, or alternatively you can take a bus from Veracruz to Papantla. From Papantla, there are taxis and buses to the site. Papantla is also home to an ancient ritualistic dance troop -- Voladores de Papantla (Papantla flyers) who performs a mystical performance dance involving climbing up a giant pole and descending on ropes most Sundays outside the central church. If you plan to stay overnight in Papantla, the Hotel Tajin (www.hoteltajin.com.mx) is considered a four-star property with double rooms starting from $43 per night including taxes.
The site of Xochicalco, also a World Heritage site, was built by the Olmeca-Xicallanca and is located about 20 miles from Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos. The city rose to prominence as a stop on the major trading route between the north and south of Mexico in the 7th to 10th centuries AD. It was both a fortress and a religious center. Xochicalco means "Place of Flowers" and the ruins consist of an impressive selection of ball courts, palaces, houses and a pyramid built on a series of stone terraces ..The pyramid of Quetzalcoatl features sides that align with north, south, east and west. An ornate frieze surrounds the pyramid with carvings of feathered snakes, that wrap around the sides of the pyramid with their heads at the corners. One of the highlights of the site is the underground solar observatory. When the sun passes through its zenith on May 14 and 15 and July 28 and 29 each year, a ray of sunlight passes through a narrow shaft in the ceiling of the observatory and projects itself upon the floor.
Cuernavaca has a few luxurious five-star hotels and resorts, but also several more affordable options. Double rooms at the historical 16th century Posada Maria Cristina (www.maria-cristina.com) start from $135 per night. This four-star hotel with a pool is set in a tropical garden and has been lovingly converted from a manor house. Hotel Antigua Posada (www.cuernavacainfo.com/antiguaposada.html) has double rooms priced from $75 per night including taxes and breakfast.
Whereas most archaeological marvels in Mexico are located above ground, the grottos of Juxtlahuaca in the state of Guerrero are an impressive series of 19 underground limestone caves with stalactite and stalagmite formations. More importantly, several of the caves feature wall paintings depicting traditional Olmec iconography like the jaguar and the feathered serpent, plus human figures and architectural images in shades of green, red, yellow and black. The 3000-year old wall paintings were discovered in the 1930s along with skeletal remains and pottery. The murals are considered the earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica and the only known example of non-Maya cave art in the region. The last chamber on the tourist route through the caves (a two-and-a-half hour journey) lies behind an Olmec cemetery and contains a crystal garden of aragonite minerals covering the walls.
Visitors have to wade through a small underground lake to get there. Bring and torch, appropriate footwear and a change of clothes for this adventure. Due to the complexity of the caves and the fact that the grottos extend some three miles, it is recommended to engage the services of a guide from the nearby town of Colotlipa. Juxtlahuaca is located within a National Park, 26 miles from Chilpancingo (or about 60 miles from Acapulco). The park is also home to El Rio Azul (the Blue River) with waterfalls, water funnels and springs. In Chilpancingo, Hotel Parador Marques (tel. +52/747-472-4444; www.paradordelmarques.com) has double rooms with air conditioning priced from $46 per night.
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