Those on group flights will be met at Guatemala City airport and taken to our start hotel in Antigua (approx. 1 hour drive). Those on land only arrangements will meet the trip leader at the hotel at 18:00 for a short briefing.
Many travellers agree that Antigua is one of the most attractive cities in Latin America. There are over 30 Spanish language schools in the city and it is a magnet for travellers from all over the world wishing to improve their Spanish. Beyond the tiled roofs there are stunning views of the Agua and Fuego volcanoes. The city is bursting with history and was the capital of the Spanish empire in Central America from 1543 to 1773. This was a highly religious period and there is an abundance of convents and churches packed with religious art, although many are now in ruins from centuries of earthquake damage. This morning we will have a guided tour of the city to discover its fascinating history. In the afternoon we drive for approximately 3 hours to Panajachel, a small town on the shore of Lake Atitlan. Guatemala's largest lake is dominated by three volcanoes and was formed following an ancient eruption.
Today we will explore the deep waters of Lake Atitlan. A 30-minute scenic boat ride on the lake takes us to the village of San Juan La Laguna, where we will visit the home studios of local painters and a textile cooperative where women are engaged in hand weaving and natural dyeing processes. We continue by boat to Santiago Atitlan or by foot to San Marcos La Laguna where we can walk along the lake with our local guides and learn about the Mayan traditions and beliefs.
Today we drive north, crossing the border into Mexico's southern state of Chiapas. The road takes us through rugged mountain scenery and lush cloud forest before we come to the old capital of the region, San Cristobal de Las Casas. This is one of the most attractive colonial towns in Mexico, with many old churches. It is also a major centre for the Tzotzil Indians. There is in fact quite a variety of Indians in the town, each group having different and very colourful costumes, and the market has some good handicrafts for sale. San Cristobal has a pleasant climate because of its altitude, it was once a base for the early exploration of the Mayan sites. This is a full day drive of around 8 hours plus stops for meals and the border crossing.
We have a guided tour to explore the historic town of San Cristobal before visiting the nearby Indian villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. These small communities are very traditional and many of the villagers continue to follow ancient religious practices within the Catholic churches. In the main church of Chamula, where a traditional Christian mass hasn't been held for 40 years, people sit on the pine needle covered floor and receive treatments from local shamans amid clouds of burning incense. Visitors should note that when visiting the churches in the villages, photography of the worshippers and the church interiors is expressly forbidden. You should exercise discretion when taking pictures of the local people and their possessions, always seeking permission before using your camera.
Today we descend from the highlands to the humid forests of north-eastern Chiapas. There is spectacular scenery en route before we stop at the Agua Azul Falls, a glittering series of cataracts which often appear blue due to high mineral content - the name is Spanish for 'Blue Water'. We then continue for about an hour to the small town of Palenque. The total driving time today is around 5 hours.
This morning we have a guided tour of this impressive Mayan site of Palenque. The jungle-covered complex is one of the most famous in Mexico and is located in the low hills of Chiapas. The pyramids, sanctuaries and temples, with their sculptured wall-panels and roofs are remarkably well preserved and are probably the finest surviving examples of Mayan buildings. In the afternoon, we drive for around 5 hours to the historic fortified city of Campeche, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which boats incredibly well preserved colonial architecture. Most impressive are the city walls, built to protect the city from the constant attacks of English and Dutch buccaneers and pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries. The rest of the day will be free for us to explore the city and sample some local cuisine in the small city centre restaurants - seafood is a local speciality and widely available.
Today we visit the fascinating Mayan ruins of Uxmal which date back to the late classic period, having been built by the Xiu tribe. The site is dominated by the Pyramid of the Magician and the Nunnery Quadrangle which consists of long buildings with elaborately carved façades. There are many other fine buildings, as well as the remnants of a ball court used in ritual games that sometimes ended in sacrifice. From Uxmal it is around 90 minutes' drive to the pleasant colonial city of Mérida. Many of its buildings were constructed using stones from the Mayan city which existed on the site and these are still visible in the walls of the imposing cathedral. The city flourished following the conquest and the 19th century homes designed in French style contribute to the attractive appearance of the historical centre. We enjoy a walking tour of the city this afternoon.
We will spend the morning exploring one of the largest Mayan ceremonial centres at Chichén Itza, located approximately 2 hours from Mérida. The impressive El Castillo Pyramid sits in the middle of the site and is surrounded by temples, palaces and ball courts. The nearby Cenote Sagrado ('Sacred Well') was dredged in the early 20th century and found to contain precious gold, silver and jade artefacts as well as the remains of sacrifice victims. After the tour we continue by road for about 3 hours to the peaceful town of Tulum, set on a beautiful expanse of white sand on the Caribbean Sea. Just outside the town is a picturesque walled Mayan city which overlooks the turquoise waters, one of the most photographed sites in the Yucatan.
This morning we have a short tour of the Tulum archaelogical site. The most famous building in the complex is the stepped pyramid perched on the cliff edge, but there are several temples, ritual platforms and houses to be explored. In common with many other Mayan cities, the whole site is surrounded by a huge defensive wall. We will have some free time on the beach following the tour, before we drive for around 3 hours to Bacalar in the late afternoon. We spend the night in this quiet town which sits on the edge of a lagoon close to the border with Belize.
This morning we drive over the border into the one-time British colony of Belize. After completing immigration formalities we take a ferry (approximately 45 minutes) to Caye Caulker. This laid-back Caribbean Island is just west of the Belize Barrier Reef and offers fantastic snorkelling and diving opportunities.The afternoon has been left free to relax into island life. The tiny village of Caye Caulker has only three sandy main streets (Front, Middle and Back Street), but they are full of bars and restaurants, many of which serve excellent fresh seafood.
Today is a free day for optional excursions and activities, or simply for relaxation. Diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and fishing can all be arranged locally. As the island is small, it is very easy to complete a circuit on foot. As well as the marine activities there is also a forest reserve in the northern part of the island which offers great bird watching in the mangroves.
We leave Caye Caulker by boat bound for Belize City and then drive from the coast into the heavily forested and sparsely populated Maya Mountains, encountering some spectacular scenery en route. We will stop at the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich to explore its temples and palaces. The site, located on a ridge close to the border with Guatemala, has some fine stucco facades, as well as several elaborately carved stelae and an impressive 40 metre high pyramid. After looking around the ruins, we cross the border and descend into the humid eastern lowlands of Guatemala. We spend the night in Flores, a pretty town occupying an island on Lake Peten Itza.
We make an early start this morning to reach Tikal, the most famous and impressive of all Mayan sites (approx. 1 hour drive). Here, in the middle of the jungle, are nearly 20 square miles of classic Mayan ruins, surrounded by the dense jungles of Petén. We take a tour of the city, visiting the Q complex, Main Plaza, North and Central Acropolis, Seven Temples and Mundo Perdido (Lost World). Tikal is a superb area for observing wildlife in the jungle environment and visitors regularly see Howler monkeys, Spider monkeys, toucan, Weaver birds, coatimundi and even tarantula (if you know where to look and wish to find one!) In the afternoon, we return to Flores and take a short flight to Guatemala City, where we will spend our final night.
Those on the group flights will be transferred to the airport this morning for the flight back to London.