Private Journeys

Highlights of the Mayan world

13 days from £2,680pp

Belize / Guatemala / Mexico

Itinerary

map marker Map

Day 1

Arrive Belize City and transfer to Mountain Pine Ridge in the Mayan Mountains.

Your feet will hardly touch the ground before you are whisked off inland on the Western Highway, travelling from grasslands and gentle hills to dense tropical forest. Climbing to a higher, cooler altitude you arrive at the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, carpeted in pine forests spliced by sparkling rivers, where waterfalls tumble over cliffs into pools which are heaven-sent for bathing. Orchids, exotic birds and butterflies add splashes of colour to the walks and trails while intriguing limestone caves are just begging to be explored. You’ll be staying at a homely lodge on a private reserve.

Belize-iStock

Day 2

Guided excursion to the Mayan ruins at Caracol and Rio Frio cave and pools.

Crowning a waterless plateau deep in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Caracol is the most extensive Mayan site in Belize. It is thought that 150,000 people once lived in and around over 30,000 structures in an area larger than that of present day Belize City. More than 100 tombs have been unearthed and research has discovered that the city supported a wealthy middle class.  You can only explore the city’s core but this is enough to get a true impression of the scale of the place.  At the heart of the site is the 42m-high Sky Palace, and climbing to the top offers you great views over the forest-clad mountains.  Caracol is alive with birds and as you wander along the causeways and trails you may spot howler and spider monkeys, oscillated turkey and grey foxes.

This expedition also takes you to Rio Frio cave system, centuries ago used as a burial site by the Maya and now populated by bats. The dark, dank walls are prettified with silvery stalactites, making a visit a magical experience.   It’s a bit muggy, but a crystal-clear stream runs through the caves and waterfalls plunge into inviting pools where you can take a dip.

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Day 3

At leisure at the lodge.

You have a full day to explore the secluded nature reserve. You can arrange excursions from the property, such as horse-riding or canoeing and trips to visit other places of interest in the vicinity. The lodge has bikes you can borrow to explore the trails, or just roam around on foot looking out for wildlife, followed by a soak in the pool or Jacuzzi.

Belize Tourist Board ©

Day 4

Continue into Guatemala via Yaxhá ruins and arrive at Tikal.

It’s back on the Western Highway which takes you further west and over the border into Guatemala. You’ll pull over at the Mayan ruins of Yaxhá, on the banks of the lagoon of the same name, where you have a guided tour. Yaxhá dates from a period when merchant warriors exerted considerable influence over the site.  The scale of the ruined buildings indicates that it was an important city, though over the centuries it was penetrated by the hungry tentacles of the rainforest and many of its structures are still stifled by rampant foliage. The presence of howler monkeys and other creatures add to the evocative atmosphere.  The most grandiose temple, with nine platforms, has the best views of the jungle and the adjacent lake.

After your explorations, continue by road to Tikal. You’ll be staying in a pleasant lodge at the entrance to the site.

Tom Johnson-Sabine ©

Day 5

Discover the Mayan Empire’s most extraordinary ruins.

Widely considered to be the most impressive of all the Mayan sites Tikal has a truly exotic jungle setting, and taking to the trails which criss-cross the site linking the temples and pyramids of this pre-Columbian skyscraper city is a real adventure. Everywhere you’ll find intricate stelae carved with pictograms and hieroglyphs. Three steeply-stepped pyramids poke through the rainforest canopy - anyone who climbs to the viewing platforms will enjoy stupendous views. Throughout your guided and independent explorations you’ll be accompanied by a soundtrack of bird calls and the chatter of monkeys, especially in the early morning when wild creatures emerge from the woodland to feed and drink.

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Day 6

Cross the border into Mexico; overnight close to the border.

Today you’ll be entering the state of Chiapas in Mexico. Interestingly, for its size it has the greatest biological diversity in North America, with lakes, limestone hills, gem-clear rivers and cloud forest. It’s a four hour drive on a bumpy road to the border so you’ll be glad of a stop to spend the night close to the extensive ruins of Mayan Yaxchilán. Your accommodation is in the Escudo Jaguar, a simple thatched lodge run by the local indigenous community (Chole indians) with cottages scattered throughout the gardens. It has a restaurant where they serve local delicacies in a traditional palapa with views over the river. 

Mary Anne Nelson ©

Day 7

Visit Yaxchilán and Bonampak; continue to Palenque.

Having arrived in Mexico by road you will now take a motor launch on the Usumacinta river downstream to Mayan Yaxchilán, which was constructed on a bend of the river. This city was as powerful as Palenque or Tikal, and it ruled over several surrounding cities. You’ll find ornately decorated temples with bat-filled roofs and a honeycomb of stunning stucco carvings, with some gruesome portrayals of rulers performing blood-letting rituals. This is all fringed by are huge trees populated by birds and monkeys–apart from the clearing around the main plaza, the site is enveloped by jungle.

You’ll also call at the site at Bonampak, which was hidden within thick forest foliage until 1946. Beautiful and well-preserved murals have been uncovered. Finally, you are back on a paved road for the drive through the fringes of cloudforest to Palenque.

Day 8

Guided tour of Palenque.

Palenque is a compact site, set on a hill on the edge of the Chiapas highlands, with views over the Yucatán plains below.  But don’t let its relatively small size fool you: it is one of the most exquisite and evocative of all the Mayan sites. The atmosphere is quite eerie, as it is located within towering jungle infused with a cacophonous community of insects.

Many of the buildings remain unexcavated. The temples that have been restored are in remarkably good condition, one of the most impressive being the eight-stepped pyramid Templo de las Inscripciones. Another temple houses a tomb and a red-coloured skeleton believed to have been a queen, but the site’s focal point is the Palace with a tall central tower and carvings of giant human figures. Below you’ll find a series of limestone terraces over which waterfalls crash into limpid pools.

Tom Parrott ©

Day 9

Fly from Villahermosa to Mérida in the Yucatán.

The Yucatán a hot, low-lying area smothered in dry tropical bush and areas of richer rainforest, is fit to burst with vestiges of the Mayan Empire.  But there are plenty of other attractions: the coast here is famous for its string of gorgeous beaches, the Riviera Maya. There are also a number of delightful Spanish colonial towns, perhaps the most accommodating of which is the city of Mérida. You’ll be staying in a hotel near the centre of town.

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Day 10

At leisure: optional excursion to Uxmal.

You have time to explore the city, maybe take a breather from all the Mayan wonders you have been beholding in the previous few days. And it is well worth the effort to get to know this congenial place, with its friendly Mayan population, tree-lined avenues and squares which frequently host market stalls selling handicrafts and echo with the music of local bands. Pastel-shaded colonial mansions (the city has a recent history of prosperity) and baroque churches feature on almost every corner – a wander around can be most rewarding.

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Day 11

By road to Chichén Itzá; guided tour.

A 90 minute drive takes you east to the most important and most visited ruined city, that of Chichén Itzá, a vast, manicured site which epitomises all that was sophisticated and elegant in the Mayan world. A whole society is exposed to view, with its ball courts, sacrificial altars, glorification of military traditions and achievements, and edifices and staircases featuring the famous Mayan calendar.

You have a guided tour of the site after which you are free to explore the huge area in your own time. There’s so much to see - first of all you’ll probably head for El Castillo, a 55m high pyramid which dominates the rest of the buildings. It seems outwardly a simple construction but in fact embodies the Mayan Calendar, with the focus of attention on its carved twin serpents.

Other highlights include the Temple of the Warriors and Group of a Thousand Columns, standing sentinel along the edge of the main plaza. Carvings of eagles and jaguars, feathered serpents and grinning stone skulls greet you round every corner. Don’t miss heading out to the Cenote de los Sacrificios, a limestone sink-hole which was believed to be a portal to the Other World and into which the Maya dispatched offerings, both material and human.

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Day 12

By road to Cancún.

Take a fast road eastwards to the coast and reach your small seaside resort, where you can spend the night and possibly extend your stay for some beach-time.

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day 13

Transfer to the airport for your international flight home.

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