Journey through the Maya heartland of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico in comfort. Staying in a series of premium hotels, explore hidden Maya cities deep in the rainforest and wander the cobbled backstreets of beautiful colonial towns. Maya sites - Visit the enchanting jungle-clad sites of Copan, Palenque and Tikal and end your trip at the famed ruins of Chichen Itza Antigua - Explore this graceful colonial city, surrounded by volcanoes Get off the beaten track - Discover some lesser-known gems, such as the fascinating site of Bonampak and the elegant colonial city of Campeche
Join trip in Antigua Guatemala, the graceful colonial city that sits just next door to the country's capital Guatemala City. Set in a beautiful valley between the volcanoes of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, its cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings make it one of the most charming and picturesque cities in Central America. Despite the damage caused by a series of earthquakes and floods over the centuries, Antigua's colonial heritage has seen it designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to the number of evening flights into the international airport, your Leader plans to do the welcome meeting on the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you'll need for the day. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Antigua at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into La Aurora International Airport (GUA). The drive between the airport and our hotel is only 40km but can take between 1.5 and 4 hours depending on the traffic and the time of day. If your flight arrives earlier in the day, we recommend a gentle stroll around the compact centre of town, famed for its well-preserved Spanish Mudejar-influenced architecture.
The stunning city of Antigua is set in a beautiful valley between the volcanoes of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. This graceful old colonial city, with its cobbled streets and magnificent old buildings, identifies it as one of the most charming in the country and shows how it can justly claim to be one of the most picturesque in Central America. This morning we intend to take a walking tour of the centre with a local guide, visiting the churches of San Francisco, Santa Clara, La Merced and Las Capuchinas. Once the country's graceful capital and the first fully planned settlement amongst Spain's New World colonies, much of the city has been repeatedly devastated by earthquakes, yet has still managed to retain an elegant charm, whilst its buildings and ruins give it the air of a snapshot in time. This afternoon has been left free for you to explore more of this fascinating city or relax back at the hotel.
Today has been left at leisure for you to further explore the area. You may wish to spend the day in the lovely colonial Antigua, wandering through the markets or visiting one of its many museums. Alternatively, you can venture further afield. One option is to take a full day trip to Panajachel from where you can take a boat trip on Lake Atitlan, a former volcanic crater resulting from an eruption over 80 000 years ago.
This morning, we board our bus for the approximately six hour journey to Copan. En route we'll cross the border from Guatemala into Honduras, the second country on our journey through Mesoamerica. This afternoon has been left free to enjoy the facilities of the hotel or perhaps visit the macaw mountain project, a tropical bird reserve that cares for rescued or endangered birds of the American tropics.
This morning we visit this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site of Copan with a local guide. Everyone familiar with Catherwood's incredible drawings (which first appeared in John Stephens' 1841 narrative - 'Incidents of Travel in Central America and Yucatan') will recognise scenes and objects from this marvellous site. Stephens actually bought the entire area for US$50 from a local farmer! Our exploration of the archaeological park begins with the Great Plaza, one of the most amazing achievements of the Classic Maya period (AD 750), which contains the greatest collection of Maya sculpture anywhere in Mesoamerica. Next to the Great Plaza is the Acropolis, a group of massive pyramidal structures where royal power was once concentrated, and which hold beneath them a wealth of information about Copan's ancient past. Scribed on one structure is the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway, composed of some 2500 individual glyphs, its sides flanked by serpentine birds and snakes, this is the New World's longest inscribed Pre-Colombian text. The subject of exploration and investigation since the 1830s, the continual discoveries being unearthed by archaeologists are uncovering remarkable finds that represent a Maya resurrection and have made Copan the most thoroughly researched and understood of all Maya sites. The afternoon has been left free for you to remain on site and explore at your leisure, perhaps utilising the time to visit the museums and learn a little more about what was once one of the most significant city-states in the southern Maya world.
Leaving early this morning we head back across the border into Guatemala, towards the small site of Quirigua, lying on the western fringes of the Sierra de Espiritu. Once an important trading centre between Tikal and Copan, this UNESCO Heritage Site is home to the tallest stelae to be found anywhere amongst the ruins of the ancient Mayans. Explored by Catherwood and Stephens in the mid 19th century, Quirigua reached its zenith during the 8th century, becoming an independent kingdom that controlled much of the surrounding Motagua Valley, before being abandoned sometime during the 9th century. The impressive stelae tell of the wars with nearby Copan, of the beheading of the Copan king and the emergence of Quirigua from the shadow of its powerful neighbour. The tallest of the stelae reached an impressive 12 metres and over a period of some 55 years the rulers of this tiny kingdom had a new monument erected every 5 years. After this we continue to Rio Dulce where we will spend the night.
This morning we drive to Tikal, site of one of the greatest of all Maya cities. Tikal can easily be compared with the masterpieces of Egypt and Greece. Initially settled about 600 BC, it was abandoned by its rulers around AD 890 and totally deserted a hundred years later. Rediscovered in 1848, the site itself comprises many great temples and pyramids, covering an area of more than 16 square kilometres, with palaces, causeways, ball courts, spacious plazas, and hundreds of other architectural ruins - a superb example of sophisticated Maya engineering. At its height the extended area of the city and its environs covered some 100km and its population was estimated at between 50,000-100,000. Many of the main buildings were completed between the 6th and 9th centuries, during what was called the Late Classic Period, during which the city traded with Quirigua, Copan and even Teotihuacan to the far west. Economic instability, civil unrest and warfare finally brought the city down, echoing a general demise amongst the Maya civilisation. The remote jungle setting, with the constant companionship of Howler monkeys and parrots, gives the site a feeling of true isolation and its pyramid towers slicing through the lush canopy affords it an almost mystical feel. Our accommodation for the night is near the entrance of the site. You may wish to take the opportunity to visit the site to see the sunset. (optional).
Today will be spent exploring the site with a local guide. This afternoon, is free to further explore the rest of the site or you may wish to take time to visit the on-site museum (optional). Today there is a second opportunity to visit the site for the sunset.
This morning we head to Bethel on the river Usumacinta where we leave Guatemala and cross the border into Mexico by boat to Frontera Corozal. From here continue by road to the fascinating site of Bonampak. Famed for its incredible murals, Bonampak is a superb example of Classic Mayan art. The murals depict the rituals and lives of the ruling elite, including some pretty grim depictions of torture and death for its unfortunate captives. First revealed to the outside world in 1946, these remarkable murals capture a time of sumptuous pomp and ceremony and provide an interesting snapshot into the lives of the elite of Maya hierarchy and perhaps a reason for the civil unrest and eventual decline of the order. From here we continue towards one of the most beautiful ancient sites anywhere in Latin America, Palenque.
This morning we will visit the site in the company of a local guide, visiting the intricate labyrinth of buildings that surround the palace and temple, its four-storey tower dominating the city. Engulfed by the rainforest and often shrouded in mist, the palaces and ruins of Palenque were only discovered in the 19th century. Once the choking forest was cleared, the ruins revealed the tomb of the high priest Pakal, his body adorned with a marvellous jade death mask - one of the most prized relics of the Maya culture, only discovered in 1952. Evidence indicates that the site was first occupied more than 1500 years ago and reached its zenith around 600-700AD, when many of the plazas and buildings were constructed, all without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. Palenque flourished for some 600 years, between the 4th and 10th centuries, but it was under the reigns of Pakal and Chan-Bahlum during the 7th century AD that saw it reach the peak of its prestige and power. Many of the buildings that we see today date from this period, including the Temple of the Inscriptions and its tomb (closed to visitors). At the centre of the city lies El Palacio, with its unique tower and intricate reliefs. Later this afternoon there will be an option to stay on the site and explore further, or perhaps take an optional trip out to swim at the picturesque waterfalls of Misol Ha.
Leaving early this morning we drive along the gulf coastline to the pleasant colonial city of Campeche, the state capital and once one of Spain's main ports in Mexico. En route we will stop for lunch. On arrival in Campeche this afternoon there will be time to wander around the old port where defensive walls and fortresses are still in evidence. Although Campeche is not on the usual tourist trail it does boast an elegant and well-maintained colonial quarter with 18th and 19th century houses painted in soft pastel colours.
We start this morning with a short drive to Uxmal. Encircled by hills, Uxmal is expansive in its design, with majestic palaces, temples, pyramids and long geometrical friezes that rank amongst the most splendid examples of ancient American art anywhere. The incredible Pyramid of the Magician and the beautiful Governor's Palace must also rate as two of the finest examples of Mayan art on the entire continent. Today we will visit this extraordinary site, spending some time exploring what for many is considered the crowning glory of Puuc architectural style, with its classical lines and abstract designs. Leaving Uxmal behind we continue on to Merida - famed for its beautiful Spanish- Moorish style architecture. Known as the 'White City', Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan and its centre reflects its colonial heritage, with a church or mansion on every street and its plazas alive with markets, entertainment and visitors. Indeed the city is probably the most European in feel than any other in Mexico.
Today is a free day with optional excursions available.
Today we discover Chichen Itza. One of the most outstanding archaeological ruins in Central America, Chichen Itza was founded in AD432, re-founded in 987 and reputedly conquered by the Toltecs in the 10th century, the culture of the Maya and the Toltec gradually fusing together to create an amalgam of designs and influences. The pyramids, palaces, temples and ball court (where death was the penalty for defeat) are adorned with astonishing sculptures. Believed to have reached its zenith during what was termed the Terminal Classic Period (800-1000AD), the city's origins can be traced back some 500 years previously and there is some debate still as to the influence that the Toltecs had on the city and its architectural styles. Whatever its origins and influences though, little can detract from what is, for many, the quintessential image of a Maya city. We will actually explore the city today during the quieter periods, allowing more time to soak up the feel and ambience of this most magical of settings. The buildings to the north are dominated by the imposing presence of El Castillo (also known as the Pyramid of Kukulkan), a remarkable building that is in fact a stone representation of the Maya calendar, its summit decorated with symbols of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. One unique feature of the building occurs at sunset on the spring and autumn equinoxes, when the heads of the serpents at the foot of the staircases are joined to their tails at the top by the shadows cast by the setting sun. The 'Toltec Plaza' is littered with more structures, including the Temple of the Warriors and the Group of a Thousand Columns, whilst the ball court that occupies its western edge is largest of its kind anywhere. Hotel Mayaland The Mayaland Hotel is a creation of Old Yucatan style hacienda with an air of genteel hospitality and old-fashioned charm. With over 100 acres of gardens and its superb location makes it a unique place to overnight.
Departing Chichen Itza this morning we drive to Cancun International Airport (airport code: CUN), where we will arrive at about 9.00am and this is where our trip ends. The earliest your flight can depart is 12.00pm.
14 Break Fast(s)
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