City cafés & mountain markets
Begin your tour in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas. This outwardly Spanish town of stately houses and imposing churches is in reality purely Mayan. Even before Subcomandante Marcos’ Zapatista rebellion the city harboured indigenous insurrection. The churches are thick with the ritual scent of copal, the Mayan incense, and are decorated with Indian faces and saints.
Spend a few days getting lost in San Cristóbal, soaking up its café and live music scene. Next, take a day trip to San Juan Chamula. This little mountain village lies in the heartland of living Maya culture – the church is really a temple. Pine fronds cover the floor and, just as they have done for millennia, the Maya pray in Tzotzil to effigies illuminated by hundreds of flickering candles.
For closer contact with Maya people, stay in a village in the Lacandón rainforest a few hours from San Cristóbal. You’ll learn first hand about their culture, traditions and the unique ways in which they utilise the rainforest. Nights are spent in simple, open thatch huts under a canopy of stars, accompanied by the meditative whirr of tree frogs and cicadas.
The most adventurous – if not the quickest – route from here into Guatemala is the Usumacinta backwater and a bus trip via El Naranjo. This cuts through a series of little crocodile-filled creeks busy with small cargo boats and Mayan canoes.
A dawn flight from the lakeside town of Flores via Guatemala City will take you into the highlands and Chichicastenango. This sleepy little town of sugar-cube houses and colonial churches wakes up every Thursday and Sunday to the liveliest traditional market in the Americas. Quiché Maya pour in from the hills to set up stalls laden with leather belts, woodcarvings, knitwear and arts and crafts. This is the best spot in the Maya World to stock up on souvenirs.
Spend your final few days in Antigua – a gorgeous colonial city and Unesco World Heritage site watched over by towering volcanoes. It’s the perfect place to eat well, unwind and explore in leisurely fashion the myriad Mayan villages that lie nestled in the surrounding hills.
“If you go to Lake Atitlán stay in the little village of Santiago. This is a really unspoilt Mayan village, relatively free from tourists. It has a beautiful colonial church and a great market on Fridays.” Iain Stewart author of The Rough Guide to Guatemala
An empire ahead of its timeTime: Two weeks
The vast temple city of Tikal in the heart of Guatemala’s lowland rainforest is one of the few places that looks far better than its postcards. Visit early when tropical yellows dapple the forest paths and warm the faces of 1,300-year-old pyramids.
Climb the giddy steps to the top of Temple Six for views over a seemingly endless green, broken only by honey-coloured roofcombs and the brilliant red of passing macaws. You can easily spend two days here before leaving for Mexico and Palenque via one of the jungle crossings along the Usumacinta River.
Palenque is a moon to Tikal’s sun: as subtle and modest as Tikal is vast and magnificent. The grove of rainforest where the temples sit is quietly beautiful, but the real draw is the buildings – particularly the Temple of the Inscriptions, a perfectly proportioned pyramid built to preserve the body of the priest king Pakal.
Both Tikal and Palenque were part of a series of eighth-century warring and trading city states, which were way ahead of contemporaneous Europe in mathematics and art. The gruesome paintings at nearby Bonampak are painted in perspective – 700 years before the technique was developed in Renaissance Italy.
After a city break in colonial Campeche head for more ruins at Uxmal. The buildings here and at the nearby Puuc Route temples are extraordinary, encrusted with gargoyle faces to the rain god Chac and abstract Escher-like patterns.
Stop over in the Yucatán’s colonial capital Mérida – a great place to eat out, dance and shop – before leaving for Chichén Itza. The most famous Mayan temple of all is as perfectly proportioned as Palenque and as elaborately carved as Uxmal. Stay in one of the adjacent hotels and enjoy the city in silence for the first two hours of the morning.
“Climb a volcano – set off in the dark and arrive for dawn. There are volcanoes throughout Guatemala but the best are around Antigua and Lake Atitlán. Be sure to take local advice on safety before climbing.” Jamie Marshall from the Guatemalan Maya Centre, London
Sandy beaches, lakeshore retreats & Caribbean islesTime: Three weeks
Mayan beaches are some of the world’s best – and the most beautiful of them all is Tulum. Find a palm-roofed cabaña and wake up early to walk along the talcum-powder-soft sand which is kissed by a turquoise sea, and watch the sun warm the Mayan Temple of the Dawn that sits guarding the scene. If you can tear yourself away take a bus a few hours south to Laguna Bacalar and the laid back eco-resort at Botadero San Pastor.
Accommodation is in a simple, thatched-roof camp right on the lakeshore with its back to the rainforest. The lake is astonishing – countless shades of blue and cloudy white – like the sky itself. It’s linked to the ocean by waterways lined with fields of orchids and swum by manatees.
Botadero organises trips on the lake and to the largest of all Mayan temples – Calakmul, where many of the pyramids are half-buried under giant zapote trees and the surrounding rainforest is alive with birds and butterflies.
From Bacalar it’s a short journey into Belize and more beautiful beaches. The best lie on cayes (islands) dotted with relaxed little resorts and fringed with reefs that offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in the Caribbean.
A quick voyage inland will bring you to the spectacular El Pilar archaeological reserve. The temples here have been left partially unexcavated in preserved rainforest. Trails cut through the park; early or late in the day the forest is busy with rare birds and small mammals. It’s a small hop from here into Guatemala. Then it’s an arduous bus journey through Guatemala City to Lake Atitlán.
It’s worth it, though. Atitlán was one of the fabled stopovers on the 1970s gringo trail. There are still wizened backpackers from the Bay Area here, talking in hushed tones about how the surrounding mountains are “kinda supernatural”. It’s easy to see why they never left; the combination of azure lake and permanently blue sky, colourful pocket-sized Mayan villages and misty volcanoes is dreamlike. Even Ulysses would find it hard to leave.
"At Laguna Bacalar, hire a kayak and observe the birds, snakes, tapirs and shy Morelet’s crocodile. The beaches here are beautiful and secluded, with white sand and clear water – a piece of paradise.” Arturo Borrego from Villas Ecotucan, Laguna Bacalar
Reef & rainforests, caves & volcanoesTime: Two weeks
The Maya Route offers plenty for the adventurous and adrenalin addicted. Cozumel island, just off the Mexican coast south of Cancún, offers world-class drift diving, with giant walls of coral and spectacular drop-offs into the deep. The long beaches of white sand are superb to relax on, too.
There’s more hair-raising diving on the mainland in one of the 50 or more cenotes (flooded limestone sinkholes). These lead to underground rivers filled with blind fish, cut by giant stalactites and stalagmites and filled with water as clear as polished glass.
You could spend a month drifting down the Yucatán coast into Belize. When you’ve had your fill, the lodge at Chaa Creek provides full immersion in terrestrial nature and El Petén’s tropical rainforest. The lodge organises treks, horseback rides and canoe trips into the forests that swathe the banks of the Macal River. Self-guided trails run through the 1,477 sq km rainforest reserve. Accommodation is luxurious and there’s even a spa on hand for post-trek massage.
There are more adrenalin highs on the Hummingbird Highway – serious caving adventures. You can float on rafts for 2km on underground rivers, mountain bike, or plunge 60m on a rope on the exhilarating Black Hole Drop abseil.
Things get cooler across the border in Guatemala. The old colonial city of Antigua is surrounded by high mountain country including three towering volcanoes, each of which can be climbed in one- or two-day trips. Volcán Acatenango is the highest (almost 4,000m) and from its summit you can see nearby Pacaya shoot out molten rocks and lava. There’s similar volcano trekking in neighbouring El Salvador.
Round your trip off in Honduras with a trip into the forest to see some of the most beautiful Mayan ruins at Copán, famous for their intricately carved temple façades, bas-reliefs and stelae. Finally, unwind with the red-haired descendants of Captain Morgan on the English-speaking beach-and-dive island of Utila, just off the Caribbean coast.
“Drift down beautiful Monkey River by night; your guide will take the boat right up close to resting crocodiles.” Sue Harris owner of Stepping Stones eco-resort, Belize
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