Travel blueprint: The Maya Route

Temples and tapirs, rainforests and reefs, villages and volcanoes, The Maya Route is a trail littered with adventure

3 mins

The basics

Capitals: Belmopan (Belize); San Salvador (El Salvador); Guatemala City (Guatemala); Tegucigalpa (Honduras); Mexico City (Mexico)

Language: Spanish and Mayan languages spoken throughout; Garí­funa and Creole spoken in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras

Time: GMT-6; Mexico adheres to daylight saving (April-October GMT-5)

International dialling code: +501 (Belize); +503 (El Salvador); +502 (Guatemala); +504 (Honduras); +52 (Mexico)

Money: Belize (Belize dollar) currently around BZ$4 to the UK£; El Salvador (US dollar) around US$2 to the UK£; Guatemala (quetzal) around Q16 to the UK£; Honduras (lempira) around L40 to the UK£; Mexico (Mexican peso) around M$22 to the UK£.

Few regions on earth have a cultural richness to match the Maya World's. In the lowlands of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and southern Mexico steamy rainforests, replete with wildlife, preserve thousands of soil-covered ruined cities built by an ancient Maya Empire that rose with the Romans and slowly declined in Europe's Middle Ages.

Only a handful of their glorious temples have been stripped of their forest cover, revealing jade masks and jewellery, elaborate sarcophagi and crystal death skulls. Their giant, denuded roofcombs still tower over the forest canopy like sentinels.

But although their empire has gone, the Maya themselves are as alive and well as the Greeks or Romans. The Spanish did all they could to obliterate them and their culture burning all but a handful of their books and dividing and re-locating their peoples all across the southern reaches of New Spain.

Yet Mayan cultures and languages remain intact. In the villages of Chiapas and the Guatemalan highlands, markets sell clothing, arts and crafts and pottery whose designs long predate the arrival of the Europeans alongside travellers' hippie slacks, bags and crystals.

On hillside shrines and within Catholic churches throughout the Maya World, copal is burned and ancient rituals still practised (albeit under the outward form of Catholicism). Only where the Protestant evangelists have arrived are Maya peoples abandoning their identity.

The landscapes of the Maya World are astonishingly beautiful. The highlands of El Salvador and Guatemala smoke with towering volcanoes swathed in pine forests; deeply folded valleys hide long blue lakes and rushing white-water rivers. White-pepper-fine sands lapped by bath-water warm seas fringe the Mexican and Belize Caribbean coasts. And hundreds of tiny islands surrounded by coral reefs lie just a few miles offshore.

Behind the coast is the thick scrub forest of the Yucatán dotted with glorious temples and pocked with cenotes (flooded caves). And in the lowlands of Chiapas, Honduras and the El Petén region of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, there are rainforests noisy with the cries of howler monkeys and the raucous calls of parrots, and bristling with rare mahogany and zapote trees.

There's plenty for all interests on the Maya Route for culture lovers and adrenalin addicts to those seeking R' n' R in a spa or too many beers in a beachside bar. You could spend a lifetime unravelling the complexities of Mayan mythology, or a few days diving, rafting or lazing on a beach.

But Cancún's commercial success is quickly spreading south and the Maya Route is steadily becoming McMaya. In the wake of such commercialism the local people are finding it increasingly hard to preserve their traditional ways. Visitors with a genuine interest in the Maya can make the difference.

Maya Route: Unmissables

Tulum: Powder-fine, white-sand beaches watched over by cliff top Mayan temples

Uxmal & the Puuc sites: Imposing ruined cities decorated with some of the finest indigenous art in the Western hemisphere Belize reefs & rainforest - 25% of Belize is protected, making this the best dive-and-wildlife destination north of the Amazon

Tikal: Dramatic Mayan temples in the midst of pristine rainforest busy with macaws and howler monkeys

Palenque & Bonampak: Two of the Maya World's most beautifully crafted temple cities lost in lush rainforest near the Usumacinta River

San Cristóbal de Las Casas: The thriving mountain heartland of the Mexican Maya and one of the most attractive Mexican colonial cities

Chichicastenango: Central America's most vibrant and colourful market, a great place for souvenirs

Lake Atitlán: A brilliant-blue mountain lake ringed with steaming volcanoes and traditional Mayan settlements

Maya Route: Getting Started

Visas: UK nationals do not require visas for any of the Maya countries. Mexico issues tourist cards for a US$20 (£10) fee.

When to go: The coolest months are October to April; although this is hurricane season on the Caribbean you are unlikely to meet a storm. Avoid the peak Christmas and New Year around Cancún, when prices soar.

Getting there: The cheapest entry point to the Maya World is Cancún. British Airways  flies daily to Cancún from Gatwick via Dallas or Miami. American Airlines flies daily from Heathrow via Miami. Thomsonfly flies direct from Gatwick.

Flights start from £550; flight time is around nine hours (without stopovers).

Connections to Guatemala City and other Central American capitals are best via Miami.

American Airlines and Grupo TACA provide connections. Fares from Miami to Guatemala start at US$336 (£165) one way; flight time from Miami to most cities is around one hour.

Getting around: If time is short and budget is not a priority, it's a good idea to book some internal flights in advance. Grupo TACA, Aeromexico and Maya Island Air are just three of the airlines to choose from.

Overland travel in the Maya World is quickest on buses; routes are extensive and reliable. More interesting is travel by boat. Motorboats are efficient and frequent ferries connect the mainland to Cozumel, the Cayes and the Bay Islands.

Cost of travel: Allow £20-30 per day at a scrape, twice that for comfort and three times that for splurges on the Mexican Caribbean. While hostels can be as little as £5 for a dorm bed, the best spa and lodge accommodation can cost as much as £150-200 a night usually with breakfast and some excursions included. Food and drink prices vary tremendously; a good meal on the Mexican Caribbean can cost £16, while in Antigua it will probably be less than £5.

Health & safety: Have Tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid jabs, as well as malaria pills for jungles. Be wary of tap water and handmade ice creams.

Alex Robinson has travelled widely in the Maya World for AA Publishing, Rough Guides, Cadogan and Nota Bene. He is the author of Footprint's Brazil guidebook and is the Latin America writer for the AA Green Rooms guide to responsible tourism.

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