|Day 1 Arrive Cancún
Long a destination among sun-worshipping tourists and spring breakers, we only stay here long enough to meet and get primed for our adventure. As your fellow travellers are arriving at various times throughout the day, there are no planned activities other than a group dinner and info session. Look in the hotel lobby for notices on when/where the group meeting will occur. The heat and humidity of Cancún may affect you upon arrival, with a general sense of lethargy and/or loss of appetite. This is no cause for alarm, it's simply a reaction to the heat. Be sure to drink plenty of water (cold bottled water is available everywhere) and do not attempt too much in any given day. We prefer fan-cooled rather than air conditioned rooms to avoid having to acclimatize to the heat and humidity every time you go outside. They are also far more eco friendly.
Day 2-3 Chichén Itzá / Mérida
Under the usually blazing sun, we make a stop at the famous Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá before arriving in the evening in the capital of the Yucatán, Mérida. The city of Chichén Itzá, estimated to be founded in 432, houses some of the finest examples of Mayan architecture ever excavated, including El Castillo, with a balustrade of 91 stairs up each of the four sides, a ball court with a grandstand and towering walls. The attention to detail, and fusion of architecture, science and religion within the structures and throughout the city planning, will no doubt impress you. Using their vast knowledge of astronomy and architecture, the Maya constructed El Castillo, and during the spring and fall equinoxes, and amazing phenomena can be witnessed. The sunlight produces a light and shadow illusion of a snake appearing on the giant staircase, which the high priests claimed to be kukulcan, the serpent-like god. An impressive cenote, or sinkhole, can be seen only five minutes walk from the main plaza. It's said that ancient ceremonies of offering and sacrifice were performed here for the Mayan's sacred rain god, Chac Mool. After seeing a part of ancient Mexico, you can explore colonial Mérida's museums, plazas, architectures, open markets and outdoor cafés. Known as la ciudad blanca, the white city, Merida offers the ideal opportunity to learn about Mexico's fascinating mix of cultural influences. Merida's also the gateway to the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, one of the Yucatán's many ancient treasures. Mérida, the capital of Yucatán State, was founded in 1542 on the site of the Mayan city of Tihoo. Its centre, the Plaza Mayor, or zocalo, is green and shady and surrounded by the twin-towered 16th Century Cathedral, the City Hall, the State Government Palace, and the Casa Montejo .There are several 16th and 17th century churches scattered about the city, as well as some interesting museums. Mornings are the best time to visit the busy and colourful markets. You can buy traditional crafts, such as hammocks or Guyabera shirts, and a good selection of Maya replicas. You can also try out new and wonderful food items, such as the delicious cochinita pibil, a local specialty. Hot sauce fans will also want to try El Yucateco, a fiery elixir made from habanero peppers. Be sure and stroll down the Paseo de Montejo (or take a caleche carriage ride), together with many shops and restaurants, you will see stately mansions dating from the late 19th century. Nearby, is the main shopping street, Calle 65. You are sure to find Mérida a fascinating and a beautiful city to explore on foot.
Day 4-6 Palenque / The Highlands
It'll be hard not to feel like Indiana Jones as you walk gingerly down the slippery steps leading to Pakal's tomb in the Temple of Inscriptions. The large sarcophagus containing the mummified remains of the Lord Pakal were found in 1952 by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz and is only one of Palenque's many treasures. The abundance of exotic wildlife and bounteous flora found in the lush Chiapas jungle around Palenque is as almost as impressive as the ruins themselves. The temples at this site, with fantastic comb-like decorations on their intact roofs, and the sculptured wall panels, are undoubtedly amongst the most exquisite achievements of the Maya. The ancient city holds over 200 buildings of varying size and complexity. Nearby, the famous Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls are both well worth a visit. Don't forget to bring your camera and a bathing suit. The Highlands are a more traditional part of Mexico. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the mountains of Chiapas beyond, is a land inhabited by Indians less influenced than elsewhere by the Spanish conquest. Only about 210 km (130 miles) separate the Atlantic and the Pacific at the hot heavily-jungled Isthmus. San Crístobal De Las Casas, the old State Capital, stands in a high mountain valley at 2110m (6921 ft). You will find fine examples of 16th century architecture, including a church whose engraved altar is solid silver, and a crown shaped fountain. Most villagers in this area are members of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal indigenous groups. The Tenejapans wear black knee-length tunics, the Chamulans white wool tunics and the Zinacantecos wear multi-coloured outfits with ribbons on their hats, signifying how many children they have. The people here are as curious about foreigners as foreigners are about them. Please respect their traditions, dress conservatively when visiting the villages and refrain from photographing religious ceremonies or individuals who do not wish to be photographed. Put yourself in their place before you act.
Day 7-11 Guatemalan Highlands
Guatemala is a country of rare and varied natural beauty, chains of lush mountains and volcanoes, huge volcanic lakes and winding tropical rivers, a Caribbean coast, miles of untouched jungle, and thousands of indigenous species of flowers, birds and animals. The possibilities for adventure are nearly limitless. Our first destination in the country is the shores of Guatemala's most beautiful lake, Lake Atitlán. We stay in Panajachel, a lakeshore town surrounded by spectacular volcanoes and small villages. We also take a day trip to visit the Sunday market of Chichicastenango. The bustling market and parade make this an event not to be missed! Our final stop in the Guatemalan highlands is the colonial town of Antigua. Here you can choose from a number of optional activities: climb a volcano, mountain bike through the countryside or simply relax and enjoy the unhurried atmosphere. In Panajachel, you'll want to pay a visit to Maximon, the fabled effigy said to be a combination of Mayan and Spanish deities. Revered and cared for by the traditional Mayan villages, people leave donations of rum and cigarettes for good blessing. Lake Atitlán is one of the most beautiful spots in Guatemala. Twelve native villages, blue/grey mountains and three volcanoes line the shores of this lake resulting in a wonderful combination of unusual natural beauty and traditional culture. Panajachel is a relatively modern town with paved streets in its centre, with a great deal of old world flavour and charm. The best way to see Panajachel is on foot but beware as there aren't any street signs! Visit the old churches and explore the back streets to see the more traditional side of Panajachel. You'll have the opportunity to visit the villages on the lake by boat, departing in the mornings and returning in late afternoon. Get ready for spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and everyday life in a highland village. The people of this area have received tourists for some time and are friendly and ready to smile at strangers as readily as they will at a life-long friend. You can test your communication and bargaining skills in the local markets, of which there are many. The Chichi market is the best known, but there are a number of others, where you may wish to purchase any number of handicraft items. There is also a number of community cooperatives that you may wish to visit. The proceeds from the sales return directly to the community and are a significant contribution to the local economy. The area is also ideal for outdoor pursuits like swimming, fishing, wind surfing, hiking, bird watching, kayaking, horseback riding, and for the really adventurous, parapenting! Once the third largest city in all of Spanish America, Antigua served as Guatemala's capital city for more than 200 years until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. Antigua today is a peaceful, partially restored colonial city that is a pleasure to explore. Walk through quiet cobblestone streets past rebuilt stucco homes with heavy, beautifully carved wooden entrances. It is a short 45 km from Guatemala City on a lovely winding road. The trip takes you through many small towns and villages, past red tile-roofed huts, and people in colourful traditional clothing. The natural scenery is some of the most beautiful anywhere with high mountain peaks surrounding deep valleys, every inch of land covered with lush growth. The point of reference for finding one's way around Antigua is the Central Park, which is directly in the centre of town and the place to be in the late afternoon or early evening. You can pick up a map from the tourist office located on the ground floor of the Palace of the Captains-General on the south side of the Central Park. Explore the museums, the colonial buildings and other sites in this delightful town. Antigua offers three specialties that make shopping here very worthwhile. Textiles sold here and in the nearby towns are of the highest quality, beautifully designed and woven on foot looms or the rarer back strap loom. Jade, in carved statues and jewellery, is sold in several factories and shops in town and silver jewellery is sold in the better shops and also in a silver factory in nearby San Felipe de Jesus. The city offers good buys in ceramics and antiques as well.
Day 12-13 Flores, Tikal Guatemala
We continue north past Rio Dulce and Poptún along the road to Flores. This charming town, with its pastel-coloured buildings, enjoys a scenic setting on Lake Petén Itzá. There will be time to stroll through the streets, buy local handicrafts or take a swim in the lake. We also have a day to visit the famous ruins of Tikal and the curious wildlife of the National Park. The city of Tayasal was transformed into the city of Flores, officially founded by the Spanish in 1700. It remained an isolated area, relying on the subsistence farming of corn and beans, and the gathering of chicle from nearby trees, used in the manufacture of gum. Despite the recent growth in Petén, Flores remains the same small island town, with narrow, cobblestoned streets, small, brightly painted houses and friendly people. The island is now attached to the mainland by a causeway, but many of the local inhabitants still get around by cayuco, or dug-out canoe. Flores remains one of the most scenic and charming towns in the Petén. It is particularly attractive to visitors because of Lake Petén Itzá, a large lake (12 km long and 3 km wide) offering all sorts of possibilities for fun, including swimming, boating, fishing and bird watching, a small zoo and a nature preserve. The sheer scale of the ruins at Tikal may at first seem daunting. Even if you make it only to the main plaza or spend an hour relaxing in deep contemplation, you certainly won't be disappointed. The central area, with its five main temples, forms by far the most impressive section. If you start to explore beyond this you can wander endlessly into the maze of smaller structures and outlying complexes hidden in the jungle growth. If your energy levels are high enough to make it to the top of Temple IV, your senses won't be disappointed! Spectacular views of the surrounding jungle canopy will greet you from the top of the highest structure within the complex. Occasionally, you may spot toucans, macaws and other bright birds from this artificial perch within the greenery. Otherwise, you may simply marvel at the engineering and organizational skills needed to construct this city within the jungle! A local bilingual guide will explain the natural and artificial wonders of this site during our foray into Tikal.
Day 14-15 San Ignacio, Belize
We move on to Belize, a country with a decidedly Caribbean flavour. The relaxed atmosphere of San Ignacio allows for options including horseback riding, canoeing, caving, or exploring the Mountain Pine Ridge area. Belize is an anomaly. Peaceful, democratic, English-speaking, it seems in many ways not to belong in Central America at all. And indeed, to an extent, it is more a Caribbean nation than a Latin one, looking out from the coast rather than inland for its trade and alliances. On the other hand it has plenty of distinctively Central American features as well. Above all, it offers a blend of cultures and races that includes Maya, Mestizo, African, European, and Asian. Spanish runs a close second as spoken language, with the rich local Creole. Belize consists of remarkable marine life, profuse jungle vegetation, ancient Mayan ruins, and above all, friendly and easy-going people. An optional visit to the Mountain Pine Ridge area is a highlight for some travellers to Belize. The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve covers almost 500 square km (310 square miles) and only controlled logging is allowed. Interesting stops include Hidden Valley Falls, a spectacular waterfall dropping more than 300m (984 ft) over the granite edge of the jungle. Further along, you will cross the Rio On and a climb over an assortment of worn boulders and rocks that will bring you to a delightful site with waterfalls and several warm water pools. The area is also renowned for its system of caves, the biggest and most famous being the Rio Frio Cave. With its enormous arched entryway into the kilometre-long cave, this river cave is the largest in Belize. A day trip to the ridge can easily be arranged in San Ignacio. It's best to get together with a small group to split the costs of the guide and vehicle for the day. An optional day trip to the astounding Actun Tunichil Muknal cave will leave you with memories long after the adventure ends. Discover a wealth of archaeological and natural wonders liying within the caves chambers. The Maya used the cave for ritual and communication with their Gods, intact clay pots used for ceremonies remain intact, as well as evidence of human sacrifice. Make your way through one of the cave's water system using a helmet and headlamp with an experienced local guide, who give insight on the fascinating practices of the ancient Mayan. You can also arrange a trip to the impressive Maya ceremonial centre of Xunantunich. Located on a natural limestone ridge, the site provides a grand view of the entire Cayo District and the neighbouring Guatemalan countryside. The tallest pyramid on the site, El Castillo, has been partially excavated and explored, and the east side of the structure displays a unique stucco frieze. The plaza of the ceremonial centre houses three carved stellae. You can get a group together and hire a taxi to take you the 14 km (9 miles) to the site. Getting there includes crossing a narrow river by a hand-cranked ferry which shuttles you across! There is a small fee to enter the grounds, and a guide will explain the site. A third alternative activity is to take a walk on the Pantí Trail. From Chaa Creek, visitors are welcome to take part in a self-guided walking tour set up by the herbalist, Rosita Arvigo, who has been practicing for 20 years. Anyone interested in holistic medicine will be fascinated with Rosita's work at Ix Chel Farm. This can be arranged from San Ignacio, by taking a taxi to the farm.
Day 16-18 Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker is a relaxed and easy going island with friendly and welcoming local residents. The main street is a sandy pathway through the centre of town surrounded by small bakery and seafood stands. The main activities on the island are relaxation and exploration of the reef. Snorkel and dive boats leave daily for full or half day outings to the reef, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the Blue Hole and for manatee spotting tours. The reef is the world's second largest (after Australia) and offers some truly amazing sights including coral canyons and an astonishing range of tropical fish, manta rays, sharks and barracudas. You can also try your hand fishing and be rewarded with a fresh catch, then barbecue it on the beach...delicious!
Day 19-21 Playa del Carmen
Our last stop on the tour is Playa del Carmen, located on the beach roughly 45 minutes south of Cancún. The town is your last chance to enjoy some night-life, buy your last-minute souvenirs and relax and swim in the Caribbean Sea. There is also snorkelling and diving available, as well as long sandy beaches which are perfect for walking and beach combing. The island of Cozumel is located just off the coast and is known for its diving spots. You can go for the day by taking the water jet ferry from Playa del Carmen (it takes from 30 to 75 minutes to cross depending on the boat). If you still want to see more ruins, the impressive sea-side site of Tulum is just a 45-minute drive south of Playa.
Day 22 Depart Playa del Carmen
Note: Playa del Carmen is located just south of Cancun airport (45 minute drive) so you can easily head directly there without returning to Cancun.