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Take an epic adventure through Central America, that combines the volcanic beauty of the highlands, the mystery of the ancient Maya ruins and the perfect beaches of the Caribbean. Travel from the cobblestone streets of Antigua, through blissed-out Belize and along the Yucatan Peninsula to the beachside delight of Playa del Carmen, then venture to deep into the jungles of Mexico to witness the incredible ruins engulfed by rainforest before salsa-ing your way back to the old colonial capital of Guatemala. This three-week journey offers the chance to get out and get active or enjoy a more relaxing pace while exploring the colour, culture and adventure of Central America.
Day 1: Antigua
Hola! Welcome to Antigua. Surrounded by three volcanoes dominating the skyline, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the city became the tourism hub of Guatemala. Today, the city is filled with coffee shops and international restaurants and is always buzzing with live music and salsa classes. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm where you'll meet your tour leader and travel group. If you arrive with time to spare, why not get a taste of local tradition with a chocolate-making workshop in the ChocoMuseo, or perhaps tour some of the coffee or macadamia nut plantations tucked into the hills that surround the city.
Day 2: Antigua
As the seat of the Spanish colonial government, Antigua was once the most important cities in Central America. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, but many of the colonial-era buildings have been carefully restored so the architecture matches the city’s historical significance. Enjoy a wander around the city with your leader in the morning, learning some key Spanish phrases to make interacting with the locals a breeze. Walk through the quiet cobblestone streets past heavy, carved-wood entrances, and explore are many fascinating markets and museums. The afternoon is free for yours to explore the city and its surrounds, or to just grab a coffee from one of the many cafes in central park and sit back and enjoy the beauty of this city. You won't want to miss trying tamales: a local dish usually prepared on the weekend and served in a corn leaf. Also worth a try is Pepian: a dish of three meats (chicken, beef and pork) in a rich dark sauce. You’ll find the best value food next to the artisan markets, close to the bus station.
Day 3: Rio Dulce
It’s a long day of travel as you make your way to Rio Dulce by private vehicle. Depart early for the 8-hour journey, arriving mid-afternoon. Rio Dulce, which means 'Sweet River' in Spanish, refers to both the Guatemalan river that flows from Lago de Izabal (Lake Izabal) to the Caribbean Sea and the town of Fronteras, which sits at the east end of the lake. Upon arrival, the rest of the day is free to enjoy at your leisure. Maybe stretch your legs on a jungle walk, rent a kayak for a bit of exploration or just laze in a hammock and enjoy the tropical surrounds.
Day 4: Rio Dulce
Use your leisure day in Rio Dulce to take advantage of some of the activities on offer. Join your group on a boat ride down the river to Livingston: a laidback, Afro-Caribbean town that offers a unique taste of Garifuna culture on the shoulder of Guatemala. Located 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Rio Dulce, the boat ride is quite scenic, taking you through waters laden with water lilies, and past tropical forests and a spectacular canyon. The Garifuna population in Livingston are descendants of a community forcibly removed from the Caribbean by the British in the late 18th century. Livingston was one of the towns the displaced Garifuna settled in, and its relative isolation means the culture has remained undiluted by Guatemalan norms. Spend a little time here and perhaps grab a Garifuna meal like tapou: a creamy soup made with fish.
Day 5: Flores
Travel for about 4 hours to the delightful township of Flores on Lago Peten Itza. Upon arrival, take an orientation walk with your group leader and enjoy a free afternoon to explore the tiny island centre that juts into the lake. Flores had a long history before it was colonised by the Spanish in 1697, most significantly as the capital of the Itza people after the fall of Chichen Itza. Sometime during the day, you’ll have the chance to partake in a traditional tortilla making workshop, before using your free afternoon to wander the town's cobblestone streets, taking in its pastel-coloured buildings or shop for local handicrafts. It's a small island and walking the whole thing will take less than an hour. At around 4 pm, the lakefront starts to hum with street food vendors, making it a good place to grab a bite and interact with the locals.
Day 6: Tikal / San Ignacio
Embrace an early start for a guided exploration of Tikal National Park. Among the thick, evergreen jungle are some of the most significant remnants of the ancient Maya civilisation. Wonder at the towering granite temples and other monuments set among lush jungle while pondering the mystery of the ancient city's demise. Spend a few hours playing archaeologist, and afterwards, say goodbye to Guatemala and head across the border to Belize. As the only English-speaking country in Central America, Belize is a great place to get chatting with locals. You'll reach San Ignacio after a 3-hour drive.
Day 7: San Ignacio
This morning, you can choose whether you would like to relax in San Ignacio or take part in some of the other optional activities on offer, like a visit to the caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM caves). A living museum of Maya relics, the ATM cave system is home to ceramic pots and crystallised skeletons, preserved by the natural processes of the cave for over 1400 years. If you choose to explore the cave system (and it is highly recommended), you’ll spend most of the day there. If not, nature lovers may be interested in a trip to the Green Iguana Conservation Project, where the scaly beasts are protected. Or perhaps stretch your legs with a short walk to the ruins of Cahal Pech, which was once the residence of a wealthy Maya family.
Day 8: Bacalar
Hop on a public bus and head for the Mexico border, a journey that will take about four hours. Deal with formalities at the border and then continue to Chetumal, where you will swap buses and hit the road again for Bacalar (1 hour). A long day of travel will see you arriving in the afternoon with some daylight to spare.
Day 9: Tulum
Today, head up the Yucatan peninsula to beachy Tulum – well-known for its laidback vibes and stunning stretches of coastline. You’ll be staying in the centre of Tulum, which is a little while from the beach, however easily accessible by a short taxi ride, or by bike, as roads around here are mostly flat. In the afternoon, head to one of the beaches! Paradise beach is the famous one, however Las Palmas Public Beach is just as beautiful, but with far fewer people. Better yet, head to the south-side of Tulum beach and park yourself in one of the many beach clubs on offer. A spend of about MXN200 gets you a couple of drinks, and a chance to laze on a private beach with the comforts of possibly a sun-lounge.
Day 10: Tulum
Enjoy a free day on the picturesque Caribbean coast. Perhaps visit the Tulum archaeological site, famous for sitting on a clifftop plateau that overlooks the glistening water below. Choose whether you’d like to explore the small archaeological site, or once again find a spot on one of the white-sand beaches and chill out. This cruisy resort town is stuffed with cafes and restaurants serving up seafood-heavy Mexican fare, as well as many vegetarian and vegan options, so you’ll be able to eat well while you catch those sea breezes.
Day 11: Playa del Carmen
This leg of your journey is a short one. Hop on a local bus and travel for about 1.5 hours to Playa del Carmen. With azure waters, powdery beaches and a European feel, Playa del Carmen is a resort city similar to Cancun, but with a less intense party atmosphere. Take a brief orientation stroll with your leader to get your bearings, then take your pick of a bunch of optional activities. Maybe go for a snorkel in the fresh waters of Dos Ojos Cenote – a flooded cave system. Or perhaps head further afield on a ferry ride to Cozumel, where the colourful reefs are seen with great visibility. If you'd prefer to stay where the margaritas are cold and close by, you might want to rent a bike to explore Playa on two wheels.
Day 12: Playa del Carmen
Enjoy a free day in this beautiful location. Spend your time snorkelling, swimming in sinkholes or strolling along the white sands. In the evenings kick back and watch the waves with a margarita.
Day 13: Chichen Itza / Merida
Rise and shine! At 8 am take a private minivan to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza, and on the 3-hour journey you can practice your Spanish and spot charming villages. You’ll have a good couple of hours to explore the remains of Chichen Itza, an ancient city that fuses of religion, architecture and geometry. Then, travel on to the Yucatan capital of Merida for a beguiling dose of old-world charm. After a 2-hour ride, take a brief tour of the town centre and main attractions and then do as you please for the rest of the evening.
Day 14: Merida
Founded in 1542, Merida retains much of its old-world charm with a well-preserved Old Town, wonderful museums and city streets alive with art and culture. Hang out in the green and shady Plaza Grande, with the twin-towered 16th-century Cathedral on one side and City Hall, State Government Palace and Casa Mantejo on the others. For a taste of Merida's 19th=century glory go for a walk along the mansion lined Paseo de Montejo. Mornings are the best time to visit the outdoor markets. It's a great place to try out the local food specialities, like cochinita pibil (barbecue pork) or the head-blowingly spicy El Yucateco hot sauce. Merida is also the gateway to the Maya ruins of Uxmal and there is an opportunity to visit these impressive ruins. Little is known about the site's origins but it is thought the city was founded around AD500.
Day 15: Palenque
Today we have an early start in order to jump on one of the very comfortable first- or second-class buses heading to Chiapas. These buses are equipped with bathrooms and TVs, though you may want to spend your journey staring out the window. There's plenty to admire in the landscape of Mexico's South, particularly once you reach the mountainous region of Chiapas. There will also be time for an informal Spanish lesson. Arrive at your hotel in the evening and get some rest for tomorrow—a day full of archaeological wonder.
Day 16: Palenque Ruins
Today we will hit the ruins with a local guide in Palenque to give you all the information that you need on the impressive Maya city state, entry fee included. The pyramids and structures that formed this once thriving hub are now swallowed by jungle. Whilst walking amongst the ruins it is often possible to hear the eerie calls of howler monkeys echoing from the jungle, giving an added dimension to this magnificent site.
Day 17: San Cristobal de las Casas
After breakfast you'll grab a seat on a bus bound for San Cristobal de las Casas.The roughly 5-hour journey will be broken up with a refreshing dip in the the turquoise waters of the multi-tiered Agua Azul falls. Continue southward to San Cristobal de las Casas and explore this lovely city in a guided tour. With winding cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture, San Cristobal maintains a lovely old-world feel mixed with strong indigenous roots. Maybe make a note of any particular points of interest during your tour, which you can then come back to during your free evening.
Day 18: San Cristobal de las Casas
Travel to nearby San Juan Chamula, you'll find an insular indigenous community where life is heavily informed by a spiritual blend of ancient ritual, animism and Catholicism. Make sure to visit the church, where the floor is covered with pine needles and the air is heavy with incense. Shamans come here to carry out cleansings with firewater, ancient prayer and sometimes chickens. There are also markets with colourful handicrafts for sale. Back in town, why not go for a stroll and try to spot the cafe with the most locals in it for a taste of the traditional 'elote', a corn cob which makes a common snack in the highlands of Chiapas.
Day 19: Lake Atitlan / Panajachel
Now entering Guatemala! From San Cristobal we head down by shuttle bus. It takes about 4 hours to get to the Guatemalan border, just make sure you have your passport ready and the tour leader will give you detailed instructions on what to do once at the border. Continue on to Lake Atitlan, and settle in Panajachel which has a thriving market, good eateries and many water-based activities to enjoy. The surrounding area is dotted with villages which can be reached on foot or by boat. After a leader-led orientation walk, why not pick one and start exploring? In each village the local life has changed little over the last few hundred years. Each village has its own typical dress and make all the textiles themselves in designs passed down through generations.
Day 20: Panajachel
Today is wide open for you to continue exploring this fascinating region of Guatemala. You could go for a swim or hire a kayak, soaking up the sun and the breathtaking mountain views. If you're feeling adventurous, you could jump on the zipline that takes you through lush forest and spits you out over the lake. Just chat to your leader about the various optional activities you can partake in today.
Day 21: Antigua
The old colonial capital of Guatemala, Antigua remains the cultural centre of the country. Its cobbled streets, local markets, colonial buildings, and indigenous marimba music emanating from the many bars and restaurants create a fantastic atmosphere. After a 4-hour drive, an orientation walk will get you started in the city, then it's up to you. If you're into salsa dancing or you'd like to learn some steps, Antigua is the place to be. Many dancing schools offer hourly lessons that give you the preparation to hit the discos at night and show your moves.
Day 22: Antigua
If you plan on staying in Antigua for a day or two more, have a chat to your booking agent and they will be able to help you with securing extra accommodation (subject to availability). Even though your tour is officially over, we still have stuff to recommend! The ‘Holy Guatemole! Food & Market Tour’ with Urban Adventures, for example, is a great way to immerse yourself in Guatemala’s food culture.
- Leader-led Informal Spanish Lesson
- Antigua - Leader-led walking tour
- Livingston - River boat trip to Garifuna town
- Flores - Leader-led orientation walk
- Tortilla Making Demonstration
- Tikal National Park - Archaeological site (Entrance fee, Guide & Transport)
- Tulum - Leader-led orientation walk
- Playa del Carmen - Leader-led Orientation Walk
- Chichen Itza - Archaeological site (Entrance fee & Transport)
- Merida - Leader-led Orientation Walk
- Leader-led Informal Spanish Lesson
- Palenque - Archaeological site (Guide, Transport & Entrance fee)
- San Cristobal de Las Casas - Leader-led City Tour
- Agua Azul - Waterfall Visit (entrance fee included)
- San Juan Chamula - Maya Church (Entrance Fee)
- Zinacantan - Maya Church (Entrance Fee)
- Panajachel - Leader-led orientation walk
- Antigua - Leader-led Orientation Walk
14 Breakfast(s) Included
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