Lost World of the Mayans - Mayan Trail

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Day 1: Arrival in Cancun, Mexico; To Playa del Carmen

Pick up at airport and transfer to our hotel in Playa del Carmen. The day is free to rest up or explore on your own. In the evening meet your fellow travelers for a welcome dinner and orientation meeting.

Overnight in Playa del Carmen.

 

Day 2: Oceanside Ruins of Tulum

This morning we leave behind Playa del Carmen but not the ocean, as we head south to the ruins of Tulum. Enroute to Tulum, we stop at Cenote Azul (a cenote is a sinkhole with exposed rocky edges containing groundwater), a beautiful and relaxing place where one can enjoy a refreshing swim.

After lunch, we explore Tulum with our guide who will explain the history and stories behind this amazing site. Thick ramparts and a watch- tower, built as a result of the developing enmity between the various Maya Provinces, guard the ruins of Tulum. Dating from the 12th century, it is a combination of Maya and Toltec influences, with many of its temples dedicating themselves to the worship of the Falling God or the Setting Sun. The centerpiece of the site is the Castillo, occupying the cliffs overlooking the ocean.

Overnight in Piste

 

Day 3: Chichen Itza, Convent of Izamal, To Merida; Celestun

An early start to enjoy Chichen Itza before the heat of the day. Founded in 432 AD and re-founded in 987 AD, the Toltecs reputedly conquered Chichen Itza in the 10th Century, at a time when the culture of the Maya and the Toltec were 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 (800-1000 AD), the city's origins can be traced back some 500 years previously. There is still some debate 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 Mayan city. Chichen Itza is dominated to the north 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, while the ball-court that occupies its western edge is the largest of its kind anywhere.

Early that afternoon we visit the Convent of Izamal, located at a once important Mayan ceremonial site that became a focal point in the Spanish attempts at converting the locals. The colonial forces built the imposing Convent of Izamal, a huge building that claims the honor of possessing the second largest atrium in the world. Afterwards continue on to explore Merida, which is known as the "White City" - famed for its beautiful Spanish/Moorish- style architecture. 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 and entertainment. Indeed the city is probably the most European in feel than any other in Mexico. Built over, and partly from, the ruins of a Mayan city, Merida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo. Trade with Europe brought the city much of its wealth and at one time a substantial proportion of the world's rope was manufactured from Yucatan henequen. Merida went on to become one of the richest cities in the country and boasts the oldest cathedral in Latin America, the imposing Cathedral of San Ildefonso. In 1849, during the Caste Wars, the Mayan armies besieged the city and came within a whisker of taking it and thus regaining control of the entire peninsula. Unfortunately for the Mayans, at that moment the peasants left the fight to return to their fields to plant corn, the city was and the Yucatan was brought back under Mexican control. With its trading franchises all but forgotten and the riches of the past all but a distant memory, the city still retains an air of elegance and vitality.

Overnight in Celestun.

 

Day 4: Lagoon of Celestun, to Uxmal

We explore the lagoon of Celestun by boat enjoying the abundance of birdlife, often a favorite feeding spot for flamingos. We also keep an eye out for crocodiles, turtles, iguanas and other lagoon inhabitants. We can enjoy a walk along a virtually deserted white sand beach before enjoying a fresh seafood lunch. Later our drive to Uxmal will prepare us to visit this Mayan site early the next day.

Overnight in Uxmal.

 

Day 5: Uxmal; To Campeche

Encircled by hills, Uxmal is expansive in its design, with majestic palaces, temple-pyramids and long geometrical friezes that rank amongst the most splendid examples of ancient American art seen 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 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. After lunch, we take a leisurely drive to explore the pleasant colonial city of Campeche, the state capital and once one of Spain's main ports in Mexico. During our city tour of Campeche, we learn more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Campeche, with its historic 17th Century city walls is an excellent example of a fortified city.

Overnight in Campeche.

 

Day 6: To Calakmul

After breakfast we continue on to Calakmul (UNESCO), once ranked as Tikal's greatest rival, yet one of the lesser-known Mayan sites located deep in the jungle, just 35 kilometers (22 mi) from the Guatemalan border. Throughout the Classic Period, Calakmul was one of the largest and most powerful of the ancient cities. The political posturing between Calakmul and Tikal was a clear struggle between two Mayan superpowers. Afternoon at leisure.

Overnight in Calakmul.

 

Day 7: Explore seldom visited Calakmul

Continuing our exploration of Calakmul (UNESCO), a city once reputed to have over 50,000 inhabitants and the centre of the "Snake Kingdom". There are over 6,000 ancient structures attributed to this city, one of which, Structure 2, is over 148 feet high making it one of the tallest Mayan pyramids. Be prepared for walking today as the site is spread over 7 square miles. Calakmul is the modern name for this incredible city; its name is derived from ca (two) lak (adjacent) mul (pyramid) - City of "Two Adjacent Pyramids" its old name? Ox Te' Tuun. In the heat of the day we will return to our lodge for lunch, siesta and to watch the wildlife of this jungle area.

Overnight Calakmul.

 

Day 8: To Palenque

An early start to the day for our drive to Palenque. Arriving early afternoon you may explore the grounds of our lodge searching for wildlife including a variety of birdlife.

Overnight Palenque

 

Day 9: Impressive Mayan Site of Palenque

Evidence indicates that Palenque was first occupied more than 1500 years ago and reached its zenith around 600-700 AD, 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. The entire site, shrouded by the steamy rainforest, has an aura of deep mystery. Its towered palace and pyramid tomb are breathtaking and 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 marvelous jade death mask - one of the most prized relics of the Maya culture, only discovered in 1952. In the morning, we explore the intricate labyrinth of buildings that surround the palace and temple, with its four-story tower dominating the city. After lunch, we return to our comfortable lodge, where you can explore the beautiful grounds, search for birds or simply relax by the pool.

Overnight in Palenque.

 

Day 10: Boat Journey to remote Yaxchilan. To Flores, Guatemala

Today, we have an early start as we head to the Mexico-Guatemalan border where we travel downstream on the Usumacinta River to Yaxchilan, hidden in the trees. Only Yaxchilan's distinctive roof combs can be seen from the river. This is a more remote Mayan site as it is away from the more popular tourist routes and is only accessible by boat. After our visit, we return to the 'Frontera' Corozal border crossing. After border-crossing formalities are taken care of, we continue to the town of Flores. Once the domain of the fierce warriors of King Kanek, the town was conquered and settled by the Spanish in the late 18th century, finally bringing an end to the last bastion of an independent Mayan culture. Flores was named after Cirilo Flores, who was one of the first Guatemaltecos to call for independence from the colonial powers. The city of Flores is built over the old city of Tayasal and in the center of the plaza some stelae remain. Enjoy walking about the charming streets and alleys as the sun sets on this ancient village.

Overnight in Flores.

 

Day 11: Exploration of Tikal

Today we journey to the famous Mayan Ruins at Tikal. Tikal can easily be compared with the masterpieces of ancient Egypt and Greece. Initially settled about 600 BC, it was abandoned by its rulers around 890 AD 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 kilometers (6 sq. miles), with palaces, causeways, ball-courts, spacious plazas, and hundreds of other architectural ruins - a superb example of sophisticated Mayan engineering. At its height the extended area of the city and its environs covered some 100kms (62 miles) and its population was estimated at between 50,000-100,000. Many of the main buildings were completed between the 6th and 9th centuries, in what was called the Late Classic Period. During this time Tikal 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 Mayan Civilization. The remote jungle setting, with the constant companionship of howler monkeys and parrots, gives the site a feeling of true isolation while its pyramid towers slicing through the lush canopy affords it an almost mystical feel. We will have all morning to explore Tikal to fully understand this amazing culture.

Overnight Flores.

 

Day 12: The Mayan Site of Caracol, Belize

Today we depart for Belize and it's most impressive Mayan site, Caracol, which was occupied as early as 1200 BC. Caracol grew to become one of the largest Mayan sites, covering approximately 168 sq. km or 65 sq. miles and supported a population of perhaps as much as 150,000 inhabitants. Similar to Calakmul, Caracol was one of Tikal's main rivals. The journey to Caracol is not an easy one as the road to Caracol takes you through jungle and rural areas along an often bumpy dirt road. Keep an eye out for wildlife including the ever elusive jaguar. The site rarely gets more than 15-20 visitors per day due to the challenges of getting there but the reward is a stunning Mayan site. The Caana or "sky-palace" is the largest building at Caracol. Climbing this massive pyramid offers panoramic views of the surrounding jungle. On our return, enjoy a refreshing dip in the water at the base of a small waterfall. We will return to the Belize/Guatemala border and return to our lodge for dinner.

Overnight at Flores.

 

Day 13: To the Carribean Town of Livingston via Rio Dulce

Today we head south by road before transferring to our speedboat to journey along the beautiful Rio Dulce, running from Lake Izabal, in the eastern part of Guatemala, to the Caribbean. The river itself is exquisite, with graceful birds and tall cliffs overflowing with lush flora. Today we will also visit a castle (Castillo de San Fillipe), built by the Spanish to fight off English pirates and later turned into a prison after 1700 AD. Our journey takes us to the Caribbean town of Livingston, where we enjoy our accommodations overlooking the ocean.

Dinner and overnight in Livingston.

 

Day 14: Livingston; 7 Alters Falls & Playa Blanca

Today we take a 2 hour boat ride to Siete AltaresĀ (7 Altars), a private reserve of beautiful freshwater falls forming 7 dreamlike turquoise ponds of clean, pure & fresh water. The entire place is surrounded by fauna & flora of the region. You may even get to see some of the exotic wildlife the area still preserves. We then make our way to Playa Blanca where you can relax and enjoy the beautiful white sand and clear water while we have lunch on the beach. After lunch we make our way back to the hotel along the beautiful coast. You can relax, looking out over the ocean or explore the quaint Caribbean town of Livingston easily on foot right from our oceanside resort.

Dinner and overnight in Livingston.

 

Day 15: Boat to Puerto Barrios, to Quirigua; To Copan, Honduras

Leaving early this morning we head to Villas Barrios, where we transfer to our bus and continue to the small Mayan site of Quirigua, which lies on the western fringes of the Sierra del Espiritu Mountains. Once an important trading centre between Tikal and Copan, this UNESCO World 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 neighbor. 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. It is here at Quirigua, inscribed in stone on one of the stelae, where one can find the Mayan calander predicting the end of the world on December 21, 2012. After our exploration of Quiigua, we continue to Honduras.

Overnight at Copan.

 

Day 16: Explore Copan; To Lake Atitlan

This morning, we visit this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site. Everyone familiar with Catherwood's incredible drawings (which first appeared in John Stephens' 1841 narrative - 'Incidents of Traveling Central America and Yucatan') will recognize scenes and objects from this marvelous 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 Mayan Period (750 AD), and which contains the greatest collection of Maya sculpture anywhere in Meso-America. 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. Ascending one structure is the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway, composed of some 2500 individual hieroglyphs, 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, continuing discoveries by archaeologists show a Mayan resurrection. These finds have made Copan the most researched of all Mayan sites. After our visit to Copan we will have a long afternoon drive via Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan where we spend a very relaxing two nights.

Overnight in Lake Atitlan.

 

Day 17: The Colorful Market of Chichicastenango

Today we travel to Chichicastenango, for it's famed market held on Thursdays and Sundays, arguably the most colorful market in the America's. The market draws not only the K'iche' Maya of the surrounding region, but vendors from all over Guatemala, including Mam, Ixil, Kaqchikel and others, each selling their products in a crazy mix of color, dialects, costumes, sounds, smoke, and smells. After our unforgettable visit to this famous market, we return to Lake Atitlan for dinner and overnight.

 

Day 18: Lake Atitlan; Boat Trip; To Antigua

Lake Atitlan is located in the Guatemalan highlands, populated mostly by K'iche' Maya. It is a deep lake surrounded by three volcanoes. The views of the lake are nothing short of stunning. Today we take a boat ride on the lake to enjoy the surreal beauty and to visit one of the nearby towns on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Following our exploration of the lake we depart for the colonial gem town of Antigua. Dinner and overnight in Antigua.

 

Day 19: Exploring Antigua

The stunning city of Antigua is set in a beautiful valley between the volcanoes; 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, despite the damage caused by a series of earthquakes and floods that it has received over the ages. This morning we explore this city by foot 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.

Tonight we enjoy our farewell dinner and overnight in Antigua.

 

Day 20: Depart Antigua

This morning leave Antique and bid farewell to our Mayan adventure. Transfer to the Guatemalema City airport for our departure flights home.

 
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