Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Travel to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize to delve into the legacies of the ancient Mayan civilization. More than 3,000 years ago this sophisticated culture emerged from the humid rain forests, flourished for centuries, and then vanished. In that time, the Mayans created a complex writing system, devised a calendar equivalent to our own, introduced the concept of zero in mathematics, predicted lunar and solar eclipses, and built the tallest structures in the western hemisphere—all while Paris was just a sleepy village. Today, their ghostly remnants are scattered across Central America in an ancient, 1,500-mile-long trade ring known as La Ruta Maya. From ruins to rituals to rural villages, we’ll trace the footsteps of the enigmatic Mayan culture as only OAT can—in our trademark small groups. Along the way, we'll meet modern-day descendants preserving their Mayan heritage with jade carvings, colorful weavings, and warm hospitality. Join us as we travel back in time to explore the Route of the Maya.
Arrive today in San Salvador, Central America's second-largest city and the capital of El Salvador, where an OAT representative will meet you at the airport and assist with your transfer to our hotel. There, you'll meet your fellow travelers, including those who took our optional pre-trip extensions to El Salvador: Colonial Suchitoto & the Flower Route or Nicaragua's Colonial Cities & Volcanic Landscapes. This evening, dinner is on your own.
After breakfast, we’ll enjoy a panoramic city tour of San Salvador, passing the National Palace and the Catedral Metropolitana in the city center. Then, we set off to explore Joya de Cerén (Jewel of Cerén), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the first of five Mayan archaeological sites we’ll discover on this adventure.
Located about 30 minutes from San Salvador, Joya de Cerén is aptly nicknamed the “Pompeii of the Americas, ” because—like Pompeii—it features remarkably intact dwellings that were preserved for centuries after being buried by volcanic ash. Dating from about AD 600, the ruins here were the homes of ordinary people—not, as at most other sites, the monumental temples of royalty—the adobe houses, communal baths, and public buildings of a typical Mayan farming village. This site was discovered in 1976 and is still being excavated. Evidence suggests that the inhabitants were able to evacuate as the eruption destroyed their village, but they left utensils and textiles behind that provide revealing glimpses of Mayan life more than a millennium ago.
From Joya de Cerén, we head to the border of Honduras—stopping en route for lunch at a local restaurant on the shores of Lake Coatepeque—bound for the town of Copán. This evening, we’ll enjoy a Welcome Dinner at our hotel.
Please note: If Day 2 falls on a Monday, we will enjoy a visit to Fernando Llort’s gallery in lieu of Joya de Cerén, which is closed Mondays. Fernando Llort, who is sometimes called “El Salvador’s National Artist,” is an artist of note whose work hangs in international collections, such as the White House Museum and the Vatican.
In AD 250, the Maya—Mesoamerica's (and the western hemisphere's) most advanced culture—began constructing elaborate cities that flourished until about the year 900, an era now known as the Classic Period of Mayan civilization. After breakfast this morning, we set out to explore the crown jewel of their endeavors: Xukpi (to the Maya), now known as the ruins of Copán. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, Copán is Honduras' most significant pre-Columbian site and the most elaborate of all Mayan cities, earning it the title “Athens of the Mayan World.”
We spend a full morning here exploring its sprawling ball court, adorned with markers resembling macaw heads; and the Great Plaza, scattered with altars and lined with carved stone columns called stelae, which represent powerful Mayan rulers and date from AD 711-736. Among the ruins here that have helped to unveil Mayan history is Altar Q, a rectangular stone altar with carved portraits of all of Copán's rulers, from the founder, Yax Kuk Mo, to the last ruler, Yax Pac.
The most impressive remnant is the Hieroglyphic Stairway—63 steps with 2,500 glyphs, or symbols, carved into the stone, transforming the pyramid’s steps into the Mayans' longest historical record. The ancient Mayan belief system gave extraordinary importance to precisely measuring and recording the dates of events, such as the reigns of rulers, and many of Copán's monuments, and those of other Mayan centers, are elaborate sacred calendars.
And the Maya were far from the only residents of the rain forest of Honduras. During our visit—in addition to examining the ruins—keep an eye out for the fascinating birds that inhabit the surrounding jungle. We depart the ruins for lunch at a local restaurant, after which we’ll have time for a stroll through La Sepulturas, an ancient residential area within Copán.
Afterwards, you may choose to join us for an optional horseback ride through rolling pastures and fields of wildflowers on our way to La Pintada, a quaint farming village of thatched-roof homes and garden patches. We’ll enjoy stunning views of the ruins of Copán as we ride, as well as the opportunity to spot more of Honduras’s colorful wildlife. At La Pintada, we'll mingle with descendants of the Maya and see how the women make traditional dolls out of corn husks before returning to Copán for a dinner of local Honduran specialties.
Or take the time to explore the sleepy town of Copán Ruinas, with its cobblestone streets and quaint colonial charm, before dinner on your own.
Following breakfast this morning, we travel to Guatemala. After we cross the border, we’ll stop in the small town of Estanzuela to visit its Museum of Paleontology, home to a collection of Mayan artifacts and murals, as well as fossils of the prehistoric creatures that once roamed Guatemala’s fertile lands.
From there, we continue on to Guatemala City through a patchwork of farmland, stopping en route for lunch on our own. Upon arrival, we check into our hotel. Dinner is on your own.
This morning, we begin our explorations of Guatemala City with a panoramic drive through this diverse city, enjoying views of its stately Civic Center, the Neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, the ornate National Palace of Culture City, the blood-red Baroque façade of the Iglesia Yurrita, and the bustle of Reforma Avenue.
After stopping at a local restaurant for lunch, we’ll stroll through the colorful market of Sololá. Here, where tourists rarely visit, our small group will mingle with the Maya people and observe how history is woven into the patterns of their clothing. We’ll also explore this small city’s central plaza and its cemetery, where colorfully decorated, above-ground tombs overlook Lake Atitlán.
Around mid-afternoon, we arrive at our lodge in Panajachel, located by the northern shores of Lake Atitlán in the western highlands of Guatemala. We take a walking tour of the town, then enjoy time to refresh at our hotel before dinner at a local restaurant.
Today, we continue our travel in Guatemala with a cruise on breathtaking Lake Atitlán. Encircled by three towering volcanoes—San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlán—which are reflected in its azure waters, it’s been called “the closest thing to Eden on Earth.” And with a depth of more than 1,000 feet, it’s also the deepest lake in Central America, formed by a powerful volcanic explosion more than 85,000 years ago. There is no road that rings Lake Atitlán, so we’ll travel to its lakeside villages by boat.
Indigenous Mayan people settled on Atitlán’s shores around the beginning of the last millennium, making this the heart of the Mayan world. Their ancient traditions, beliefs, and crafts are preserved in the many Mayan textiles, with their distinctive geometric patterns, that are still created here using traditional methods. We’ll witness the fruits of their labors today during a visit to a textile market in the lakeside town of Santiago. While there, we’ll also learn about the traveling statue of Maximon—a famous Mayan deity—and visit an altar where local people still perform rituals to honor him.
After our visit to Santiago, we cross the lake to the village of San Antonio Palopo, a small settlement lined with adobe homes—the residents of which still wear traditional Mayan clothes—where we have lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake. Then, we get an even closer look at Mayan traditions during a hands-on weaving demonstration with village families, before returning to our boat once more for the return trip to our hotel.
Back in Panajachel, you’ll enjoy an afternoon at leisure. Or, you might choose to join us for an optional Canopy & Hanging Bridges tour at the Atitlán Nature Reserve, a 247-acre reserve located on the lakeshore. On this excursion, we’ll hike into the region’s tropical forest, walking along hanging bridges suspended in the verdant canopy, while admiring the landscape’s volcanoes and waterfalls. Then, when we reach the top of the valley, we’ll enjoy a thrilling descent by zip-line (eight in total) that brings us back to solid ground.
Dinner tonight is on your own.
Please note: During the rainy season, the Canopy & Hanging Bridges optional tour will be available in the morning, and the other activities will move to later in the day.
This morning, we begin the overland journey to Antigua, enjoying another look at the lush Guatemalan countryside. We’ll stop en route for lunch on our own, and arrive in Antigua in the early afternoon. Founded in 1543, “La Antigua” served as the seat of Spain’s colonial government—whose influence extended beyond Guatemala to Chiapas (in southern Mexico), Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and parts of Costa Rica—until the Spanish Crown ordered its relocation to the site of what is now Guatemala City in 1776.
Upon our arrival in Antigua, we visit a local jade factory, where we discover the enduring significance of jade in Mayan culture. This precious stone—excavated at many of the ruins we visit—has long been coveted by Mayan nobility as a symbol of fertility, luck, and power. Then we continue on to a local macadamia farm to learn how these nuts are grown and harvested—and to see how they’re used in food, cosmetics, and a variety of organic products. We check in to our hotel late this afternoon, and have some free time to make our own discoveries before we enjoy dinner together at a local restaurant.
We’ll travel to a rural farming village in the countryside around Antigua this morning to experience A Day in the Life of Santa Catarina Barahona. We’ll begin with a visit to a local market, then connect with young Guatemalans during a visit to a local school (when in session) supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation. The schoolchildren are always eager to meet visitors, and will give us a lively presentation on their culture, after which we’ll have some time to interact with them one-on-one before we meet their teachers and other members of their community.
Our cultural exchange continues at a private home, where we join a local family for a Home-Hosted Lunch. We’ll enjoy a taste of regional specialties, such a sopas (soups), corn tortillas, and pepian—a local favorite consisting of chicken and vegetables in a spicy sauce—as we get a glimpse into the lives of our gracious hosts.
We return to Antigua this afternoon, where you'll have time for independent exploration and dinner on your own.
This morning, we head to Antigua’s Central Park to embark upon a walking tour of the city, one of the Americas’ oldest and loveliest—full of Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, and graceful stucco homes—and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our tour takes in several of Antigua’s museums, as well as the restored convent of Santo Domingo.
Then spend the afternoon in Antigua, exploring this charming colonial city on your own. From the stunning volcanoes to the smallest architectural detail, Antigua is a revelation. Wander the winding streets at your own pace, linger in a small café, or shop for handmade crafts. The day is yours to savor the beauty of this lovely Guatemalan community, and enjoy lunch and dinner on your own.
Or, you can join our optional Life in Guatemala's Mayan Villages tour to deepen your understanding of Guatemalan culture and history. We visit the towns of Santa Maria de Jesus and San Juan del Obispo in the countryside outside Antigua, where we'll meet Guatemalan families and delve into local history. The tour includes dinner and a traditional folkloric dance performance.
Enjoy time at leisure in Antigua this morning to make your own discoveries in this charming city. After lunch at a local restaurant, we depart for the Guatemala City airport for our late afternoon flight to Flores. On arrival, we journey overland to our hotel, where we have time to settle in before enjoying dinner on our own.
Today, we explore the Mayan city of Tikal, a magnificent 1,800-year-old complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its peak, Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya, and it was one of the most important urban centers of its time. Immersed in the Petén Jungle in Tikal National Park, the grounds are expansive and inspiring, and it’s difficult to determine which is more impressive—the accomplishments of man or those of nature. The Tikal site comprises roughly six square miles and contains about 3,000 structures—including temples, pyramids, tombs, palaces, ball courts, and terraces—the tallest of which rise above the leafy canopy and vie for your attention with the assortment of animals and exotic birds. Within the park, it’s possible to spot a great variety of wildlife.
As we tour today, we’ll visit Tikal’s Great Plaza and see the 144-foot-high Temple of the Grand Jaguar, the tomb and memorial of Mayan ruler Moon Double Comb, who was buried with many treasures, including 180 pieces of elaborately carved jade. We’ll also see the Plaza of the Seven Temples, dating from the Late Classic period and including an unusual triple ball court. And we’ll enter El Mundo Perdido, the "Lost World," where 38 structures surround a central pyramid in yet another “neighborhood” within the vast expanse of Tikal. While Tikal’s history remains relatively unknown, its ruins stand as a testament to Mayan engineering and culture.
We’ll enjoy lunch at the site, and our Trip Leader will help unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Tikal as we continue our discoveries this afternoon, then return to the hotel. Dinner tonight is on your own.
After breakfast today, we travel to Yaxha. Yaxha is an active site in various stages of discovery, and here we may observe as archaeologists carefully free centuries of Mayan history from the verdant grip of the jungle.
Yaxha was a bustling Mayan trade and ceremonial hub located about 20 miles from Tikal, one of the greatest centers of Mayan culture. It is now within the largest protected area in Guatemala, the “Maya Biosphere,” which includes Tikal National Park and a series of smaller national parks and protected areas. More than 1,500 years ago, Mayan priest-kings built scores of pyramids just tall enough to poke above the jungle here and reach the cooling breezes of the lake. They also carved stone monuments, constructed handball courts, and laid out the streets of their city in a grid pattern.
We enjoy a lunch at a local restaurant near the archaeological site, then continue our overland journey, crossing the border between Guatemala and Belize. On arrival in Belize City, we check into our hotel and enjoy a brief orientation walk of the neighborhood, returning to our hotel to enjoy dinner there tonight.
This morning, we explore the ruins of Lamanai (a Maya word meaning “submerged crocodile”), named for the abundance of crocodiles that make the adjacent New River Lagoon their home. Nestled amid thick jungle vegetation alive with exotic birds and howler monkeys, Lamanai is accessible only by boat, and boasts the second-largest pre-Classic structure in the Maya world—its magnificent High Temple. The site also features the 13-foot Mask Temple, a stone temple mask of a Maya king.
The Maya lived at Lamanai for more than 3,000 years, and the ruins here are some of the oldest in Belize, dating to 700 BC. Excavation of the site began in the 1970s, and thus far less than five percent of the structures here have been unearthed. Excavation of the ruins continues to this day. As we cruise up the New River toward Lamanai this morning, you’ll probably agree that getting there is half the fun, as we take in sights of tropical trees gracefully overhanging the water, delicate orchids, colorful birds winging through virgin forest, and freshwater crocodiles lazing on the riverbanks. Then, spend the morning exploring this fascinating site, including its on-site museum, which hosts an extensive collection of artifacts used both for worship and daily life.
After our exploration of Lamanai, we’ll discover Belize City on an included tour, taking in the bustle of this colonial city on the Caribbean shore. We check into our hotel late this afternoon, and tonight we toast the completion of La Ruta Maya over a Farewell Dinner there.
After breakfast at our hotel, transfer to the Belize City airport for your flight home. Travelers taking our post-trip extension to Belize's Barrier Reef & Ambergris Caye will board a ferry and transfer to Ambergris Caye.