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El Salvador: Colonial Suchitoto & the Flower Route
4 nights from only $695
Nicaragua's Colonial Cities & Volcanic Landscapes
5 nights from only $1,295
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 O.A.T. 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.
4 nights from only $695
The smallest country in the Americas, El Salvador is a gem often overlooked by international travelers. Journey here to discover its friendly people and flourishing culture, explore lush rain forests and towering volcanoes, and visit the traditional villages along the Ruta de las Flores.View Extension Itinerary
Today you'll arrive in San Salvador, Central America's second-largest city and the capital of El Salvador, where an O.A.T. 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 extension to El Salvador: Colonial Suchitoto & the Flower Route. This evening, dinner is on your own.
This morning, we'll embark on an exploration of San Salvador. We'll begin with a trip to Boquerón Park, which is situated atop one of the peaks of San Salvador Volcano. From this landscaped park, we’ll enjoy fantastic views of the volcano’s craters, as well as the surrounding city. Then, we’ll visit the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, which collects items such as photos, videos, publications, and drawings to preserve the culture and history of El Salvador. The museum's exhibits focus on human rights during armed conflicts and offer diverse perspectives on El Salvador's tumultuous military history, as well as how it has affected its people.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we'll also visit San Salvador Cathedral, a lovely structure in the center of the city and the burial site of Oscar Romero, a prominent Roman Catholic priest and archbishop of El Salvador in the 1960s and 70s. Speaking out against human rights violations and begging the military to stop killing civilians, Romero often clashed with the local government and the Catholic Church. In 1980, he was shot while celebrating Mass, presumably during an organized attack by a Salvadoran death squad.
We return to our hotel to enjoy some time at leisure. Tonight, we'll gather for dinner at a local restaurant.
This morning, we’ll explore Joya de 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, communal baths, and public buildings of ordinary people—not, as at most other sites, the monumental temples of royalty. 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—bound for the town of Copán Ruinas, the gateway to the mysterious Copán ruins. This evening, we’ll enjoy dinner at our hotel.
Please note: If Day 3 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 AD 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 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—we'll keep an eye out for the fascinating birds that inhabit the surrounding jungle. We have a picnic lunch at the Copán ruins.
Afterward, you may choose to join us for an optional horseback ride to the nine-acre nature reserve of Macaw Mountain, founded with the goal of saving Honduras’ macaw population. During our ride along the mountain trails, we’ll enjoy views of the reserve’s pristine river and sloping canyon walls, keeping our eyes open for the macaws, toucans, and parrots that call this area home. With this optional tour, we’ll also enjoy an included dinner at a local restaurant.
Or take the time to explore the sleepy town of Copán Ruinas independently, with its cobblestone streets and quaint colonial charm, before dinner on your own.
Following breakfast this morning, we’ll travel overland to Guatemala. Before we cross the border, however, we’ll stop at the archaeological site of Las Sepulturas, which was probably once a sort of exclusive suburb for the Maya of Copán. It is believed that here, wealthy Maya lived in multi-room homes and were later buried next to these residences. As we’re sure to learn, this combination of both houses and tombs has helped archaeologists learn a great deal about the daily life of Copán’s elite.
From here, we’ll cross the border and 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 and enjoy a brief orientation walk before gathering for dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast, we visit the Safe Passage School in one of Guatemala City's poorest neighborhoods. In this area surrounding the city's garbage dump, countless families are forced to make a living by picking through endless piles of trash, looking for anything of value they can resell. Due to extreme poverty, many of the area's adults and children are illiterate.
The Safe Passage School is run by a local nonprofit organization that is trying to change this by working with children and young adults between the ages of 2 and 21. The more than 550 children enrolled in this program—which is supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation—can attend this full-day school through the second grade. Then, they receive financial assistance to cover the cost of public school enrollment, school supplies, and uniforms, as well as hot meals, homework help, medical care, and sports and art programming. The nonprofit also assists these children's parents and families by providing them with access to adult literacy and social entrepreneurship programs. We'll meet some of the students—from young children to adult learners—and discuss how they are striving to rise above their difficult situation. Please note: We cannot make this visit between November 15 and January 20 because the school is closed for vacation.
This afternoon, we'll have lunch at a local restaurant and then explore Guatemala City with a panoramic drive, enjoying views of its stately Civic Center, the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, the ornate National Palace of Culture, the red Baroque façade of the Iglesia Yurrita, and the bustle of Reforma Avenue. We'll return to our hotel in the late afternoon. Dinner tonight is on your own.
After breakfast at our hotel, we'll depart for Panajachel—or “Pana,” as it is fondly called by locals. While Panajachel was once a quiet Maya village, it has blossomed into a bustling town, drawing visitors with its volcanic vistas and proximity to Lake Atitlán.
En route to Panajachel, we'll stop in El Tejar to meet a family that makes roof tiles and bricks. After lunch at a local restaurant, we'll also stop in Sololá, one of the largest Mayan cities in Guatemala. Here, we'll visit one of the most vibrant markets in the highlands—often called one of the best markets in Central America—witnessing colorfully dressed locals selling meat, vegetables, fruit, housewares, and clothing. We'll also stroll through Sololá's wide central plaza, admiring the lively Maya culture that has prevailed in this city for centuries.
We'll arrive in Panajachel in the late afternoon. After checking in to our hotel and enjoying a brief walking tour of the area, we'll gather for 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 Maximón—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.
When we return to our hotel this afternoon, you can enjoy time at leisure. Dinner is on your own tonight.
This morning, you can 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 through 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.
Then we travel overland to Antigua, enjoying views of the lush Guatemalan countryside. We'll stop en route for lunch on your own. When we arrive in Antigua, we check in to our hotel. 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.
Tonight, we'll gather for dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast, we’ll begin our cultural discoveries by boarding an authentic “chicken bus”—a colorfully painted school bus that is the main form of transportation between towns, villages, and cities in Guatemala. Our destination is Jocotenango, a village just northwest of Antigua, where we’ll experience A Day in the Life of a Guatemalan village.
Here, we’ll visit Escuela Proyecto La Esperanza,a local primary and secondary school supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation. Please note: We do not visit this school when it is closed for vacation between November 15 and January 20. Many of the 450 students who attend this school come from the poor mountainside community of Vista Hermosa, and without the school’s efforts, would not be able to afford an education. We’ll tour the school’s sunny facilities and meet its vibrant students and teachers, who are sure to give us insight into their daily lives.
Later, we’ll bid the children farewell and visit the local market, where we’ll have a chance to interact with local people as they buy and sell colorful fruits and vegetables, textiles, and flowers. Then we’ll enjoy a Home-Hosted Lunch, stepping into a local family’s home and enjoying homemade regional cuisine—not to mention enlightening interactions.
This afternoon, we’ll return to our hotel, where we’ll have time at leisure to reflect upon our experiences in Jocotenango. Tonight, we’ll have dinner together in a local restaurant.
This morning, we’ll visit Cerro de la Cruz, or Hill of the Cross, located just north of the city. On a clear day, the hill offers sweeping views of Antigua with the towering Volcán de Agua in the background. We’ll then head to Antigua's Central Park to embark on 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.
After lunch at a local restaurant, 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 dinner on your own.
This morning, you may enjoy time at leisure in Antigua or join us for our optional Life in Guatemala's Mayan Villages tour to deepen your understanding of Guatemalan culture and history. We visit the towns of San Juan del Obispo and San Felipe de Jesus in the countryside outside Antigua, where we'll meet Guatemalan families and delve into local history. The tour includes lunch at a local restaurant.
Later, we regroup to depart for the Guatemala City airport for our late afternoon flight to Flores. Upon 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.
As we enjoy lunch at the site, our Trip Leader will help unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Tikal. Then, we’ll return to our hotel, where we’ll have some time at leisure before we gather for dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast today, we travel to Yaxhá—an active site in various stages of discovery. Here, we may observe as archaeologists carefully free centuries of Mayan history from the verdant grip of the jungle.
Yaxhá 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 ball 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. Upon arrival in Belize City, we’ll enjoy an orientation walk around the surrounding area before gathering for dinner at a local restaurant.
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 exploring Lamanai,we'll eat lunch before departing for Belize City. We'll discover Belize City on an included tour, taking in the bustle of this colonial city on the Caribbean shore. We return to our hotel late this afternoon, and tonight we toast the completion of La Ruta Maya over a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast at our hotel, we'll transfer to the Belize City airport. Those who are returning home will fly to the U.S., while those joining us on our Nicaragua's Colonial Cities & Volcanic Landscapes post-trip extension will fly to Managua, Nicaragua via San Salvador.
5 nights from only $1295
Conclude your Central American discoveries in Nicaragua, whose strong cultural legacy is re-emerging following decades of dictatorship. Amid landscapes encompassing volcanic mountains, colonial cities, agricultural villages, and Lake Nicaragua, now is the time to meet proud Nicaraguans in a country that has only recently opened its doors to travelers.View Extension Itinerary