Day 1 - Mexico City
Bienvenidos! Welcome to Mexico. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting today at 6 pm. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask reception where it will take place. If you can't arrange a flight that will arrive in time, you may wish to arrive a day early so you're able to attend. We'll be happy to book additional accommodation for you (subject to availability). If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting, so please ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader.
Modern meets ancient in Mexico City - one of the world's largest urban centres. Although crowded and smoggy, D.F. (Distrito Federal) offers a great variety of museums, galleries and architecture, along with exciting nightlife and delicious street food. If you arrive into the city early, head to the Zocalo, the city's huge central square, to see Aztec ruins and colonial architecture. Perhaps relax in one of the many parks, plazas or gardens or take an Urban Adventure with an expert local guide.
Day 2 - Mexico City
This morning your leader will take you on an orientation walk around the city, followed by a free afternoon. If you like art, the Frida Kahlo Museum is a must-see. Another fascinating activities is a boat tour through the canal district of Xochimilco.
Alternatively, you can choose to take an optional day trip to the archaeological ruins of Teotihuacan, 50 kilometres out of the city. A local guide will lead you down 'The Avenue of the Dead', pointing out the historic Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. You'll also visit the religious landmark of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Day 3 - Puebla
This morning and most of the afternoon are free to continue exploring Mexico City. Later in the afternoon, take taxis to the bus station and catch a local bus to Puebla (approx 2.5 hours). Please make sure you bring bottled water and snacks for the journey. Local buses in Mexico aren’t the colourful school buses you’ll see in other areas of Central America. Most of the buses we use in Mexico are comfortable coach-style vehicles, with a bathroom and seats for all passengers. Local buses tend to blast the air conditioning so remember to pack a jacket in case you get cold.
Day 4 - Puebla
Today is free to discover Puebla at your leisure. Although a rapidly growing city, Puebla features many well-maintained colonial churches and buildings. Two good examples are the Santa Domingo Church and Rosary Chapel. Head to the markets to brush up on your bargaining skills and pick up some hand-painted tiles or other handicrafts. If you're looking for something more active, go for a hike near one of the area's looming volcanoes. After a day sightseeing and shopping, why not try some mole Poblano, a dish native to Puebla and famous all over Mexico? You could even try making it yourself during an optional cooking class.
Day 5 - Oaxaca
Today travel by local bus to Oaxaca (approx five hours). You'll have two full free days here. Your leader will provide ideas for activities and help you to make the most of your time. A beautiful old colonial town, Oaxaca is full of graceful arcades and colourful markets. The markets are populated by descendents of the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians selling colourful woven blankets and shawls. Oaxaca is also known for its arts scene, including folk art, fine art and dance. Explore the narrow, cobbled streets or simply sit in the square drinking mezcal as the world goes by. Your hotel is within walking distance of Oaxaca's nightlife hot spots.
Day 6-7 - Oaxaca/Overnight Bus
Spend the next two days exploring Oaxaca. Perhaps visit the spectacular mountain top temples of Monte Alban just outside the city. Monte Alban was inhabited for 1,500 years by the Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples, and is an outstanding example of a pre-Columbian ceremonial centre. The settlement's terraces, dams, canals and pyramids were literally carved out of the mountain. Alternatively, you could take a day tour out to the nearby Mitla Ruins, the mineral springs of Hierve el Agua and a mezcal distillery. Back in town, why not whip up something delicious at a cooking class?
On the evening of Day 7, take a first-class overnight bus to San Cristobal del las Casas (approx 13 hours in total). First-class buses in Mexico are quite comfortable. They are equipped with toilets and reclining seats with plenty of leg room. They are always air-conditioned, so make sure you take a light jumper with you as it may get cold on board.
While the bus is very comfortable, the road from Oaxaca to San Cristobal has some very winding sections. If you suffer from motion sickness, this will be a good time to have your medication ready.
Day 8-9 - San Cristobal de las Casas
Arrive into San Cristobal early in the morning. Check-in at the hotel isn't usually until midday, so if you can't check in on arrival, leave your luggage and start exploring San Cristobal. Today and tomorrow are at your leisure. As always, your group leader will help you arrange to take part in optional activities. With its winding cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, San Cristobal de las Casas maintains an old-world feel mixed with strong pre-hispanic roots. The surrounding villages are home to Tzotzil and Tzeltal groups who maintain their tribal origins through their traditional costumes and customs. You might like to explore the villages by mountain bike. If you take a day trip to San Juan Chamula, make sure to visit the church. 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 chickens. If you visit, please be aware of a strict ban on cameras as the local people maintain their traditional customs. There are also markets selling colourful handicrafts. Another option is a day trip to Sumidero Canyon. Back in town, wander to a local cafe and try an 'elote', a traditional highland corn snack.
Day 10 - Palenque
Today travel along a windy road by private minivan to Palenque (approx 6 hours). Once you've arrived, the afternoon is free for you to relax or explore. Situated in hot jungle, Palenque is the jumping off point to the nearby Mayan ruins of the same name. You'll have tomorrow to check them out.
Notes: The local Zapatista movement in the region around Palenque has been quite active in recent months, occasionally holding protests or blocking roads. Our local operations team is constantly monitoring this situation to ensure the safety of our passengers and leaders. In some cases we might need to use an alternative route from San Cristobal to Palenque to avoid this activity - more so to bypass long traffic delays than any real danger.
Day 11 - Palenque/Overnight Bus
Today you have the chance to visit the ruins of Palenque. Situated on a hilltop, the ruins date back to 600 AD and are some of the most impressive Mayan relics in Mexico. As you walk among the temples, listen out for the eerie calls of howler monkeys echoing from the jungle. There are many ruins which are still un-excavated and remain hidden in the forest. You can opt to take a guided tour of the ruins or through the surrounding jungle. This evening, transfer to the bus station and board an overnight bus to Merida. The journey should take around eight to nine hours in total.
Day 12-13 - Merida
Early this morning arrive into the historic town of Merida. Founded in 1542, Merida still retains much of its old-world charm. Wander through the Old Town, check out some museums and stroll the city streets, which are alive with art and culture. Hang out in the green and shady Plaza Grande, with the 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, where you can stock up on hammocks and Mayan replicas. This is also a great place to sample local food specialities, such as 'cochinita pibil' or the extremely spicy El Yucateco hot sauce. Merida is the gateway to the Maya ruins of Uxmal. A tour of the ruins includes transport and a local guide. Little is known about the site's origins but it is thought the city was founded around 500 AD. Much of the site is decorated with masks of the rain god Chac. You can also visit a nearby bird sanctuary or a variety of other ruins. Merida's locals love dancing. Every Sunday the town's streets are transformed into an open-air dance floor, with salsa and merengue bands providing the music.
Day 14 - Chichen Itza/Playa del Carmen
Travel to Playa del Carmen by private minivan, stopping en route for an included visit to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza (this first leg will take about two hours). Recently named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza contains both Toltec and Mayan ruins lying alongside each other. The famous El Castillo pyramid dominates the site. There is also a large ball court where games used to be held. Nearby, excavations of the Well of Sacrifice offered up treasures of jade, copper and gold as well as many human and animal bones. The group will spend 2-3 hours at Chichen Itza before continuing on to Playa (approx 3 hours). Blessed with azure waters, powdery beaches and a European feel, Playa del Carmen is a resort city close to Cancun but with less of a party atmosphere. On your last night of the trip, kick back with a margarita and watch the sunset.
Day 15 - Havana
Travel to Cuba. Although the flight is not included, a complimentary departure transfer to Cancun Airport and a complimentary arrival transfer in Havana are included with your trip.
If you arrive into Havana early in the morning, please note most activities in Cuba can only be booked through the tourist desk in the lobbies of the larger hotels or direct with the venue. Otherwise, there are plenty of good museums to check out, including the Museo de la Revolucion and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
There will be a welcome meeting at approximately 6pm this evening. Please expect a letter in your room or a phone call on Day 1 from your leader to confirm the time and place of your meeting. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information again at this meeting, so ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader. The briefing is generally followed by an optional group dinner.
As this is a combination trip, your group leader and the composition of your group will change for the Cuban section of this trip.
Day 16 - Vinales
This morning your leader will take you on a walking tour of the Old Havana. This tour includes a visit to the cathedral, Plaza de Armas, San Francisco de Asis, Plaza Vieja, Central Park and other sites. Next you will head west on a private bus to Vinales (approximately 3 hours). This is a small and charming rural village, and probably the easiest place in Cuba to mingle with locals, who are very sociable and love nothing better than to drink rum and dance the night away. With only three bars in town, it’s hard to get lost here. The scenery around Vinales is some of the most picturesque in Cuba.
Day 17 - Vinales
You will have an included informal Spanish lesson when the group decides. Then enjoy some free time today in Vinales, which you'll soon see is home to extraordinary scenery that's some of Cuba's best. Soak up the slow, old-world pace of rural Cuba, as oxen plod gracefully along the streets. There are many optional outdoor activities available. You might like to cruise around the area on a bicycle, hike through the tobacco fields or to explore one of the America’s largest cave complexes up in the mountains. Your leader will have further recommendations.
Day 18 - Bay of Pigs / Playa larga
Today is a long travel day - Head back to Havana before continuing east to Playa Larga (approximately 8 hours). You will stop at the Bay of Pigs for a swim, and if there is time you can hire snorkel gear. Continue to Playa larga where you'll spend the night.
Day 19 - Trinidad
Hit the road again today, firstly visiting the Giron Museum to learn about the Bay of Pigs Invasion – the battle between the US and the Cuban revolutionaries which resulted in the first defeat of a US-backed takeover in Latin America. Next stop is Cienfuegos, which some locals like to call 'The Pearl of the South'. You'll have time for an optional lunch or simply discover its beautiful colonial centre, with its wide Parisian-style boulevard and elegant colonnades. If there is time, pay a visit to the Palacio del Valle with the group. Once a modest home for a local trader, this palace is now Cienfuegos' architectural pride and joy. The entire edifice drips with ornate carvings in Venetian alabaster. Then finally on to Trinidad (approximately 1 hour drive) is a standout destination for many visitors to Cuba, due in no small part to a friendly populace, old-fashioned feel and particularly well-preserved colonial buildings. The Santeria religion (a voodoo-like Afro-Cuban tradition) which is practiced here makes the town all the more intriguing. For an insight into the colourful post-revolutionary period, the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra los Bandidos and the Casa de los Mártires de Trinidad are great to visit. Nearby is the sprawling Valle de los Ingenios, where sugar plantations stretch out as far as the eye can see.
Day 20 - Trinidad
Today is a free day in Trinidad. For some beachside fun and perhaps a little snorkelling, head down to Playa Ancon. Just be careful you don't stand on a sea urchin. Hiking and cycling are equally good options, and there are some excellent walking trails in the nearby Sierra del Escambray mountains. At some point while you're here, a great activity is to go to a folklore show at one of the town's numerous open-air venues. Cuba has a rich and varied music and dance tradition that draws roots from Spain, Africa and France, and this is your chance to experience it all first-hand, from the Mambo to the rumba.
Day 21 - Havana
On the way back to Havana you will pass by Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara mausoleum and memorial. Che's remains were brought to rest here after they were found in a remote corner of Bolivia in 1997, where he was assassinated by the CIA-backed Bolivian army. There is an impressive bronze statue of Che bearing his rifle. Inside the museum, you can learn about his amazing life and see photos and exhibits such as his famous black beret. On reaching Havana you will return to your guesthouse, then enjoy some free time. Take the opportunity to hit the town for a final night of salsa.
Day 22 - Playa del Carmen
Travel back to Mexico. Although the flight is not included, a complimentary departure transfer to Havana Airport and a complimentary arrival transfer from Cancun Airport are included with your trip. There will be a welcome meeting at approximately 6 pm this evening.
As this is a combination trip, your group leader and the composition of your group will change at this location.
Day 23 - Tulum
Travel south today by local bus to Tulum, which should take around 1.5 hours Tulum is a beach paradise on the Caribbean coast, where you can spend your time relaxing on the beach or strolling along the white sands. The town itself is small. Your leader will take you on an orientation walk upon arrival. For a taste of Mayan architecture, take an optional visit of the ruins of Tulum. These ruins sit atop a cliff amid palm fringed and white sand beaches. You can even go for a swim within its ancient walls. In the evening, use the opportunity to kick back and watch the waves with a margarita.
Day 24 - Tulum
Today is free to relax, take part in optional activities and to generally do as you wish. Perhaps start your morning by renting a bike and cycling around the area - this is a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short time. If you haven't yet, you may want to head to Akumal Bay for a snorkelling tour of the bay.
Day 25 - Caye Caulker
Leave Mexico behind early in the morning and head south to Belize. Be prepared for a long day of travel on the road, as the total driving time including the border crossing will take around eight or nine hours. Travel by minivan to the border at Chetumal (3.5 hours approximately). After crossing the border and having lunch (not included) continue onto Belize City by private minivan (3 hours approximately). Once in Belize City take a water taxi to Caye Caulker (1 hour). Expect to arrive at Caye Caulker by 5-6 pm. The Belize Cayes are a group of islands that are a short boat ride away from the coast. There are a number of these islands to choose from, Caye Caulker being one of the more popular islands with travellers.
On arrival there won't be too much time to explore, so perhaps go for an evening stroll to get your bearings of the immediate vicinity. Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America, which will make chatting with locals much easier.
Day 26-27 - Caye Caulker
Today is free to explore. From Caye Caulker, it's possible to arrange day trips to other Cayes or a snorkelling trip to the nearby colorful corals to see tropical fish, sharks and manta rays. Further away, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is home to the magnificent Blue Hole and the world's second longest barrier reef. You could also choose to go manatee spotting. These huge peaceful creatures are often called sea cows and are quite curious to meet their visitors. Otherwise just relax on the beach.
If you're interested in sampling local cuisine, Caye Caulker is famous for its lobster. Not the cheapest meal you'll ever buy, but delicious nonetheless. Always make sure that you respect the season: the lobsters can only be caught between June 15th and February 15th. Some of the best meals on the island are cooked on the road side. How about some grilled shrimp and a lovely rum and coke made with the local fire water?
Day 28 - San Ignacio
Today travel by local bus through the forested hills of the highlands to San Ignacio. Catch a ferry back to Belize City (1 hour) before taking a local bus to San Ignacio (3.5 hours approximately). Local buses in Belize are a little more basic and crowded than in Mexico. Get ready for stop and go on the journey, as there are very few official bus stops in Belize and the bus will keep stopping to pick up passengers. On arrival, your leader will take you walking tour of San Ignacio and its twin sister Santa Elena. While San Ignacio may lack the colonial charm of other Central American towns, its streets and markets showcasing a mix of Mayan and Garifuna cultures are well worth exploring.
All guests at our hotel in San Ignacio are required to pay an additional charge of USD20 per night if they choose to use the air conditioner in their room. Electricity in Belize is incredibly expensive so most hotels charge an extra rate to use the air conditioning - and USD20 per night is pretty standard. We could include this extra charge in the trip price but then all of our travellers would have to pay whether they want to use it or not. We believe giving our travellers the option is a fairer way to manage this situation.
Day 29 - San Ignacio
You have a full day at your leisure to discover San Ignacio. This beautiful town is surrounded by fast flowing rivers, waterfalls and Mayan ruins, making the ideal base to explore the region. One of the optional activities here is a day trip to Xunantunich, an impressive Mayan ceremonial centre located with panoramic views over the countryside. The east side of one of the temples has a unique stucco frieze and the central plaza has three carved stelae. Getting to the site is half the fun, as you'll need to take a hand-cranked ferry to cross the river.
The cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal is a living museum of Mayan relics, where you'll have to wade through water until you reach the Mayan ceremonial site. Here you'll find ceramic pots and crystallised skeletons, preserved by the natural processes of the cave for over 1,400 years. Other options to fill in your time in San Ignacio include a day trip to the Mountain Pine Ridge area to visit waterfalls and warm swimming holes, as well as a huge cave system, the butterfly garden, canoeing or river tubing.
In the late afternoon and at night perhaps head to Santa Elena (15 minutes walking) where many little street barbecue stalls open, and serve huge portions. Give it a try, sit down next to the road, chat with the locals and enjoy a juicy chicken leg. Closer to town you may want to try tamales, garnachas (crunchy tortillas with fired beans and cheese) and 'foot cow soup' also known as caxlo de res.
Day 30 - Tikal
Today starts at 8 am with a short taxi ride to the Belize border. Once in Guatemala, take a bus to Tikal National Park (approximately 2.5 hours). In Tikal there will be time for lunch (not included), before visiting the impressive archaeological site. Towering above the jungle of the Tikal National Park, the five granite temples of Tikal are an imposing sight and one of the most magnificent Mayan ruins. Hidden in the jungle growth is a maze of smaller structures waiting to be explored. The energetic can climb to the top of the ruins for spectacular views over the canopy and you may even spot toucans, macaws and other colourful birds. While here, you have the option of taking a guided tour of the area or scale the canopies and explore by zip-line.
Tonight, set up the tents along with sleeping mattresses and camp under the stars by this majestic Maya site. Weather is always warm in this part of the world but a thin blanket is provided for extra comfort. There are also basic shared bathrooms and showers at camp.
Day 31 - Rio Dulce
If you haven't had enough of Tikal, you have the option to visit the site again (very) early in morning (entrance fee not included). Leave Tikal at 8 am for a 1-hour bus ride to Flores on Lake Peten Itza. Your leader will take you on a walking tour of Flores before continuing travelling by private minivan to Rio Dulce (approximately 4 hours). On arrival in Rio Dulce, transfer to the hotel by boat. The easiest way to get back into town is also by boat, which can be organised through the hotel, or take a 40 minute walk enjoying the jungle.
Your hotel is located right on the river. This is a great place to simply relax on the deck overlooking the water, with reasonably priced meals served in the hotel restaurant.
Day 32 - Rio Dulce
Use your free day here taking advantage of the optional activities to get out and about. Take a scenic boat trip down the river to Livingston, a laidback town on the Caribbean coast that offers a unique experience of local Garifuna culture. Follow the local trend and go boating on the lake, take a tour to spot the protected manatees or explore nearby San Felipe fort.
Day 33 - Antigua
Say goodbye to Rio Dulce today and travel by private minibus to the city of Antigua, which should take approximately eight to 9 hours allowing time for lunch. However, the road between Rio Dulce and Guatemala City is one of the busiest in the country. Traffic is slow, there are frequent road works and many, many, many slow trucks. Be armed with patience, music and good book. You'll spend the night here, before heading to Lake Atitlan tomorrow. You won't spend too much time in Antigua today, but you should still go out for a stroll and try tamales - a local dish usually prepared traditionally on weekends and served in a corn leaf. You could also give the pepian a try, which is a meal that consists of a rich dark sauce served with vegetables and meat (usually chicken).
Day 34 - Chichicastenango/San Jorge La Laguna
Be read for an 8 am depart. Travel by private transport to the famous market in Chichicastenango, taking approximately 2.5 hours. Home to perhaps the most colourful market in the country, on Thursdays and Sundays locals come from the surrounding villages to sell their wares, and the streets are lined with stalls offering multi-coloured textiles and fresh produce. After visiting Chichi head towards San Jorge La Laguna, a small Maya village overlooking Lake Atitlan, which should take 1.5 hours.
Arriving in San Jorge La Laguna, meet your host family for tonight's homestay. The group may be split in twos or threes, depending on the group size. Locals in San Jorge La Laguna are both very friendly and very shy. In order to make the most of this experience, it may take a bit of effort from your side to break the ice first. Learn as many Spanish words as you can and get ready for some serious hand language signals.
Houses in San Jorge La Laguna are very basic. Your room may only consist of a couple of beds with clean bedding, and the bathroom will most likely be outside your room and shared with the rest of the family. The mother of the family will cook dinner and breakfast for you. Meals can be very basic but filling, consisting of corn, rice and beans. You may want to stack up some snacks in Antigua.
Day 35 - Panajachel
Say farewell to your host family this morning, as you move to the neighbouring town of Panajachel. Located on Lake Atitlan with distant volcanoes looming in the background, Panajachel has a thriving market, good eateries and many water-based activities to enjoy. Once in Pana your leader will take you on a brief walking tour of town. The rest of the time is free for you to explore. Why not go for a swim, hike to San Pedro volcano or kayak on the lake? The surrounding area is dotted with villages, which can be reached on foot or by boat. Watch women weaving at Santa Catarina Palopo or explore the colourful markets of Santiago Atitlan. Your whole day is free to take part in optional activities.
Day 36 - Antigua
At 9 am start travelling back to Antigua by private vehicle, which takes 3 hours hours. In 1773 the city was destroyed by an earthquake, but many of the colonial buildings have been carefully restored and the architecture from its glory days can still be seen. Your leader will take you on a walking tour of Antigua including Cerro de la Cruz lookout, the local market as well as the very colourful and unique chicken bus station next to the market. The rest of the time in Antigua is free for you to explore.
Day 37 - Antigua
Enjoy a free day exploring the city. Perhaps check out the ChocoMuseo located on 4th Street West, two blocks away from central park. Learn all about chocolate, its history and nutritional values and you may be lucky enough to get a sample bag of chocolates at the end of the tour. Otherwise, grab a coffee from one of the many coffee shops in central park and just sit back, relax and enjoy Antigua's city vibe. If you want to learn more about the famous Guatemalan coffee, you can go on a coffee tour, visit the plantations, do some coffee tasting and even buy some to take home. If you're into salsa dancing or if you'd like to learn some moves, Antigua is the place to be. Many dancing schools offer hourly lessons so you'll be able to perfect your moves.
Day 38 - Antigua
Your Mayan Encounter adventure comes to an end this morning. There are no activities planned for the final day and you're able to depart the accommodation at any time. As there's a great deal to do in Antigua, we recommend staying a few extra days to make the most of this exciting city. If you need help booking extra accommodation, our reservations team will be happy to assist.
Accommodation, Food (as stated), Transport, Selected Activities
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