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Guatemala: Tikal & Beyond

  • 21 Dec
  • -
  • 05 Jan 2023
  • |
  • 16 days


per person

Availability: 12 places

    Guatemala is one of Central America’s hidden gems, a country of incredible diversity, with a history and a culture to match. Lush and volcanic and steeped in Mayan lore, it is a rich mix of natural wonder, native tradition and colonial elegance, much of it as yet unspoiled by the trappings of modern tourism. This incredible adventure takes us deep into the central highlands, where we can soak up the graceful charms of Antigua, gaze out across the breath-taking volcanic landscapes around Lake Atitlan and visit the traditional Mayan villages of the Ixil Triangle. We'll climb peaks with breath-taking views, pick coffee with local farmers, swim beneath waterfalls and in hot water springs, visit a national orchid farm, journey by boat via majestic lakes and meandering mangrove channels to the remote Mayan site of Aguateca, before visiting the unique community of the Garifuna on the shores of the Caribbean.

    This is a quintessential Wild Frontiers adventure, offering something for everyone, a journey filled with fascination and fun, where the ancient and the modern worlds come together before the slopes of a volcanic landscape as timeless and beautiful as any on earth. Beyond the ruins of Tikal the Mayan spirit lives on, in the villages and settlements that cling to Guatemala’s low lying plains and fertile mountains.

    Day 1


    Our journey begins in the central highlands of Guatemala, in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. Nestling in a lovely valley that lies within the dominating embrace of three spectacular volcanoes: Agua (3766 m), Fuego (3763 m) and Acatenango (3976 m), the city is rightly considered one of the most graceful and picturesque in the Americas, despite suffering a series of devastating earthquakes during the 16th and 18th centuries. Founded by Spanish Conquistadors in 1543, the city today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of some note, its rich mix of Mayan and Spanish customs and traditions still permeating every aspect of Antiguan life.

    Day 2


    A walking tour of the city affords an opportunity to explore something of its historical core in some depth. We will visit a number of its ruined churches and convents, including the 16th century churches of Iglesia San Francisco and La Merced, the city’s once great Cathedral, which in its heyday was one of the Central America’s largest. Our aim is to keep this day’s activities as flexible as possible, allowing you sufficient time to discover this wonderful city for yourself.

    Day 3


    Guatemalan coffee is considered to be amongst the finest in the world, and this morning we will take a tour of one of the region’s small, independent coffee producers. Supported by a number of organisations that promote environmentally responsible agriculture, the tour affords a chance to see up close how the small coffee farmers go about their daily business. We will be able to see how the coffee is picked and washed, graded and then roasted over open fires, before being hand ground on a traditional grindstone. After lunch with the local farmers we’ll return to Antigua for some free-time and – for those that wish – to take part in a chocolate-making workshop!

    Day 4


    Today we journey to the spectacular shores of Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America and considered by many one of the most beautiful in the Americas. An old caldera, the lake’s volcanic origins are still very much in evidence, the deep escarpments that surround it still being sprinkled with volcanic peaks that attest to its violent beginnings. Heading down to Lake Atitlan we then gaze upon a setting that Aldous Huxley once described as ‘...really too much of a good thing’. Covering over 130 square kilometres, the lake’s fertile shores are dotted with farms producing coffee and corn, avocados and strawberries, whilst the villages that blanket the basin still retain the deep seated traditions of their Mayan heritage. We continue to the small town of San Pedro La Laguna later this afternoon, where we will spend the next two nights.

    Day 5


    Nestling on the western shores of the lake, beneath the imposing shadow of San Pedro Volcano, the town is made up primarily of Tz’utujil Mayans, a group who can date their origins back to the post-classic period of Mayan civilisation (circa 900-1500). Our intention this morning is to take a 2-hour hike up to a nearby viewpoint called Indian Nose. The path can be uneven and the climb is arduous, but there is a more easily attainable platform half way up for the less energetic! However the rewards for those that make it will more than compensate for your efforts. An hour-and-a-half walk down will then see us heading to the nearby village of San Juan, famed for the traditional intricate textiles they produce using organic dyes, and we’ll meet up here with anyone not wishing to participate in the hike. The rest of the day will be free in San Pedro for swimming, relaxing or hiring bikes to explore more of the stunning lakeside landscapes.

    Day 6


    A boat transfer across Lake Atitlan this morning brings us to Panajachel before continuing by bus to the highland town of Chichicastenango, taking us up through a landscape of traditional Mayan villages that presents a rural setting that seems as timeless as the surrounding mountains. Chichicastenango is famed for its market and upon arrival there will be ample time to explore its dazzling array of colourful stalls, perhaps allowing us to pick up a bargain or two before we leave. There is an opportunity for those interested to take a stroll up to the 400-year-old Church of St Tomás. Built on top of a pre-Columbian temple, the church is steeped in a fascinating mix of Mayan and Catholic traditions. Here the scent of burning incense is often combined with the ritual slaughter of chickens as the gods of both religions are appeased. Departing the town after lunch we then head into the Quiche Province, home to the largest Mayan population still left in Guatemala. Our destination is the environs of the small town of Nebaj.

    Day 7

    DAY 7: NEBAJ

    Isolated amongst the high landscapes of the Cuchumatanese Mountains, the small villages of Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul make up the area more commonly known as the Ixil Triangle. As scenic as it is traditional, the area is the heartland of the Ixil people, whose language and culture still cling to the steep, lush hills, untainted by the influences of the outside world. The tranquillity of the setting and the friendly nature of the people belie a history that is steeped in blood. Brutalized during the Spanish conquests and scene of some of the worst human rights abuses witnessed during the civil war of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the area today is amongst some of the most visually and culturally fascinating regions in the country. The people in this region are traditionally farmers and weavers by trade and the intricate complexity of their clothing (especially the women’s huiplies) present a rich cacophony of geometric shapes and brilliant colours. Returning to our hacienda later this afternoon, you may wish to take a walk to the nearby village or just relax and enjoy the birdsong.

    Day 8


    After breakfast this morning we leave the mountains of Quiche behind and head east towards the city of Coban via the Uspantan road. This is an adventurous route and although a long and bumpy day’s drive, it takes us into a region that is remarkably rich in flora and fauna and at the centre of one of the country’s major coffee-and cardamom-growing areas. Founded by Dominican friars in 1543 and declared an imperial city by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Coban was developed by German coffee growers during the latter years of the 19th century. Surrounded by mountains, cave systems and lush forests, Lanquin and the area around Coban is home to both the rare Quetzal and the Monja Blanca orchid, Guatemala’s national flower. We will have lunch in Coban and visit a local orchid sanctuary before heading on to our jungle lodge, which will be home for the next two nights.

    Day 9


    We head this morning for the beautiful Semuc Champey, located in a steep-sided valley and surrounded by tropical rainforest. The site consists of a 300-metre limestone bridge which spans the River Cahabón. The bridge itself is riddled with natural pools of clear mountain spring water (in which you will not be able to resist taking a swim) which eventually rejoin the Cahabón by way of a 40ft waterfall that cascades over the edge of the bridge into the river below. Semuc Champey is a veritable haven of natural biodiversity, with over 90 species of birds, some 34 species of mammals and over 120 varieties of trees and shrubs in the area. An hour’s hike takes you up to a viewpoint giving you a bird’s eye view of the entire area.

    Day 10


    This morning we head for the small town of Sayaxche on the Rio La Pasión. Located close to El Rosario National and founded as a logging encampment in 1874, the settlement is our gateway to the rustic splendours of the Chiminos Island Lodge. Located on a protected portion of the beautiful Petexbatún Lagoon, the lodge is only accessible by boat and the 1-2 hour journey (dependant on water levels) from Sayaxche takes us deep into the heart of the Peten rainforest. On arrival we will find a lush refuge awaiting us that is ideal for bird watchers, with parrots and hummingbirds in abundance. At dusk the haunting sounds of howler monkeys will be sure to contribute towards this magical experience.

    Day 11


    This morning we pay a visit to the ancient Mayan site of Aguateca, a UNESCO Cultural and Natural Heritage site that is accessible only by boat. Dating back to the Late Classical Period of Mayan development, the ruins are amongst the best preserved in the country, spanning a period of power that lasted from 600 AD until 830 AD. Once the capital of the Dos Pila/Aguateca dynasty, the site sits atop a 90-metre limestone bluff overlooking the waters of the lagoon. Surrounded by a defensive wall that stretches for nearly 5 kilometres, the city nonetheless fell to invaders sometime during the 9th century, its centre being destroyed by fire and its city streets left strewn with valuables and artefacts. At its peak, the city was one of the most densely populated in the Mayan world and its rapid abandonment provided archaeologists with a fascinating insight into the life of a Mayan city. After our visit we will transfer back to the shore and resume our journey north, travelling up to the charming town of Flores, spectacularly located on an island in the middle of Lago Petén Itza.

    Day 12


    We’ll have some free time this morning in Flores to explore something of its densely packed streets and colonial charm. Ideal for exploring on foot, Flores is filled with narrow cobbled streets and interesting plazas, its red-roofed buildings adding to its enchanting appeal. Leaving Flores late morning, we’ll drive on to the amazing site of Yaxha, having lunch en route. Although less well known than Tikal, the ruins at Yaxha are very impressive with over 500 structures, including temples and a twin-pyramid complex. Climbing to the top of one of the restored temples will give us a truly amazing panorama of the surrounding jungle and the Yahxá and Sacnab lakes, and we’ll spend sunset here. Continuing on to Tikal, we’ll overnight at the edge of the park itself.

    Day 13


    This morning we will visit the remarkable ruins of Tikal, set within the lush landscapes of the Parque Nacional Tikal. Considered by many to be the finest collection of Mayan ruins on earth, this stunning UNESCO World Heritage site lies encased in a remote jungle setting. Abandoned over a thousand years ago, the city was once one of the largest and most powerful in the Mayan world, its temples and pyramids spreading across an area of over 16 square kilometres. Deserted since the end of the 9th century AD the city lay lost for centuries, before it was rediscovered in 1848 and its temple complexes again stood testimony to the incredible ingenuity of Mayan engineering. The site is still only partially excavated and the jungle trails that wind through the expansive plazas and past towering Mayan pyramids, enhanced by the choral accompaniment of howler monkeys and toucans, only add to its feeling of remoteness. Those that want to can be there as soon as the site opens for dawn and we can enjoy having the site more or less to ourselves before the masses arrive later in the day. The views from atop Temples 4 & 5 provide vistas that overlook the jungle canopy and stretch out as far as Mexico and Belize. After lunch we hit the road once more and head south towards the Rio Dulce which flows into the warm waters of the Caribbean. Meandering its way through the verdant landscapes of the Rio Dulce National Park the ‘Sweet River’, as it is known in Spanish, runs from Lake Izbal down to the coast and the glittering waters of the Bahia de Amatique. Our destination today lies along the shores of the river itself, just a short boat transfer from the town of Rio Dulce and deep in the heart of this natural haven.

    Day 14


    Today we travel by boat down to the settlement of Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. Once the country’s main Caribbean port (before it was replaced by Puerto Barrios), Livingston is the cultural heartland of the Garifuna people and indeed is the only settlement of Caribs in the entire country. Descended from the black slaves, who were brought to the Caribbean to work on the plantations, the Garifuna settled in the area towards the end of the 18th century and have retained many of their traditions, as well as their music and language. Proud of their culture, the Garifuna have created something of a unique cultural enclave in Livingston, more Caribbean in outlook than Latin American. Food and music are a big part of life here, with seafood and reggae being a big attraction for both the locals and visitors alike.

    Day 15


    The end of our astonishing adventure sees us heading back to Guatemala City today, via the archaeological ruins of Quirigua. Lying along the Motagua River in the south-eastern part of the country, the ruins at Quirigua date back to the Maya Classic Period (AD 200-900) and once lay at the crossroads of a number of trade routes than ran between Guatemala and the ancient site of Copán in neighbouring Honduras. Culturally, this site offers a fitting end to our country-wide exploration of Mayan civilisation, with an array of extraordinary preserved and deciphered stelae, depicting watershed events in Mayan history. After the visit we will continue back to the Guatemalan capital’s zona viva for a farewell dinner in the heart of one of the city’s affluent centres, offering a chance to reflect on an incredible journey of priceless encounters.

    Day 16


    After breakfast we will transfer to the airport in time to catch the group flight.