The hardest part of the Maya Trail is deciding where to begin. Fly into Guatemala and head east? Fly to Belize City and travel north?
I chose to fly into Cancún and go south making my first Maya Trail stop Tulum, Mexico, on the Caribbean Sea.
Tulum makes a convenient starting point because it offers an oasis of hippy-style cabaña beach accommodations, yoga, good food and superb beaches with an important Maya ruin to boot. Here the traveler can disconnect from whatever life he left behind when he got off the plane and spend a couple days getting a tan and setting his watch to ‘Maya time’.
Tulum was once a walled Maya city with watchtowers and forts overlooking the sea. It’s important to get to Tulum’s ruins early before tour buses from Cancún arrive around 11am. After a couple days in Tulum and perhaps a side trip to the nearby Cobá ruins, it’s time to get on the bus and cross the border.
Altun Ha and Lamanai
From Mexico, I bused it to Belize, changing from a first-class bus to a school bus at the border town Chetumal. After an hour and a half ride I got off at Sandhill Junction to explore the Maya ruins Altun Ha and Lamanai.
I would have liked to have rented a car and driven from Tulum to Altun Ha. However, it is a real struggle to cross the border with any car, so taking the bus is the best bet.
Off a dirt road that used to be the country’s main highway, Altun Ha was an important ceremonial site in northern Belize during the Classic Maya period (250AD). The site consists of 500 buildings, most of which are covered in grass and spindly trees. Differing from Mexico, Belize’s Maya sites are not filled with tour bus crowds. At Altun Ha there were maybe ten other visitors wandering around the ruins while I was there.
Set west of Altun Ha is the larger ruin Lamanai. Accessed by water taxi, the ride to Lamanai, which means ‘submerged crocodile’, is part of the adventure. After an hour’s trip up the New River visitors come to what was one of the oldest communities in Maya civilization (1500BC).
Many crocodile sculptures were found at this site along with Olmec statues. Both Lamanai and Altun Ha are set in thick hot jungle. You will want insect repellent, sunscreen, breathable clothing, and water. Sandals are fine at the ruins themselves, but if you decide to head into the jungle it’s a good idea to wear heavy-duty shoes.
My next stop on the Maya Trail was Caracol (the snail) in central-western Belize. Unlike the steamy jungles around Altun Ha and Lamanai, western Belize’s climate is arid.
I rented a 4×4 Jeep to explore the Maya Mountains and the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. It’s possible to stay in San Ignacio, the region’s main town, and see the sites through tour operators. While using tour operators may be a bit more expensive, it could be worth it for those who want to relax and let someone else take care of the map and the potholes.
I stayed at Blancaneax Lodge for the night and then got up early to join the military escort up to Caracol at 9:30am. Because of some robberies a few years back, the Belizean military escorts visitors with one truck in the front of the convoy and another in the back.
I felt safe driving in the group and was joined by another fifteen cars of tours and private parties. It’s important to note that this drive is long (2 hours one way, give or take) and those who do it need a full tank of gas and a packed lunch. If you go with a tour, they’ll take care of everything.
Caracol is an expansive Classic era site. It’s fascinating to climb atop its towering Caana temple and look out over the jungle while imagining what it looked like as a Maya metropolis with a population of 100,000.
Exploring Caracol takes about two to three hours for those who don’t linger. Security is very good at Caracol, and guests are continuously monitored by armed guards (which is a bit weird at first, but you get used to it). After seeing Caracol, make a swimming pit-stop at the pristine Rio On pools.
Caves were another important aspect of Maya civilization and the area around San Ignacio offers some prime caving excursions. One of the easier caves to explore is Barton Creek, which offers English tours by canoe or inner tube. On my visit to Barton Creek there was a small group of us who gathered at the ‘dock’ at the cave’s blue lagoon entrance, where vines and tree roots hung over the water and butterflies rested on alien-like orchids.
Each of us was given a high-power flash light as Borris, our guide, pushed off and paddled into the mouth of the cave. Once in the cave we turned on our flash lights and proceeded to ‘oooh and ahhhh’.
The Maya believed that their rain god, Chac, lived in caves. When drought hit the Maya made offerings and sacrifices in Barton Creek Cave. For whatever reason, Chac preferred young scarifies and twenty-eight skeletons were found in the cave, many of them from child victims. Barton Creek Cave is large, darker than night and a bit creepy. There are numerous bats which dive around and droplets of water falling from the stalactites.
Barton Creek is well worth the trip, but keep in consideration that the cave cannot be accessed when it’s raining and that if you go by rental car you’ll have to make two river crossings. For an even more adventurous and strenuous cave experience try the ultra-intense Actun Tunichil Muknal caves with a guide.
Though the Maya Trail heads to southern Belize, it also continues west to Guatemala’s Tikal. From San Ignacio it was an easy bus ride over the border into Guatemala to Flores, an island town where most people opt to stay while seeing the ruins.
Budget allowing, it’s best to stay at Jungle Lodge right next to Tikal, enabling sunrise and night ruin hikes. Tikal was one of the great capitals of the ancient Maya world, with an estimated population of 50,000 and history stretching back to 600BC.
From Tikal there are some fantastic two-day treks into Peten’s forest to temple El Mirador which can be arranged in Flores.
I decided to head back up to Mexico’s Chicanna site, a small but detailed group of ruins on the Guatemala/Mexico border in the state of Campeche. Chicanna was thought to be a retreat for Maya royalty and is best known for its ‘serpent mouth’ carvings.
Chicanna can be explored in a couple of hours allowing plenty of time to also view nearby Becan and the remote Calakmul, a ruin site that was featured in the August 2007 National Geographic feature highlighting secrets of Maya civilization.
To reach these sites a rental car is key, though there are some buses which pass by. I drove all over the Yucatan and found the roads decent and under construction (meaning they should be even better by now!). Chicanna Eco Lodge provides green accommodations right across the road from the ruins.
The Maya Trail contiues north through Campeche (Edzná), west through Chiapas (Bonampal, Palenque) and north to the Yucatan (Uxmal, Ek´Balam). To see all the excavated Maya sites it would take at least two months of travel.
From June to November it’s rainy/hurricane season in Central America, so the best time to go is from December to May when the weather is dry. That said, I went in hurricane season and only had one day of rain total. Prices are higher in dry season, so budget travelers will want to pay attention to that.
Many of the lodges I listed are pricey, but budget options were available in most places as well (with the exception of Chicanna).
Dry or wet, cheap or luxury, by bus or by 4×4 Jeep, doing the Maya Trail is an unforgettable experience. As so many others have wondered: what happened to these people?
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Regina WB is a writer living in Barcelona. She works mostly on non-fiction and travel pieces with a focus on Latin America and Europe.