Caribbean Caye Caulker is a dreamy place to spend two days with no plans. Munch barbecue lobster? Snorkel around a coral reef? Nap under a palm tree? It’s up to you.. Hit the streets of Antigua with your leader and climb to a vintage cross lookout for views of the city and the massive volcano that towers over it.. Get to know contemporary Maya life during a homestay in San Jorge La Laguna, a lakeside village where you can share meals and conversation with a local family.. Wander between stalls of rainbow-coloured handicrafts, fruits and flowers and get some haggling tips from your leader in Chichicastenango Market.
Discover more than one kind of bliss on this 17-day Lonely Planet Experience in Central America, from the calming sea breezes on Tulum’s beaches to the contentment of a hearty, homecooked dinner in a lakeside Maya village. This adventure through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize takes its sweet time ambling down the coast to the island paradise of Caye Caulker, then cuts inland to the lush jungle around Tikal, cruising to the vast Rio Dulce and finishing among the clouds in Panajachel and Antigua. You get the right balance of local-led experiences and independent exploration, with a whole load of awesome places to discover.
Breakfast Included: 1 Lunches Included: Dinner Included: 1
Playa del Carmen
Hola! Welcome to Mexico! Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm today. If you are lucky enough to have extra time in this beachside playground, why not spend it snorkelling in freshwater rock pools (called cenotes), strolling along the white sands or reef diving on Cozumel. Check out the full range of recommended optional activities below for more inspiration. After the welcome meeting tonight, perhaps head out for a cocktail and a meal with your new travel buddies.
Leave behind one paradise for another, quieter version. Travel south by local bus to Tulum, where white-sand beaches and Maya ruins await after a mere 1.5-hour journey. Take an orientation walk with your leader around the small town when you arrive, then head to the cliffs or the shore to enjoy the sunshine at your own pace. The famous ruins that hug the cliff edge are no longer a well-kept secret, so if crowds aren’t your thing it’s best to get up early tomorrow to beat them. Enjoy free time to maybe grab a snack and a beer at a beach shack, then hit the sand and the water (rinse and repeat). In the evening, you could grab a few of your fellow travellers and find a spot to watch the sunset with a margarita in hand.
Today is as clear as the waters of the Caribbean, so you can spend it how you like. Perhaps start your morning by renting a bike and exploring on two wheels. Then maybe head to Akumal Bay for a change of scenery or check out one of the many local freshwater rock pools known as cenotes. You can buy an organised tour to each of these attractions or venture off on your own as both are easily accessible using local transport. Cenote Dos Ojos is perhaps the most spectacular of the natural pools, but it be prepared for a three-kilometre walk each way from the local bus drop off. Remember, pack plenty of water and snacks so you don’t get caught out! If you haven't already, you might want to take the opportunity to head to Mexico's most famous archaeological site, Chichen Itza, which is about a 2-hour drive away. Chat to your leader about what’s on offer and how to organise optional activities.
Bid adios to Mexico early this morning and head south to Belize. Be prepared for a long day of travel on the road without a chance to stop for lunch, as the total driving time including the border crossing will be 8–9 hours. First, travel to the town of Chetumal by public bus (approximately 3.5 hours). Then jump on a local bus to the border (20 minutes). Undertake border formalities, then board the same bus to Belize City (approximately 3 hours). Once in Belize City take a water taxi to Caye Caulker (1 hour). Expect to arrive on Caye Caulker by 6 pm. Phew! What a day. But trust us, it’s worth it. Perhaps go for an evening stroll to get your bearings on the island, then if you have the energy why not hit a beach bar and unwind. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, which will make chatting with locals much easier.
Good morning and welcome to heaven! Today is free for you to explore the island and surrounds or simply relax. Whatever you choose to do, it’s pretty much impossible to keep the smile off your face when the scenery is this magic. If you feel like snorkelling, ask your leader about organising a trip to the colourful coral reef nearby, or perhaps head further afield to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, home to the world’s second-longest coral reef. Manatee spotting is one option nature lovers should consider, as the chance to encounter these gentle giants is a special one. Of course, you could always take a stroll and find a swaying palm tree with your name on it. They make the perfect place to nap, read a book and soak up the island vibes.
What’s better than one day in paradise? Two, of course! Wake up when you like, because you’ve got another free day. Like any good seaside Eden, Caye Caulker is home to super fresh seafood, which you can dig into with your feet planted in the sand at one of the many ‘floor free’ outdoor restaurants. The island's famous lobsters are available between 15 June and 15 February, and you can expect to pay far less than at home (though more than your average island meal). Some of the best meals can be found by the roadside, so why not grab some grilled shrimp and a rum and coke made with firewater to really get into the spirit.
From the islands to the highlands, today you’ll bid farewell to Caye Caulker and catch a ferry to Belize City (1 hour) and then take a local bus to San Ignacio (3.5 hours). Local buses in Belize are a little more basic and crowded than you may have experienced elsewhere in Central America. Get ready for a stop-and-go experience on the journey. There are very few official bus stops in Belize, so the bus will stop as required by roadside passengers. On arrival, your leader will take you walking tour of San Ignacio and its twin sister Santa Elena, which will give you a sense of how vibrant the local Garifuna and Maya communities are. Perhaps tonight head out in search of a classic Maya dish like cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus).
You have a full day at your leisure to discover San Ignacio. This beautiful town is surrounded by fast flowing rivers, waterfalls and Maya ruins, making it the ideal base. One optional activity that will appeal to history buffs is a day trip to Xunantunich, an impressive Maya ceremonial site positioned on a hill that overlooks the countryside. Getting to the site is half the fun, as you'll need to take a hand-cranked ferry to cross the river. Also nearby is the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a living museum of Maya relics. Wade through cool waters to find ceramic pots and crystallised skeletons preserved by the calcium-rich environment of the cave for over 1400 years. Easily spooked? Maybe you'd prefer a cave with fewer (as far as we know) skeletons, like the one in Mountain Pine Ridge. In the late afternoon, the barbecue stalls of Santa Elena start to set up for the dinner rush. It's only a 15-minute walk, so consider wandering over to enjoy a juicy chicken leg and a chat with the locals.
Rise and shine for an 8 am taxi ride to the Belize-Guatemala border. Once you've crossed over, board a bus to Tikal National Park (approximately 2.5 hours). In Tikal there will be time to buy lunch before visiting the impressive archaeological site. Towering above the jungle, the five granite temples of Tikal are an imposing sight and one of the most magnificent Maya ruins. Hidden in the evergreen forest are 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 the chance to spot toucans, macaws and other colourful birds. Choose to explore on your own or pay a little more for a guided tour (or maybe see the site from above on an optional zip-line ride). Tonight, set up the tents and mattresses and spend some time under the stars. The 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 the camp.
If you can't get enough of Tikal, you have the option to visit the site again in the (very) early morning at your own cost before departing at 8 am to Flores. It's just a 1-hour ride away, and on arrival your leader will take you on a walking tour of the island of Flores. Continue 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 on the water, a journey which can be organised through the hotel. Alternatively, a 40-minute jungle walk will get you there. The hotel is a great place to relax and look over the water, with reasonably priced meals and drinks served in the hotel restaurant. Now that you are back in a Spanish-speaking nation, why not join an informal Spanish lesson put on by your leader? Muy bien!
With plenty of free time today, consider taking advantage of some of the optional activities available. Maybe take a scenic boat trip down the river to the coastal enclave of Livingston for a taste of Creole-Caribbean culture. This laidback town on the Caribbean coast feels very different from the rest of Guatemala thanks to its Garifuna population. Or perhaps go boating on the lake, take a tour to spot local manatees or explore nearby San Felipe Fort.
Leave the 'Sweet River' behind and travel by private minibus to the city of Antigua, a journey which should take around 8 or 9 hours, allowing time for lunch. 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 (seriously) slow trucks. Be armed with patience, music and a good book and the journey will be easier to handle. Spend the night in Antigua before heading to Lake Atitlan tomorrow. Though there's not much tie in Antigua today, you owe it to yourself to reward you patience with a tamale – meat and dough steamed in a corn leaf. You could also give the pepian a try, which consists of a rich dark sauce served with vegetables and meat (usually chicken). You may also want to take this time to purchase a few snacks for your time at the homestay on Lake Atitlan as the meals there can be very basic.