You’ve got two or three weeks to spare, and you want to see the best of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize – what can you do? We’ve created three itineraries linking ancient sites, gorgeous beaches and encounters with indigenous communities.
Star gods and pyramids
Ever since the intrepid 19th-century explorer John Lloyd Stephens stumbled upon the long lost cities of the ancient Maya, travellers have been drawn to Mesoamerica’s haunting, jungle-shrouded ruins. This intensive archaeological itinerary follows a circular route from Cancún through the Yucatán, the Petén and Belize. Starting from the gateway of Cancún, head inland to the colonial town of Valladolid, where you can marvel at the ruins of Ek-Balam and wash away your jet lag in the local cenotes. Chichén Itzá, 30 minutes’ drive west, is the largest and most-visited site in the Yucatán. Next stop is Mérida, with the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya and the nearby Puuc ruins. In Chiapas, eight to ten hours south, the rainforest city of Palenque is the epitome of Mesoamerican beauty. From there, travel east to the remote Lacandón rainforest and visit the riverside city of Yaxchilán and Bonampak with its bloodthirsty murals. Cross the Usumacinta river to Guatemala where the Mayan metropolis of Tikal beckons with its massive temples. The final leg of your Mayan pilgrimage takes you into Belize and onto Mexico, with options for Xunantunich near the Guatemalan border, and Altun Ha and Lamanai north of Belize City. Before returning to Cancún, pause at Tulum, perfectly placed above the Caribbean Sea.
Travelling between the capitals of Mexico and Guatemala, this rewarding cultural itinerary takes you on a vivid journey to indigenous communities. Starting in Mexico City, take a day or two to acclimatize. The outstanding Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Museo de Arte Popular are recommended as primers. From the capital, the colonial stronghold of Oaxaca City is six hours south, an ideal base for exploring the Valles Centrales and their Zapotec and Mixtec villages. Kick back for a few days on the Oaxaca coast then head east and base yourself in San Cristóbal de las Casas for trips to Tzotzil Mayan communities, such as San Juan Chamula, where traditional healers practice their arts. From here, the bus journey into western Guatemala, homeland of the Mam Maya, requires six to eight hours. Huehuetenango is the transport hub for exploring remote highland villages such as the fascinating Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Further south again, Lake Atitlán and its environs are also filled with interesting Mayan communities: in Santiago, you can visit a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking god called Maximón. In Chichicastenango, you can shop for textiles at the famous twice-weekly market. Santa Cruz del Quiché and the deeply indigenous Ixil Triangle are other options here. Conclude your cultural odyssey in the colonial masterpiece of Antigua, or in Guatemala City, one hour away.
A vibrant patchwork of Mayan, Creole and Garífuna cultures, the Caribbean coast has a special allure beyond the obvious appeal of sweltering tropical beaches. This itinerary skirts the coast from Cancún to Belize to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, before concluding at Guatemala City. We recommend you exit Cancún as fast as possible and forgo the big tourist hubs for the more intimate island destinations of Isla Mujeres or Isla Holbox. Heading south on the mainland, the village of Tulum is a definite highlight. From here, you can explore the eerie underwater world of the Yucatán’s cenotes (sinkholes) or organize kayak trips to observe wildlife in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Continuing south to Chetumal, six hours away on the Belizean border, you can take a bus to shambolic Belize City – recommended for lovers of sketchy Caribbean port towns – or skip it by taking a high-speed panga directly to the northern cayes. Ambergris Caye has the best beaches and expeditions to the Blue Hole, but Caye Caulker is more relaxed, authentic and better value. Continuing south on the mainland is the Garífuna town of Dangriga and the southern cayes. However, an essential stop is Placencia, where you can organize fishing, diving, hiking and snorkelling trips. The southernmost town in Belize is the ethnically diverse Punta Gorda. From here, take a water taxi to Lívingston in Guatemala, an idyllic Garífuna town flanked by dense rainforest. Before heading overland to Guatemala City, conclude your Caribbean adventure by exploring the Biotopo Chocón Machacas and the Mayan ruin of Quiriguá, where the famous calendar depicting the Mayan long count was discovered.