Guatemala occupies the heart of the ancient Maya world, which spreads into southern Mexico, present-day Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. This 12-day itinerary will take you to most of the major Maya sites covered in this guide, including Copán in Honduras. The best way to undertake this trip is to hire a private car and driver.

Day 1: Guatemala City

Once you've settled in, head to the Museo Popol Vuh, followed by the Museo Nacional de Etnología y Arqueología. These two downtown museums will give you a good introduction to the overall history and extant findings of Guatemala's ancient Maya. In the afternoon, visit Parque Arqueológico Kaminaljuyú, the ruins of a pre-Classic city located on the outskirts of current-day Guatemala City.

Days 2 & 3: Takalik Abaj

From Guatemala City, journey to another pre-Classic site, Takalik Abaj. A great part of the charm of visiting these ruins is the chance to stay on-site at the lovely Takalik Maya Lodge. Takalik Abaj has some interesting features you won't find at other ruins on this route, including a T-shaped ball court and barrigón, or "fat-bellied," sculptures.

Days 4 & 5: Copán

From Takalik Abaj, a long drive and border crossing stand between you and the fabulous Classic-era ruins of Copán. Next to Tikal, Copán is my favorite Maya archaeological site. It's somewhat less extensive, and fewer plazas and pyramids have been excavated, but Copán features some of the most ornate and best preserved examples of Maya architectural and historical sculpture to be found. The Museum of Maya Sculpture is worth a visit in and of itself. You'll also want to be sure to tour the Rosalia and Jaguar Tunnels.

Day 6: En Route to Chiminos Island Lodge

From Copán you'll be driving to Chiminos Island Lodge. You'll have to leave your car and driver in the town of Sayaxché, where you'll pick up a boat to this lovely isolated lodge. On your way from Copán, take a minor detour to the small Maya ruins at Quiriguá. Quiriguá features several massive carved stelae. The tallest (here and in the Maya world) is more than 10m (35 ft.) tall, and weighs more than 65 tons. Quiriguá also has several massive stones, which have been carved into the zoomorphic shapes of frogs, serpents, turtles, and mythical beasts, and covered with hieroglyphs.

Days 7 & 8: Lesser-Known Ruins

Chiminos Island Lodge makes a great base for exploring several lesser-known Maya ruins, including El Ceibal, Aguateca, and Petexbatún. All of these can be visited on organized tours available through the lodge.

Days 9 & 10: Tikal

By now you're ready to visit Tikal, which I consider the most impressive of all the Maya archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. If you're using this itinerary, you'll want to stay at the Jungle Lodge, which is located just outside the entrance to the archaeological site, and is as close as you can get without pitching a tent inside the ancient city.

Days 11 & 12: Ruins Around Tikal

You can either stay at the Jungle Lodge or move to one of the hotels in Flores or on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá. Whichever you choose, you should still stick around this region and explore the other ruins around Tikal, including Yaxhá, where one season of the reality series Survivor was shot. Other sites worth exploring include Nakum, Uaxactún, and El Zotz.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.