October 7, 2004 -- Fifteen years ago, William Garrett, former editor of National Geographic Magazine proposed the creation of a Mayan Route, a dedicated tourist route connecting important Mayan archaeological sites and nature preserves across Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The boundaries of the proposed route encompassed thousands of archaeological sites and hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine jungles, forests, wetlands and wildlife habitat. As an additional incentive to tourists, the Mayan Route includes several international airports and is relatively easy and inexpensive to reach. From the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, the Mayan Route is a 1,500-mile journey that ideally transports the visitor through the remains of over 3,000 years of Mayan history. The Mayans, a sophisticated civilization that abandoned its cities by the 9th century A.D., built a thriving culture in the jungles and coastal areas of Central America. They lived by a calendar equal to ours, built monumental structures, developed the concept of zero in mathematics, predicted solar and lunar eclipses and traced astronomical movement with precision.
Unfortunately the creation of a unique link between these sites is still just a concept and due to political, social, financial and environmental issues, the Route remains on the drawing board. As a tourist, however, there are dozens of reasons and ways to venture along your own version of the proposed trek, where you will experience some of the incredible splendors of the region through archaeology, wildlife, beaches, jungles and warm hospitable people.
If you're planning a Mayan Route itinerary, the best time of year is November through March. This avoids both the hottest weather (late April through early June) and the wettest (mid-August through mid-October). Various travel companies do tours of portions of the Route, usually including two to three countries in their itineraries. The handful of sites in El Salavador are rarely if ever included in these tourism itineraries. Obviously the only way you could really do "the lot" is independently and you would need several weeks and a very reliable car.
Some of the most prolific sites from an archaeological and architectural perspective include Palenque (Chiapas region of Southern Mexico), Chichén Itzá and Tulum (Yucatán, Mexico) Tikal (northeastern Guatemala), and Copan (northwestern Honduras). All are located within driving distances of airports and remain relatively accessible. However, if you would prefer to avoid the more tourist-populated zones (mainly in the Yucatán, Mexico), you can still gain access to hundreds of sites where you may be the only visitor.
Regular and often direct flights from the US service Mexican cities closest to a number of sites - Cancun (Tulum), Merida (Chichén Itzá) and Villahermosa (Palenque). Flights on Tikal Jets (www.tikaljets.com) to Flores (Tikal) El Peten Airport, depart from Belize City and Guatemala City (generally in the early morning and in the late afternoon) for under $150 roundtrip. From Cancun the roundtrip flight is available but can cost almost $500. Tropic Air (800/422-3435; www.tropicair.com) and Maya Airways (www.mayaairways.com) also service the routes between Belize City and Flores for approximately $88 one-way. For Copan, flights to San Pedro Sula on Grupo TACA (800/400-8222; www.grupotaca.com) depart from a number of US cities with prices starting at $292 for a roundtrip from Miami or $485 from Los Angeles or New York.
Freegate Tours (888/373-3428; www.freegatetours.com) has a 12-day Mayan Route expedition which includes roundtrip economy class airfare from the US, 11 nights hotel accommodation (Belize City, Cayo area, Flores, Guatemala City, Antigua, Panajachel and Copan) with breakfast daily, all transfers, Flores-Guatemala City airfare, ten-days escorted sightseeing as per itinerary, air-conditioned vehicles, English speaking tour guides, entrance fees, hotel service charges and taxes, seven lunches and four dinners.
The high season (November 1 - May 31) price from Miami is $2,719; New York $2,869 and Los Angeles $3,039. Departures from other US cities are available upon request. Single supplement add $770 or if you travel in a group of three, take $270 off the price. Prices are based on Tuesday departures only, and a weekend surcharge of $85 applies for Saturday departures. Valid for bookings made by October 30, 2004 (except for departures December 22 - January 2, when hotel supplements may apply). US and foreign airport departure taxes are additional. Airfare Peak Season: $85 for January 1 - April 30, July 1 - August 15, $240 for December 7-31.
If you have two months spare and a thirst for all things Mayan, have we got a tour for you. Adventure Tours (800/455-8687; www.adventuretrek.com/59day.htm) has a "Mayan Route Tour" that covers 4000 miles through three countries (Mexico, Belize and Guatemala) for a total of 59 days. Departing from McAllen, Texas on January 15, 2005, this specialized bus tour (generally for people over 40), travels down the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, to the Yucatán, through Campeche. Chichén Itzá, Mérida, Canc?n and over to a Caribbean island. This is followed by a week of idyllic beaches on the way to Belize back into México through the jungles and mountains of Chiapas, then into Guatemala for a further two weeks of exploring. Accommodation is mainly camping and the cost is $4695 per person.
If you are happy to just see a small section of the Route and you're looking for something a little different S & S Tours (800/499-5685; www.ss-tours.com) has a seven-day (January 24-31, 2005) "Maya Route by Rail" tour. Travel along the Maya Route through the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas, & Tabasco and enjoy being pampered with four-course meals on the new luxury Maya Express train. The price is $2,495 for this all-inclusive land package, which includes hotels, all meals, all tours, all transfers and gratuities. The tour begins in Villahermosa, Tabasco & ends in Mérida, Yucatán. Airfare is additional. For more information about the Expreso Maya private train visit: www.expresomaya.com.
South Star Tours (800/654-4468; www.southstartours.com) has a "Mayan Route Tour" for 14-days taking in the best of Guatemala, Honduras & Belize. This tour departs on November 16, 2004 and February 1, 2005. Rates start at $2799 from Miami (add $109 from Los Angeles) and include roundtrip airfare to Guatemala and Belize, 13 nights hotel accommodation, hotel taxes and service charges, specified meals, tours, transfers, entrance fees, and English speaking guides.
For a magical tour through some of the best and less touristy Mayan sites, Solar Tours (800/388-7652; www.solartours.com) runs its "Quest for the Mayas" seven-day tour that takes in Copan, Quirigua, Tikal, and Xunantunich and Caracol visiting Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Prices start at $2,222 ($1,842 without airfare) for packages from Miami and include roundtrip airfare, six nights accommodation at four-star hotels with daily breakfast, all transfers, entrance fees, ground transportation and English speaking guides.
Unfortunately there is no single website or book that acts as a "one-stop shop" information source for the Mayan Route. You may want to do some research on the Mayan civilization and choose the sites and countries that suit your budget and traveling needs best. It may also be helpful to take into account what other activities you would like to indulge in whilst visiting Mayan sites, for example, beaches, scuba diving, jungle adventures, wildlife viewing, shopping, waterfalls, horse-riding, colonial history -- all are part of the Mayan Route.