Nestled within the jungles of Mesoamerica, soaring pyramids, hieroglyphs, and long-hidden murals attest to the magnificence and mystery of the ancient Maya. Discover monuments of this fabled civilization showcased in once-grand cities like Tikal and concealed in the remote temples of Bonampak and Yaxchilán. Meet modern-day Maya and encounter traditions that have survived through the centuries.
Delve into the world of the Maya on an expedition inspired by the work of National Geographic scientists and archaeologists. One such archaeologist is National Geographic Explorer Guillermo de Anda, who will join us for additional insight at Chichén Itzá and its Sacred Cenote, a special lecture on underwater archeology in the region, and discoveries funded by National Geographic.
Explore some of the most influential cities of the Maya world, including four UNESCO World Heritage sites: Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Palenque, and Tikal.
During a special after-hours visit, get an in-depth look at Palenque’s illuminative hieroglyphs.
Witness the ongoing National Geographic-sponsored excavations of Bonampak’s wall murals, depicting vivid scenes of Maya warfare.
Itinerary - 9 Days
Day 1 — Mérida, Mexico
Arrive in Mérida this afternoon and transfer to our hotel near the historic center. Gather for a welcome reception with a culinary twist: we’ll learn how a local chef makes traditional dips, and savor them before sitting down to our welcome dinner. Hotel Rosas & Xocolate (D)
Day 2 — Uxmal
Travel to the ruins of Uxmal for our first encounter with the magnificent vestiges of the ancient Maya. Built into the rolling Puuc landscape, Uxmal is one of the only Maya cities without a geometric layout. Explore the complex, examining the ornate carvings on the Pyramid of the Magician and the magnificent two-headed jaguar throne at the entrance to the Governor’s Palace. Afterwards, cool off with a refreshing dip in a nearby cenote and observe tortilla-making for a delicious lunch prepared on-site by local chefs. This afternoon, learn about the culture and customs of modern-day Maya people on a visit to a private home. Hotel Rosas & Xocolate (B,L,D)
Day 3 — Chichén Itzá/Izamal
Spend the day exploring Chichén Itzá, often dubbed one of the new seven wonders of the world. Enter a world of fascinating mythology as you discover the southern complex, including the Observatory, the Tomb of the High Priest, and the Nunnery. In the large complex of North Chichén, see towering pyramids and temples surrounded by smaller sites, including the ancient marketplace, the sweat bath, and the largest Maya ball court ever found. Hear from National Geographic Explorer Guillermo de Anda, who will share additional insight at Chichén Itzá and its Sacred Cenote, a special lecture on underwater archeology in the region, and discoveries funded by National Geographic. On our return trip to Mérida, stop in the colonial town of Izamal to explore its impressive Franciscan monastery, which sits atop an indigenous Maya temple. This evening, enjoy an optional stroll with expedition staff to explore Mérida’s social gathering place, Plaza Grande, and the Parque Santa Lucia, filled with restaurants and often a lively nighttime atmosphere. Hotel Rosas & Xocolate (B,L)
Day 4 — Mérida/Villahermosa/Palenque
This morning, fly to Villahermosa. Upon arrival, visit La Venta, an archaeological site known for colossal stone sculptures of Olmec heads. National Geographic-funded research at this site of the Olmec civilization dates back to the 1940s. After lunch, continue to our hotel in Palenque. Chan-Kah Resort Village (B,L,D)
Day 5 — Palenque
Venture into the ancient city of Palenque and its Temple of Inscriptions, which holds one of the most comprehensive sources of Maya text known to exist—writings that have helped archaeologists piece together the only established timeline for rulers of an ancient Maya city. Examine these stone inscriptions and explore the complex before enjoying an afternoon at leisure. This evening, we’ll return to the ruins for a specially arranged after-hours visit. Chan-Kah Resort Village (B,L,D)
Day 6 — Bonampak/Frontera Corozal
Journey to the remote ruins of Bonampak, a less-visited Maya site that’s home to a stunning series of rare polychromatic wall paintings. These frescoes were unearthed in the 1940s and are notable for their detailed depictions of Maya warfare. National Geographic magazine featured an article in February 1995 on the reconstruction of these murals, and the Society supports ongoing archaeological work at the site. Take some time to examine the battles and ceremonies depicted in vivid shades of blue, red, and yellow before we continue to our hotel in the small town of Frontera Corozal. Hotel Escudo Jaguar (B,L,D)
Day 7 — Yaxchilán/Flores, Guatemala
Cruise along the Usumacinta River to remote Yaxchilán—said to be named for its green stone. The city’s position on the water gave it a central role in river commerce during the Classic period. Discover the site’s jungle-shrouded ruins, paying close attention to its ornate building facades and roof combs and keeping an eye out for the scarlet macaws and troops of howler monkeys that inhabit the surrounding treetops. Continue by boat to the border town of Bethel, and then transfer to our hotel on the shores of Lago Petén Itzá. Camino Real Tikal Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 8 — Tikal
Rise early for an optional birding walk through the Cerro Cahuí nature reserve, seeking out toucans and parrots feeding in the trees. Then venture through the jungle to Tikal, one of the largest cities in the Classic Maya world. Here, ancient pyramids pierce the canopy, towering more than 200 feet over thousands of temples, shrines, and ceremonial platforms. Spend the day exploring the site, even climbing a pyramid for a panoramic view over the jungle. With our expert, decipher the stone carvings and hieroglyphs that reveal the dynastic history and spiritual significance of this ancient city. Tonight, we’ll celebrate our journey with a farewell dinner. Camino Real Tikal Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Flores/Guatemala City
Transfer to the airport in Flores and fly to Guatemala City to connect with your flight home. (B)
Boston University archaeologist William Saturno has received numerous National Geographic grants to support his excavation of ancient Maya murals and artifacts. His breakthrough discovery at San Bartolo of the oldest intact Maya murals yet found became the focus of the January 2006 National Geographic magazine article “The Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings," and the June 2012 issue described his recent unearthing of murals at Xultún. Bill has also served as Field Director of the Río Amarillo Archaeological Project in Western Honduras, where he examined the relationships of Maya cities around Copán.
Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $950 in 2017 and $1,100 in 2018. On the December departure, there is an additional holiday surcharge of $200 per person.
International airfare to Mérida and return from Guatemala City, and airfare within Mexico and Guatemala, are not included in the expedition cost. The group flights within Mexico and Guatemala range from $350 to $430, depending on the departure date (subject to change).
Travelers should be in good health and comfortable walking or standing for extended periods of time. Daily activities may include city walking tours, visits to sites, game drives, or easy hikes, with options for more physical activities such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and biking.
Click here for a description of all activity levels.
What To Expect
This itinerary suits a range of interests and abilities, blending light and moderate activity options on several days. While we maintain a moderate pace, walking activities can last as long as three hours, including periodic stops, and will usually take place outdoors at archaeological sites (often in the full sun and up to three miles over the course of some days). Travelers should be able to walk up to three miles on uneven terrain. Pyramid climbs at various Maya temples are optional and usually involve steep stone steps without handrails. There are also less strenuous walking paths at the sites and nearby places to sit and rest in the shade.
For the one-night stay in remote Frontera Corozal, accommodations are basic, thatched-roof cabins with simple en suite bathrooms and ceiling fans, but no air conditioning. Transportation includes travel by small motorized boat on Day 7, and several two- to four-hour drives on partially unpaved roads.