Discovering the Maya: Behind the Scenes with a National Geographic Grantee

  • 7 Days

Expedition Details


Within the jungles of Mesoamerica, pyramids, royal tombs, and long-hidden murals attest to the magnificence—and mystery—of the ancient Maya. National Geographic has funded nearly 300 grants to decipher the history of Maya, and recently discovered murals have proven some of the most illuminating finds yet. Join archaeologist William Saturno in the forests of Guatemala for a rare chance to see the fragile murals he unearthed.

Trip Highlights

    • Explore two of the most important Maya cities in the world: Tikal and Copán, both designated World Heritage sites by UNESCO.
    • Examine Maya murals with the archaeologist who discovered them at the remote sites of San Bartolo and Xultún, still off-limits to the public.
    • Step behind the scenes at the archaeology lab of a National Geographic grantee in the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala.
    • Ride a helicopter over the treetops to the remote archaelogical site of Uaxactún and enjoy a special dinner at the base of the ruins.

Itinerary - 7 Days

Day 1 — U.S./Guatemala City, Guatemala

Arrive in Guatemala City and transfer to our hotel. Gather for a welcome dinner this evening.
The Westin Camino Real (D)

Day 2 — Copán, Honduras

Fly by private charter to Copán, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Situated in the southern reaches of the Maya realm, Copán is renowned for its elaborate hieroglyphs. Visit Las Sepulturas, a residential area near the main site where the scribes, artists, and elite of Copán once lived. After lunch, examine Maya artifacts at the Copán Regional Museum and the acclaimed Copán Sculpture Museum. Tonight, take in views of the picturesque Copán valley during dinner at a local hacienda.
Hotel Marina Copán (B,L,D)

Day 3 — Copán/Flores, Guatemala

Spend the morning at Copán, discovering the site’s intricately carved sculptures and sophisticated architecture, including the hieroglyphic stairway, the acropolis, and the ball court. Transfer to the Copán airstrip for our charter flight to Flores. After checking into our hotel, set out on a nature walk through the surrounding lowland tropical rain forest. This evening, Bill Saturno speaks about the rare Maya murals he discovered during his National Geographic–funded excavations at Xultún and San Bartolo—two remote sites that are closed to the public and best reached by helicopter.
Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 4 — San Bartolo/Xultún

Board helicopters this morning for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with rare Maya murals that few have seen. Soar over the dense jungle to San Bartolo, a lesser-known site tucked beneath the forest canopy. Venture into the excavation site at San Bartolo to view a stunning and fragile 2,000-year-old mural discovered by Saturno. The incredible find was featured in the January 2006 National Geographic magazine article, “Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings.” After lunch at the excavation camp, climb into 4x4s for the drive through the forest to the ancient Maya city of Xultún. Here, Saturno’s ongoing excavations have recently revealed breathtaking murals that provide new insights into Maya civilization. Return to San Bartolo, and continue by helicopter to the village and archaeological site of Uaxactún, where we’ll enjoy an intimate dinner at the ruins.
Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 5 — Tikal/Antigua

Venture into the jungle to Tikal, one of the two largest cities in the Classic Maya world, where ancient pyramids tower more than 200 feet and some 3,000 temples, shrines, ceremonial platforms, and plazas are scattered beneath the rain forest canopy. Once a small village, Tikal was a major ceremonial site for the Maya for more than 300 years. Spend the day exploring the ancient city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. If you wish, climb a pyramid for a panoramic view of the site and its jungles. Examine Maya art and hieroglyphs, and decipher the carved stone inscriptions that illuminate the dynastic history and spiritual significance of Tikal. View treasures from the excavation at the Tikal Sylvannus G. Morley Museum. Late this afternoon, fly to Guatemala City and transfer to the charming colonial city of Antigua.
El Convento (B,L,D)

Day 6 — Antigua

Set out on a walking tour through the old city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site where picturesque churches and pastel facades line cobblestoned streets. Take in views of the three soaring volcanoes that tower over the Antigua valley, and enjoy time at leisure to explore Antigua’s well-preserved colonial houses, monuments, and bustling markets. Join National Geographic grantee Francisco Estrada-Belli for a behind-the-scenes tour of his archaeology lab, followed by a talk about his National Geographic–sponsored finds in Guatemala, including the discovery of the lost Maya city of Cival. Celebrate our journey with a festive farewell dinner.
El Convento (B,L,D)

Day 7 — Antigua/Guatemala City/U.S.

After breakfast, transfer to the Guatemala City airport for your flight home.


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