Maya road trip provides for unique, but affordable experience


By Craig Davis

From about 2000 BC to 1697 AD, the Maya civilization stretched across what today is southeastern Mexico, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.

The Maya left behind about 30 major sites, hosting some of the most breathtaking ceremonial and administrative architecture — pyramids, monuments, temples — in the Western Hemisphere. It is no wonder that the Maya site Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico, is on the New 7 Wonders of the World list.

In August, our family took a Maya road trip through Honduras and Guatemala to experience three major Mesoamerican cities: Tikal, Yaxha and Copan.

An hour flight from Guatemala City lies the tiny Island of Flores on Lake Petén Itza in northeastern Guatemala. Tourists use Flores as a hub to visit Tikal and Yaxha.

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Flores itself was the last Maya city to hold out against the Spanish conquerors until eventually falling in 1697. Today all the vestiges of Maya are gone, but connected to the mainland by a short causeway, the island has become a major tourist center.

The hotels are not very luxurious, but you won’t spend much time there. The restaurants, shops, and bars across the island are hospitable and cozy. Walk around and explore. Take a boat ride. The tiny one-block strip near the causeway offers an array of tacos shops. Or enjoy delicious fresh fish at one of the lakeside restaurants.

A 90-minute drive into the rainforest takes you to the largest of country’s Maya ruins: Tikal.

To avoid long lines at the ticket booths, plan to arrive very early, buy your $25 ticket online or visit on a weekday. With the temperature in the 90s, we took four hours to explore the vast complex that boasts of 3,000 structures and stretches over six square miles. But others take a full day to appreciate Tikal’s magnificence. Our grandkids never tired of climbing pyramids, palaces and temples.

Make sure you climb Temple IV, the tallest remaining pre-Columbian structure. While you rest at the top, you will witness a magnificent panorama of three monuments peeking through a sea of tropical rainforest. You might also take a break under a shade tree in the Great Plaza to soak in the Maya experience.

The next day we drove another 90 minutes to the third largest city in the region, Yaxha, home to some 500 structures. Visit the Maya ball court where players performed and the adjacent sacrificial pyramid where losers were sacrificed to the gods.

Climb the temple at the East Acropolis for a stunning view of Lake Yaxha. We took our time, relished the relative solitude and sat in the shade to enjoy the spectacular North Acropolis while snacking on cheese, crackers, granola bars, and lots of water.

A five-hour drive south the next day brought us to Rio Dulce (Sweet River), a small town near the Honduran border.

There we took a boat ride on the river to Lake Izabal, visited the San Felipe de Lara Castle and ate fresh fish on the dock while the kids played at the playground at the Banana Palms Hotel, Resort & Marina. The next morning, we crossed the border to visit Honduras’s much smaller, but in some ways more charming, Maya site: Copan.

We were immediately welcomed by the cacophony of beautiful macaws and toucans. And while the temples and pyramids are not as tall or numerous, they host massive carvings of deity heads and tunnels available for tourists to explore.

If you are looking for a unique, but affordable holiday experience, brush off your high school Spanish, book a flight to Guatemala or Honduras, and take an affordable, yet memorable, Maya road trip. Good meals averaged about $10 per person, rooms around $100 per night, and the rental of a van and driver cost us $1,100 for the week.

Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown.

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