* Magnificent Maya cities including Chichen Itza, Palenque and Tikal, with time also for the little visited.
* An insight into modern Maya life: customs, religion and colourful handicrafts.
* Splendid colonial architecture.
* Spectacular scenery: jungle, lakeside, coastal and volcanic.
* Led by a leading authority on Maya civilization, Professor Norman Hammond.
* 90% of participants rated this tour as excellent the last time it ran.
Ever since explorers revealed the existence of their jungle-clad ruins in the 1840s, the 'lost' civilization of the Maya has been a cause of astonishment and speculation. For while Europe was struggling through the 'Dark Ages', Maya peoples were enjoying the apogee of their civilization in seemingly the most unlikely of places - the rainforests of Central America.
With organisational skills that can only be the product of a highly sophisticated society, the Maya created magnificent cities replete with elegant palaces, mighty temples and broad plazas studded with carved stelae and altars. They were great mathematicians and astronomers who conceived one of the most complex and accurate calendars the world has known. They also devised an elaborate and beautiful system of hieroglyphic writing, the only fully-developed written language in the pre-Columbian Americas. Maya art was complex and loaded with arcane symbolism, yet to our sensibilities it appears remarkably naturalistic and accessible.
All this was achieved by a people still technically in the Stone Age and who, despite many colourful theories to the contrary, developed in complete isolation from the civilizations of the 'Old World', of Europe and Asia.
Until some forty years ago a powerful mystique had grown up about the Maya. They were thought to have been a peaceable society of independent cities governed by priest-kings who devoted their days to astronomy and divination on behalf of their people. Today, however, this image has been dramatically changed by the continuing discoveries of archaeologists and by one of the great investigative triumphs of the century, the decipherment of Maya writing.
Visitors to the great Maya cities can learn of their changing fortunes over almost a thousand years in extraordinary detail. We now know the history of the royal families and can also understand the essentials of Maya religious beliefs and how Maya rulers saw themselves, like Egyptian pharaohs, as god-kings on earth whose elaborate rituals of blood-letting and sacrifice sustained the Maya world.
In the tenth century ad the heartland of Maya civilization in the tropical forests collapsed. Construction in the great cities ceased, temples and palaces were invaded by the jungle. It now seems that environmental disaster - land clearance under population pressure exacerbated by severe droughts - was a major factor.
But this was not quite the end, as new cities emerged in other areas, such as Uxmal and Chichen Itza in the north of the Yucatan peninsula, which continued in much reduced form until extirpation by Conquistadores and missionaries in the sixteenth century.
Today there are some six million speakers of Maya languages, the largest group of native Americans north of Panama. They reveal a distinctive living culture, an intriguing mixture of both ancient beliefs and practices adopted since the Spanish conquest.
Martin Randall Travel is a member of the Latin American Travel Association - the authoritative voice in the UK for Latin American Travel and Tourism.
➕ Day 1
Cancun. Fly at c. 10.45am from London Gatwick direct to Cancun with British Airways, arriving in time for a light dinner. Those not taking our flights can check in from 4.00pm today. Overnight Cancun.
➕ Day 2
Ek' Balam, Chichen Itza. The little-visited site of Ek' Balam is known for its defensive walls and well-preserved stucco sculpture. Situated in the Northern Lowlands, Chichen Itza was the New Rome of the Maya world, where Maya culture was reborn in a different guise that was to last until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th cent. Prominent among the constructions here is El Castillo pyramid, simple in appearance but functioning as a complex Maya calendar. See also the great ball court, El Caracol observatory and the sacred well. First of two nights in Merida.
➕ Day 3
Merida. Morning walk through the colonial centre including the cathedral and main square. The 19th cent. Palacio del Gobierno houses impressive murals by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting the violent struggle of the Maya against the Spanish. The new Museum of the Maya World contains c. 500 artefacts including sculpture, jewellery and ceramics. Free afternoon.
➕ Day 4
Uxmal, Campeche. Uxmal arose towards the end of lowland Maya civilization but was abandoned around ad 900. Here are to be found some of the most beautiful of Maya buildings, distinguished by their long and low proportions and characterised by elaborate stone mosaics on the facades. Continue to Kabah, with its eccentric Palace of the Masks. The night is spent in the charming colonial city of Campeche, with historic defences.
➕ Day 5
Edzna, Palenque. Little visited Edzna has the longest building in the Maya world and an impressive five-story pyramid. Drive south to Palenque (c. 8 hours including stops) for the first of three nights.
➕ Day 6
Palenque. Enjoying a magnificent location in the jungle of the foothills of Chiapas, Palenque rose to a dominant position through war and marriage alliances in the Late Classic period, ad 600 to 800. The sculpture found here is particularly outstanding. The largest structure, the Temple of the Inscriptions, housed the spectacular tomb of the great ruler Pacal.
➕ Day 7
Bonampak. The small site of Bonampak has remarkably well-preserved murals with graphic scenes of royal rituals, a savage battle and sacrifice of the captives.
➕ Day 8
Most of the day is occupied with driving from Mexico into Guatemala (c. 7 hours), the destination being the small town of Flores on the shores of Lake Peten Itza. Stop here for refreshments before continuing to the hotel.
➕ Day 9
Yaxha. In the Peten jungle of the Guatemalan lowlands the huge city of Yaxha is surrounded by lakes and teeming with wildlife. Its forty stelae and nine pyramids date from the Preclassic and Classic era.
➕ Day 10
Tikal. Even bigger than Yaxha, Tikal was a thriving metropolis of maybe 100,000 at its height. Its massive pyramid-temples still pierce the forest canopy making it architecturally the grandest of all Maya cities. One of the great powers of the Maya world, its changing fortunes over almost a thousand years can be followed in the hieroglyphs. Progressive clearance and excavation have revealed an intricate pattern of urban planning.
➕ Day 11
Guatemala City, Panajachel. Early morning flight to Guatemala City to visit the Archaeological Museum, a major collection of Maya art and artefacts. From here drive west to Panajachel, splendidly situated on the shores of Lake Atitlan. First of three nights in Panajachel.
➕ Day 12
Santiago de Atitlan. Early morning boat trip across this spectacular lake (which is surrounded by volcanoes) to the traditional Maya town of Santiago de Atitlan. Here the curious wooden effigy of Maximon is still worshipped and can be visited in his 'house'.
➕ Day 13
Chichicastenango. Optional morning excursion to Chichicastenango, with its centuries-old, colourful market. The wide range of wares reflect the local traditions of weaving and woodcarving. An interesting mix of Maya and Catholic worship takes place in the church of Santo Tomas.
➕ Day 14
Iximche, Antigua Guatemala. Iximche is an excellent example of a Late Postclassic site, established c. 1470 with three plazas, temples, palaces and ball courts, and with defences which were stormed by the Spanish under Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. Continue to Antigua, the splendid, colonial capital of Guatemala for the first of two nights.
➕ Day 15
Antigua Guatemala. Though shattered by earthquakes in 1773, much of Antigua's old fabric survives. See colonial architecture of great charm and impressive Baroque churches, some of which still remain in picturesque ruin.
➕ Day 16
Antigua Guatemala. Drive to Guatemala City for an early afternoon flight to Miami. Change planes here for an overnight flight to London.
➕ Day 17
Arrive at London Heathrow at c. 10.30am. Please note this tour departs from London Gatwick and returns to Heathrow.