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Retracing ‘La Ruta Maya’

Upon my departure from the UK, the reality hit me; my dreams were about to become true. Within hours I would be visiting the steamy jungles, secluded beaches, ancient Mayan ruins and colourful markets of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala on a 16-day tour with TrekAmerica that turned out to be the holiday of a lifetime.
Travelling back in time, our group of thirteen plus Luis, our TrekAmerica tour leader, left the luxury hotels of Cancun to retrace the journey of the Mayan people. Individuals from England, Scotland, Sweden, Australia and Germany soon became much more than just a tour group on our exploration of Latin America.
Our first stop was Chichen Itza. The entire group eagerly climbed to the top of the 25-metre tall ‘El Castillo’ temple for a bird’s eye view of the site that was completed in 900 AD. Unfortunately, being the most famous also means that it is the most visited of all the ruins, but our local guide, arranged by Luis, knew where to find other archaeological sites hidden from the crowds. Still not fully acclimatised to the heat and tired from exploring, Luis decided it was time to introduce us to one of the many cenotes found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. An invigorating swim in one of these naturally occurring fresh water pools quickly got us back on track.

Then it was off to Belize City where we left the comfort of our TrekAmerica van for the excitement of a ‘water taxi’ to the beautiful island of Cay Caulker. Here, palm trees greeted us against the backdrop of an azure sea. We immediately noticed the absence of automobiles and pavement, replaced by bare feet on sandy streets. The lifestyle was so relaxed that a Rastafarian stopped me one morning to ask, “Why are you walking so fast? Slow down Mon!”.
Raz, a local islander, took us on his palm-roofed boat to visit the Coral Garden and Shark Alley. Having a try at snorkelling, I flipped backwards out of the boat and entered the underwater world where I saw nurse sharks and stingrays close enough to touch – and many I did. A local fisherman moored up, offering a fresh catch. Raz prepared a stir-fry on the deck of his boat. We spent the remainder of the afternoon consuming pineapple, coconut and rumrunners.
Nobody wanted to leave Cay Caulker, as we lazed in our hammocks listening to the ocean, but our next destination summoned. San Ignacio is the centre for many jungle adventures such as horse riding and canoeing down the Macal River. Luis pointed out numerous kingfishers and described medicines used by the Mayan people. He also spotted camouflaged iguanas sunning themselves on the treetops, something I would have never seen without his help.
Leaving Belize behind, we crossed the border for Guatemala and experienced the thrill of a Guatemalan bus ride. Our destination was Tikal, where we stayed in bungalows just outside the park entrance for two nights. These ruins date back to 800 B.C. and easily surpass any we had yet seen. Temples sprung up between the trees and beautifully coloured toucans decorated the jungle canopy. We arose at 4 a.m. to climb to the top of Temple 4, the park’s tallest temple. As we climbed above the jungle’s tree line, we hiked under a night’s sky that was awash with stars. As the morning’s mist began to rise from atop the temple, we anxiously waited for the start of a new day.

Luis couldn’t have prepared us for the magnificent sunrise that we were about to witness. The sky went through the full spectrum of colour before the sun finally appeared over the horizon. The clouds slowly began to burn off and the peaks of the other temples were silhouetted against the golden tapestry of the jungle. The howler monkeys soon followed with their cries echoing across the awakening forest.
Quickly heading back to Mexico, Luis expedited two time-consuming border crossings, before arriving at Xpuha after nightfall. Our group went quiet when we stepped out of the van and onto the white sands of the moonlit beach. Knowing this was our home for the next three days, we found the perfect place to set up our tents and completed our site with ocean view hammocks. We spent our days lounging in the sun, scuba diving from the shores of our camp and snorkelling in local swimming holes. We spent our nights barbequeing fish and drinking Margaritas and Tequila around the bonfire on the beach.
Re-entering the 21st century, we headed to the resort of Playa del Carmen to spend our last pesos. As we said goodbye as new friends, we all promised to keep in touch and to one day return to the magical land of the Maya.

Originally published in Trek e-Times newsletter.

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