By Margaret Shakespeare
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Elite Traveler.
If you fancy going back a few millennia to the creative grandeur of the Maya, Elsie Yi Donoy of Bella Guatemala Travel has crafted just the tour for you. Limited to a privileged 16 and guided throughout by archaeologists, the 13-day Lost Kingdoms of the Maya vacation begins in Guatemala City with private museum visits and ancient-site tours, personal Maya ceremonies and specially prepared dinners by chefs who use indigenous ingredients such as cardamom, honey, squashes and chilies.
From there you set out for rain forest adventures and learning experiences rarely available to even the most inquisitive or intrepid. A 30-minute helicopter flight from the shores of Lake Petén Itzá is the only way to reach the pre-Columbian settlement El Mirador—unless you come armed with a machete, bug spray and the fortitude for a multiday primitive jungle trek—where you are greeted by anthropologist Richard Hansen, revered scholar, rock star of Maya experts and, today, your personal driver. He steers a Kawasaki 4×4 along the remains of a 130ft-wide causeway. “This was the world’s first freeway,” he says, stopping at monuments and temples on the way to a picnic lunch atop the world’s largest pyramid, La Danta, a commanding 236ft above the forest floor. Between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, “This was probably the world’s largest city, the size of Los Angeles,” says Hansen, who has spent the past 38 years studying the Mirador basin, cradle of the Maya and, he says, once home to a million souls. Today no one lives here; only the natural racket of cicadas and howler monkeys intrudes on your Maya kingdom.
The tour continues by land to the plazas, pyramids and thousands of other structures at Tikal, a 200-plus-square-mile area where Mayan culture flourished after the collapse of El Mirador. A trip to the charming city of Antigua comes next, then continue through the mountains and by boat to villages around Lake Atitlán. Finally, end the journey in Copán, Honduras, where renowned archaeologist David Sedat, who led 40 years of expeditions, will host a dinner at his home, based on recipes he discovered, buried centuries ago by Maya royalty.