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Belize to Tikal: Reefs, Rivers & Ruins of the Maya World

Itinerary

Belize Guatemala cruise mapDay 1: Guatemala City, Guatemala / Puerto Barrios—Embark Ship
Arrive in Guatemala City and connect to our chartered flight to Puerto Barrios, located on Guatemala's small stretch of Caribbean coastline. An important railway terminus for the movement of goods and people between Guatemala's Pacific and Atlantic coasts, Puerto Barrios is where we embark the National Geographic Quest this afternoon. 

Days 2 & 3: Belize Barrier Reef / Manatee or Sittee River, Belize
Crossing the Bay of Honduras overnight, Quest arrives on Belize's southern coast, where our tropical adventures begin and an idyllic tropical playground awaits. Board Zodiacs to explore a coastal river in search of toucans, green iguanas and other wildlife. This is our first encounter with the wonders of the barrier reef system, a collection of offshore atolls, several hundred sand cayes, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries. From the white sand beach, choose to snorkel, kayak or try stand-up paddleboarding. Certified scuba divers may opt to join a reef dive (at an additional cost).

Spanning nearly 200 miles, the Belize Barrier Reef System has been recognized as a World Heritage Site for its tremendous biodiversity. It was recently removed from UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger as a result of a series of successful conservation efforts enacted by the Belize government to protect the pristine environment from oil exploration and other industrial impacts. One of the most unspoiled reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere, it offers countless opportunities for exploration by ship and ashore on the many cayes. Some 100 species of coral provide significant habitat for threatened species, including marine turtles and West Indian manatees, not to mention rays, reef sharks and 500 species of tropical fish. Don mask, fins and snorkel for an immersion in the undersea realm, or paddle a kayak on a turquoise lagoon for an overview of what lies just below the surface. Conditions permitting, we may have a beach barbecue lunch or dinner ashore on one of the palm-studded cayes. 

Day 4: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Devote your morning to exploring Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, internationally recognized as the world’s first jaguar reserve. Covering 200 square miles, the reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Belize. Hike one of the many nature trails with our naturalist guides, looking for the tracks of wild cats, tapir, deer and other animals often seen along the bank of South Stann Creek. Photograph lavish tropical plants and colorful flowers, and scan the forest for abundant birdlife. Afterward, stop at a traditional Maya handicraft center. A special highlight is in store this evening, with a performance by the globally acclaimed Garifuna Collective. With a focus on the powerful drumming Belize's indigenous Garifuna people are famous for, the music troupe also features high-energy guitar, bass and singing. 

Day 5: Exploring the Belize Barrier Reef

Spend today exploring Belize's southern cayes, the hundreds of coral patches that harbor parrotfish, butterflyfish, octopus, and other marine species. The day's activities are dictated by the rhythms of wind and wave, as we set out snorkeling, paddleboarding, diving, or kayaking among colorful corals and idyllic isles. Shallow lagoons are famed for crystal-blue waters and a high diversity of corals and fishes. You'll feel like you're in a giant aquarium as you snorkel, kayak and stand-up paddleboard inside the fringing reef, which contains some of the healthiest coral in the Caribbean.

Day 6: Puerto Santo Tomas, Guatemala—Disembark Ship / Flores
Our idyllic time on the reef concludes as the National Geographic Quest sails on to Guatemala, with plenty of adventure yet ahead. We disembark in Puerto Santo Tomas this morning to meet our chartered flight to Flores and Tikal National Park. Stop for lunch at a picturesque restaurant overlooking Lake Peten Itza before transferring to the Hotel Camino Real Tikal. Check in on arrival, then take an optional birdwatching walk with our naturalists, or a sunset boat cruise on the lake.

Day 7: Tikal National Park 
A full day is dedicated to exploring the marvels of Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Surrounded by northern Guatemala's lush rain forest, Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya, inhabited from the 4th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. The ceremonial center contains superb temples, palaces and public squares, and Tikal is renowned among the most impressive architectural achievements of the Maya, all attained without the wheel or the use of block and tackle. Archaeologists believe Tikal may have had a population close to 90,000 at its height. Remnants of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, though once the city was abandoned, a century or so after its heyday around 800 A.D., the jungle quickly took over and enveloped much of it. Delve deep into Maya history and architecture on a guided exploration of the sprawling site, including Temple I, the steep-sided pyramid that rises 154 feet from the jungle floor, and the North and South Acropolis.

And while the ruins are captivating, so is the jungle setting. As you pass between the various facets, you'll walk beneath dense forest canopy with trees as tall as 180 feet. Tikal National Park is part of the much larger Maya Biosphere Reserve, which protects 5 million acres of the largest remaining natural forest block in Mesoamerica. On naturalist-guided hikes in the forest, keep an eye out for howler and spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, tapir, coatimundi, agouti and ocellated turkeys sporting a powder-blue head with orange bumps and iridescent feathers. Look, too, for giant ceiba trees—the sacred tree of the Maya—with our expert local guides.

Day 8: Yaxha
Today we visit Yaxha, the third-largest ruins in the Maya world, yet a little-touristed site. Yaxha is located approximately 18 miles southeast of Tikal, dramatically situated on a ridge overlooking Yaxha and Sacnab lakes. It is one of the few Maya sites still known by its Maya name, which means “green waters.” The complex was discovered in 1904 by Austrian explorer Teobert Maler, who was rowing across lake Yaxha and noticed an extended chain of elevations in the jungle, which he was convinced were Maya ruins. From 1969 to 1972, the American anthropologist Nicholas Hellmuth made the first excavations of the central area of Yaxha, and also made the first preliminary map of the site. Spread out over nine broad plazas, it contains some 500 structures, including five acropolises, two astronomical observatories, three ball courts and 40 stelae—tall sculpted stone shafts. During its apex in the 8th century, Yaxha was home to 20,000 people. We stop at a traditional Guatemalan restaurant for lunch today before returning to our hotel for a final night.

Day 9: Flores / Guatemala City / Depart
Our journey ends Flores, where we have pre-arranged a chartered flight to Guatemala City (at an additional cost) to connect with international flights home. You may opt out of this flight should you choose to spend more time in Flores or prefer to make independent arrangements to Guatemala City.

Please note: All day-by-day breakdowns are a sampling of the places we intend to visit, conditions permitting.

Physical Rating: Moderate

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