Mayan Mysteries: Jungles, Ruins, and Reefs, Belize and Guatemala

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15510A, International


  • Explore ancient Mayan ruins
  • See dramatic tropical birds
  • Visit small Caribbean islands 


  • All lodging and transportation
  • All guides and gratuities
  • All meals 


DatesJan 26–Feb 9, 2015
Price$4,595 (12–15)
$4,875 (or fewer)
StaffBarry Morenz

Trip Overview

The Trip

As you stand on top of a temple and hear howler monkeys roar and see brilliantly colored parrots flying in to their roosts, you’ll be transported to another time and to a world of mystery and awe. Belize is home to an amazing variety of scenery, flora, and fauna. This small, English-speaking democracy is well known for its commitment to environmentalism and to the conservation of its precious natural and cultural assets. Though only 8,800 square miles, Belize is a place of rich and diverse heritage: Mayan, African, Hispanic, Caribbean, and European.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, is largely covered by tropical rainforests and teems with wildlife: jaguars, pumas, ocelots, tapirs, iguanas, manatees, howler monkeys, hundreds of species of birds -- including Jabiru stork, toucans, herons, macaws, parakeets -- and more! Offshore lie the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and the 150-mile-long barrier reef -- second largest in the world -- dotted with beautiful islands called cayes. In these crystal waters are fantastically colored fish, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and ornate coral formations.

Located in Central America, Belize and Guatemala are both part of the Yucatan Peninsula and the region called "La Ruta Maya," which has been home to the Maya for 3,000 years. In neighboring Guatemala we find a colorful, dynamic country reemerging from a long political struggle into a bright and optimistic future. In the easternmost area of Guatemala is found the greatest Mayan religious center yet uncovered, the mysterious ruins of Tikal. Situated in El Peten, a wild, remote, low-lying lush jungle province, Tikal is the most awe-inspiring site in the entire country and the least visited by tourists. It is also home to a wondrous variety of exotic animals, particularly birds.

Our visit to Belize and the Tikal area of Guatemala will combine learning about the many different cultural groups of the region with hiking, swimming, canoeing, bird watching, visiting Mayan ruins, or just relaxing in one of the most pristine corners of the world.


Day 1: Our small bus will pick us up at the Belize Airport in the afternoon and then drive us to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, where we will spend our first night in a small, cozy lodge. Over 300 species of birds can be seen at this Sanctuary, half of Belize’s bird species. After dinner at the lodge we will have an orientation to the trip and Belize before a good night’s rest.

Day 2: The morning will start early with birding around the rich lagoons of Crooked Tree with our expert birding guide. After lunch we’ll be transported through rich forests and Mennonite farming communities to the Hill Bank Station of the Programme for Belize, the country's premier environmental organization. Hill Bank is a working field school for environmental studies. We’ll be staying at their on-site lodge. This is a superb place to hear about the local studies that Belizean environmental scientists are currently involved in. After dinner, an evening presentation about their program will give us a fine overview of this organization that has achieved remarkable success in protecting a corner of pristine tropical rainforest.

Day 3: We'll start with an early morning birding walk before breakfast with our expert local birders. We'll then take a boat trip to Lamanai, an ancient Mayan site. There are 700 buildings in this complex that is believed to have supported at least 35,000 people at its peak around A.D. 200 to 900. Only five percent of these buildings have been excavated. On the river trip we often see many different birds, orchids, and other flowering plants. We will enjoy lunch before returning to our lodge at Hill Bank in the early afternoon. Before dinner we will offer a bird walk and then after dinner go night-spotting. Maybe we will be lucky and see a kinkajou, a small mammal that lives in the trees in the area.

Day 4: After early morning birding and breakfast we will travel on remote dirt roads to the Pine Ridge area of Belize, the highlands of this small country. Maybe we will see one of the several cats such as the margay, ocelot, jaguarundi, puma, or jaguar along the way. As time allows we will visit the Thousand Foot Falls and other sites before making ourselves comfortable at our secluded lodge for the next two nights.

Day 5: After breakfast we will begin a full day journey to the remote Mayan ruins of Caracol, very near to the Guatemalan border. It is the most extensive Mayan site in Belize and one of the largest in the Maya world. At its height in about 700 A.D., Caracol covered 55 square miles and had an estimated population of 150,000 with over 30,000 structures. Caracol is also a nature reserve with abundant wildlife and birds, which we will enjoy as we are guided around this special place. We will return to our secluded lodge in time for a fine dinner.

Day 6: After some early morning birding and breakfast we’ll visit Rio on Pools, a gorgeous spot for a swim, and then travel on to Green Hills Butterfly Farm, where we will tour the butterfly exhibit and enjoy a picnic lunch. As time allows we will also visit a cave, important in the Mayan cosmology, before arriving at our lodge next to the Macal River near San Ignacio and the Guatemalan border.

Day 7: After some early morning birding and breakfast we will take a guided canoe tour down the Macal River, where we will see Green Iguanas in the treetops and many different and spectacular birds. After lunch we will tour the botanical gardens and, if time allows, visit a Morpho butterfly exhibit. We will round out our day with late-afternoon birding before dinner.

Day 8: Getting an early start we'll cross the Guatemalan border to Tikal and stay at a nearby lodge. Tikal was a powerful, large Mayan city for about a thousand years. Stunning Mayan temples and hundreds of other stone structures rise from the middle of this tropical forest. Tikal was built between A.D. 250 and 900 and is the best embodiment of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Maya. After lunch we will tour the site with a guide who is well versed with the archaeological and natural aspects of the area.

Day 9: We will take a dawn walk through the grounds of Tikal and climb a pyramid to hear and see the tropical rainforest awaken with the calls of birds and growls of the howler monkeys. We will then return to our lodge for breakfast and rest. After lunch we will tour the local museum documenting the history of this special area. The remainder of the afternoon will be free for shopping, relaxing, or taking another guided tour to additional sites in Tikal.

Day 10: We will leave Tikal to cross back into Belize in the morning. We will travel the Hummingbird Highway as we head toward the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve, stopping at St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park for a swim and some excellent birding. Traveling a little farther, we will check into our lodge near the Jaguar Preserve. Before and after dinner we can hike around the grounds, looking for birds and animals and enjoying the relaxed ambience of the area. There is a healthy population of jaguars in the area, and if we are very lucky we might get a rare glimpse of one.

Day 11: We will drive to the tropical rainforest of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve and hike along trails with our guide, enjoying and learning about the incredible web of life in a rainforest ecosystem. Our destination will be a lovely waterfall and pool for those who want to swim. We will enjoy a picnic lunch at the preserve. In the afternoon, if time allows, we will do some low-key tubing on a small, quiet river in the preserve. Later in the afternoon we travel to Dangriga on the coast to take a one-hour boat ride to the pristine Southwater Caye, where we will spend the next two nights; our accommodations are eco-efficient and simple, yet quite comfortable and have wonderful views.

Day 12: After breakfast we’ll enjoy a morning boat excursion to the Smithsonian Research Station on a nearby caye and learn a little about island ecology. We will also do some snorkeling from the boats before returning to our caye for lunch. Southwater Caye is a great place to relax; it is a half-mile-long sand atoll that sits directly on top of the Barrier Reef and offers superb snorkeling. After lunch we can snorkel right from the shore or curl up with a book on the beach or in a hammock.

Day 13: After an early breakfast, a boat will return us to Dangriga, where a small plane will fly us back to Belize International Airport.



Getting There

It is relatively easy to fly to Belize City from the U.S. There are a number of flights non-stop from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas. Belize is relatively close, as the flight from Houston is only about 2.5 hours. Most flights arrive in the afternoon.

Accommodations and Food

Our rustic, eco-lodge-style accommodations are completely screened with rainproof roofs; offering a comfortable, dry, and bug-free environment, while remaining wide open to the symphony of the many creatures that inhabit the jungle. Hot showers and bathrooms will be available each night, but we will sometimes have to walk out of our room a short distance to use shared toilets and showers. The food can be very good, but it is often basic with rice, beans, chicken, and fish in addition to many tropical fruits. A vegetarian alternative can be prepared at most of the places we will be eating, but may be very basic.

Trip Difficulty

We will be walking and hiking virtually every day, but the hiking is mostly level on good trails (occasionally muddy) with an occasional hill or set of stairs. Sometimes there will be an opportunity to walk to the top of a Mayan ruin, but this is not required. Our walking and hiking is at a slow pace as we often stop to look at birds or discuss the Mayan ruins we are visiting. Nevertheless, the better shape you are in the more you will enjoy the trip. We will do some canoeing, snorkeling, tubing, and swimming, so comfort with the water is desirable but not necessary. The canoeing in the Macal River is for about three or four hours with a gentle current; the Macal is only a foot or two in depth -- you will not have to get in the water if you don’t want to.

Equipment and Clothing

The climate in Belize is mild and pleasant in February, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s. Offshore on the cayes, moderate trade winds usually blow. With evening temperatures in the 60s, a light jacket or sweater may be needed. Since we'll be on the cusp of the rainy season, please bring some rain gear. The tropical sun is always strong, so bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. Insect repellent is also a must. Good walking shoes or lightweight hiking boots are needed, as well as water or Teva-type sandals. You'll also want to have swim-fins, a mask, and snorkel, or you may rent them on the caye. A snorkeling vest offers added security and comfort for people who are not good swimmers. A good pair of binoculars is a must for this trip, as we will do quite a bit of bird watching. A more detailed packing list will be sent to each participant prior to the departure date.


  • Eltringham, Peter, The Rough Guide to Belize, 5th ed., 2010. An excellent guide to Belize.  The trip leader particularly enjoys the “Contexts” section, which gives a summary of the history and current social and political trends in this small country.
  • Kricher, John, A Neotropical Companion, 1997. An excellent introduction to tropical ecology, a must-read for anyone with a hunger to know more about the tropics.
  • Jones, Lee H., Birds of Belize, 2003. A comprehensive field guide to Belizean birds. It’s a bit large for a field guide, but otherwise is excellent.
  • Barcott, Bruce, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, 2009. This is a great read to understand some of the recent conservation struggles in Belize.
  • Demarest, Arthur, Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, 2004. Fascinating reading by one of the leading authorities on the archaeology of the Maya.
  • Coe, Michael C., The Maya, 8th ed., 2011. Another update by the prolific Mayan archaeologist -- well illustrated, this book will be enjoyed by anyone who wants to know more about the most current understanding of the Mayan world.
  • Coe, Michael C., Breaking the Maya Code, 1999. Deciphering the ancient Maya language was one of the great intellectual adventures of the 20th century and Coe tells the story well.
  • Martin, Simon, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, 2004. The Maya were great artists as reflected in their pottery, lintels, and stela. This large, richly photographed and illustrated book brings artifacts from many museums and archeological sites together in one handsome book.
  • Coe, Michael C. & Brukoff, Barry, Royal Cities of the Ancient Maya, 2012. This large book is different from Martin’s because most of the photographs are of the many Maya ruins and there are dramatic photos by Brukoff. Coe provides the text, but the real glory in this book is the photos.
  • Beletsky, Les, The Ecotravellers’ Wildlife Guide to Belize and Northern Guatemala, 2010. This book is a handy reference to some of the common plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish of Belize. Rather than photos, the book uses colorful drawings to assist identification.


Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement.  Our outings seek to empower participants toward environmentally understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad.

Belize is struggling to balance environmental protection and development, especially tourist development. Our visit to Belize will provide economic support for its ecotourism industry, thereby helping to support local conservation efforts. We will experience how development necessary to house visitors can be achieved with minimal impact on the environment. We will learn about the history and success of conservation projects of the Programme for Belize and the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve. The ecological importance of mangrove trees and the health of the coral reefs will be considered during our visit to Southwater Caye.



Barry Morenz has lived in Tucson for over 30 years and loves to travel in the nearby mountains and canyons, as well as throughout the American West. He has led Sierra Club trips for many years, and travels regularly to the Caribbean where he enjoys the varied cultures, Mayan history and magnificent coral reefs of the region. A lifelong student, Barry enjoys studying the natural and cultural history of the areas he visits, and experiencing with others the wild and historically significant places of the world. The camaraderie of sharing adventure travel with other Sierra Club trip members is especially rewarding, as it provides a way to educate people about the need to protect these fragile corners of our planet and leave an environmentally sound legacy for generations to come.

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