Where to go
In Mexico's Yucatn peninsula, the entire Caribbean coastline of Quintana Roo state is blessed with stunning white-sand beaches. The arrival point for most visitors is the manufactured mega-resort of Cancn, the region's twentieth-century temple of the sun; further down the coast, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen have also been heavily developed. If you're in search of somewhere quieter, head for relaxed Tulum, with its cliff-perched Maya ruin - many travellers' favourite spot on this coast - or for complete undisturbed peace, there are any number of tiny beaches dotted between the resorts. Further south, Laguna Bacalar and the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve offer spectacular scenery and wildlife-spotting possibilities.
Mrida, the capital of Yucatn state and the largest city in the region, is a likeable place with a maze-like market and a stately collection of well-preserved colonial buildings. It's an excellent base for visiting most of the well-known sites. Chichn Itz, probably the most visited of them all, is in easy reach, as is Uxmal with its vertiginous pyramid temple. A series of lesser sites lie nearby in the Puuc hills. Moving into the neighbouring state, the colonial capital city of Campeche makes an enjoyable excursion. From here you can visit the decorative Chenes ruins, of which Edzn is the most accessible. To the south, stretching down towards the Guatemalan border, the immense Calakmul biosphere reserve is surrounded by ruins in the distinctive R'o Bec style.
In Chiapas, modern Maya culture is more in evidence, especially around the delightful highland city of San Crist-bal del las Casas, a focal point for the local Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya. Chiapas also has some first-class ruins. Palenque is perhaps the finest, but along the R'o Usumacinta lie a number of smaller sites, none with a more splendid location than Yaxchiln, situated in a great loop in the river. The exquisite pools and waterfalls of Agua Azul are another major attraction, while the unspoilt scenery around the fifty Lagos de Montebello offers endless hiking and camping opportunities. The state of Tabasco has rather less to offer the visitor aside from some fascinating archeological sites, including La Venta, Comalcalco and Malpasito.
It's in Guatemala, where over half the country's population is indigenous, that Maya traditions and customs are most obvious. The mesmerizing beauty of the Western Highlands is the first place to head for, where the strength of traditional culture is most apparent in the markets and fiestas. Lago de Atitln is postcard picturesque - a vast lake dwarfed by three giant volcanoes, its shores ringed by some of the most traditional villages in the country. The scenery around Quetzaltenango is also breathtaking, with more volcanoes and alpine peaks dotted with indigenous villages; it's an easy trip from here to the weekly market at San Francisco el Alto, the largest and finest in the Maya World. Chichicastenango has another fantastic market: this is the one everyone goes to for textiles, masks and souvenirs.
Guatemala City, with poverty and pollution to match most Latin American capitals, is probably not worth spending too long in, especially as the old colonial capital of Antigua is just an hour away. Antigua could hardly be more different - a supremely relaxing historic city, with an endless supply of cafs, restaurants and bars to revitalize the jaded traveller.
The sparsely populated north and east region of Guatemala is home to the country's finest Maya ruins, most buried in the dense rainforest of the Maya biosphere reserve, giving you a chance to see some of Petn's wildlife too. If you only see one ruin in Guatemala, make it Tikal, a vast complex of gigantic temples, acropolises, palaces and plazas. Further south, the mist-soaked hills, caves and rivers around sleepy Cobn and the jungle-coated gorge of the R'o Dulce are also worth exploring. The one notable ruin in these parts is Quirigu, whose spectacular stelae are the largest in the Maya World. Belize also harbours a rich number of Maya sites. Caracol, Xunantunich, Lamanai and Lubaantun are the main ones, though only Caracol compares in scale to the great ruins of Mexico or Guatemala. It's the natural environment that's Belize's main draw, from the abundant flora and fauna of the lagoons at Sarteneja and Crooked Tree in the north of the country to the Cockscomb Basin, a reserve designed to protect the jaguar, in the south. Offshore are scattered hundreds of tiny islands known as "cayes", the main targets being upmarket Ambergris Caye, and Caye Caulker, the choice spot for young independent travellers. Other, mostly uninhabited cayes offer dramatic scuba-diving and snorkelling, with the coral atolls of Lighthouse Reef and Glover's Reef perhaps offering the ultimate underwater scenery.
Belize City is the only sizeable town in the country, but it's no beauty and you won't need to spend much time there - nor in the sleepy capital, Belmopan. Make your way, instead, to San Ignacio in the west, surrounded by forested hills and rivers, or Dangriga, a centre of Gar'funa culture and a good stepping-stone to the Maya Mountains and central cayes. In the far south, Punta Gorda is a centre for the Maya who make up over half the population of Toledo district.
In Honduras's western highlands, the magnificent ruins of Copn offer exquisitely carved stelae and a hieroglyphic stairway that represents the longest known glyphic text. North of here, the cities of San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba serve as stopping-off points en route to the idyllic Bay Islands. Each of the three main islands has its aficionados, but Utila is the cheapest and most popular with backpackers, while Guanaja and Roatn are geared up more for scuba-divers on package holidays.
The Maya slice of El Salvador holds some of the most fantastic scenery in the country. One of the biggest attractions is Lago de Coatepeque, a pristine crater lake bordered by Cerro Verde and the Izalco volcano. The Maya ruins here are less imposing than further north, though Tazumal, and Joya de Cern, where an entire community was buried in volcanic ash, are well worth a look.