[Skip to Content]

According to some (mainly Internet based) theories, the ancient Mayans predicted the end of the world on the 21st of December 2012.

So with this in mind, where is the best gap year destination for next year?

The ancient Mayan cultures were based in what we now call Central America from approximately 2000 BC, and as civilisations go, they were pretty smart. They built complex cities, which you can see the remains of today at sites such as Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala. These sites are well worth a visit, some great Maya cities such as El Mirador and Yaxchilan still feel relatively undiscovered and unexplored, El Mirador is identified in a Global Heritage Fund report of 2010 as being under serious threat from looters and deforestation, despite having one of the worlds largest (and possibly the largest) pyramids. Imagine using your time out to visit sites like this, which so few people have seen and which may disappear.

The Mayan civilisation also developed systems of writing, and some people today have interpreted remains of these texts as predicting the end of the world in 2012. Obviously, whether this is what the Mayan author of the texts intended is open to debate, as the evidence is scrappy to say the least, and even more obviously, so far through all human history no-one has successfully predicted the end of the world. But its a great excuse to find out more about Central America and the Maya, and schedule a trip into your itinerary to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala or Honduras. Here are our top Mayan sites in central America, in no particular order, because they are all stunning.

Best for Indiana Jones jungle adventure:

  • Yaxchilan, Mexico. To reach this site you have to travel down the Usamacinta river for an hour, with Mexico on one side, and Guatemala on the other. Once you get there you can explore the ruins which are remarkable for their carvings.
  • Tikal, Guatemala. Despite it's remote jungle location, the ruins of Tikal are one of Guatemala's most famous and popular places for visitors. The view of the jungle tree-tops from the top of one of the many temples is unforgettable. There are many tours with run from Flores, and it takes about an hour and half to reach the ruins by minibus.
  • El Mirador, Guatemala. Like Tikal, Flores is the best place to find a tour to El Mirador. Unlike Tikal, El Mirador is not easy to get to, and is probably best for those really intrepid travellers who are looking for a proper jungle experience. Exploring the El Mirador area (it is massive and mostly still covered in jungle) will involve a jungle hike over 5 days, mules and possible encounters with all manner of wildlife, friendly and not so friendly. Definitely not for the fainthearted! The massive El Tigre pyramid rises above the jungle and is the main sight at El Mirador, which is one of the most ancient and least discovered Mayan ruined cities. Some scheduled hikes can be booked in advance but may be cancelled if the weather means the route will be too wet.
  • Coba, Mexico. This site has the advantage of well signed paths through the jungle to the ruins, but it is still a magical, remote place, well off the beaten tourist track. As for all destinations in Central America, make sure you are realistic about the time of year you go (avoid rainy season) and the time of day you go (it will be hot!) Stock up on mosquito repellent and take plenty of water.
  • Lamanai, Belize. You can take a boat to the site from Orange Walk Town to get to Lamanai, which is 26 miles up river, so gives you plenty of time to watch out for crocodiles and howler monkeys on the way. The spectacular remains which have been excavated are only a fraction of the actual site, most of which still lies buried under the jungle. 
Best for ease of access:

  • Altun Ha, Belize. This small but fascinating site is easy to drive to from Belize city, which is about 30 miles away. The only precaution you need to take is regarding the road, which although a main highway, is very holey and bumpy! 
  • Xunantunich, Belize. Most of the hotels and lodges in the area offer trips to Xunantunich, which makes an interesting day or even half day trip from Belize city. The views from the highest building on site are breathtaking. 
  • Copan, Honduras. The small town of Copan Ruinas is a good reason to include Copan in a visit to Honduras. It can also be combined with a visit to Tikal, across the border in Guatemala. The town is friendly and has some good places to stay if you want to break your visit over two days.
So don't panic about the end of the world - instead why not make 2012 the year when you include Central America on your gap year travel itinerary, and learn more about the Maya?