I’m an independent traveller. I research and book my own trips, avoiding travel agents and package deals. I take public transport wherever I am. I enjoy making my own schedule.
So I was a little dubious about booking a tour for the start of my four-month adventure. But I’d heard so many good things about G Adventures on the travel industry grapevine, as well as from friends, that I was keen to give them a try.
My first stop was Mexico and I don’t speak Spanish – so I thought, why not ease into the journey with a local guide? Knowing I had weeks and weeks of independent travel to come afterwards meant I didn’t feel too stressed about spending 11 days being chaperoned.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Travelling with G Adventures is certainly different to my normal travel style, but it is by no means less fun. Here’s a quick run-down of the itinerary on my chosen tour, plus a few FAQs for anyone considering their first G experience.
G Adventures Mayan Trail route © Emma Sparks
The tour: Mayan Trail
I chose the Mayan Trail as it fit well with my inbound airport (Playa del Carmen is an easy local bus journey from Cancun) and my general planned trajectory. It also included a border crossing to Guatemala, which I was interested in experiencing with a little help, first time round. Note: there are three LONG days of travel included in this 11-day itinerary. Be prepared for basic comforts and bad – seriously bad – roads.
One of hundreds of amazing murals in Playa del Carmen © Emma Sparks
Start: Playa del Carmen
Playa is a tourist town but the beach is gorgeous, there’s tonnes of Instagrammable street art and good food can be found everywhere. We arrived a few days before the tour started to settle into the climate and culture before hitting the road. Day one of the tour included an in-depth introductory meeting and dinner so we could get to know each other! The daily margarita tradition started here…
El Castillo, Chichén Itzá © Emma Sparks
We stopped at this epic Mayan ruin on the way to Mérida. Our charming blue-eyed guide Felipe brought the ancient buildings to life, relaying tales of human sacrifice and strange ceremonies with a wry smile. It was the most touristy of the three ruins we visited but an excellent introduction to Mexico’s mysterious history.
In Uxmal you can climb to the top of temples © Emma Sparks
Mérida / Uxmal
We arrived to Mérida after sundown, and taking the optional trip to the incredible Mayan site of Uxmal – plus a cenote and abandoned hacienda – the next day meant we didn’t see much of the city. That’s probably the one thing I would change about this itinerary.
The tour group © Emma Sparks
Our third day of Mayan ruin explorations included a nature hike, where we spotted howler monkeys and the brave tasted live termites straight from the mound – plus a stay at a beautiful jungle lodge complete with swimming pool and bargain cocktails (did someone say margarita?). We also took a trip to nearby Roberto Barrios waterfalls for a cooling dip.
San Cristobal de las Casas
This hippy highland town in Chiapas felt completely different to the other stops on this tour. It was chilly up in the hills and various churches and notable buildings were still closed to the public after September’s earthquake. This is where I tried my first ‘Mayan’ hot chocolate: high percentage cacao and water. No sugar, no milk. Surprisingly sweet!
Lovely Lake Atitlan © Emma Sparks
Into Guatemala we go. Lake Atitlan and its surrounding villages are unforgettable. After a tuk-tuk tour of Santiago, we took a boat to San Juan la Laguna, splitting into pairs to stay with local Mayan people overnight. We met local artists and members of the women’s weaving cooperative on a village tour. To our delight, our host family’s children even performed an impromptu marimba set!
Enjoying a bird’s eye view of Antigua © Emma Sparks
Guatemala’s old colonial capital Antigua is a pretty city that makes the perfect base for volcano hikes, chocolate-tasting and mooching around markets. If we’d had more time we’d have stayed for some Spanish lessons before branching out without our tour group safety net!
A tour group newbie’s FAQs
These are some of the questions that ran through my head before I started my G Adventures tour. If you’re considering booking one, hopefully these answers will help you decide.
Juan Carlos and Jumanji at Chichén Itzá © Emma Sparks
What will my guide be like?
CEOs (Chief Experience Officers) are as diverse as the groups they lead – but all have one thing in common: a love of travel and showing others the world. I had the pleasure of meeting two excellent CEOs: ‘Jumanji’, who was travelling with my group while training to lead tours in Mexico and Central America (she usually works in Europe) and my group’s CEO, Juan Carlos: the man with the megawatt smile.
‘Please don’t fall off this temple’ - Juan Carlos at Palenque © Emma Sparks
Juan Carlos was sincere and sensible, always looking out for the group and helping us to squeeze the most out of our days. His catchphrase ‘double check, triple check, then double-triple check’ ensured we never mislaid our passports – and he made sure we never got ripped off, even at the Mexican border where unofficial exit fees are a common problem. I felt totally safe under his leadership, to the point that I began to worry about what I’d do without him once the tour was over! He even helped us plan the next section of our journey, arranging our onward transportation and a tour of Semuc Champey. Are all CEOs this good? I hope so, but I doubt it. He set the bar incredibly high.
Will I like the group?
This was my main concern before joining the Mayan Trail – the social side of things relies on luck of the draw. The group I ended up travelling with were a lovely bunch. We ranged in age and nationality (British, Canadian, American, Finnish, Korean, Australian, Swiss), some travelled in couples and others solo, but all were pretty laid-back and there were plenty of opportunities to spend time alone if you needed some personal space. Again, I was sad to leave them behind after 11 days together.
Will we travel too quickly?
We never stayed more than two nights in any given destination. Some backpackers, including myself, might argue that that’s too quick to really experience a place. But now I’ve tried it, I realise that you learn so much when accompanied by a guide that it actually evens out. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) sustain the pace long-term, but a couple of intense weeks is doable and you cram so much in you certainly aren’t just skimming the surface.
What if I’m on a budget?
There’s no question: you could do most G Adventures itineraries cheaper independently. What you’re really paying for is convenience and local knowledge; private shuttles, pre-booked hotels, orientation walks and a free translation service in the form of your guide. All the stresses of organising things yourself dissolve, leaving you to gawp in wonder without a worry in the world. Even as a fiercely independent bossy boots, I have to admit… it was a nice change.
On top of the tour price, some activities and most meals were not included on the Mayan Trail – so I recommend reading the finer details of your chosen tour and tallying up the extras in advance so there are no surprises.
Your CEO will be happy to accommodate for tight budgets – although the scope for a $1 meal varies depending on your destination.
Sparky in Uxmal © Emma Sparks
Will it still feel like independent travel?
Yes and no. You’re certainly not wrapped in cotton wool and you still get to make decisions about your experience on a daily basis. But it comes with none of the real stress and problem-solving of an independent adventure. I think G Adventures tours are the ideal option for people who want to see the world but lack the confidence to go it alone, as well as those who simply want the complicated bits done for them. I’ll definitely be looking at their tours of a few far-flung places in the future.
Make it happen
- British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Tui and Thomas Cook Airlines fly to Cancun from London. I flew one-way with Thomas Cook for £380.
- Book the G Adventures Mayan Trail, or extend the trip and try the Mayan Adventure route. Prices vary depending on dates chosen.
- Visiting Chichén Itzá on your own? Contact trusted guide Felipe for a fabulous guided tour. Email: [email protected]; Cell: (999) 129-5160.