Sitting atop the largest pyramid in the world in northern Guatemala's ancient Mayan city El Mirador, I tried to imagine how the city below looked nearly 2,500 years ago.

Standing nearby, the site's principal archaeologist,  Richard Hansen, explained how this had been one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, filled with dozens of grand palaces, pyramids, and temples painted in vivid red, green, yellow, and white hues, and adorned with elaborately carved images. Now mostly covered by forest, the 10-square-mile city also boasted the world's first "highway system," with hundreds of miles of raised causeways, up to 150 feet wide, sealed with a thick layer of white limestone plaster. I couldn't help wondering how it was possible for such an advanced civilization to have disappeared so suddenly and completely.

To unravel this and other Mayan mysteries, I joined a tour called "The Lost Kingdoms of the Mayas," led by two remarkable guides from Bella Guatemala Travel — Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace. For 10 days, our small group explored colonial cities, lakes, jungles, and Mayan museums and ruins scattered across Guatemala and western Honduras. Gonzalez shared his boundless enthusiasm for Mayan archaeology, frequently reminding us that "archaeology turns mystery into history."

We were all surprised to learn that while Europe lay mired in the Dark Ages, the Mayan kingdoms spread across much of Central America were flourishing. Their level of architecture, art, science, and writing put the Mayan culture among the most advanced in the world. Remarkably, many centuries-old Mayan traditions still flourish throughout Guatemala, as I witnessed repeatedly in archaeological sites where "spiritual guides," or shamans, performed traditional ceremonies around fire rings in order to bring better health, wealth, or happiness to their clients.

Our guides pointed out that Guatemala is bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, and it depends on agriculture, textiles, and tourism to sustain its 16 million people. Many travelers once considered Guatemala an unsafe place to visit: After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala endured significant political tumult, culminating in a vicious civil war from 1960 to 1996. But the country has recovered from those dark days, and I felt completely safe and grateful to be among the growing number of visitors from around the world.

Of the many experiences we had on this comprehensive tour, these are the highlights I'll remember most:

  • The helicopter ride to El Mirador took us over the largest remaining rain forest in Central America, saving us a three-day hike, which was the only other option. I felt more like Indiana Jones than a tourist as we spent hours with  Hansen exploring the mysterious, tree-covered site.
  • Tikal, which is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park, offered a mix of wildlife (coatis, monkeys, and various birds) and impressive ruins. Our guide Gonzalez  explained that at its peak, from A.D. 200 to 900, Tikal was one of the largest and most powerful Mayan cities. As we walked through the vast complex of pyramids and palaces, I was struck by how little most of us knew about the impressive Mayan civilization.
  • Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, situated on a lake in northern Guatemala, provided us with luxurious cottages perched over the water, each with a private, indoor Jacuzzi and large windows for viewing the tranquil scene. We requested a tour of the hotel owner's private Mayan collection, which contained artifacts that stunned even Hansen.
  • In Antigua, a city renowned for its Spanish Colonial architecture, we started our tour at a former Dominican convent that now has an upscale hotel, restaurant, Mayan museum, and large gardens. Next was a visit to a nearby coffee plantation, La Azotea, that not only offered samples of locally grown coffee but also housed an intriguing art and music cultural museum. That evening, we sampled Guatemala's Zacapa rum, rated by many as the finest n the world, at the classy Casa del Ron in the middle of town.
  • Lake Atitlan sits in a giant crater in the southwest highlands, ringed by 18 villages and three towering, conical volcanoes. We stayed in Panajachel, a rather nondescript town filled with small tourist shops. But across the lake, in the small town of Santiago, we had an unforgettable experience observing a team of spiritual guides giving offerings to the sacred image of the Mayan diety Maximon. In the Catholic church nearby, the symbols and decorative scarves adorning several religious statues demonstrated how traditional Mayan beliefs have been blended with modern Christianity.
  • Perhaps my favorite Mayan site was Copan, in western Honduras, two hours from the Guatemala border. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Copan was once a dominant kingdom in the region. I was awed by its elaborate sculptures and impressive palaces, temples, ball courts, stele (stone slabs) and pyramids that covered the verdant valley. Hidden near the park's exit, the Copan museum was my favorite museum of the trip, a place not to be missed. We entered it via a long tunnel that led to a large, open display area dominated by a full-scale replica of a Mayan temple painted in the same colors (red, yellow, green, and white) as the sacred scarlet macaws that still soar among the ruins today.

I came away from this trip knowing that we had been fortunate to see and learn much about both the ancient Mayan civilization and modern-day Guatemala. Over the years, I had heard consistent praise about Guatemala from other travelers, and now I'm grateful to have finally been able to traverse this road less traveled with the help of Bella Guatemala Travel.

If you go

Bella Guatemala Travel: 818-669-8435; Info@BellaGuatemalaTravel.com; www.BellaGuatemalaTravel.com. Knowledgeable guides who are fluent in English will help you explore Guatemala's fascinating ancient and modern Mayan culture while you stay at luxury hotels and meet with world-renowned Mayan scholars.
Lodging: Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel; reservations@laslagunashotel.com; www.laslagunashotel.com. Spend two nights here if possible, enjoying your over-the-water cottage, private Jacuzzi, and gorgeous lakeside infinity swimming pool.
Rum tasting: La Casa del Ron, 4a Calle Oriente, No. 22, Antigua; phone +502 7832 4477.