1st June to 16th July 2012
Who doesn’t want to visit a country where locals strap fireworks to themselves and run down the street? Now I’m not imagining Karl Pilkington’s portrayal of Mexico is remotely accurate but that mouth-wide-open episode of An Idiot Abroad had me hooked. Always a fan of the unusual, I want to see for myself if the country is as loco as I’m hoping.
Given I’m not banking on actually getting round to doing that many Spanish lessons in Cuba before I head for Central America, I have taken the easy way out and pre-booked a trip with Tucan Travel. Their Grand Mexico to San Jose tour takes me from Mexico down through Belize (which came highly recommended by a friend), Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua into Costa Rica.
I’m particularly excited that on my birthday we might be able to take a night trip to an active volcano, Arenal, in Costa Rica. Last year I worked on my birthday, which just seems wrong, and had a fab curry on Brick Lane with some of my colleagues from the team I’d just joined (actually I’m lucky and they’ve turned into friends over the last year). Despite the excellent tarka dhal and free wine I’d pass that up any day for a chance to watch a volcano belching lava into the moonlight.
Day 1 – Arrive Mexico City
Mexico City is the world’s most populated city with over 20 million people. Founded by Spanish conquerors in 1521, Mexico’s capital sits at 2309 metres above sea level and was built on the site of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The extensive metro system and trolley buses make getting around easy and there is certainly plenty to see and do.
A good starting point is the main plaza, the enormous Zócalo, where you will find the impressive Catedral y Sagrario Metropolitano, the main cathedral of Mexico City, with a magnificent Latin-Baroque style façade. Remember to look through the glass flooring outside of the church to see the ancient Aztec city beneath. Just behind the cathedral are the Aztec ruins of the ancient Teocali, which were only discovered in 1978. Visit the world famous Anthropology Museum and the National Palace where you can see murals depicting the history of Mexico by one of the country’s most famous artists Diego Riviera. A museum dedicated to his equally famous wife, Frieda Kahlo, is located in her childhood home in Coyoacán. In the evening you can enjoy a spicy Mexican dinner and maybe a few tequilas in the Zona Rosa while enjoying music performed by a mariachi band.
Day 2 to 4 – Puebla to Oaxaca
On the way to Puebla take a guided tour at the ancient site of Teotihuacan, an amazing abandoned city built around 300 BC by a civilisation now lost in the mists of time. The historic complex is a fascinating combination of ceremonial pyramids, such as the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the Ciudadela, which are connected by the Street of the Dead, palaces, old temples and the Plaza of the Sun. The buildings are decorated with friezes and other ornate artworks.
Continue on to one of Mexico’s oldest towns, Puebla, which means “City of the Angels”. Set in a valley with a dramatic backdrop of volcanoes and snow-topped peaks, Puebla is a fascinating old colonial town founded in 1531. The historic city centre has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site partly due to its impressively preserved Spanish colonial architecture. Puebla is the best place to try mole poblano, a rich, spicy sauce containing chocolate, cinnamon and nuts, as well as different types of hot peppers, often served over chicken.
Next on the list is Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka), a beautiful city bordered by mountains and thick forests, with a very pleasant Plaza de la Constitución where you can eat, drink and watch the world go by. On our free day in Oaxaca we include a guided excursion of Monte Albán, the holy city of the ancient Zapotecs located 400 metres above the Oaxaca valley. There are many structures to explore around the Grand Plaza including numerous tombs, ceremonial altars, tunnels, pyramids and palaces, many decorated by glyphs, paintings and intricate carvings.
After enjoying our time here we take a night bus bound for San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Day 5 to 9 – San Cristóbal to Palenque
Ascending into the mountainous Chiapas region we arrive at the fascinating colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Situated in the middle of the highlands, with Mexico’s richest example of indigenous culture, as it is surrounded by 21 indigenous villages with distinct languages, dress and customs. Red tiled houses painted in brilliant colours dominate the city, maintaining a delightful provincial charm.
The next day there is an included tour of the nearby villages where you can get a true feel for how modern descendents of the ancient Maya people live today. The tour gives you a fascinating insight into their pre-Colombian beliefs and their daily struggle to be heard in what is one of Mexico’s most isolated regions.
There is also an option to visit the stunning Sumidero Canyon on a guided speedboat tour along a 30 kilometre section of the Grijalva river to the hydro-electric dam. There are plenty of opportunities to photograph local wildlife such as birds, crocodiles and iguanas. The cliffs towering over the river reach 100 metres at the highest point, which will provide a dramatic backdrop to your pictures.
Next we visit the town and ruins of Palenque, famous for the tombs found filled with riches in honour of the renowned Lord Pakal and the Red Queen. This archaeological site houses more than 200 structures including a series of hilltop temples, towers, tombs and pyramids surrounded by steamy jungle. The most important constructions, which date back to the Classical period (400-700 AD) are the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Crypt, the Palace complex, the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and the Temple of the Sun. Decorated with elaborate friezes, sculptures and inscriptions, Palenque is unquestionably one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites. Paths cutting through the jungle lead to various temples and gorgeous waterfalls.
Day 10 to 13 – Mérida to Cancún
Capital of the Yucatan province, the ‘white city’ of Mérida is a pleasant mixture of colonial buildings, churches and plazas. The markets simply overflow with beautiful weavings, hammocks and batiks. At night the city comes alive with live theatre and concerts. You could also take a swim in the local ‘cenotes’ (sen-o-tays), fresh-water swimming holes connected by spectacular limestone caverns and deep underwater rivers once sacred to the ancient Maya, covering the entire Yucatan peninsula.
Travel first to Chichén Itzá, an impressive Maya/Toltec site recently voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Constructed between the 7th and 10th century AD, Chichén Itzá was a centre of pilgrimage for the Maya for over 1000 years. Among the sights your local guide will point out during the tour of the site are the ball court where the captain of the winning team was beheaded (no incentive to play your best!) and the sacred cenote where treasures and the remains of human sacrifices have been discovered. The most famous attraction is the great Pyramid of Kukulcan, dedicated to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan and built with such precision that a shadow serpent descends down the steps during the equinox.
Until 1970 Isla Cancún (Cancún Island) had only three residents, the caretakers of the coconut plantation with only 117 people living in nearby Puerto Juarez, a fishing village and military base. The island was home to some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches and with the advent of mass market tourism it was an ideal location. Due to the reluctance of investors to bet on an unknown area however, the Mexican government had to finance the first nine hotels. Today over two million visitors a year come to Cancún to relax on one of the beautiful beaches and to swim in the crystal clear turquoise waters.
Day 14 to 18 – Playa del Carmen to San Ignacio via Caye Caulker
The beautiful beach resort of Playa del Carmen is only an hour bus ride away from Cancún. Here you can relax on a white sand beach or take advantage of one of the several interesting optional activities available in the area such as visiting the island of Cozumel or the amazingly located Maya/Toltec ruins of Tulúm. There are also many cenotes to explore.
Belizeans know how to relax, and hopefully the locals’ expertise on relaxation will be contagious during your stay on Caye Caulker. If not, there are signs to remind you to “Go Slow”, “Take it easy”, and even “No shirt, no shoes, no problem”. Spend a couple of very laid back nights on Caye Caulker, where you can throw away your shoes to wander the sand filled streets, spend the evenings eating seafood, drinking cocktails, and listening to reggae music in one of the bars.
Choose from a range of different optional snorkelling trips, such as to Shark and Ray Alley, where you can swim within a few feet of nurse sharks and majestic sting rays, or weather dependent, you may have the opportunity to swim with sea-cows! Other options include sunning yourself, riding a bike around the island, or trying your luck at fishing. If you are lucky, you can take your catch to one of the local restaurants so they can BBQ it for you.
Continue on to San Ignacio referred to as “Cayo” by the locals, this agricultural centre is also known to be the ‘adventure’ and ‘nature’ capital of Belize. The surrounding jungle, wildlife, waterfalls, rivers and caves, have created the ideal location for the numerous optional excursions that are available, from canoeing downriver and tubing through caves, to visiting the famous caves Actun Tunichil Muknal, where they found untouched Mayan ceremonial and sacrificial remains.
Day 19 to 22 – Flores – Rio Dulce – Antigua
Next stop is the charming island-town of Flores, the last town to be conquered by the Spanish and situated in the centre of Lake Peten Itzá. Flores is our base for exploring the breathtaking Maya site of Tikal, it is regarded as the greatest city of the Maya world and is nestled deep in the jungle. This complex is one of the biggest Maya sites discovered, and you will have most of the day to explore and learn about the flora, fauna, and amazing Mayan history with our knowledgeable local guide.
The area around Tikal has been declared as the Tikal National Park and the preserved area covers 570 square kilometres. The ancient city has been completely mapped and at its height covered an area greater than 16 square kilometres, with more than 3000 structures. Today the main centre covers an area of approximately two and a half square kilometres. As you wander the site, you will see several tall mounds which are temples that have not yet been excavated, and you will have the opportunity to climb some of the tallest Mayan temples.
The emphasis was on height when creating these imposing structures because the Maya believed the higher the building, the closer they were to the gods. Around Tikal there is a lot of animal life, and if you’re lucky, you will have the chance to spot the noisy howler monkeys, pizotes (a racoon-like animal), exotic birds such as toucans, and much more!
We carry on to the river town of Rio Dulce where we overnight in cabins right on the water. In the afternoon the boat tour along the 23 kilometre stretch of waterway to Livingston allows you to experience one of the most scenic areas of Guatemala. Livingston is situated at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, where it joins the Bay of Amatique, and is inhabited by the Garifuna people. This lively little town has a Caribbean atmosphere different to the rest of Guatemala and is a great place to try the delicious local specialty tapado (seafood coconut soup) and listen to the local African-style punta music.
Antigua is one of the most delightful colonial towns in Central America. The local indigenous can be seen throughout the cobbled streets and plazas of the city in their colourful costumes, selling their crafts and textiles. As the cultural centre of Guatemala, Antigua is an ideal place to experience the traditional music, architecture and art of the country. Rich in ornate churches, convents, parks, plazas, cafés, restaurants, bars and colourful street markets and surrounded by awe-inspiring volcanoes, Antigua is one place you will never forget.
Day 23 to 28 – Copán to San Pedro Sula via Roatán Island
We leave Guatemala and cross into Honduras and the charming town of Copán. Within walking distance of the village is one of the best-kept and most intriguing of all the ancient Maya sites, the Copán ruins. On your guided tour you will see the intricately carved stelaes (carvings/statues) depicting the 16 rulers of this once magnificent and influential city, the spectacular staircase, ball courts and enormous main plaza.
From Copán we take a bus through coffee growing districts to the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, where we change buses for the coastal town of Tela before moving on to La Ceiba for the trip by ferry across to Roatán. This is the largest of the beautiful sun-soaked Caribbean Bay Islands. Development on the island means there is plenty to do, but it is also easy to find a deserted beach lapped by warm Caribbean waters. Here you will find palm-fringed lagoons, turquoise water, friendly locals, lively nightlife and stunning underwater scenery, with some of the cheapest diving and snorkelling in the world! You can elect to swim with dolphins, a truly unforgettable experience, or get into the true Caribbean sprit with a sunset cruise.
After a few days on Roatán, we return by ferry to the mainland to catch a bus back to San Pedro Sula for another night before making our way south and into Nicaragua.
Day 29 to 32 – León to Granada
Crossing the border into Nicaragua, the lovely town of León, with its colonial charm, is our next stop. We have plenty of free time here to take a break in the shady gardens and plazas. There are various museums, churches the cathedral and the Plaza de la Constitution to explore. The Templo Expiatorio also has a collection of catacombs which are worth seeing.
After passing through the capital, Managua, and the tobacco growing regions, we arrive in Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Granada is one of the most characteristic and colourful colonial towns in Central America. Founded in 1524 at the foot of the Mombacho Volcano, due to its Moorish feel, this lovely town will remind many of its Spanish counterpart. Here there are many optional excursions to visit the surrounding countryside, including a visit to the Masaya National Park, with its double-crested active volcano. Alternatively, you can choose to go for a boat tour of the islands on the lake or a trek and/or zipline through the Mombacho Volcano Cloud Forest.
With two free days in Granada you also have plenty of time to take a day trip into Managua to explore. After years of civil war and the devastating earthquake of 1972, the city centre was left in shambles. There are still buildings with huge cracks and weeds growing through them, the strange old Cathedral being one. However, this now peaceful city is in the process of rebuilding itself. The recently restored National Palace offers a fascinating tour into the past.
Day 33 to 36 – Ometepe Island to San José
Travelling onwards, we cross the vast Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. This lake was once a large ocean bay, but seismic activity caused the land to rise, cutting it off from the sea. This has left the lake with fresh water sharks and other salt-water species. We take a boat to the unspoilt and tranquil island of Ometepe, located in the middle of the lake. This is the ‘true heart of Nicaragua’, and is the perfect place to escape from the fast-paced normalities of life.
The name of the island means “between two hills” and was formed by the two volcanoes, Concepción and Madera. The fertile volcanic soil provides the local population with perfect farming conditions for the many crops grown. You may choose to hire a local guide and spend your free time touring the island and searching for ancient stone statues and petroglyphs which have been found all over the island. Those feeling athletic can go for volcano hikes or horseback riding on the black sand beach, while the less energetic can spend their time lying in hammocks, or taking a dip in the lake or the nearby freshwater spring. Either way, you can be sure that Ometepe Islands beauty, tranquillity, and kind-hearted residents will make this a highlight of your trip.
The capital city of Costa Rica, San José, is nestled in a fertile valley among coffee and sugar-cane farms. There is not much left of the colonial era architecture, due to the damage done by earthquakes, but it is certainly worth seeing the National Theatre, built in 1897. The Gold, Jade and National Museums are also particularly recommended for a visit
There are plenty of interesting optional day trips that can be undertaken within a close vicinity of San José such as visits to the Poás or Irazú volcano, white water rafting, the Turu BaRi Topical Park or the Rain Forest Aerial Tram.
Day 37 to 40 – La Fortuna to Santa Elena
The main attraction in La Fortuna is the nearby active Arenal Volcano, which has been constantly erupting since 1968. After settling into our hotel you’ll have time for a leisurely lunch and to explore the town. An exciting night excursion is available where you are taken to a site near the volcano to listen to rumbles and sample the local alcoholic spirit (proceed with caution!). On a clear night you can see the amazing sight of glowing lava discharging from the volcano crater. After this, you may want to indulge in a visit the luxuriant local hot springs for a well-earned dip.
Our next journey takes us up into the mountains using a combination of minivans and boats. The first leg takes about 30 minutes to Lake Arenal. After transferring onto a boat, we continue through stunning scenery for approximately an hour to the other side of the lake. Here we are met by our transport to take us the remaining hour and a half to the small town of Santa Elena, established by American Quakers in the 1950′s.
From here we visit Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in search of the mysterious endangered Quetzal, a very rare and timid bird with incredibly beautiful and unique plumage. There are several paths to explore in this privately owned reserve, one of which takes you to the continental divide. On a clear day both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can be seen! We’ll also stop at the Hummingbird Gallery where these energetic birds buzz around sipping on nectar. The area around Santa Elena is famous for its ziplines, where you’ll have the option to go flying over the cloud forest on a series of cables strung out between the giant trees. For the less courageous, you may opt for a sky walk along a series of suspension bridges above the forest canopy.
Day 41 to 43 – Manuel Antonio to San José
Descending down a steep mountain road, we will travel through very lush green countryside to the coast and the old town of Quepos, once a very important port for the exportation of bananas. We continue our journey along another twisting road to Manuel Antonio, where we will visit the Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most popular parks in the country. This celebrated park is blessed with beautiful lagoons, palm fringed beaches, a vast array of animals and lush green forests. Some of the many creatures that call Manuel Antonio home include sloths, pelicans, white-faced monkeys, anteaters and huge iguanas. It is also famous for its beaches – although almost deserted on weekdays, keep a sharp eye on your belongings, as the monkeys are seasoned thieves!
Day 44 – Depart San José