CENTRAL AMERICA TASTER:
GUATEMALA, BELIZE & MEXICO.
Maz Marek Nusl
Realistically I know I can’t explore all of Central America in one trip, although many do by devoting months of travel; I simply can’t afford that luxury. However, I’ve hatched a plan to give me my first taste of Central America by visiting Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Partly dictated by flight prices and partly by my assumption that the area I’ll be travelling though is relatively compact, I plan a two week backpack over Easter to see what Central America has to offer.
Duration: 2 weeks will give you just enough time to get a broad sense of the region
Cost: Approx £1,250 (inc flights)
Doinit Factor: You're packing in a lot into a short time in this wonderful region.
The Short version
Fly to Guatemala City and then overland it to Cancun, Mexico where there are regular flights back to the UK.
Air Mexico has good coverage in Central America so as long as you don't mind getting connecting flights through Mexico City you can find tickets for a £500 return.
Central America is a huge region to explore in one go, but there are establish itineraries for those who like me have less time than they would like. Guatemala to Belize and Mexico is well on the tourist route. With Cancun being a popular hub there are a good variety of flights, and at a relatively affordable cost. Whilst planning my jaunt through a 'short slice' of Central America it's not long before I can see that I'm not even close to fitting in everything the region has to offer; there just so much nature, history and culture to explore in two weeks. But still, this will be my first visit so I'll be happy with the highlights, a taster; and if its tastes good I'll be back.
"Antigua was once one of the grandest of the Spanish colonial cities so walking around the cobbled streets and along the brightly painted façades makes for a lovely atmospheric morning walk."
Day 1 Arriving in Antigua
It’s an early morning arrival at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. The temperature had not reached its predicted high of 30 degrees yet for which I’m thankful. It’s only about an hour ride in a shuttle to our destination and base for a few days – the UNESCO world heritage site of Antigua (Antigua Guatemala).
We throw our bags in our hostel and we have the whole day to explore. Antigua was once one of the grandest of the Spanish colonial cities so walking around the cobbled streets and along the brightly painted façades makes for a lovely atmospheric morning walk. Earthquakes have taken their toll but the charm remains. The city is packed with semi-ruined churches and monuments; the streets are lined with colourful buildings, mostly laid out in a grid pattern making it relatively easy to navigate. At the heart of the city is a park, it’s a pleasant stroll with a friendly feel through the trees to the fountain in the middle. The four sides of the park are lined with lovely colonial buildings but the highlight here must be, with its elegant Baroque façade - the Cathedral de Antigua Guatemala, once the largest in Central America. Built in 1680 it is amazing to still see parts of it still standing but this being Antigua there’s more, a whole lot more to see. One of the largest ruins to see is La Recolecciónis, a monastery built in 1708. It’s slightly tucked away on the edge of town (15 min walk) so feels like a hidden gem with fewer visitors than it deserves. A visit to the green grounds is a real calm and tranquil experience. Perfect if you fancy a bit of solitude.
If you’ve seen any pictures of Antigua, I’d bet they are of the cities famous yellow arch, the Arco de Santa Catalina. With the huge volcano in the background, this is the quintessential postcard picture and where you’ll find most tourists flocking – ruining my quintessential postcard moment. The arch had originally been used by nuns in the 17th Century as a means of crossing the dirt road below and now is an icon of the city.
Wandering around Antigua, along the couble streets towards the Arco de Santa Catalina. (MN)
We continue to wander past magnificent monuments. I love the twisted columns of the Iglesia de San Francisco church, the yellow facades of the aptly named Yellow Church (Iglesia de La Merced) and the buzz of the market on our way out of town as we head to the Cerro de la Cruz – the Hill of the Cross. It’s to the North of town and the walk up the hill takes about 15 minutes maybe 20 on a really humid day. Once you get to the top you can see all of Antigua below you. It’s misty when we arrive but we can just about make out the huge volcano dominating the landscape we saw earlier the town's arch.
The twisted columns of Iglesia de San Francisco. (MN)
Overlooking Antigua from the Hill of the Cross. (MN)
It's like walking through history, the city would essentially have looked the same if we had been there 200 years ago, well if you can ignore the cars and busses. I'm not surprised that this is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. It’s a busy place, small bars and craft shops largely run by American expats have appeared throughout Antigua, but not in overpowering why - they seem to have embedded themselves fittingly within city's atmosphere. The vibes certainly good and only after one day, I’m feeling at home.
Antigua is home to possibly the largest Easter celebrations in the world, and through our itinerary doesn't include staying for the main festivities (bad planning Maz), we do still witness some of the processions. The night sky is filled with smoke, incense and the sounds of drums as the various churches put on over the course of Holy Week.
Easter is a BIG DEAL!
'Semana Santa' or Holy week is massive. The streets host processions which are mostly rooted in Andalusian traditions brought over by Spanish in the 16th Century. The streets are adorned with dyed sawdust, flowers, pine needle to form colourful carpets.
Walking the quite streets at night - I feel like I'm back in time. (MN)
A procession right outside our hostel. (MN)
Day 2: Paragliding in Pana
It’s an early morning shuttle bus to Panajechel which ends up taking close to four hours despite the scheduled two and half hours. Pana is a huge picturesque lake at the base of a number of volcanoes. It’s a popular tourist destination with many villages surrounding its shores. We arrive mid-morning and the streets are already busy, as stall holders try to sell their Mayan crafts and vibrant fabrics. We head down to the shore for a walk before we settle down for some breakfast; amazingly we’re visited by a pair of hummingbirds as we scoff down our refried beans, eggs and fried plantain.
While many visitors to Pana are here for a boat tour, I’ve arranged for a rather different experience. I’ve always thought I fancied Paragliding and here is arguably one of the top sights in the World to do this. We meet our outfitters Real World Paragliding who drive us to a nearby peak. We’re given our safety briefing before we’re passed our equipment and team up with our pilots. Walking to the ledge is a nerve-racking experience, it’s completely unnatural and I start to doubt if this was a good idea but before I get a chance back out of this the wind catches the fabric wing and we’re thrust into the air. After the initial surprise and a girly yell, I quickly begin to feel at ease as I fly like a bird. Far below the deep body of blue surrounded by the green curvy shoreline glitters, and as far as the eye can see are the majestic volcanoes reaching into the clouds. It’s about a 30 minute flight before we land at the beach by the lake – I’m buzzing, wanting to go again but the reality is a another long shuttle bus journey back to Antigua.
"... the wind catches the fabric wing and we’re
thrust into the air"
No motor just wind, flying like a bird. Amazing.
Day 3: Reaching peaks on Pacaya
It wouldn’t be a trip to Guatemala without an up-close and personal visit to one of the many volcanoes. From Antigua, there are several options but craving an easy morning we opt for a half day hike to Pacaya (2,551 meters). We’re dropped off at the entrance of the national park, where a small park entrance fee is paid. Children offer to sell (or rent?) us walking sticks, the locals adults offer to take us on horseback, gesturing that it’s a steep hike but I smile and shake my head, I love a good hike. It’s about two hours through a thick forested and ash rained path. They weren’t kidding; it’s definitely a steep incline with plenty of switchbacks - but it’s all worth it. The forest opens up at the top to reveal the views far below where you can see coffee plantations layered along the landscape. In the distance is Guatemala City and Lago de Amatitlan but what’s more impressive is what you see when you look up. Still a fair distance away is the main vent of Pacaya (Volcan de Pacaya). This being an active volcano we’re of course not permitted to get too close. There have been multiple eruptions over the past decade reaping havoc in the area so naturally, I can’t help but feel slightly on edge. Occasional bursts of lava can be seen in the distance over the vent, but mostly smoke is what's being expelled - it’s rather captivating. Moving on to the surrounding lava fields we can’t resist in taking part in a tourist favourite - roasting marshmallows over the dark hot jagged rocks.
The active peak of Pacaya behind me - luckly their were no big eruptions today (EN)
Day 4: The long road to Livingston
It’s a long bus ride from Antigua (Via Guatemala City) to Rio Dulce and after a frustratingly long queue to cross longest bridge in Central America, we’re greeted by water taxi reps at the bus station. They know, as do we, that we’re just about to miss the final water taxi to Livingston.
Livingston defers to most Guatemalan towns in that it’s inhabited largely by the Garifuna people. These people have Caribbean roots rather than Mayan. The boat ride from Rio to Livingston is a real joy. Pelicans, stalks are amongst a number of birds we see on our journey through the meandering steep lush green jungle gorge. The sun is out so we can happily sit back and enjoy the ride.
Once we land in Livingston, there’s a party vibe, everyone’s happy – it’s Easter weekend. It’s a small town you can easily explore by foot, with most shops, bars and restaurants located along the main street. That evening we enjoy the local dish, a soup called Tapado. It’s made with fish and crab cooked in coconut milk and while de-boning the fish is a pain, the soup tastes lovely. The night is followed by a number of cheap beers before we make it into my jungle hut for some needed sleep – trying to ignore the mice, spiders and whatever else is sharing the hut with us. I dose of to the wild noises of the jungle.
The boat ride to Livingstone through the Lush Jungle. (MN)
Day 5: Finally in Flores
Today we are doubling back to Rio, and being treated to a second helping of the scenic gorge boat ride. We’re aiming to get to Flores today, but the problem is that it’s Easter Sunday and the local buses aren’t running. I dropped a message to my contact in Flores the night before and he said that we are in luck as he’ll be about picking other people so can take us. He says to meet him by the roadside at 11 am. So at quarter to 11, I give him a call to let him know we’re ready. Calm Miguel replies, “No problem. I’m almost there, I’ll be there at 2 pm”. Somehow he's managed to pack eight people into his SUV. It's a long drive with the same Bob Marley CD on repeat. First two plays were good, then it went downhill quickly. About four hours later we arrive in Flores. The city is located on a small Island on Lago Petén Itzá, connected to the shore by a long causeway, supposedly it only takes about 20 minutes to walk around it. Like most travellers we are here mainly as a stop of point before we visit Guatemala’s most famous ruins, Tikal; early next morning.
The famous carpets made from dyed sawdust, flowers, pine needles. (MN)
Day 6: Trekking through Tikal, and onto Belize
I am not particularly keen on having to wake up at 4.00am, but I’m told it’ll be worth it. Tikal needs little introduction as it is probably the most revered of all the ancient Mayan cities, dating back to 400BC. We have a guide to accompany us on our trek through this ancient city. Whilst a guide isn’t required, after a short time I know its money well spent. He’s so incredibly knowledgeable and entertaining explaining how the Mayan’s counted, how the city was discovered, pointing out the spider monkeys, tarantula trees, praying mantises and everything else that’s to be found here. We’re taken to the different temples over the next couple of hours and I’m amazed how large the site is. With new discoveries, it’s only getting bigger. Visitors are allowed to climb certain buildings but in the humidity, it’s hard work. The temples are truly awe-inspiring, scattered around the jungle, these massive grey stone structures peak above the canopy.
The famous Tikal. (MN)
Come afternoon, it’s time to move on. We’re due to cross into Belize. The border isn’t too far off but we’re not quite sure how to get there. Fortunately, we bump into a group that is heading that way and were able to jump into their ride. The border crossing is pretty straightforward. Life becomes immediately easier when you cross into Belize as the language is now English.
We jump into a local cab who takes us 20 minutes down the road to the town of San Ignacio. It’s a good base. After a wonder, we hear there’s an iguana sanctuary close. I’ve never really got up close and personal with an iguana before but they are amazing creatures. While Tikal only a few house before was amazing I find this being the highlight of my day.
Feeding the iguanas. (MN)
I loved this not little guy - please don't poop. (EN)
Day 7: Exploring the ATM Cave
On the suggestion off our hostel today we’re heading to explore the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Caves. These caves were only discovered in 1992 and have become a popular tourist destination. Visits are only allowed with an official guide and any photography is strictly prohibited.
The day starts with a swim across a river before a short trek through the jungle to the entrance of the cave. Underground rivers run through these caves. We climb over rocks and squeeze through tight gaps, water gashing around us, past stalagmites and below stalactites as we move from chamber to chamber. These chambers are massive and the Mayan’s have certainly left their mark. As our group head deeper into the cave system we see traces of what they left behind, pots and tools untouched for millennia. The final chamber is called the ‘Cathedral’ and where it is believed human sacrifices took place. A number of skeletons can still be seen. Here we lays the ‘Crystal Maiden’ a full skeleton who’s been covered limestone crystals in the water. It’s a really eerie experience, and I’m surprised how close you can actually get to some of the archaeological artefacts.
We’re told the reason why photography is strictly prohibited is that a few years ago a tourist actually dropped his camera on one of these skulls, the damage still very visible. Our outfitter's at 'Mayan Walk' emailed our group a selection of photos so that we'd have something to look back on. I must admit not having a chance to take any pictures meant I was able to really immerse myself into the experience rather than concentrating on taking pictures
The dramatic entrance to the ATM cave.
The caves open up into huge chambers.
Day 8: Exploring Xunantunich.
Today we’ll be leaving the jungle and heading to the Belizean Islands. We have a few hours to spare in the morning so we visit the close by archaeological site of Xunantunich. It’s only about 15 minutes way in a taxi, 25 minutes if like ours, he stops to fix his exhaust which is hanging on by a loose cable tie.
Much like Tikal, Xunantunish is an impressive Mayan site; but unlike Tikal there is hardly a soul about. It feels like we have the site all to ourselves. We wonder the grounds and despite the increasing temperature and lack of shade, it’s not too long before we reach the top of the 40 meter El Castilio, the tallest building on site where we’re treated to a wonderful panorama of jungle, ruins and in the distance Guatemala.
Afternoon has come quickly and it’s time we move on. We’re expecting to hop on a bus to Belize City but turns out today the buses are infrequent and rammed. So, frustratingly we’re forced to jump in a cab with some other people who are also struggling to get on a bus. It’s a bit under a two hours drive. Our driver fills us in with useful facts and knowledge, telling us what a nasty place Belize City can be, people getting killed for cigarettes. We’re dropped off at the water taxi terminal and warned by our driver to head straight in and not to go explore. Slightly on edge after his warning, it’s not too long before we board a boat. It's a bit over an hour on somewhat choppy seas before we arrive at Caye Caulker. A weather front has moved in and the rain is hammering down, not quite what I was hoping for when heading to a tropical island. We are both drenched so there’s little point in running to avoid the rain. So like everyone else on this island – we just take it in our stride.
Hardly a soul about as we wounder around Xunantunish. (MN)
Day 9 – 11: Chilling out on Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker is a small coral island, only about 5 miles long with a population of around 1300. There are no cars on the island, no paved roads, there’s the occasional golf buggy but for the most part, people walk or ride a bike to get around. The plan is to chill here for a few days and enjoy the beach atmosphere. There’s a really relaxed vibe on the island, restaurants and bars line main strip. Many built on stilts to withstand the surges hurricane season can bring. I can tell I’m going to like it here.The rains cleared after a humongous thunderstorm that night. The sky’s blue and the temperature is steadily rising. The next couple of days we’ve plenty of time to walk around the town, bounce from bar to bar and bask in the sun, occasionally cooling off in the crystal clear calm waters.
Like many visitors, we'll do a bit of snorkelling. There’s a number of trips running in all directions. Belize’s famous blue hole is also within reach, albeit over a long day; but we’ve opted for something closer. We’re taken by small boat to the edge of the reef to explore Coral Gardens which form part of the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve. Submerged in the turquoise waters it really feels like an alien world. We snorkel and dive following a guide but I must admit I start to feel pretty out of shape so I’m relieved that after about 25 minutes we’re back to the boat and of to our next spot. This is what I’ve been looking forward to, a chance to swim and with some sharks and rays in an area appropriately called Shark Ray Ally. The guide assures us these are non-man eating sharks but still can’t help feeling a tad apprehensive. Bait is thrown into the water to attract anything that’s close by. We’re engulfed by small(ish) nurse sharks and southern stingrays, fortunately, they seem to take little notice of us as we float and enjoy the show.
I’ve always been of the thought that a trip to a tropical island isn’t complete if you’ve not done a bit of kayaking so that’s also on the agenda. We’re let loose around Lizard Point and kayak pass the mangroves of the northern island. We see schools of fish in the crystal clear waters below and an array of birdlife around the mangrove forests.
Swiming with sharks and rays. (EN)
I feel like I could be in a Thomas Cook ad. (MN)
Kayaking around the mangroves. (EN)
Beautiful suset. (EN)
Day 11: Mexico
I feel sad as I have to leave this paradise but it time to move on. It’s going to be a long day as we leave Belize and head to Cancun in Mexico and the end of our trip. It’s a ferry over to the larger neighbouring island of San Pedro where we’ll clear Belizean customs before yet a longer and more uncomfortable ferry to Chetumal, a border town in Mexico. It’s a long process on the Mexican side as our passports are checked, dogs sniff our bags and I’m thankful when we’re finally allowed to proceed. But we’re still nowhere near where we need to be. We’re flying from Cancun tomorrow which means we still have a five hour drive ahead of us. The only reason we’re heading to Cancun is cheaper flights – it’s substantially cheaper to fly home from here than Belize. I do feel bad, I won’t really see much of Mexico, but realistically from the UK, there are plenty of relatively affordable options to return back, but I think the extra time in Antigua and then in Cay Caulker was well worth it. In downtown Cancun it’s getting dark just as we arrive so our only experience here is of a Mexican restaurant as I sip a cool Corona (no limes), eat tacos and listen to the mariachi band play – all that I could possibly want offer a long day on the road.
Are ride from the islands to Mexico. (MN)
What a way to end our trip. (MN)
Day 12: A quick stopover in Mexico City
Our short adventure is over, it has been amazing, packed full of highlights squeezed into a relatively short amount of days. We’re flying from Cancun but we have a five-hour stopover in Mexico City giving us one last chance to explore. A bus from the airport takes us into the centre and we find yourself in Mexico City's main square, Plaza de la Constitución. This is a massive open space, surrounded by National Palace on one side and Mexico City Cathedral on the other with a massive flag post hosting the nation’s flag centrally in the square. We’re in for a treat, as we grab some real authentic Mexican street food in the form of Tacos - possibly the best I’ve ever had. We have time for a short wander through the what appears to be Mexico’s answer to Oxford Street before we end up in the city’s central park, overlooked by the Museum of Arachnology. The parks full of trees and fountains and we have a chance to enjoy an ice cream before we have to get a bus back to the airport.
Real Mexican street food is amazing. (MN)
The main square and Catherdral. (EN)