Zigzagging from Mexico City to Panama City along the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans.
On this journey, we decided to travel across Central America during three months. We wanted to experience the confluence between the Pacific west and the Caribbean lands in the east by zigzagged our way along the tropical isthmus that connects North America to South America, thus changing between the indigenous cultures and habits of the western and central parts, and the customs and traditions of the Caribbean ports and islands in east.
In our experience, Central America is a real explosion of nature, cultures, and beliefs – all set in a messy, musical arrangement which is hard to find anywhere else. On a cultural and diversity scale, the seven countries and many offshore islands was big stuff. The entire region may be small, but its tapestry of cultures has created a diverse and dynamic society.
The transport may often be slow and hard-hitting, traveling in zigzagging chicken-buses on remote mountain roads. But Central America simply is one of the western hemisphere’s most exciting and picturesque regions, and it takes time to see the best of it.
Locations: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama; during 3+ months
Here is a quick breakdown of our experience during this journey: Mexico City and surroundings is quite charming, and the entire Yucatán Peninsula boasts lovely Caribbean white-sand beaches, offshore reefs, and Mayan Pyramids, plus its own spicy cuisine.
Next, Guatemala is de facto the region's true indigenous heartland, with an incomparable collection of ancient Maya ruins and numerous volcanoes. We spend +1 month exploring the many villages and temples in Mexico and Guatemala: Chichicastenango, Quetzaltenango, and Huehuetenango… or what about: Uxmal, Sololá, Altun Ha, Poptún, Finca Ixobel, El Zotz, Xpujil, Ezdná, or Yaxchilán. These are all exotic places on our journey on "La Ruta Maya": the ancient Mayan “route” that penetrates the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexica, Belize, Guatemala, and Western Honduras. We've decided to insert hashtags in “route”. Because we couldn't find the La Ruta Maya on any of our road maps or in the index of any of our geography books. This is because La Ruta Maya is not a single route or itinerary. It is much more than a place. La Ruta Maya is a concept formulated by National Geographic in the late 1980s. They wanted to create a unique travel route that could connect thousands of greater and lesser archaeological sites, and create hiking routes into the untold square meters of pristine jungles, forests, wetlands and wildlife habitats.
Travel here still is very interesting and exciting. To us, it is one big show-off of how the Mayans forged a powerful and mysterious empire, thus making it is quite easy to see why this region has captivated historians, archaeologists, and travelers since its discovery. The ancient Mayan civilization is very apparent in the customs, language and dress of the Indian towns and villages across the entire region. We believe that even the most jaded traveler will be rewarded by the strong indigenous culture, grandeur landscapes, colorful Indian markets, and chilly highlands. Let's take an example: One day, we woke up in the cold mountains during a freezing village-to-village hike among indigenous village-people. In Spanish, we would order breakfast in a small settlement and they would dish up over-boiled beans with rice and muddy coffee grounds. The next day, in Belize, we woke up in a bungalow on a white-sand beach fringed with palms, and with the azure sea and the reef just outside our doorstep. After a morning rinse, we ordered breakfast in a hole-in-the-wall café and they supplied seafood so fresh it almost wriggled. Next, we asked for plain water, but the girl shook her head and said with a singing Creole accent: “we only have rum”. In Belize, and on the islands off Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, African culture is very visible from Congo rebel traditions to Garifuna drumbeats.
Honduras and El Salvador are the two bad boys in the Central American hood, although Honduras' Bay Island is a blessing to the diver and good value for money. Nicaragua, the largest country in the hood, lives up to its reputation: the land of lakes and volcanoes. Yet, despite its many rural mountain villages and untouched offshore islands, we saw very few tourist on the ground. Nicaragua remains the least visited country in the region despite the fact that Nicaragua’s days of armed conflicts are long over. In Costa Rica, we saw that most trails seem to lead to waterfalls or jungle-fringed, deserted beaches. Finally, traveling in Panama is one big surprise. Panama is much more than a strategic canal – it’s a hidden gem, a truly tropical paradise with many off-shore bounty islands and tropical beaches on both oceans.
If you want more travel content on the slice of Earth, then check out our scaling of the wild Guatemalan Volcanoes, or some of our island hopping pages in the region, .e.g. our trips to the Corn Islands in Honduras, the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama, or the Mesoamerican Reef off Belize and Honduras.
Selected pics from this journey:
Mexico has many Mayan sites worth exploring: Edzna, Palenque, Comalcalcu, Tonina, Tuxla, La Venta, Cobá, etc. But the perhaps three best are: Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum. Find you inner Indiana Jones and start exploring.
Famed for its Caribbean location there is not much to do here than trying to avoid the crowds and perhaps find your own little slice of paradise on a beach on Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, Isla Holbox or Isla Cozumel.
We have seen many Mayan sites and Chichén Itzá is for sure the best restored Mayan sites in the Yucatán Peninsula. It used to be the religious capital of the Mayans. Heat, humidity, and crowds here can be fierce, so come yearly in the morning. There are nice stree stall eateries nearby, and you can hang a hammock under a palapa-coconuto tree to spent the night.
Nearby is the Sian Ka'an biosphere, best explored with a local guide.
Tulum is the kind of place where you rent a 40$ bungalow and simply rest and relax for a few days. Oh, did we mention that the rum here is some of the best in Mexico?
View during a beach trek to the ruins... If you only have a few days in the Yucatán Peninsula prioritize Tulum over everything else.The Mayan ruins are brilliantly located and sits in a very dramatic location. The beaches are magical and on-the-beach small candle-lit cabañas are plenty.
Laguna Bacalar is a bit of a surprise in a region of tortured limestone and jungle. Its a good place to take a dip during a hot day in June, July or August.
We were quite surprised as we arrived here. The Northern Cayes of Belize was a nice getaway from the Spanish-speaking, tortillas-eating, highland village-people of Mecixo and Guatemala. It has a fascinating cultural mix, classical caribbean charm and it gives access to spectaular diving. In north, Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Turneffe Islands, and Lighthouse Reef can all be recommended. You can have a kayak and go around Caye Caulker in a few hours, and snorkel with sharks right off the beach.
Probably the best Mayan ruin in Belize, Altun Ha has a few interesting temples and burial sites sitting in the jungle of North-Central Belize. If are too bored after the many ruins of Mexico, prioritize to go diving off one of the many keys on the ocanside.
Entering Guatamala after a couple of weeks in Mexico and/or Belize is a blessing! Everying is so inexpendive and the food is way more authentic. Transport however is much more slow and its hard to avoid a bad stomach on a really low budget.
In the vast and dense jungle that covers all of Guatamala's northeastern department, Flores is a little pearl. The village is built on an island in the lake, and in the narrow streets lined with red-roofed houses are many charming guesthouses and restaurants
We ran into a street parade on Assumption Day, a public holiday and a time for family gatherings and sumptuous feasts. While you are here, remember to take a boat tour on the Lago de Petén Itzá.
Most of Guatamala's northeast - El Petén as it is called - is mostly covered by dense jungle. The absolute highlight is the former Mayan city of Tikal.
A pleasant town on the way to the Maya sites in northern Guatamala and Belize, despite the chilly, rainy weather. We were stuck here for 3-4 days with bad stomatch (who doesn't love street food?)
Coming from Mexico, Belize, Honduras or other parts of Guatamla, Coban will feel very chilly, mistry, and rainy.
After a hike through the Guatemalan jungle, we found paradise. The natural limestone bridge and turquoise blue pools of Semuc Champey had revealed themselves. It is a bumpy and winding pickup-truck ride into the jungle. Standing in the back of the truck, you get a great view of the scenery around you. Walking into the jungle, the clear pools of water open up before you. Some areas are deep enough to dive into from high points on the limestone shelf.
The Highlands of Guatemala is famous for its bustling Thursday and Sunday markets. All of the towns seem isolated from the rest of Guatemala. Sourrounded by mountains and valleys, and often enveloped in mist, the Highlands is magical.
In the many markets of Chichicastenango, Quetzaltenango, and Huehuetenango of Gutamala you easily see how Roman Catholicism remains a formidable force. But alongside we saw many aspects of animistic, shamanistic Maya religion and the use of folk remidies.
The lively market is filled daily with traders who come down from the Cuchumantanes.