Best of Central America

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After spending an awesome few months travelling the length of Central America, from Cancun in Mexico to San Blas in Panama while taking in as much as I could of each country. I thought I’d run a little summary of my highs, lows and favourite picture from Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Mexico

Just a small part of the trip due to cheap flights into the resort airport of Cancun. We took in Cancun and Tulum before heading to the border with Belize.

Highs
– An easy introduction into Latin America
– Gorgeous beaches of Cancun and using the pool/bar of the Ritz for free
– Scuba Diving at the Underwater Museum
– Swimming in a cenote (a crystal clear freshwater lagoon) where limestone rock has given way into an underground river
– Delicious sugar cane mojitos with free buffet in Tulum

Lows

– Cycling a very heavy bike in 40 degree heat turned out to be a bigger challenge than expected

Favourite Picture

Converted VW Beetle (an iconic car of Mexico) used to make sugar cane juice for mojitos in Tulum.

Sugar Cane Beetle

Belize

Such a relaxed country that feels so British Caribbean. The people really were the highlight of Belize, you will struggle to meet such friendly and relaxed souls anywhere else in the world.

Highs

– Hearing people shout “You got to Belize it!”, “Unbelizeable”, “Drink but don’t get drunk” and “Woah man, it is hot today”. Really made us laugh!
– Relaxing and reading on the beach in Placencia
– Luckily finding a tubing company to float through caves and appearing on local TV

Lows

– Despite 3 attempts, not being able to dive the Blue Hole due to weather and lack of numbers to make a trip

Favourite Picture

Many a day was spent relaxing in the beach town of Placencia on these colourful sun loungers. Bliss.

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Guatemala

We popped into Guatemala as we travelled south through Belize to see the stunning Mayan ruins at Tikal before returning to the country after we’d visited Honduras. On our second stop we spent much of the time taking a crash course in Spanish, soaking up the town of Antigua and visiting Lake Atitlan.

Highs

– Climbing temples lost in the jungle Tomb Raider style at Tikal
– Cooling off in a bar in Flores watching the sunset
Learning Spanish and attempting conversations about football with my fantastic tutor Rolando
– Staying in a Guatemalan apartment in Antigua and being able to settle in a place for a couple of weeks

Lows

– Foolishly jumping into a lake with my sunglasses on top of my head only for them to sink to the bottom
– Going from the high of speaking Spanish with my tutor with a clear accent to not being able to understand another person’s accent

Favourite Picture

I’ve chosen this as the view from the tallest temple at Tikal where you can see others poking their heads above the canopy. I also loved Antigua where I became addicted to Instagram.

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Honduras

Honduras was a strange one. It really has the highs and lows of travel. One of the main reasons to visit was Katrina taking her PADI Open Water course while I took the rescue qualification. Sadly while here we had trips to the hospital and police station but still came away having loved the country.

Highs

– Qualifying as a PADI Rescue Diver – just one more step towards Divemaster
– Taking in the La Ceiba carnival, the largest in South America
– Zip lining in the jungle followed by a massage and a dip in natural hot springs
– Climbing underneath a waterfall in the morning and spending the afternoon relaxing at a brewery

Lows

– Katrina being taken ill and going to the hospital for an endoscopy
– My wallet being stolen in La Ceiba

Favourite Picture

I’ve chosen my picture of the amazing Pulapanzak waterfall which you can climb right behind and jump around pools underneath. Great fun!

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El Salvador

Our stay in El Salvador was relatively brief. We came here for a bit of surfing and to see a lesser travelled part of the region. We turned out to be pretty poor surfers but enjoyed the chance to cool off thanks to some less sunny weather. San Salvador gave us a taste of urban metropolis for the first time in a while.

Highs

– Taking in the incredible scenery of the Pacific coast
– Sampling some great food in Juayua
– Making the most of western life in San Salvador’s malls and cinemas

Lows

– Finding out I’m not very good at surfing while getting caught in a riptide

Favourite Picture

I love this shot of a surfer meeting his match on this wave in Playa El Zonte. Watching other people fall off made me feel slightly better about my own performances.

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Nicaragua

A fertile land of volcanoes and lakes would sum up Nicaragua pretty well. We took in Leon, Managua, Masaya, Granada and Ometepe. Despite being bogged down with a mysterious fever like illness I loved my time there, so that must say something for the country.

Highs

Climbing an active volcano, sliding down in on a sled before climbing another, sleeping on the summit and descending the next day for a refreshing lake swim
– Scuba Diving in a volcanic crater lake
– Playing ‘Quetzalympics’ with a random bunch of people we’d just met
– Getting over my paranoia of horse riding amongst the beautiful scenery of Ometepe

Lows

– Feeling incredibly ill when all I wanted to do was explore
– A strangely high number of incidents of waiters trying to exploit tourists

Favourite Picture

Upon arriving at the peak of the El Hoyo where we to camp for the night we could not see the sunset as the fog rolled in. Thankfully sunrise in the morning made up for it!

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Costa Rica

The jewel in the crown of Central American tourism, Costa Rica is where you will find many holiday makers. We spent just a week here but enjoyed the experience back on the beaten track.

Highs

– White water rafting on Class III & IV rapids near La Fortuna
– Watching all kinds of wildlife like Attenborough in Tortuguero
– Randomly finding a softball game in Puerto Limon being played by some very out of shape players gave us a good laugh

Lows

– Spanking our budget with the highest prices we’ve had so far
– Being a little disappointed by other tourists behaviour when watching turtles lay eggs on the beach

Favourite Picture

I love my photo of this lizard blending into its habitat in Tortuguero. This part of Costa Rica was like a mini Amazon rainforest.

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Panama

Central America saves the best till last. Panama has gone straight into my top 5 favourite countries. We took in Bocas del Toro, David, Santa Catalina as well as longer stays in Panama City and San Blas. A combination of stunning scenery and the buzzing capital city kept us well occupied.

Highs

– ‘Glamping’ on the pristine Red Frog beach in Bocas del Toro
– Scuba Diving with sharks, rays, eels and countless fish in Coiba, part of the same chain of islands as the Galapagos
– Celebrating Katrina’s birthday in the luxurious Trump Hotel in Panama City, the tallest building in Latin America
– Getting stuck in the paradise that is the San Blas islands while waiting to sail to Colombia

Lows

– Going to visit the Baha’i temple outside Panama City to find it closed for renovation work

Favourite Picture

I went a bit photo mental in Panama as I’m sure my Instagtram account will show. However the one I keep looking back on is this incredible island in San Blas. Will I ever see paradise quite like this again?

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Fever Mountain

It’s been a while since I’ve written up something for this blog. Since my last post from Guatemala we’ve headed through El Salvador for surfing (it didn’t go well) and into Nicaragua where I felt low with a mystery illness.

I was recommended to head to Leon in Nicaragua by someone who’d volunteered there with a group called Quetzaltrekkers, they offer trips up volcanos with the profits donated to help street children in Nicaragua. I booked to climb Cerro Negro, Nicaragua’s youngest volcano which we would then slide down on a board before climbing El Hoyo, a mountain with a mysterious hole in it.

A couple of days before the trip we headed to the beach nearby to chill out. It was on the way I realised things were not quite right, I came down with a fever and couldn’t eat and pretty much spent all but a brief period (when I thought I was getting better) feeling sorry for myself.

By the day of the hike I felt I had to do it so loaded up on strong painkillers and went for it. Upon reaching the top on Cerro Negro it seemed so far so good. It wasn’t a particularly steep climb but carrying my ‘volcano board’ up there made it a little harder. The descent is the fun part and I was using a new prototype of board fashioned into ‘skis’ (effectively a 3 pieces of plywood coated in formica). You sit on the board and slide at speed down the side of a mountain on small volcanic pebbles of which many end up in your hair, protective clothing, ears, goggles and teeth – lovely!

Katrina’s turn to slide down Cerro Negro

As you can see in the picture of Katrina’s turn, it’s bloody good fun and gets the adrenaline pumping. Iain 1 Mystery Fever 0. There.

After a short break and some more painkillers we’re getting ready to head up El Hoyo and the fever is biting back. I’m feeling hot and shaky and considering whether this is a stupid idea. Katrina is also feeling ill now with her own mystery illness. Great.

I should mention for this hike you carry a backpack with everything you need for the next 2 days – carrying a tent, sleeping bag, mat and 8 litres of water – not to mention some food and utensils – which is a killer. Couple that with the initial part of the hike being the steepest after you’ve just climbed an adjacent volcano and you probably get the idea.

Katrina is the first to feel the strain. She looks terrible and knows it’s not going to be fun. Sensibly she decides to head back down early and get transport that’s available back to Leon. And like that it’s just me, two other tourists and 3 of the guides from Quetzaltrekkers, one of whom is on his first hike.

It’s tough. Really bloody tough. All the weight on my back, the heat of the midday sun, the fever burning me up and my throat swollen. The strain of the hill is hard but I’m keeping up with the pace and ahead of the other backpackers. Just over half way up the steep part and it’s got to me, my legs just give way when realistically I’ve gone past the point of no return. Katrina’s got more sense than me clearly.

But I keep going, just. And I admit a guide may have helped me with the bag for a few minutes. I’m still thankful – we’ll gloss over the fact it was a girl who also had her own bag OK? Eventually though I recognise the trees thinning out and we must be getting to flatter ground, which means a break and lunch. Having not eaten for several days I’m going to need some energy from somewhere even if I am managing to keep up the pace.

Incredibly, despite a painful throat and the fever reaching the most intense point I gobble up a sandwich before I even realise it’s my first real food in days. Instantly I feel a bit better and a couple more strong painkillers later with the hike flattening out and I’m charging along. All I can think to myself is “Thank god I didn’t quit”.

My mood picks up as the afternoon goes on, there’s more banter and chat with the guides and I’m enjoying myself again. The down of being ill is disappearing and I’m thinking of the view from the top at sunset.

We do reach the top. But (there always has to be a but right?) within seconds of dropping our bags the fog rolls in and nothing is to be seen. Bugger. All that effort for not a lot. Despite this, it still feels worth it to have fought my fever and won. And still, there’s always sunrise right?

Sleep comes soon, we’re all exhausted and are in our tents soon after dark.  It feels strange at the time but sunrise comes early. And it’s incredible! I’m not a morning person but I’m more than happy to be woken for this.

Now that’s a sunrise!

We scramble to the mysterious hole that tops El Hoyo before breakfast, no one really knows how old it is but it is presumed to be a sinkhole, common in these parts, but it gives the volcano its distinctive appearance.

Wild horses and the mysterious hole of El Hoyo

After breakfast it’s all downhill for most of the day to a lake where we can wash off all the sweat of the hike and dust of volcano boarding. Easy right? WRONG! It’s a steep downhill drop at first, with a pack on my back I can feel the weight pushing me down the loose rocks and my toes crushing at the end of my shoes. Who’d have thought downhill could be something to dread?

By mid morning I’m exhausted again and can tell this fever isn’t quite beat but it feels good to be keeping up the pace again. We’re at the lake early and wow it feels good to cool off. Totally refreshing. But it’s not quite the end of a tough couple of days, for we’ve got to get back to Leon and that involves one last uphill stretch to the road. It takes everything I’ve got left but I manage it, wiped out and exhausted I’ve done it!

I can’t recommend the trip enough. Despite feeling frankly terrible it’s a highlight of the trip so far. If you ever end up in Leon in Nicaragua get down to Quetzaltrekkers and hike El Hoyo.

P.S. Here’s a top travel tip. Make sure your camera is charged. Mine was dead when I tried to take a picture so the ones here were taken on a semi broken iPhone with low battery itself, which just doesn’t do the scenery justice.