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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It’s amazing what you learn in less than 2 weeks

I didn’t decide to go travelling for a bit of a jolly. Though I admit lounging on tropical beaches and climbing volcanoes certainly isn’t without its charms!

Travel has its charms.

Part of the reason for choosing Latin America was to learn Spanish and it’s going relatively well. Less than 2 weeks ago my Spanish was pretty much limited to “Dos cervezas por favor” following spending time in English speaking Belize and the formerly British Bay Islands in Honduras. Now however, I’m relatively confident to attempt a conversation with local Guatemalans about last night’s match vs. the USA as well as the ongoing Euro 2012 tournament while getting a pretty decent hair cut this afternoon!

I’ve not been in the learning mode for a while, probably since University or a few CIMA exams until I decided accountancy wasn’t for me. I expected it to be tough to get back into the discipline of learning but it’s been relatively easy.

I’m currently in Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, which is a bit of a hub for those wishing to learn Spanish. For $100 a week I’m receiving one on one tuition 8am to noon from Rolando at the Antigüeña Spanish Academy and I couldn’t make a better investment. I can now pretty much converse in the present (and some basic future) tense with a small Spanish vocabulary which is growing with time. By the end of the week I should be able to use the past tense as well.

Time to hit the books.

I’ve long been embarrassed that my foreign language skills have been limited to some basic French and a few words of Mandarin.Following my crash course in Español in Guatemala I’m not only feeling confident about the rest of my trip from here to Chile but also (fingers crossed) utilising what I’ve learnt in the future.

Gracias Guatemala, yo estoy aprendiendo mucho aquí!

Hi, my name is Iain and I think I’m addicted to Instagram

I’m a bit in love with photography at the moment and I’ve gone through phases with Flickr, Snapseed and various other iPhone camera app type things. However, one I’d always avoided was Instagram. Don’t ask me why because I don’t think I have any real or good reason for it. Maybe I’d just heard bad things.

Lately however I’ve got a bit mental with it in Guatemala. And why not? It’s an especially beautiful place in both towns like Antigua, the former capital full of historic ruins and surrounded by volcanos as well as the countryside around Lake Atitlan (though not the lake itself which is really rather dirty).

So this is me admitting I have an addiction – perhaps the first step to weaning myself off of it at the same time as showing some photos of this beautiful country.

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An Early Morning with the Mayans

Incessant loud beeping from a mobile phone at 4.30am is just about my idea of hell, I’m not a morning person. I’m grouchy, dopey and virtually useless first thing in the morning. So I wasn’t in the best of moods when Katrina woke me by holding the noise to my ears!

Nor am I a particularly good person for travelling. I love going to places and I love different modes of transport but I have an incredibly short attention span so just over an hour on a hot minibus at this hour equally isn’t my idea of a good time. I just feel sorry for Katrina having to put up with me during this trip!

There was a good reason for being up this early however. One of the biggest attractions in Central America are the Mayans, or rather their ancient cities such as Tikal (where we were visiting), Chichen Itza and Copan of which we know comparatively little about. With this being the alleged year of impending doom according to many people predicting the apocalypse, there has been greater coverage in the media of the Mayans too.

By the time we’d arrived at the site the sun was baking down on the Guatemalan rain forest and it was only just after 6 in the morning. Getting used to the heat here is taking me some time – northern boys weren’t made warm weather!

When you arrive at Tikal, there is just a car park, a restaurant and a few stalls selling souvenirs. Apart from that, you can’t see anything else apart for the green of the forest, and before heading in we were introduced to Boris, our guide. I’m not entirely sure we’d booked a guide but Boris was pretty insistent we follow him so we did along with a handful of other tourists from Israel.

Looking back on this I sure am glad we were with him – Tikal is surrounded by dense forest which is navigable via a few pathways with relatively few signs. It’s definitely a good thing in terms of a getting what  feels like a more real experience however we were told of a tourist getting lost for 8 days in here some years ago.

As we walked Boris explained a little about the background to Tikal such as it potentially being home to over 100,000 people in its heyday 1,000 years ago or so as well as the fact all the forest which now surrounds it would not have been seen for miles around with the land used for agriculture. The best guess as to what happened at Tikal are that the people migrated further south into Guatemala due to drought or to flee stronger surrounding kingdoms.

By this time we had come to a ‘small’ pyramid in the jungle which we climbed to the top of, and already we could feel the strain. Curiously, the average Mayan person was only about 5ft 3in and the kings were maybe 5ft 9in – incredible given the steps to the top of these structures are at least 1ft in height each! Add in the fact the king would be draped in gold and jaguar skin (very bling) and I’m not sure they tried to fit into their surroundings.

A further walk through the jungle brought us to an incredibly large structure simply known as Temple IV and immediately we were eager to clamber up the rickety wooden steps to the top of it. Despite being so early in the morning the climb in the heat had both of us sweating and a little short of breath and the view took a little bit more of that away. Looking out from the temple across the expanse of jungle below all you can make out are a couple of other temples peaking over the tree canopy, the odd Macaw flying from tree to tree in the distance and a curious roar of which we did not know the source.

Tikal

I could have stayed at the top of that temple all day and just watched the day go by but there is a great deal more of Tikal to see before the sun becomes unbearably hot and at the same time taking advantage being one of the few people on the site.

Back on the ground I asked Boris what the noise was, to me it sounded like a lion or a dinosaur both of which would take you by surprise in the middle of Guatemala! He simply said it was a howler monkey and we could go find them and within a few minutes of the ever increasing roars there they were, high in the trees, defending their territory against another group of spider monkeys.

I’d heard of howler monkeys before but never realised just how appropriate their name was. They actually used the noise of these creatures to create the sound effects for dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park. And while we’re on the subject of movie trivia, Tikal was also the location of a small scene in Star Wars Episode IV.

Moving on through the forest from the monkeys we were coming to the main centre of Tikal where many temples are located and were left to explore on our own after some final information from Boris. Clambering over these kinds of things really does make you feel pretty good about yourself but you can only imagine how the explorers felt re-discovering these ruins amongst the rainforest.

Exploring temples can be exhausting!

A couple of hours of clambering and doing our own little exploration we’d grown tired and sat to reflect on what we had seen. I’ve been lucky enough to visit other ancient cities like Pompeii, Angkor Wat and Borobodur however I still find new ones just as impressive, although by this time I needed a huge drink of water – Lara Croft movies make these things look so much more glamourous!

BUT. The early morning was worth it.