More Central American Adventures!
This past winter I managed to escape the cold Canadian temperatures for two weeks and enjoy the blissful sun and heat of Central America. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I find myself drawn back to it time and time again, but there is just something special about that small part of the world. The warm temperatures certainly help, but it also offers a diverse geography, plenty of exciting activities, delicious food and really amazing people. This was my fourth time heading down to Central America and once again it did not disappoint.
This time around we checked out Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. We did this two-week jaunt with G Adventures, a Canadian adventure travel operator we have used in the past. There are always pros and cons to taking tours, but I have often found that it is a great way to travel when you have limited time. With only two weeks to spare there’s really no time for travel mishaps, so it is an easy option that covers a lot of ground in a small amount of time. Transportation and accommodations are taken care of and everything else in between is up to you. I'll take this type of holiday over a lazy all-inclusive beach resort any day.
About nine days were spent in Mexico, two in Guatemala and four in Belize, and everything started and finished in Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
We flew into Cancun and took the one-hour ADO bus from the airport right into Playa del Carmen. I had my reservations about not pre-booking a shuttle, but the bus was super easy. It cost about $10US and it was comfortable, cool and relatively quick.
After walking the strip in search of our hotel, Ko’ox Paradise Hotel, we dropped off our bags, changed into some cooler clothing and hit the town. It did not take long to find ceviche, cerveza and sand, three of my favourite things!
Playa del Carmen is definitely a touristy place, particularly 5th Avenue, which is a just a jaunt off the beach and rammed with restaurants, bars and shops selling just about everything. It is a city that is ready to party all the time and it often does all night – I know this because my earplugs could not block out the party! That all being said, the beach is beautiful, the water is warm and that lovely experience is free. It’s no wonder the average tourist flocks to Playa.
We only had one day to get acquainted with the area before moving on to Merida, stopping at the wondrous Chichen Itza on the way.
This is perhaps the most famous of the Mayan ruins dating back to as early as 600AD. Having a local guide definitely brought the place to life; hearing stories about sacrifices and the after life brought a new perspective to the grandeur of it all. Standing at the base of El Castillo, the main pyramid, you can’t help but look up and be humbled. Chichen Itza is lovely, but also hot hot hot! Arriving early is much more forgiving as there are minimal opportunities for shade.
Reflecting back, while Chichen Itza is definitely the most famous, it was not even remotely close to my favourite ruin site! Between the heat, crowds of people and vendors hawking souvenirs, by the end of the whole thing you are ready for a break!
Oh Merida, what a lovely little town! From the moment you arrive through the arch into the city centre you begin to notice its colonial past, particularly in the architecture. Art galleries and museums are centrally accessible and free, offering interesting insights into the city. If you are lucky enough to be there on a Sunday you will see the locals come together to put on a show! Dancing, singing, music, parades and lots of delicious food!
I remember watching elderly couples in traditional attire doing a dance performance, later to be taken over by younger generation doing the same. I recall being moved by it all, unable to pull myself away – these people had obviously practiced and worked hard to maintain that tradition. It was really cool to see younger generations embracing it too.
This was also the ONLY night on my trip where I got to have fresh hot churros made by the sweetest little couple on the simplest looking food cart. I went back on the second night for more, but never found the churro cart again! I literally dream about those churros…
With a local guide we were able to explore three cenotes in the area. This was an amazing, beautiful day! Unfortunately, I do not have the names or specific locations of the cenotes. The first was fairly small and shallow, but the water was beautiful. The second was much larger and deeper, which allowed for some fun jumping opportunities.
I was aware that cenotes were essentially sinkholes and caves, but it was unreal! Bring goggles, because what lies beneath the water will blow you away; a seemingly endless forest of underwater stalagmites. It was incredible!
The third cenote was the largest and had some 5m and 10m platforms for jumping, but it was fully exposed to the surface and did not offer much to see under water. Jumping was fun, but I didn’t have the nerve to go for the 10m jump.
To finish the evening we had a light dinner and drinks at La Nagrita, a restaurant/bar with live music, plenty of Mezcal and free nibbles with your drinks.
From Merida we faced a very long travel day to our destination, Palenque. The group opted to break up the day a bit by stopping at Uxmal on the way.
Located in the north-west part of the Yucatan is Uxmal, another beautiful Mayan ruin with lots of room to explore and opportunities to climb some pyramids! We opted to wander these ruins solo without a guide. In doing so there was an historical piece I missed out on, but was happy to have some quiet time and wander the site at my leisure. It was another hot day, but there were more opportunities to find a bit of shade to take cover.
Our time in Palenque was spent just outside the town in a quaint jungle resort, Mayabell – a little slice of paradise! I loved this place – gorgeous pool, birds chirping, howler monkeys in the distance, really tasty food and nightly live music. Our stop in Palenque was primarily for the Palenque ruins, but we were happy to find ourselves with a bit of free time to do yoga, stretch and have drinks by the pool (balance!).
The ruins of Palenque were by far my favourite. The site is only partially excavated, so you can see what it would have looked liked stumbling upon these structures before they were uncovered. And the buildings literally rise out of the jungle! Perhaps it was our tour guide and the stories of ‘the Red Queen’ that made the place come to life, but this one had the greatest impact on me. As an added bonus, there is a Palenque museum with preserved artifacts, murals, jewelry and the Red Queens tomb. It was a nice addition at the end, and a little burst of fresh air, literally (AC).
Roberto Barrios Waterfalls
The Roberto Barrios waterfalls has something for everyone – those that want to relax and take a dip in beautiful fresh water, and those that want an adrenaline rush by waterfall jumping. Whatever you do, it’s a beautiful series of cascading waterfalls leading from one pool to another. I’ll admit, I had my reservations about doing this, 6 meters never sounds like much until you are at the top looking down, but I was certainly glad I did it. With help from a few locals we waterfall jumped our way along about 5 waterfalls into a series of pools. They coached us on where to jump, where to land and when to run, because sometimes if you didn’t you would risk hitting rocks… Admittedly, it sounds a bit sketchy, but it was fun as hell! The grand finale was a natural waterslide where you sat on flattened water bottles and sled down a cascading waterfall into the final pool.
Another long travel day from Palenque to Lacanja. We opted to stop at two more Mayan ruins on the way, Yaxchillan and Bonampak
Getting to Yaxchillan was a bit of an adventure requiring a riverboat ride across crocodile infested waters – ooh exciting! It was actually a lovely relaxing experience. Yaxchillan had a beautiful deserted island Jurassic park feel to it, as the ruins were in amongst the jungle. Unfortunately, this ended up being not a very good day for me – between a bit of an upset stomach, dehydration and a little too much heat and sunshine, I was not at my best – I felt quite rotten actually!
Yes, another ruin. To be honest, reaching this point, I was just about all ruin-ed out! When I look back many of them fuse together and I can’t remember what I saw and experienced where! At this ruin you had to get driven into the site by the locals where we were dropped off for about an hour and left to explore. The site was fairly compact as well, so that small amount of time was just right for us. Here you could also see some of the best-preserved frescos – it was amazing how bright some of those images still were!
Something that I really liked about this short but sweet experience was that the small fee you pay to get driven into the site goes towards community cleanup. Tourists in the area are the greatest cause of litter and garbage, so it is a little bit of give and take. It is an important reminder that travel is a privilege and we need to be conscientious travellers. What we do and the choices we make have an impact on the places we visit, so we must try to leave as little mark as possible.
Again, not much time was spent here as this was just a one-night spot on route. We stayed at another jungle resort, quite a bit more rustic than the previous nights in paradise, but still comfortable and clean (can’t recall the name!). We had a lovely hammock on our deck and enjoyed watching the parrots pass by at dusk.
It was another long day of travel as we left the jungle and began the journey across the border to Guatemala! Bus ride, then boat ride, then bus ride again!
San Jose, Guatemala
Here we stayed at Hotel Bahia Taitza, quite a nice little resort type accommodation right on Lake Peten. They had boats and an area to swim, which was nice and relaxing after a long day on the bus. They also served up some tasty food and had an on site bar that made for easy access to cerveza, always a plus!
This was the largest of the ruin sites and offered lots of opportunities to climb and explore. Most of the recovered buildings are a bit spread out, but the walking paths are well kept and the jungle scenery makes for some wildlife along the way – monkey spotting! Tikal was nice because it allowed you to climb just about everything and really explore deep into the ruins. That being said, there is still so much that has yet to be uncovered, it is cool to see the large hill like structures along the paths, which you know are another ruin. It really is amazing to see how nature just takes over!
From Tikal we headed to a lunch spot right on Lake Peten – it had a lovely walk out boardwalk with cabana, perfect for some food and a nice dip in the water.
We finished our evening with a boat ride on the lake in Flores. Sold as a “sunset cruise” this was really a booze cruise, but was a lot of fun anyway – music, drinks, dancing and even a swim spot with diving boards and rope swings to boot! Again I found myself at the top of a good 5-meter jump to the water, you would think with all the cenotes and waterfalls I would have been a fearless pro by then! I took my time making the jump this time, which often makes the process so much harder! It’s scary in the moment but I am always glad I took the leap.
That night, after a number of beers and shots, we feasted on the cheapest and tastiest street food. In the evening the street fills with tables of food, everyone making something just a little bit different. Tostadas, tacos and burritos for only a couple dollars! Ordering was definitely a challenge, but pointing and hoping for the best will generally get you something good to eat! Eating this way you see how inexpensive it can be to get a decent meal in Central America.
From San Jose we completed another border crossing into Belize.
San Ignacio, Belize
I was surprised by a few things coming into Belize; that their first language was English (which meant I could put my feeble attempts at Spanish aside for awhile) and that there were some fairly heavy Caribbean influences in their culture creating this ultra cool Latin-Caribbean vibe! Man, that reggae music was sooo good!
I was immediately taken with their laid back vibes and “go slow” mentality. ‘Go slow’ is not just something to say, it is a lifestyle – I can’t tell you how many times I was told to ‘go slow’. It was just what I needed as we were approaching the last days on our trip, a reminder to slow down and enjoy the moment.
San Ignacio was a small little town that had us in the heart of Belize’s famous cave country. Having arrived fairly early in the day we had some extra time to wander, eat and relax. We had some really delicious food at the Guava Limb, a quaint little restaurant overlooking a nice big park where reggae music played from loud speakers. We feasted on Thai shrimp soup, fresh shrimp rolls and nachos before catching some rays by the local pool with cerveza and cards. Dinner we embarked to Crave, a pricier option, but one that offered up some local options and fresh seafood. There’s little I love more than ice cream, and there was conveniently an ice cream shop next door – a scoop of peanut butter honey and banana ice cream and off to bed.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves have only been open to the public for less than 20 years. This is an archaeological site located within the cave where you can find well-preserved artifacts, pots and even human skeletons!
I was initially hesitant about doing a cave experience and almost didn’t participate – I was a bit worried about feeling claustrophobic or having a bout of anxiety, but I went ahead with it despite those reservations. And I am really glad I didn’t let that hold me back! The ATM caves were a lot of fun – you were geared up with helmets and flashlights and it was a short hike to the cave, crossing rivers and getting fully wet almost immediately. This did not matter though, as it was a wet cave and you were in and out of water the whole time. There were some fairly tight and awkward places that had water up to your neck with just enough clearance to keep your face dry, but those moments were always brief and short lived!
The cave itself was a beauty – the stalactites, crystals and vastness of the space was an incredible site to see. The artifacts and archaeological part was also cool to see, but it was the geology that was most impressive to me. Sorry, no photos! (Cameras were not allowed at this outing).
Admittedly, this was an activity I probably would have overlooked, but it was a really wonderful day that I would recommend. It’s got something to satisfy all your travel needs; history, nature, beauty and a bit of adrenaline too.
Next we departed San Ignacio to head towards the coast and island hop over to Caye Caulker! Getting to Caye Caulker was quite the adventure on a long-busy-reggae jam chicken bus ride to Belize City, jaunt through the city in local taxi and catching a ferry (more realistically called a speed boat) to the island.
Caye Caulker, Belize
I was most excited to get to Caye Caulker and it really was my highlight of the trip. I was looking forward to slowing the pace down, relaxing by the ocean and soaking in the sun and salt. Immediately upon landing on the island we encountered a ferry staff member welcoming us to the island and telling us to ‘go slow’, again, another well-needed gentle reminder to live in the moment. Upon arriving we took some time to get acquainted with the island, which was quite small and could essentially be circled by foot in an hour. The island is somewhat split between accommodations, shops and restaurants and private residences for locals and long-term travellers.
We stayed at the Tropical Paradise Hotel which was a nice little place right on the water – lovely little cabanas, a large walk out dock and loungers on the ocean to enjoy the sunshine, and there was sunshine to spare! This is also where I learned that stingrays jump out of the water! I had no idea they did that! There were quite a few stingrays around the dock area, which admittedly deterred me from swimming a bit.
Sailing and Snorkelling
With only one full day on the island there was nothing I wanted more than to spend it on a boat exploring the reef. We did a sailing and snorkelling excursion and it was absolutely phenomenal! The crew were so much fun! They were so full of energy, so hardworking and very knowledgeable on the marine life.
We snorkelled with nurse sharks, stingrays and explored the reef with so many different coral, fish and even a big scary green eel! It got a little too close for comfort, but apparently they are friendly…
After snorkelling was done we had a nice meal and what felt like an endless supply of rum punch. I admittedly enjoy getting a bit day-drunk from time to time, and I was just glowing that afternoon! During our sailing time we were joined by a few dolphins! I had never seen dolphins in the ocean before, and it really was a magical moment.
Our time at Caye Caulker was short, but sweet – laidback island pace, delicious seafood, amazing marine life and plenty of opportunities for fun.
From Caye Caulker we headed back to Playa del Carmen to finish things off.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
We really packed a full day of activities into our final day of the trip. Most of these were a short thirty minutes to one hour away. Sunshine was plentiful making each one of these stops perfect to enjoy. Unfortunately, no photos as most of these activities involved water. Definitely going to invest in a shockproof waterproof camera for next time!
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve Canal
This protected and unique biosphere offers some unexpected fun. You take a motor boat out to the lagoon where you lifejacket up (upside down like a diaper, of course), jump in and float down the natural lazy river through the mangrove forest. This is a super chilled out experience. It is lovely, relaxing and you can’t help but wish they served cerveza for the ride.
The Yucatan has so many cenotes to visit and explore. This time we were equipped with snorkel gear, which allowed us to explore the underwater caves. Bats, fish and turtles were there too!
We finished things off with the Tulum ruins, something I had the opportunity to explore years prior. Between the hot afternoon sun and my dwindling interest in exploring more ruins (no more ruins!), I opted to hang out at the beautiful beach at the ruin site.
We had a final dinner out just the two of us, and met our tour friends for a final evening of drinks and socializing.
Overall, we had a really great time! It was nice to country hop and experience three very different countries with different cultures, geography and food. This did make balancing money and currencies a bit tricky at times, but US dollars were accepted everywhere. My favourite activities always involved water; cenotes, snorkelling, waterfalls, boats, etc. And while visiting the various ruins was beautiful, interesting and informative, I probably could have made due with less ruins, though the ones that allowed you to climb, explore and get involved were most appreciated! Regardless of what you are after Central America really does have it all. I truly look forward to when I can get back there and continue exploring!