Time flies, nothing new, neither for you nor for me, but somehow it surprises you every time….
It’s been 10 weeks since Marieke and I met in Playa del Carmen in southern Mexico and now our time together in Liberia, Costa Rica is coming to an end. A very beautiful and intense time in 6 different countries and another part of my journey comes to an end. I have been on the road for almost 9 months now!
In this blog post, I would like to share our highlights from Central America and some exciting stories and encounters with you. This time without any political or historical digression. I’ll write a separate post about that, because the history and recent political developments in Central America are absolutely fascinating and I’ve learned a lot about them. A small spoiler for the upcoming blog post: the USA has interfered more than it should in every Central American country (my opinion) and the path from colonies to stable democracies was rocky and is still continuing in some countries. But more on that soon.
I thought about not telling the time in Central America chronologically, because there were just an insane amount of places and I don’t feel like you’ll get much out of it while reading. As always, if you need travel tips, it’s better to get in touch with me personally.
Instead, Marieke and I sat down at the end of our time and handed out imaginary prizes for countries and places, such as the most beautiful waterfall, the most spectacular volcano and the biggest surprise.
Nevertheless, I would like to briefly describe our route here, without going into detail about the places, in order to outline where we were and because maybe some of you have already been to the places and are happy to remember them. If you are not interested in the exact route, just skip this paragraph and read on from the next heading.
From the tourist hotspot of Playa del Carmen, where we met only because of the proximity to the airport, we quickly moved on to Valladolid, one of my favourite cities in Mexico. This was followed by visits to the islands of Holbox and Cozumel (for the diving certificate). Via the ruins of Tulum and the lagoon of the 7 shades of blue, Bacalar, we continued to the smallest country: Belize. After snorkelling/diving on the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker and Mayan ruins in San Ignacio, we drove on to Guatemala and visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal and the lakeside town of Flores in the north.
Via the natural pools of Semuc Champey, we went to Rio Dulce/Livingston one last time before exploring the west of Guatemala: the capital, the volcanic lake Atitlán, the surfing host spot El Paredón and last but not least the beautiful city of Antigua, from where we climbed the volcano Acatenango. Due to time constraints we skipped Honduras, but in El Salvador we visited the volcano of the same name and the waterfalls of Jacua from Santa Ana.
In Nicaragua, our first two bases were the cities of Leon and Granada, surrounded by spectacular volcanoes. We also visited Ometepe, the island with two volcanoes, and the surf resort of Popoyo. Finally, we rented a car in Costa Rica and visited the region around Manuel Antonio and Monteverde National Park.
We considered the following categories and then awarded the prizes:
Best Food, Greatest Beaches, Most Impressive Fauna, Biggest Surprise, All-Around Highlight, Most Beautiful Flora, Most Fantastic Underwater World, Friendliest People, Greatest Waterfalls, Most Spectacular Volcano, Most Beautiful Accommodation, Most Wonderful Sunsets, Best Atmosphere, Most Beautiful Island, Best Transport, Most Impressive Archaeological Site, Most Beautiful City.
One more note: Of course, these are all our personal impressions and we haven’t seen every corner of all these countries. If you go there, you might get different impressions, but that’s normal when travelling anyway. Let’s start with the award ceremony:
Best Food: Mexico
The best food is without a doubt in Mexico – and by far! There is street food on every corner and good vegetarian dishes were also easy to find. So far, nothing in Latin America comes close to tacos, quesadillas and the like, and even in a global comparison, Mexico’s diverse cuisine doesn’t have to hide.Our favourite on the Yucatán peninsula, which is also known within Mexico for its spectacular food, was panuchos.For this, a fresh tortilla is filled with bean paste, deep-fried and then topped with bean paste, meat and salad. Instead of the meat, we usually ordered cheese and we really couldn’t get enough of it!
Another culinary highlight were the pupusas in El Salvador – a slightly thicker corn dough that is filled with everything and then fried like a tortilla. My favourites were with bean puree and cheese or with jalapenos. In the other Central American countries, it was sometimes more difficult to find a vegetarian dish besides rice with beans and we cooked even more ourselves.
Most amazing Beaches: Mexico & Costa Rica
A split prize, because we couldn’t decide between Costa Rica and Mexico. In Mexico, we were most enthusiastic about the beaches on the island of Holbox, but Tulum, for example, also has beautiful beaches. The only thing that prevents Mexico from winning is the amount of seaweed that washes up on the shore. Costa Rica doesn’t have this problem, especially not on the Pacific coast (Mexico doesn’t have seaweed on the Pacific either and I personally find the beaches of Oaxaca even more beautiful, but we weren’t there this time).We especially liked the beaches at Uvita and Esterillos Oeste in Costa Rica!Costa Rica is definitely worth a visit, but keep in mind that Costa Rica is very expensive.
Most impressive Fauna: Costa Rica
If we had to pick just one place, it would be the national park around the Mayan ruin of Tikal in Guatemala. There we saw different species of monkeys, raccoons & various birds and you can also spot crocodiles there.
But as a country, Costa Rica clearly wins this category. Our discoveries were: 4 monkey species, 2 sloth species, crocodiles, snakes, a tarantula, aguti (rodents), frogs, stick insects, hummingbirds and some other birds.Even though the national parks are particularly good for observing animals, we found most of them outside because we looked for them through tips, e.g. there is a hummingbird café near Monteverde National Park where you can observe tens of hummingbirds while drinking coffee.
Biggest Surprise: El Salvador
El Salvador was not on our list from the beginning, rather we wanted to see if there was time for it or not. But after some reports from other travellers, it was clear that we wanted to make at least one stopover there. And the country really convinced us! The nature was absolutely impressive.Especially the Santa Ana volcano and the seven waterfalls of Jacua are spectacular. I have already written about the super delicious pupusas. But above all, the people were incredibly nice! More on this below.
The politics of the current president, Nayib Bukele, can be criticised with absolute justification (I will in the next entry), as he rules in a very authoritarian way and has imprisoned tens of thousands of suspected gang members without trial. But he has the population on his side, because they feel safe again after years of terror by the gangs and no longer have to pay protection money. They are also happy about more and more visitors. In the near future, it will probably be a good time to visit El Salvador, since the country is not yet touristised and overcrowded.
Friendliest People: El Salvador
All in all, we had almost exclusively beautiful encounters with the people in Latin America and met many hospitable, warm and wonderful people.
But as we have already mentioned, the people in El Salvador seemed particularly attentive, courteous and friendly. A big factor here is certainly the country’s dark recent past, which in 2015 still had the highest murder rate in the world. You can literally see the people’s relief that the murder rate has dropped and that they want to do everything they can to ensure that visitors take away a good impression and talk well about the country. No matter who we asked for help, the people were absolutely willing to help and often offered help without being asked. Not only that no bus driver charged a higher price for our backpacks than for locals. When I once misunderstood the price and gave him four times the amount, he pointed it out to me instead of pocketing the 2 dollars. I think I’ve developed a pretty good radar for when someone is ripping me off, lying to me, etc. (I don’t have a problem with paying more than locals, but rather with dishonesty), but in El Salvador the radar didn’t go off at all. Absolutely recommended if you come to Central America!
Both of us were looking forward to the volcanoes and landscapes of Guatemala before the trip and we were absolutely not disappointed, quite the opposite: the home of the quetzal (paradisiacal bird and the currency of the same name) was definitely the highlight in Central America! Guatemala simply offers everything: spectacular volcanoes, some of which are even still active, natural pools and waterfalls for jumping, an absolutely impressive canyon, fantastic lakes, surf beaches and indigenous Mayan culture that reaches far into everyday life. Especially the hike up the volcano Acatenango, from where we could see the volcano Fuego erupting, was probably the highlight of the trip. In Guatemala, we also had the coolest accommodation with Mexio (including a sailing boat from friends). I also really liked the pools, waterfalls and caves at Semuc Champey and Lake Atitlán! The town of Flores on a small island in Lake Petén Itza was probably one of the most beautiful towns of the trip.
As you can see, Guatemala is absolutely not to be missed!
Schönste Flora: Santa Elena, Costa Rica
This award undoubtedly goes to the cloud forest near Santa Elena and Monteverde in Costa Rica. Cloud forest means that the forest at an altitude of 1500 – 1800 metres is almost continuously shrouded in clouds. The plants here are therefore more attuned to humidity than precipitation and there are an incredible number of plants growing on other plants/trees: secondary growth. As a result, everything is really green. Besides many, many other colours in flowers and leaves. An absolutely fascinating and recommendable experience! And even though during the day the animals are well hidden and hard to find, I was able to go on a night hike in the cloud forest and observe several snakes, a tarantula and various exciting insects.
Most Fascinating Under Water World: Caye Caulker, Belize
What Costa Rica was to the animals on land, Belize was underwater! We went snorkelling in a few places, especially in Belize and Mexico. But the most fantastic was definitely on the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker, which is part of Belize. Marieke and I went snorkelling here together and saw colourful corals of all kinds, countless fish, seahorses, rays, Atlantic tarpon and nurse sharks (and dozens of them!). But while some of the animals were fed during the snorkelling tour, it was different on my two dives. Here I encountered the animals by chance. Sure, I didn’t see as many sharks, but it was much more special and a small shark followed us for over 20 minutes, probably out of curiosity. But the most special shark encounter I had was in Cozumel, Mexico. Sharks are hard to find there and when I spotted one and showed it to my instructor, even he was thrilled and for all the other divers it was the highlight of their dives.
Most amazing Waterfalls: Juayúa, El Salvador
Near the town of Santa Ana, we went on a tour with other travellers to 7 different waterfalls, following the stream that the water forms and even climbing several waterfalls ourselves. Finally, I jumped off a 5-metre waterfall and we bathed in a pool at the base of the waterfall. Even though the Naucaya waterfall in Costa Rica was more impressive as a single one, the many waterfalls in Jacua with the hike were the more amazing experience!
Most spectaculous Volcano: Acatenango/Fuego, Guatemala
An absolute highlight of the whole trip and certainly the most spectacular volcano was the Fuego in Guatemala. In a very strenuous hike, we climbed with a group of 28 people and 4 guides to the base camp of the Acatenango at 3750m. Arriving there in the afternoon, we enjoyed a fantastic view of the Fuego and saw it erupt over 10 times!
At the basecamp we had dinner and sang together around the campfire (it was super nice even without a guitar). After a short night, we climbed to the top of Acatenango at 3976m to a beautiful sunrise and enjoyed the view of the Fuego again before starting the descent.
Even though the hike was exhausting, it didn’t push me to my limits as much as I thought. Also because an extra hike at night had to be cancelled because of the weather.
But the experience was unique and the strenuous hike welded our group together so that we are still in contact with some of them.
Most Beautiful Accomodation: Hotelito Perdido, Rio Dulce, Guatemala
On Marieke’s birthday, we went by boat through the Rio Dulce and an impressive canyon to the Caribbean village of Livingston. In the afternoon, we drove back into the Rio Dulce and stayed at the Hotelito Perdido – the lost hotel, which is located directly on the river in the middle of the jungle. We chilled in hammocks by the river, went swimming and enjoyed the peace and seclusion. For dinner, which all guests eat together, we had a super tasty vegetarian lasagne and then we relaxed with a book at the end of the day. We would have loved to stay longer.
Most beautiful Sunsets: Popoyo, Nicaragua
In Popoyo on the Pacific Ocean in Nicaragua we spent three days and I went surfing there – one fateful time with my mobile phone, but that’s another story….
On the three evenings in Popoyo we saw three wonderful sunsets. Once from the beach, once from a bar on a cliff and once from the spectacular rock “Magnific Rock”. Each evening the colours were different and special! From yellow to orange to red and purple, everything was there. I think the only colour missing was green 😀
Best Atmosphere: Pepos Xul-Ha, Mexico
We had many great moments and met many wonderful people, both locals and many other travellers! The best atmosphere, we quickly agreed (as with all categories), was at the Pepos Xul-Ha accommodation in Mexico. To the south of the lagoon of the 7 shades of blue – Bacalar – is the lagoon Xul-Ha. We spent a weekend in the village of the same name and had wonderful hosts. The accommodation is right on the lagoon, but it is much quieter than in Bacalar. Even idyllic would be an understatement. In this place, even I can find inner peace.
We stayed in a small thatched hut and had a direct view of the lagoon when we got up in the morning. As it was the weekend, the hosts Sefa and Israel had family visiting. We sat down in the evening and I played the guitar. We laughed a lot and made some new Mexican friends straight away. When they came back on Sunday to spend the day at the lagoon, we stayed much longer than expected at the accommodation and they offered us a free night. The hospitality really knew no bounds and we had not been normal guests for a long time. At least, that’s not how we felt any more.
When we declined because we had already booked accommodation in Chetumal and wanted to go on to Belize the next day, they took us to our accommodation and showed us around.
Best Island: Holbox, Mexico
All my friends who have been to Holbox rave about this island, so I really wanted to go there too! And they weren’t exaggerating. Holbox is beautiful and has a great vibe. The island is located north of the Yucatán Peninsula and the inhabited part is relatively small, so you can easily reach everything by bike! There are no cars on the island, but there are lots of golf carts.
The beaches are beautiful and there are also some where there is not much going on. We found Punta Cocos particularly beautiful, where no seaweed washes up like on many others. Nearby, there is a special natural spectacle: bioluminescent little animals that glow in the water. You can only see them at night and without moonlight, so we got up at 4 am and were rewarded with a fascinating sight. We could even swim in the glowing water and had little glowing dots all over our bodies. Really a special experience.
You can also see porpoises and crocodiles on Holbox, but we didn’t want to do any of the overpriced tours. Also because we liked Holbox so much already.
Best Transport: El Salvador
The most common means of public transport in Central America is the bus, so we mainly used it to get around. Only in Guatemala did we often travel in small shuttle buses with other travellers, as the places were sometimes quite isolated. But we both didn’t like that very much, we prefer to travel cheaply and with the locals.
Mexico certainly has the most comfortable buses and they are also extremely well equipped. Often there is even WiFi. However, they are also relatively expensive.
That’s why El Salvador wins this ranking. The bus system there was very extensive, so you can really get everywhere by bus. Also, the buses are very reliable and actually left at the times we were told (approximately). And also the prices were the lowest we had. A bus ride of up to 2 hours cost between 50 and 80 cents and the drivers never asked us for more. When I once misunderstood the price and wanted to give more, the bus driver refused and did not just pocket the money.
The last argument for the buses in El Salvador is the experience. As in many other Central American countries, many chicken buses, former school buses from the USA and real old-timers drive here. Compared to Guatemala, however, the drivers were much more relaxed and not as breakneck.
Most impressive Ruins: Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal was not only the most impressive archaeological site during this trip, but for me the best I have ever visited. This is despite the fact that I have visited many archaeological sites, including the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, the Acropolis in Athens and the Modern World Wonder Chichén Itza.
Tikal was a huge Mayan city that was home to up to 50,000 people – crazy for the time! On the guided tour, which was 5 hours long, we learned a lot about the Maya and it was again impressive how advanced they were in mathematics, astronomy and co, how accurately they could predict astronomical events, for example. We would certainly be much further ahead in science today! But the Mayan ruling elite kept their knowledge to themselves in order to maintain their god status, and so with the collapse of the great Mayan empires (even before the arrival of the Spanish), much of their knowledge was lost. And so the more than 6 million Maya who still live in Guatemala, Mexico and the like today have only a fraction of the knowledge, but the customs are still very much present.
What also makes Tikal special is that it lies in the middle of the jungle. Only a small part of the city has been excavated at all, so you walk past some “hills” that are actually overgrown temples. It is also because of the nature you walk through that Tikal is so beautiful. In fact, this is why the place is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also a World Heritage Site. There’s only 38 more places in the world.
Nicest City: Valladolid, Mexico
There is a lot to criticise about the Spanish and colonisation, but the Spanish architecture was really beautiful, so for me the colonial cities are usually the most beautiful cities in Central American countries. Unfortunately, they used stones from indigenous cities for many buildings, especially churches, which they tore down. What I also don’t like is that the cities are usually completely square, which takes away the spontaneity and surprise.
But the cityscape is usually beautiful and, above all, clean! Something that unfortunately cannot be said about many other places in Central America, as many people have no sense of pollution whatsoever and literally drop their plastic waste where they no longer need it….
The houses, at least in the centre of the colonial cities, are well kept and often painted in a variety of rich colours. In some cities, there are even colour catalogues that prescribe the colours in which a house can be painted. Certain architectural styles are also prescribed.
For me, these beautiful cities include Granada & Leon in Nicaragua and Antigua & Flores in Guatemala. But what Marieke and I liked best was the city of Valladolid in Mexico. I had been there before and was a fan of the city, which is colourful and beautiful and combines many of Mexico’s special features: including the karst caves Cenotes, indigenous culture and good food!
If you’ve read this far, or even if you’ve just scrolled over the pictures, I’m glad you’ve now got a small impression of our time in Central America. It’s really only a fraction of the pictures, stories, experiences and I am infinitely grateful that I was able to see, feel and taste it all.
I can recommend any country without reservation. Please get in touch if you want tips 🙂