Category Archives: Central America

Mapping My Journey So Far

Sixteen months on the road is a long time. During that time I covered quite a distance and did many things. While I’ve been ‘resting’ in the United Kingdom, I’ve put together a step by step rundown of my trip including maps.

South East Australia

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In a van called the Pointy Brick I…

Antarctica, Chile and Argentina

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From Brisbane, I flew to Auckland and spent 3 weeks with family before flying to South America where I…

Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador

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From Buenos Aires I…

Colombia, Central America and Mexico

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From Ecuador I…

The Full Map. May take some time to load.

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The World Wanderer

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Looking Back, Central America

While it took ten months to work my way up the massive continent of South America, three months seemed only a short time to explore the Central America sub-continent even though it’s barely larger than Colombia. But since I was in the neighbourhood…

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Panama

San Blas Islands

With no straightforward bus route from Colombia to Panama, I chose a five-day cruise through the San Blas Islands, finishing in Panama City. The San Blas Islands are a glorious chain of islands in the Caribbean Sea, but make sure you do your research as the cruises aren’t always up to standard.

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Panama City

After so long in South America Panama City feels a little like home with its massive skyscrapers, malls, cinemas and fast food chains. When travelling long-term you lose the sense of time and on arrival in Panama days before Christmas I forget that it was prime holiday season for the locals. With most of the holiday destinations booked solid and long lines to get on any buses, I decided to spend the holidays hanging around the city. While there I visited the colonial old quarter of Casco Viejo, the canal and the ruins of Panama Viejo.

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Being in Panama City feels like being in the United States. There are so many Americans and I rarely needed to use my spanish skills as most people spoke english.

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Bocas del Toro

After the holiday break I headed west to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the border of Costa Rica. In the surf/party town I took the opportunity to spend a day on a catamaran snorkelling around the reefs and another sitting in a hammock at the hostel.

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Boquete

Then taking a chicken bus, I spent three days in the cooler climes of the mountain town of Boquete. While there I climbed the tallest mountain in the country – Volcán Barú. The views were wonderful from the top, but starting the 26km hike at midnight is difficult. So to recover I spent time in some natural hot springs just outside of town.

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Costa Rica

San José

Costa Rica has a reputation for being the most expensive country in Central America. From the capital, San José, I took a tour to the top of a volcano before boating along a river to see monkeys, a sloth, caimans, crocodiles and many different types of birds. It was during this tour that Iguana was served for lunch.

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Liberia

Next I headed north to the city of Liberia from where I visited the beach town of Playa del Coco and a set of waterfalls.

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Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

My first stop in Nicaragua was the surf town of San Juan del Sur. A beautiful place to spend a couple of days with bars and beach-front restaurants aplenty. The town even has a statue of Christ atop a hill at the end of the beach.

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Isla Ometepe

No trip to Nicaragua is complete without catching the ferry across Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe Island with its pair of volcanos. Cruising around the volcanos on a scooter is a lot of fun, visiting beaches, cafés and thermal pools. Both volcanos are climbable and a group of us scaled the largest of the two.

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Granada

Next, I was on a bus to the touristic city of Granada at the northern end of the lake for some amazing food and a visit to yet another volcano, this one spewing smoke from the crater within its crater.

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León

Then a quick stop off on the city of Léon to go hurtling down the side of an active volcano on a volcano board.

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Honduras and El Salvador

With limited time, I set foot only briefly in both countries, mainly at customs on the borders. San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador seemed nice though for the thirty minutes we stopped there for lunch.

Guatemala

Antigua

Most travellers in Central America rave about Guatemala.  I arrived into Antigua to find another touristic city at the base of another volcano. Unlike other parts of Central America, Antigua has a lot of colonial architecture, although after numerous earthquakes over the centuries, many are in ruins.

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San Pedro la Laguna

I enjoyed a couple of days in San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Antitla with its thin streets, crazy Tuk Tuk drivers, great small restaurants and amazing lake views.

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Flores and Tikal

Then after a brief visit back in Antigua, I caught a bus to the north of the country to the island of Flores on Lago de Petén Itzá.

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Flores is a tourist destination and gateway to the great Maya ruins of Tikal, where I spent several hours exploring.

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Belize

Caye Caulker

Then on the one year anniversary of my time in Latin America I arrived in Belize, an english speaking country. Staying on the party island of Caye Caulker, I spent some time in the pristine waters snorkelling with Nurse sharks and Eagle Rays, some larger than I am.

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Mexico

While Mexico is actually in North America I included the southern portions as part of my Central American adventure. From Caye Caulker, I caught a ferry to Chetumal in Mexico and stopped for the night before heading on.

Palenque and Yaxchilán

After an eight-hour bus ride I arrived at the city of Palenque to continue The Maya Ruins Trail I began at Tikal. My first stop was the peaceful ruins of Yaxchilán and its connected site of Bonampak on the Guatemalan Border.

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Next it was to the Palenque ruins only twenty minutes out of the city.

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Merida and Uxmal

Four hours north in the Yucatán is Merida, a large and popular touristic city and the nearby ruins of Uxmal and one of its satellite cities, Kabah.

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Valladolid and Chichén Itzá

Then it was across to the city of Valladolid to see Mexico’s most visited archaeological site, Chichén Itzá, seen by more people every year than Peru’s Macchu Pichu.

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Tulum

Then it was back to the Caribbean Coastline to the town of Tulum and the Maya fortress of the same name.

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Cancún and Playa del Carmen

The final distinction in my thirteen month trip through Latin America, Cancún, where I did little more than prepare for my exit from Latin America, but managed a quick visit to the beaches at Playa del Carmen.

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Next, is a well deserved rest from travelling for six months to save and plan a year through Asia.

Adios America Latina,

The World Wanderer.

Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Mexico – Impressions

The ultra touristy Cancún at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula is the final destination of my three-month whirlwind tour of Central America and southern Mexico.

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Cancun’s main tourist area is Isla Cancún and was created in the mid 1970s by the Mexican government. The island is actually part of the second largest barrier reef in the world, stretching 1000km from the tip of the peninsula along the entire length of Belize to Honduras. Cancún is renown for being one of Mexico’s two most famous resort cities, the other being Acapulco on the Pacific Coast.

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As Cancún was my final destination, I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city, instead preparing for my imminent departure. But I did take a day out to travel an hour along the coast to the popular tourist beach, Playa del Carmen.

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It’s easy to see why the beach town is so popular, the golden sandy beaches and clear blue waters are beautiful. And while the beachfront restaurants and resorts are numerous, they’re not as all-encompassing as those in Tulum, and hour further south.

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It’s been a long adventure through Latin America these past thirteen months but I’m ready for a well-earned rest. While the constant traveling has been both amazing and stressful at the same time, I’ll miss the diverse cultures and the beautiful places I’ve visited, not to mention the challenges of constant change that travel evokes. I do look forward to six months of stability before beginning my next set of travels.

For those few who’ve been following my travels, I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts and photos as much as I’ve enjoyed providing them.

Until my next trip,

The World Wanderer.

Tulum, Mexico – Impressions

Just a short handful of years ago Tulum Pueblo was a quiet little town near the ancient cliff top Maya fortress of Tulum. Few visitors came to the town itself, most busing in directly to the ruins from Playa del Carmen, an hour to the north, or Cancún, a further thirty minutes beyond that.

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Over the past few years that quiet little town has begun to grow as a tourist destination with restaurants and resorts growing along the waterfront. The Caribbean coastline is beautiful to behold with its golden sands and clear waters.

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Unfortunately because of the growing number of resorts, which charge you to get access to the beach, finding a long stretch of beach to enjoy is difficult if you don’t have your own vehicle. And while bicycles are rentable everywhere in the town it’s still a long ride to a good beach.

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With the growing popularity of the area, the food and accommodation is of high quality and makes it worth staying a night or two. The area also has plentiful cenotes, with several hidden and smaller ones near the beach.

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But beyond the beach, the cenotes and the town, the ruins are the number one attraction in the area. The fortress was once called Zama meaning ‘City of Dawn’ as it faces the sunrise on the Caribbean Sea. It has since been renamed Tulum meaning ‘wall’ in the language of the Maya because of the great wall around the fortress city.

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Tulum was one of the last Maya cities built and unlike many in the region, it’s very compact and small. A tour of the complex will take only an hour if you dawdle. And because it’s the third most visited historical site in Mexico, after Chichén Itzá and Teotohuacan, the site is often swarming with tourists.

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There is access to the sea from the ruins and many tourists come to swim in the pristine waters beneath the 12 metre cliffs on which the ruins are situated.

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Templo del Dios Viendo – Temple of the Wind God.

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Next I travel north to Cancún, my final destination in Latin America.

The World Wanderer.

Valladolid & Chichén Itzá, Mexico – Impressions

A short two hours by bus from Merida on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is the city of Valladolid. Named after the then capital of Spain, Valladolid was built atop the Maya town of Zaci, using the stones from the dismantled Maya buildings. This caused the Maya in the area to revolt but the uprising was put down by spanish soldiers arriving from Merida.

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Valladolid has a small town feel even though it’s population is more than 45 thousand. The central park is a hive of activity and similar to Merida it’s a free wifi zone. The city is otherwise fairly plain, with only a handful of touristy restaurants and hostels. The main plaza, however, does have a beautiful fountain at its heart…

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There is one attraction in the city, the Cenote Zaci. A cenote is a sink hole that has filled with water and is commonly found in this region of Mexico with a reported two thousand of them. Many of the cenotes are deep wide tunnels filled from rainwater or underground rivers, but can also be where an underground river flows out onto a beach. They were used by the Maya as a water source although the sacred one at the Chichén Itzá ruins was used for sacrifices. Cenote Zaci is a half cavern filled with water and said to be 100 metres deep. It’s used as a swimming pool by locals and tourists.

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But it’s the nearby ruins of Chichén Itzá that brings most travellers and tourists to the town, although few actually stay in Valladolid. Tour buses leave from either Cancun or Merida regularly, dropping tourists directly at the ruins. Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico visited by 1.2 million people a year, which is more people per day on average than Macchu Pichu in Peru. I was prepared for this and had called the site ‘Mexico’s Disneyland’ before arriving. To make things more interesting it poured with rain soon after my arrival at the site. Thankfully they sold rain ponchos at the gate and the rain made my day cooler and more enjoyable.

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Chichén Itzá is one of the larger sites, similar in size to Uxmal, Palenque and Tikal, with much of it still covered in jungle. While the constant stream of tourists was annoying, the sheer number of locals selling trinkets seemed to out number the tourists. The entire site is surrounded by trinket stalls with many scattered throughout as well. I did see several of the stall owners carving their own products, so at least some the items are not mass-produced.

The main temple…

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Chichén Itzá houses the largest ball court of all the ruins I’ve been to. I even found a second court, but that one was smaller and in worse condition than the larger one.

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There is a great deal of wall carvings at the site, many surviving the ravages of time. Such as this king…

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And this eagle…

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There is a large section of the ruins where long lines of columns stand. The one thousand columns are in three sections each with a different style. One section once held the roof of the warrior’s quarters.

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At the end of a long path with trinket stalls on either side is the sacred Cenote…

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The highpoint of the ruins was the observatory, the only round building I’ve seen at any of the ruins.

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Next, I head to the Caribbean Coast to the town of Tulum and another set of ruins, this one on the beach.

The World Wanderer

Merida & Uxmal, Mexico – Impressions

Capital city of the Yucatán peninsula region and with one million people, Merida is the 12th largest city in Mexico. Merida was built by the spanish conquistadors in 1542 and named after a city in mother Spain. It was built on top of a Maya city and some consider it to be the oldest continually lived in city in the Americas.

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Merida also has the esteemed privilege of once having the most millionaires in the world living there and the architecture in the city shows both this and its colonial decent.

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The centre of the city was alive with people during my visit, with the main plaza seemingly full at all hours of the day and night. This was primarily due to the city celebrating Carnival, plus, like many other plazas in Latina America, the main plaza is a free internet hotspot. A quick walk around the historical centre and I found many hotels, restaurants, horse-drawn imperial wagons and smaller plazas, all well maintained and functional. My favourite restaurant even has a wall commemorating the day of the dead…

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Beyond the city, the Yucatán Peninsula was the main region of the Maya civilisation with the majority of ancient cities scattered around the countryside. Studies have estimated the number of Maya cities at nearly 5000 and this includes one of the most important cities, Uxmal – pronounced ‘ooshmaal’.

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Uxmal was thought to have been built around 200BC and was abandoned before the arrival of the spanish 1700 years later. The city is said to span 35 square kilometres, with more than 95% still covered in jungle.

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The derived meaning of the name Uxmal is ‘three times’, because the city was said to have been rebuilt three times by different kings through ages. The intricacies of the carvings on the buildings also surpass any of the other ruins I’ve seen to date.

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Uxmal has a large section set aside for nuns, who were bred for ritual sacrifice. This large plaza and its associated buildings are among the original buildings in the city.

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There is also a very well-defined ‘court’ for their ball games, which was a similar sport played in most other Mayan cities. Teams could only use the grassy area in the centre and using only their hips – and sometimes paddles – to get a ball made from rubber through a goal. A goal is the just visible protruding ring on the right, the one on the left is no longer there. Because of the growth of rubber trees here, rubber balls were invented in this part of the world 3,500 years ago.

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After a two hour tour around the ruins in the heat, we were taken 16km south to Kabah, a smaller city that was invaded and integrated into the city-state of Uxmal, one of several in the region.

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Kabah’s temples are being restored and will eventually hold the original 260 masks on its walls, representing the 260 days as defined in the Maya ritual calendar.

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Next I head to the town of Valladolid to visit another Maya site, the city of Chichén Itzá.

The World Wanderer

Palenque, Mexico – Impressions

Palenque is a small city in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico on the border of Guatemala. There’s not much going on in the city itself with the city’s recognised monuments all being covered for restoration while I was there. But it’s not the city that draws people to this region, it’s the nearby ruins of the same name only 20 minutes away.

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The Palenque ruins aren’t the only ones in this area though, there’s also Yaxchilán nestled on the Guatemalan border and Bonampak a further 40km south. It’s not difficult to get to any of the sites, with regular collectivos – taxi buses – going to the Palenque ruins every few minutes and daily tours leaving to the other two sites.

I began with a tour to Yaxchilán, a two and a half tour bus ride south of Palenque. The tour picked me up from my hostel at 6am and delivering me home at 7.30pm, so I prepared for a long day. The roads in Mexico are no better than anywhere else in Central America, but because of the early start I slept through the bumps and regular speed humps. There was even a stop for breakfast along the way, all included in the tour. We eventually arrived at Rio Usumacinta, the river that separates Mexico from Guatemala, and boarded a river boat for a 45 minutes trip.

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The river is wide and deep and is said to contain five metre crocodiles, but we only spied two small ones that were shy at our approach.

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After another nap, we eventually arrived at the Yaxchilán ruins. To get into the site you need to walk through some dark tunnels made by the Mayans around 700AD. The tunnels are said to travel 30-40km to Bonampak to the south, but most are closed. There’s also an ancient ritual associated with the tunnels which involved the ingestion of magic mushrooms and walking through the tunnels in the dark being casted depending on which exit you emerge from.

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On the other side of the tunnels is the Grand Plaza stretching 750 metres in length with temples and buildings along each side. It was originally an open plaza, the trees have grown in the 14 centuries since the city was built.

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The Mayans had a fascination with ball games, where inevitably one of the players gets his head cut off. If it’s the captured leader of another city and he loses, chop chop and his head becomes the ball, if he wins he’s set free. If the match is between people from the same city then it’s the winner that faces the chop, that’s right, the winner. It’s an honour for him to be beheaded, as he goes forth into the underworld in style.

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In the Mayan world the royal family and priests had to be the fittest people, as they were the only ones allowed to climb the many steps to the temples or to the Grand Acropolis.

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Dotted around the Grand Plaza are several Esteli – carved stone blocks. Most depict members of the royal family in different poses, often giving blood sacrifices such as the queen piercing her tongue and running a two metre rope through it, or the king having his penis pierced. Lovely.

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After a couple of hours at the site, we travelled back along the river to the bus then set off to Bonampak, which also has a grand plaza, although smaller than Yixchilán.

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Bonampak was a ceremonial site important to the Yixchilán kings. Bonampak means ‘painted walls’ in the ancient Mayan language as on the inner walls of one acropolis are several full colour paintings.

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We only had an hour at Bonampak before it was time to head back to the city. We were thankful for the air-conditioned tour bus as the last couple of hours of the day became quite humid.

The following day, a couple of us caught a collectivo to the Palenque Ruins.

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But since we arrived an hour before closing, entry was free but meant we had to rush around the complex. Still it was a wondrous place to visit and thankfully quieter near closing time. Similar to Yixchilán they have a grand acropolis, several temples and a palace boasting a tall watch tower.

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Next, I head north to the city of the Merida on the Yucatán to explore the ruins of Uxmal.

The World Wanderer