Our Senior Logistics Manager, Amelia Conti, recently returned from her two month sabbatical and shares with us the highlights from her epic trip through Central America.
Landing in Cancun, we decided to avoid the all-inclusive hotels and head straight to Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins which are included in the New Seven Wonders of the World. The site did not disappoint with jaw dropping temples and ruins which you could easily spend a day exploring. We made sure to arrive as soon as the gates opened to avoid the coach loads of tourists which arrived at around 10am.
As I was using my sabbatical for a belated honeymoon, we decided to allow ourselves a couple days of luxury in the Belmond Maroma Resort, located between Playa Carmen and Cancun. Set right on the white sands of Maroma Beach, the hotel was converted from a family home and still retains the charms of a residential property with all the bells and whistles of a 5 star luxury resort. Our highlights were a private 5 course tasting menu on the beach (unfortunately, my husband took in a tequila tasting beforehand, so was lucky to still be standing for the meal!), the amazing breakfasts cooked fresh to order including tortillas grilled in front of you by a Mexican mama and the beautiful sunsets enjoyed from our balcony each evening.
From Maroma we travelled down the coast of Mexico to Laguna Bacalar – an amazing natural lake translating as "the lake of seven colours", after the vivid and varied shades of blue the water takes. Gorgeous hotels and guest houses dot the river banks, and locals can be found enjoying a cooling afternoon dip off the many pontoons which jut out into the lake.
My favourite of the countries we visited in Central America! We took a speedboat from the Mexico border across to the small island of Caye Caulker in Belize's Northern Cayes. A tiny island where cars are banned and people get around on golf buggies – the islands motto is ‘Go Slow’ and when the scenery is this beautiful why would you need to go fast! The island is small enough to explore easily on foot, preferably without shoes just like the locals! We particularly enjoyed sitting on the ‘Split’ – a narrow waterway which divides the island in two – and enjoying the reggae beats from the nearby Lazy Lizard bar and dipping into the crystal clear waters when the heat got too much. The highlight of the trip was a day out on a snorkelling tour with Black Hawk Sailing – a full day tour onboard a sailing boat where we got to swim with nurse sharks, manatees, sea turtles, sting rays and beautiful bright coloured fish!
Next up was inland to San Ignacio, where we spent a day exploring the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, or ATM for short. This amazing Mayan archaeological site includes ruins of ceramics used in Mayan rituals and some eerily well preserved skeletons left from human sacrifices. The tour begins with a half hour hike through the jungle where you arrive at the entrance to the caves, leaving behind any backpacks, cameras or heavy items (all this as a result of a tourist dropping a camera on one of the skeletons and crushing a hole in the skull!!) and donning a hard hat with head torch. From here we spent around an hour making our way through the chambers of the cave – including swimming through pools and scampering up ladders until we reached the main chamber where the ruins and skeletons were located. There are only 15 guides that the Belize Tourist Board allows to conduct tours of ATM and their knowledge of the caves was amazing – at one point we all turned our head torches off and sat in the darkness contemplating how we would find our way out if the torch batteries were to give out.
Crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala, we hitchhiked our way to Posada del Cerro, located in El Remate – the closest main town to Tikal. Our room was the beautiful Crocodile Room which was open aired with a balcony looking over Lago Peten Itza. We spent the evenings sat out there with a bottle of wine and watched the evening storms roll in. We were definitely glad to choose El Remate over the more touristy option of Flores. The main reason for coming to this part of Guatemala was to see Tikal, the Mayan temple ruins and although the days of being able to bribe a guard and sleep in the ruins themselves are gone, we still got there at the crack of dawn to avoid the tourist crowds. There are a few hotels located onsite, which offer sunset and sunrise tours outside of the normal opening hours – but my advice is to check the weather as everyone we spoke to didn't see any sunsets and instead only saw rain! Tikal though, was mesmerising – acres upon acres of mind boggling ruins and temples set in the middle of the jungle. The lands haven’t been cleared between each of the temple ruin sites which gives it a totally isolated feel. Climbing to the top of Templo V (Temple 5) and listening to the howler monkeys waking up and making their way through the trees was among one my favourite memories of the whole trip – spine tingling!
Next up was an 8 hour bus trip across the country in a van which was met to seat 12 people, but had 16 squeezed in!! As hair-raising as the van trip was, the destination was worth it – Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin, located in the central highlands of Guatemala. An upscale hostel with private rooms and a pool with a to die for view – who knew hostel travelling could be like this!!! Here we made the most of the adventurous life with ziplining (the course was built by the head of the Guatemala Army no less), river tubing and a tour of Semuc Champey – a stunning natural limestone bridge with turquoise blue pools. After a pretty hectic hour long hike up the mountain to view the pools from above, we raced down and spent the next hour jumping from pool to pool in the crystal clear and outrageously cold water. And in case our adrenalin wasn’t raised enough, we also had the option of rope swings into the river, a 15m jump off a rickety bridge and a cave expedition using only a candle for light.
We had heard rave reviews about Antigua, but unfortunately after accidently eating a salad washed in local water our time there consisted of stomach cramps and seeking out western food to calm them. But the city was beautiful and would be a great base to explore more of Guatemala. Our friends tested out the bar Café No Sé which is entered through a fridge door and said that this mescal bar was quirky and lively. Although quite ill we still managed to drag ourselves to the top of Volcan Pacaya – a 3 hour hike uphill - where we celebrated by toasting marshmallows on the hot coals at the top.
Our final stop in Guatemala was San Pedro in Lake Atitlán – a beautiful village with a real hippy vibe set on the banks of the stunning lake. While still slightly hallucinating from the stomach bug we managed to fit in a horse riding trek. If considering, just make sure to check the physical conditions of the horses before agreeing on a trek as some of the animals are really malnourished and not looked after well. Still, the horse ride was great and we used it to explore coffee plantations at the foot of the volcanoes bordering the lake and some of the cute towns along the waters edge.