I’ve come to accept something about this trip through Peru: for most of it, I’ll be sticking to a very well-established tourist trail. That’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but there it is. There are just so many appealing (and famous) stops, and I only have so much time.
Peru’s Gringo Trail, as it’s maybe-not-affectionately known, involves a few major stops. There’s Lima, which most visitors give anywhere from one night to a week, depending on their disposition toward South American capitals and traffic. Then there’s Arequipa, the colonial city to the south, and Cusco, the Incan city best known as the jumping-off point for treks to Machu Picchu. And for those who have the time, there are a few stops along the coast: the Paracas National Reserve, the Islas Ballestas (or “Poor Man’s Galapagos”), the Nazca lines, the Ica wineries, and the Huacachina sand dunes.
We had plans for most of the above.
When most people think of tourism in Peru, they think of Machu Picchu. And maybe, if they’ve done some research (or just watched that one episode of Parts Unknown), they think of the Amazon, the food scene in Miraflores, the trails through the Colca Canyon, or the popular cities of Arequipa and Cusco. Rarely do the ruins of Huaca Pucllana end up on “bucket list” Peru itineraries.
And truthfully, I wouldn’t argue against that. The idea of a universal travel “bucket list” for any destination makes me a bit queasy, especially somewhere like Peru– it’s simply too large, diverse, and beautiful to capture in a rundown of “must-sees.” Even so, I am surprised that I haven’t heard the Huaca Pucllana ruins hyped up more by guidebooks or fellow tourists; for me, they were the perfect introduction to Peru’s capital.
Disclaimer: I know I said I was going to be a “stickler for chronology,” but I was wrong. After writing up 4 months worth of travel through Central America, I’m temporarily skipping past my time in Colombia, Mexico, and Hawaii because…I just got to Peru! So for now, I’ll be sticking as close to present-tense as possible as I write up my stops through Peru and Ecuador.
This trip has seemed so, so long in the making. Nick and I decided to come to Peru over a year ago, and it’s taken that long for everything to line up. In the meantime, I’ve done tons of planning— which is maybe why, when we finally landed in Lima, the transition into traveling here felt almost seamless.
Walking down Caye Caulker’s main oceanside street, you’re bombarded— in a very laidback, Caribbean way— with tour groups offering snorkel and dive trips to Belize’s nearby reefs. But for my mom and I, that was overkill; we needed no convincing to sign up for a snorkel tour. In fact, we arrived on the island already decided on where we wanted to go: the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a 3-square-mile area of the Caribbean encompassing reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds.
Better yet, we quickly settled on a tour operator: Ragamuffin Tours. Their tours of the Reserve— snorkel gear, snacks, and drinks included— were comparable, cost-wise, with other shops that didn’t offer the booze cruise amenities. And beyond that, they were the best-reviewed shop on the island. Looking back, the price we paid would have been worth it for the snorkel tour alone. As it turned out, the super gregarious guides, clean and spacious boat, and constant flow of rum punch made it the best money we spent in Belize.
Thanks to my timing, I knew when I left for Central America that I wouldn’t be able to come back for the holidays two months later. So, when I told my parents I wouldn’t be home for Christmas, my mom wasted no time in planning her own trip to visit me in mid-December.
We threw around a few potential destinations and, while I would’ve been content with any of them, my mom was understandably a bit choosier about where she spent her limited vacation time. For her, comfortable accommodations, proximity to a beach, and (relatively) easy access to the airport were all key considerations. In the end, that narrowed it down to Belize; we could visit both the beach town of Hopkins and the island of Caye Caulker without frittering too much time in transit, we wouldn’t have to worry about a language barrier, and as it turns out, the beaches were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen.
I picked up on a pattern in Central America: the more planned for a place, the less I seemed to enjoy it. That held true for Granada and El Tunco (which I didn’t love), and for León and Antigua (which I did love but did next to no research on). So in Guatemala, it followed that my vague plans of having some quiet time in Flores would pan out beautifully.
I could walk around this island in less time than it would take to walk to the coffee shop back home, so just a couple days gave me plenty of time to see the sights. Plus, the whole town was quiet, colorful, and charming– pretty much the trifecta for relaxing anywhere. By the time I left to meet my mom in Belize, I was considering rerouting us way out of our way to take her back here. (Reason prevailed, but it probably would’ve been worth it.) And, as ever, I found that Flores is so much more than a base for trips to the nearby ruins: this town, once the last Mayan Kingdom, has an incredible history.
It’s difficult to imagine a place more beautiful than Semuc Champey. Steep cliffs, lush hills, clear water, quietude, an open sky— there’s nothing missing.
It’s almost understandable that travel writers like to cast this place as “remote” and “hidden”; as an undiscovered idyll in the middle of Guatemala. While I cringe a bit when I read those descriptions, I can understand where they’re coming from; this place is so beautiful, so surreal, that part of you wants to believe it’s a “hidden gem.” Of course, it’s not.
The truth is, Semuc Champey is one of Guatemala’s largest tourist attractions, up there with Antigua and the ruins at Tikal. In fact, it may be the country’s single most popular natural attraction. So, to put it bluntly, any headline calling it “hidden” or even hinting at the term “undiscovered” is sensationalist clickbait. (Although, to be fair, its original name does combine the words for hidden, deep, and stone.)
This area has been legally protected as a natural monument since 2005, is relatively easily accessible by road, and indigenous communities have been living in and around it for centuries. So, Semuc isn’t exactly the “untouched” Eden that travel sections sometimes claim— but it’s still incredible. In fact, it’s incredible in large part because indigenous communities have been cultivating and caring for it for centuries.
After a quick two days in Livingstón, I kept up the pace in Rio Dulce.
You might say I was…really cruising. (Because I took a boat there? But also because I was on a tight schedule.) I was blissfully expectation-free for pretty much everything between Honduras and Belize, but I did have a short mental list of things I wanted to do here: see Boqueron Canyon and the hot waterfalls at Finca Paraíso.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Rio Dulce, but with canoeing, hiking, and swimming among its most popular activities, I definitely didn’t expect to arrive at such an industrial port town. Rio Dulce is oddly cut in half by the river and, in the opposite direction, a highway, so crossing town requires either boating or driving across a massive overpass. Beyond that, downtown Rio Dulce’s one main street is lined with restaurants, street food carts, convenience stores, and traffic. That’s not to say the place isn’t scenic– parts of it undeniably are. You just have to head inland, or down the river.
After nearly two months in Central America, I had gotten fairly used to the flow of things— the Spanish, the buses, the food, the haggling. But in Livingstón, I felt immersed in something completely new again.
The commute into Livingstón is a long one. The small port town is accessible only by boat, meaning my route from Utila, Honduras involved (in this order) a ferry, a cab, three buses, an overnight stop in Omoa, two more buses, a colectivo, and a ferry ride from Puerto Barrios. When I finally got there, I was ready to love it no matter what.
In other words, my expectations were loooow. I guess that’s how good experiences are born.
Nestled between volcanoes in southern Guatemala, Antigua’s natural surroundings are almost surreal; its colonial buildings are undeniably picturesque. But, for as much as I enjoyed my time there, I’ve been struggling to decide how to write about it; there’s so much more to Antigua and its history than the pretty streets, international restaurants, and Spanish language schools that so many people know it for.
Antigua shares its charm with the travelers and expats that dominate much of its center, which complicates any honest portrayal of the city. And that’s just the most recent evolution in the city’s long, tumultuous life; in its 400-something-year history, Antigua has changed locations, populations, and even names.