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.
In my last post, I talked about how thoroughly I screwed up traveling through El Salvador. (In short: no research, little to no knowledge of how the transportation works, virtually no tolerance for a lack of showers and rogue doggos).
But, while I still didn’t love El Salvador, I definitely didn’t hate it. Mostly, I feel sort of guilty for ragging on a place that most visitors rave about, especially when it’s in such a misunderstood country. So, I’m going to (very) briefly run through the things I did enjoy about El Salvador.
Can I call this an “edition” if it’s so far the only installment? I contend that yes, dear reader, I can; I have sucked at traveling in so many places. I can’t wait to write about them all. For now, let’s start with El Tunco, El Salvador, my personal traveling nadir and first real foray into solo travel.
I had high hopes for El Salvador, which no doubt contributed to my frustration when everything went to shit there. I had read all about the Ruta de las Flores, the food festival in Juayua, and the beach towns of El Cuco and El Tunco. I had vague plans to spend 2 weeks in the country, which made me feel pretty cool; most people I knew skipped it altogether. The popular option: taking a $60 tourist shuttle straight from León, Nicaragua to Antigua, Guatemala. I’ve got a lot of self-mocking to do here, so I won’t harp on this one, but yeah— I was feeling pretty confident in my abilities to navigate El Salvador solo.
Let’s just break this down into a list of failures. There were many.
Yeah, that’s right— it’s June and I’m publishing a post about my 2018 travel plans. What can I say? I’ve done very little this year. (Just kidding?)
At this point, I hardly remember what it’s like to spend 18 hours on an abused overnight bus, or gingerly insert myself into a cold shower before catching (yet another) bus. Yet, these are the memories that propelled me through the last year of saving and planning. And look at me now! I’ve finally rubbed together enough coins to go on another trip!