Central America

My brother is planning a trip to Central America in a few weeks. I wrote up a few recommendations for him based on my trip to Belize & Guatemala last May, and I thought that others planning similar trips might benefit as well. In general, Central America was a fantastic destination and Kenny and I were constantly surprised by the things we saw – it seemed like we experienced something new and amazing every day.


  • Getting around:
    • The water taxis from Belize City out to the Cayes work great. Just check the schedule ‘cause they only run until about 4pm (we were lucky enough to catch the last one of the day after arriving at the airport!)
    • There is a decent bus system to get from city to city. We took a bus from the main Belize City bus terminal to San Ignacio without any trouble. It took 2 or 3 hours.
  • The Cayes – we stayed in Caye Ambergris, which is supposed to be the “upscale” caye compared to Caulker – but I promise, it’s not that upscale! It’s cheap, and I’ve heard Caulker is rather rundown. And some of the best snorkeling/diving is supposed to be more accessible from Ambergris
    • Do the Hol Chan & Shark Ray Alley snorkeling thing – as I told Shawn on the phone, you definitely don’t need to dive for this one. The reef is really only about 4 feet deep, so you’ll feel pretty silly all geared up in scuba gear. My photos are here.
    • Food in Ambergris is not exciting, but we found a decent restaurant called El Patio and we ate there twice. :)
  • San Ignacio – a town right on the Guatemalan border with really cool “adventure tourism” activities
    • We stayed at a really nice place called Cohune Palms. It’s tucked away outside the town (the town is pretty rundown – this place is a $10 cab ride away) right by the river. You stay in a cabana with a deck and hammock and they cook all of your meals for you and serve them in the “kitchen” – a cute thatched-roof hut next to the river.
    • The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave hike is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It’s an Indiana Jones adventure in a cave where the Mayans used to do human sacrifices. I wrote a description of the hike on my blog and my photos are here. There are only 2 operators that are licensed to lead tours through the cave, and they are located across the street from each other on the main drag in San Ignacio. We used Mayawalk. Definitely book your tours through them directly instead of going through a hotel – you’ll save a lot of money.
    • We crossed over into Guatemala from San Ignacio. Mayawalk runs day trips to Tikal; instead of signing up for their full day trip + tour, we paid for transport one-way and stayed overnight in Tikal. I definitely recommend crossing the border with them instead of public transportation because the border crossing is a little tricky and it would be easy to get ripped off by people at the border if you didn’t know what you were doing.
  • There is other interesting-looking stuff in Belize, but we were only there for 3 days so we didn’t see it. :)


  • Getting around. There are 3 main modes of long-distance transit:
    • Mini-buses – these seat about 10 people and are the most comfortable way to get around. They connect all of the major cities and can be arranged from any tourist office (and there are tourist offices on just about any corner). They are pretty cheap, although not as dirt cheap as the other options.
    • Charter buses (or “Pullman” buses) – bigger charter buses that are good for long trips. E.g., we took one from Coban to Guatemala city. Comfort-wise, they’re similar to the minibuses, and as a bonus, they play movies (I think one of the Zorro films was playing on our bus). You can catch these at the bus depots in the bigger towns.
    • Chicken buses – chicken buses are festively-redecorated buses that started life as US school buses in the 1950s. They are not particularly comfortable or fast – and will usually entail sharing a child-size school bus seat with 3-4 of your new best friends – but they are cheap and definitely an interesting cultural experience to have. But maybe not more than once. We ended up on an all-day chicken bus adventure by accident because we had a snafu with our minibus reservation.
  • Tikal – from what I’ve heard, Tikal is better than most of the Mayan ruins in Mexico, but opinions will certainly vary on that. :) It’s in the middle of a jungle, and the massive pyramids rising out of the trees are a very dramatic sight. Photos here.
    • The 4am sunrise tour is a bit hard to wake up for (duh) but I thought it was worth it. You aren’t allowed into the park for sunrise unless you pay for the tour.
    • It’s worth being around for sunset as well, although supposedly you have to be careful of banditos. If you hear really scary loud growling noises, they are not jaguars, they are howler monkeys!
    • There are only 2 hotels in Tikal. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, which was rated better than the other one, although really nothing to write home about. We thought we’d want 2 nights in Tikal, but ended up only staying for 1 – once you’ve seen the park there’s really nothing else to do there.
  • Coban (Semuc Champey) – most people we met didn’t make it to Coban, but you definitely shouldn’t skip it. The main attraction here is Semuc Champey, which is incredible. I think we did 2 nights and 1 full day in Coban, which was fine.
    • We stayed at a great hotel called La Posada – it seemed like there were quite a few Guatemalans there, which was a good sign. The hotel can arrange tours and transport for you. They are very nice and very helpful at the front desk. The other big hotel in town is La Dona Victoria – we met some Australians who stayed there and didn’t like it at all.
    • The town of Coban itself is not very exciting – we just used it as a home base for our visit to Semuc Champey. But it’s a reasonably-sized city and felt a lot less touristy than the other towns we visited. Which was pretty nice for a change.
    • Semuc Champey – this was described to us as “a river on top of a river” – there are two rivers that come together, and one is elevated above the other. The result is some interesting rock formations and a series of pools with crystal-clear water. Photos here. Our guide spoke no English but he was great – get the hotel to set you up with a tour or stop in the tourist office across the street from La Posada.
    • Our Semuc Champey tour also took us tubing on a calm river and on a cave hike. This was nothing like the ATM in Belize – we had candles instead of headlamps, and no helmets. And trust me, it’s not easy keeping your candle lit when you have to hold it above your head and use the other hand to swim.
  • Lago de Atitlan (Panajachel) – the lake wasn’t on our original itinerary, but we gained some extra time by spending only one night in Tikal. In general, the lake was quiet and not extremely exciting. It seems like a good place to visit if you do more research about a specific town on the lake, but we just stayed in Panajachel which wasn’t all that interesting.
    • Since there wasn’t much to do in Pana, we walked out of town to the wildlife preserve and the Hotel Atitlan – we watched monkeys in the preserve and ate a pretty good lunch at the hotel.
    • We tried kayaking on the lake, which was an extremely frustrating experience. It was windy and the water was choppy. We got soaked.
    • There is an amazing taco place called 3×10 on the main drag in Panajachel – 3 tacos for 10 quetzales (the exchange rate is around 7 quetzales to the dollar). Here’s a picture of the menu.
    • There are some volcanoes around the lake that are rumored to make for good hiking and good views. We didn’t get around to hiking, and it was so foggy that we could barely see the views. But if you only get to one volcano hike on your trip, it should be Pacaya…
  • Antigua
    • Antigua was the capital of Guatemala back in colonial times. It feels very Spanish, and has a lot of old buildings. The town is a nice place to walk around, and it has a big market where you can bargain with kids for cheap souvenirs.
    • Pacaya – an active volcano just outside of Antigua. This hike was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done – one of those things you could never do in the US without signing your life away on reams of waiver forms. We were literally 3 feet away from the lava (the guide told us not to go any closer or our shoes might melt) – and in a thunderstorm, no less! On the hike back, we saw a tree that had caught fire from a lightning strike. There are a few outfitters in town that will try to sell you Pacaya tours for $40 or $50. We took the “communal” tour which only cost $10 – as far as I can tell, the only difference was that they didn’t pack us a lunch.
    • We took a “cultural” bike tour through some of the small towns surrounding Antigua. Here’s a photo of us on our bikes in front of an old church. They took us to an organic macadamia nut farm that is run by an organization that is trying to help get the locals out of poverty by training them to produce a cash crop rather than subsisting on corn. The bike tour was fun, although surprisingly difficult. We got massages (very affordable!) afterwards. :) I don’t remember the name of the outfitter – it was the same one we used for Pacaya – although it was the one with the massage place next door…
    • There’s another 3×10 taco place in Antigua in case you don’t make it to Atitlan. This place rocks. Here’s that menu again. Yum.
  • Quetzaltenango, aka Xela – we didn’t make it to Xela, but I’ve heard good things. My friend Julie went there if you want to talk to her about it.


  • Make an appointment at your local travel clinic or with an infectious diseases physician. You’ll need the following:
    • Hepatitis A/B vaccinations if you haven’t already had them
    • Typhoid vaccine. You can do this as a series of pills or an injection. I recommend the pills because they protect you for 5 years instead of 2.
    • Malaria pills
  • Overall, the food we tried in Belize and Guatemala was decent but not extremely creative. There were good things to be had in every town though. Belizean beer is better than Guatemalan beer. We thought Belikin was pretty decent. Kenny will be your BFF if you bring him back a Belikin t-shirt.
  • Don’t drink the water, eat any raw vegetables (no salads!), or eat any fruit that you can’t wash yourself (with bottled water). Any fruit that comes in its own natural packaging (like an orange or a banana) is safe. If you order a beer or a bottle of water, best to drink it out of the bottle instead of pouring it into a glass. My doctor recommended tequila as pretty good medicine if you start to get an upset stomach. :)

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