March 22nd 2017 - May 1st 2017
When we first planned to go backpacking we didn't set out to visit Central America. In fact, the only thing that we did plan in advance was our initial flight from London to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. We thought we might spend a year exploring the South American continent, hoping to touch upon most of the countires in that time. Whilst we happily travelled from place to place, crossing borders and ticking off amazing wonders at our own pace we realised that we were getting through the continent much faster than anticipated. We weren't rushing in the slightest, in fact we felt as though we were dawdling a bit too long in some places.
By the time we got to Bolivia around Christmas time (nearly four months in to the trip) to spend a few weeks in the beautiful white city of Sucre to take Spanish lessons we began to think bigger than South America. We'd always wanted to visit India as we didnt make it to the vast country on our last big trip where we took in many countries in Asia. We started looking into flights to grasp an idea of how much it would cost to get there and therefore how feasible it would be to go. With Colombia in mind as our last destination in South America (as Venezuela is too dangerous currently for tourism) we researched flights and were blown away by how expensive they were and how long winded; several stops, multiple hours. Undeterred we looked at other routes, what if we flew somewhere else first so that our flight to India was cheaper? With this in mind I opened up Skyscanner and after much research I found that we could fly to India via New York very cheaply. Colombia direct to New York however was expensive so I looked up flights to New York flying from Mexico which was a good bet. With our new plan in our minds we booked both tickets. We were in Bolivia with one way tickets from Cancun in Mexico to New York booked and New York to Delhi booked. Now there was just the small matter of working out how we would get to Mexico.
Towards the end of our time in South America we booked cheap one way flights from Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast to Panama, the most southerly country on the ithsmus of Central America. It would have been nice to continue to travel overland but the Colombia/Panama border sits in the wild Darien Gap jungle and isn't the safest place to travel through. Once in Panama I picked up a Lonely Planet Central America guidebook from a hostel shelf and used it to plan a rough route to Cancun in Mexico in time for our flight to New York which worked out at 40 days to do the journey. Of course, we didn't want to make things too easy for ourselves so we aimed to touch upon each country in Central America as we went. That meant travelling through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and finally Mexico. While in Costa Rica we decided to also include Cuba in our plans and booked return flights to Havana from Cancun making our journey time even shorter.
There is a lot of talk on the internet about the idea of 'slow travel'. Making the most of your time by not ticking off things to do and rushing around cramming everything in but by wandering at a gentle pace, people watching and embracing the idea of living in a new place for a time. Well, as you can imagine our time in Central America was anything but slow. We mostly spent no longer than two nights anywhere, only staying longer once we had made it to Mexico and knew we wouldn't be in any trouble of missing our flights.
We may have moved fast but our experience was still wonderful, full of the same kind of adventures and emotions as South America had been only our general journey times were shorter. Panama shone through as being our favourite country, we enjoyed staying in Panama City where we could enjoy the novelty of American fast food (avocado topped veggie burgers with fries and all the condiments anyone?) whilst watching basketball on TV, Boquete was a peaceful nature filled destination after seeing the city sights and we fell head over heels for Bocos del Toro and in particular the island paradise of Cayo Zapatilla. There is something about powdery white sand and crystal clear warm ocean that is just irresistible.
Costa Rica unfortunatly fell short of our expectations and we do feel sorry about that as it is a country on many people's wishlist due to its natural beauty and wildlife. As budget conscious backpackers we found the country to be 1. very expensive and 2. totally unsuited to backpacker travel. Getting aound was tricky, all the food and activities were too costly and unfortunately quite a few of the locals were unhelpful.
The many Mayan sites that we visited in Central America were a wonder. From the intricately carved decorative stones in Copán, Honduras to tourist filled Tulum in Mexico to the awesome Tikal in Guatemala. And not forgetting Chichén Itzá in Mexico with its 'wonder of the world' status. Each Mayan site piqued our curiosity and left us feeling like true explorers.
The food in Central America was also a highlight. The staples were rice and beans, refried beans, plantain, avocado, salty cheese and tortilla, need I say more? Baleadas in Honduras were something that we'd never heard of before, let alone tasted. I now make a version of them regularly at home for lunch. I'm no food blogger but they are so easy to make and delicious too so here goes: take a flour or soft corn tortilla wrap, smooth on a layer of refried beans (I use a version with chilli in), grate over cheese and add chunks of fresh avocado. Fold over and squash down slightly, place in a medium-hot dry frying pan for a couple of minutes until contents are warmed through and the the tortilla has crisped up and browned slightly. Sour cream can be added and in Honduras they were made with egg inside too.
When I think back to Central America I think of;
• Riding in chicken buses
• Accidentally joining an Easter parade
• Searching high and low for a working ATM
• Breakfast overlooking beautiful blue Lake Atitlán in Guatemala
• Exploring Mayan ruins
• Swimming in a magical cenote in Mexico
• The machete weilding man
• The most chaotic border crossing
• The perfectly cooked plantain
• Baking hot bike rides in Nicaragua
• Toasting marshmallows over volcanic heat
• Paradise in Panama
• The worlds most delicious gelato.
With our goal of touching upon every country in Central America met plus a quick jolly to Cuba thrown in too we moved on to the next part of our trip, a week in New York with my mum and brother to recover from our fast paced 40 days and then India, perhaps our biggest challenge to come.
Have you been to Central America? If so where did you go and how did you like it? If you're thinking of going and would like any advice or travel tips then please let me know in the comments below.
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