Central America is well known for its backpacker routes, must-see honeypots, great drives and major archaeological sites. But if you want to escape the crowds, you need to dig a little deeper...
Central America is a place of fairytale forests, steaming volcanoes, rushing waterfalls and magnificent Maya ruins. While parts of the country are well-trodden (and for good reason) there are still hidden spots unheard of by most other travellers. Many of these are activities are only possible if you travel with those in the know so read on to discover how you too can discover them...
Coffee is one of Central America’s best-loved exports and Costa Rica is widely regarded as a producer of some of the finest arabica beans. Caffeine-addicts love seeing the deep-green bushes in row upon row along the sol y sombra (sun and shadow) mountain slopes.
In the town of San Miguel de Sarapiqui, they can take their passion one step further. In 2009, an earthquake destroyed roads collapsed and left locals with no access to services – or customers for their coffee. So, local cooperative Coope Sarapiqui established the Mi Cafecito Coffee Tour to help coffee producers make a living – with the support of non-profit seed investor Planeterra, they were able to boost numbers to a sufficient level to make the project sustainable. Join the G Adventures tour to meet some of the 200-odd small farmers that produce organic coffee from across four regions, learn about the arts of growing, roasting and cupping and sit down for a meal with the locals.
Coffee berries in Costa Rica (Shutterstock)
Neat rows of coffee bushes (Shutterstock)
Harvesting coffee berries (Shutterstock)
People visit this beautiful country to dive, see archaeological sites and hit the beaches. But making ends meet is hard for Belizeans. Local families typically have seven children, resources are scarce, and education for women is not prioritized. In Mayan villages like San Antonio, a community of 3,500 people in western Belize, girls often leave education after primary school. Government support is not easy to access, and mothers rely on other forms of income to help support their children’s education and send their daughters to high school.
A grant from Planeterra – a foundation that connects social enterprises to the tourism marketplace – helped establish the San Antonio Pottery Co-op, which allowed locals to build an indoor workshop space. Today, 20 and Mayan women work there, giving them the chance to earn an income and develop their skills. One of the only ways to visit is on a G Adventures tour, where you can try your hand at ancient pottery making techniques with a group of artisans, enjoy a delicious home-made lunch, and have a chance to purchase pottery and other one-off craft pieces.
Handmade masks in Belize (Shutterstock)
A woman in rural Belize walking home (Shutterstock)
Handicrafts for sale in Belize (Shutterstock)
Belize’s Cayes – the offshore islands close to the country’s famous barrier reef – are best known for their diving scenes, luxury pads and superlative food and drink. But they are also home to many ordinary Belizeans. In recent years, the local economy has shifted from traditional fishing and boat-building to aquatic sports tourism and hospitality services. But islanders depend on the mainland for education and inevitably often have to relocate to find work. Furthermore, nation-wide, only 40 per cent of secondary-aged youth are enrolled in school. On Caye Caulker, many young people are uprooted from the age of 12, when they quit school and join the workforce.
In 2008, the Ocean Academy community school opened to reduce dropout rates and reverse growing unemployment by providing hands-on tourism education, in addition to the traditional curriculum. To help finance the academy, which has 58 students enrolled, Planeterra and G Adventures raised donations to buy bicycles and other materials – so that Ocean Academy students could lead their own bicycle tours of the island. This gives students the chance to practice guiding skills while giving traveller’s a unique experience on their visit to Caye Caulker – green and serene, two wheels open up the less obvious corners of island life and are also a great way to make friends.
Planeterra and G Adventures raised donations to buy bicycles for Ocean Academy students (Dreamstime)
See a different side to the island on a bike tour (Shutterstock)
Explore Caye Caulker by bike (Dreamstime)
So you’ve smoked the cigar, sashayed to the salsa music and taken a spin in a Fifties Chevy. Then it’s time to recall that Cuba is an island – or rather, lots of islands. Those who want to go beyond the usual highlights can now spend five days exploring the Canarreos Archipelago aboard a 25-metre (82 ft) catamaran. With 350 islets, the archipelago, which lies southwest of the main island, is more rustic and much quieter than most popular destinations.
Departing from lovely Cienfuegos, the sailboat visits the Cayo Largo, known for its 25km (15 mi) of pristine white-sand beaches, mangrove forests and crocodiles; Cayo Rico, with its bright turquoise waters, friendly beach bar and iguanas; and Cayo Guano, where dolphins might come along for the ride. The vessel is spacious and guests get to dine on the freshest seafood - and can have a go at catching dinner, too.
Cienfuegos harbour (Shutterstock)
The pristine beach of Cayo Largo (Shutterstock)
The road up into Belize’s Maya Mountains is long, winding and rather bumpy. The going is consequently slow, which affords plenty of opportunity to take in the small villages – Mayan, Belizean and Garifuna - and fruit plantations where local people work. Eventually, after a final curving drive through sweltering bushland comes the darker, cooler embrace of protected jungle – and, suddenly, the magnificent city of Caracol.
Caracol (which means ‘snail’ as lots of shells were found at the site) is nothing like as famous as Copán in Honduras, Tikal in Guatemala or any of Mexico’s major sites, but it is at least as beautiful. Temples rise up into the canopy that quivers with bird life, from toucans to falcons. Clouds of butterflies dance around the stonework. The exquisite carvings show a jaguar emerging from the underworld, teeth bared.
Another off-radar site, just a short drive away, is Xunantunich: here there is an impressive frieze of Chaac, the rain-god, on the western façade. Iguanas pose for photos. Howler monkeys bark when the thunder claps overhead. And chances are, with so few tourists visiting, you’ll have the site almost all to yourself.
The bumpy mountain road (Shutterstock)
Temple in the Caracol Ruins (Shutterstock)
Howler monkeys can be seen from Xunantunich (Dreamstime)
It’s strange we don’t know more about this archipelago of 350-odd islets set amid calm cobalt seas. The largest island, Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) is the second-largest in all Cuba and the seventh-largest island in the West Indies; Treasure Island and Peter Pan are both said to have been inspired by pirate stories from the Canarreos.
The diving waters are largely sheltered from the prevailing wind. Snorkellers can float freely, marvelling at the extraordinary dropoffs and caves, mangroves and sea-grass beds, and reefs in superb condition. The marine life is mesmerising, including sharks, rays, barracuda, lobster, several species of turtle, and countless small and large fish in large schools around the coral. The best way to access this underwater world is on a boat trip, sailing around the coast of Cuba.
A shipwreck-turned-reef at Isla de la Juventud (Dreamstime)
Spot turtles in the Canarreos Archipelago (Shutterstock)
As the sun sets in Monteverde, it gets cooler, more strange and magical, and a whole lot noisier – as the insects, birds, reptiles and mammals that were hiding from the heat and light come out to play, hunt, mate and feed. In small groups of no more than eight, night-walkers set out with flashlights to follow forest trails, stepping over dewy tree roots, climbing stairs and rocks, and mustering with expert guides to learn about the nocturnal processes and natural patterns of the cloud forest.
Species routinely spotted range from grey fox to olingos and monkeys to quetzals. Kinkajous and sloths are cutesy favourites, while snakes, tarantulas, tree frogs and big-eyed bugs are always good for a photograph and a gasp of delight/horror. Nature walks with a guide are your best chances of seeing wildlife, particularly in the cloud forest where every step leads you deeper into its enchanting but disorienting fold.
Forget minibuses and cabs. No need for shanks’ pony or a bike. To get to Yaxchilan on the banks of Rio Usumancinta in Chiapas (bordering neighbouring Guatemala), you have to take a guided boat. The name means “Place of Green Stones”, and those greenish stones have been placed and chiselled to create impressive temples, plazas, stelae and other sculptures, framed by ceiba and gum trees alive with howler monkeys and toucans.
During the Late Classical period (800-1000 AD), Yaxchilan became a key trading hub and an imposing urban development, with more than 120 structures spread over three main areas: the Great Plaza, the Grand Acropolis and the Small Acropolis. Nearby is the better-known Bonampak archaeological site, which was actually a sort of secondary city to Yaxchilán; its vivid frescoes bring the Mayan cosmovision to life. These turquoise, yellow and rust-coloured murals cover floor to ceiling inside, documenting the area’s historical events in the most colourful way.
A guided boat at Yaxchilan (Shutterstock)
Ruins at Yaxchilan (Dreamstime)
Ruins at the better known Bonampak (Shutterstock)
Once upon a time, before the rise of Cancun, Mérida was one of the Yucatán peninsula’s busiest, biggest cities. It grew to prominence in the 19th century thanks to the boom in henequen – a natural agave fibre used for ropes and other manufactures that was once dubbed “green gold”. The same wealth that built the grand haciendas dotted around the peninsula built the French and Italian style mansions in Mérida where the so-called casta divina used to live when they came into town.
Mexico is almost always better seen through its smaller cities. The pace is calmer, the people friendlier, the traffic less bothersome. Mérida has a pretty, convivial plaza surrounded by bars and restaurants, which is always hosting one community fiesta or another; during summer, folk bands set up a large stage and everyone comes in to watch, and dance. By day, tour the cathedral and churches and hang out at the crowd free parks and plazas. Come dusk, dine out on Mexican fusion food and do a mezcal themed bar crawl. Yes, you can get all the things the Cancun-ers get, but without the rush or the feeling that you’re not experiencing it with the locals.
Visit the cathedral (Shutterstock)
Enjoy the dancers in the street (Dreamstime)
Sample the Mexican-fusion food (Shutterstock)
Flight Centre makes holidays easy. Instead of having to coordinate booking your flights, your tour with G Adventures, the travel insurance and all the extra bits too, Flight Centre provides an end to-end service so that everything is done for you with a simple phone call. Its dedicated Travel Experts do all of the hard work, so you just tell them your dates and the places you want to see, and they’ll do the rest — it couldn’t be easier.
For trips that combine the above activities and more, try one of the following three itineraries run by G Adventures — experts in small group adventure travel — and bookable through Flight Centre....
This action-packed 8-night trip takes in the best of Costa Rica, from waterfall trails and hot springs to cloud forest night walks and coffee cooperative visits.
On this unique 15-day journey through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, you’ll discover a world of Mayan history, as well as incredible wildlife and untouched wildernesses all to yourself.
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