Relax on Mexico’s perfectly white beaches, swim with whale sharks and cool off in hidden waterholes; explore ancient Maya ruins, track through jungles and up volcanoes, climb through caves and underwater rivers; listen to chilled reggae whilst watching the sun set over the perfectly turquois water of the Caribbean sea; jump on a crowded chicken bus and go shopping crazy in local markets; eat way too many Tacos and make your peace with Tequila – this trip from Cancun to Guatemala offers it all even on a tight budget!
Located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and with a high number of international flight connections, Cancun is a popular gateway into Central America and a common stopover on bigger flight itineraries through the Americas.
The city is perhaps most famously known for its Spring Break parties and high density all-inclusive resorts located along the Zona Hotelera... a tourist stronghold. However, as Travel Nation's Sara points out in her stopping over in Cancun blog, the city and surrounding area has a lot more to offer.
If you don’t want to stay in Cancun, take the bus straight to Playa del Carmen or further on to Tulum. Both are a comfortable distance from Cancun (Tulum about 2 hours) and shared bus transfers cost around £5-10.
From Cancun to Tulum, the further down the coast you travel, the less crowded the beaches and cities become. Nestled in between the hotel chains you’ll find plenty of really affordable accommodation.
Although Cancun and Playa del Carmen are beach locations, Tulum is different and offers a more relaxed vibe and more secluded beaches. It’s about 5 km away from the sea so you’ll need to rely on taxis or my tip: rent a bike! Here you’ll find some basic but affordable rooms or even beach huts nestling beside the luxurious hotels at the seafront.
Tulum is named after one of the last cities build and inhabited by the Mayans. The ruins of this spectacular ancient city are located on a cliff top about 20 minutes outside of Tulum (a 50 minute walk up the beach).
In my opinion, the best way to visit the ruins is to bike there early in the morning before the tourist buses get in. Don’t forget your swimming gear as there are some beaches you can access from the ruins giving you the great opportunity to cool off a bit after your visit.
From Tulum you can also organise day-trips to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza or to the countless cenotes (limestone sinkholes some of which offer great opportunities for snorkelling or diving).
On my way from Tulum towards Belize I stopped in the town of Bacalar at the edge of the 60km Laguna Bacalar - also known as the "laguna siete colores“ (lagoon of the seven colors).
Bacalar is a sleepy town with a handful of little restaurants, maybe one or two small shops and an ATM machine, but worth the stop for a tour on the lagoon - I stayed on the edge of the town square.
If you’re in Bacalar for a day, take a guided boat tour around the lagoon. You can watch the ever-changing colours of the lake (so many shades of blue and turquoise!) and you will also swim at the edge of the three cenotes of the lake, jump off abandoned overwater ruins, float down rapids, watch one of the oldest organisms in the world (the Stromatolite) and if your nose is not too sensitive, you can treat yourself to a nice sulfur sand mask!
A 30 minute taxi ride from Bacalar (about 20 USD) brings you to Chetumal from where you can cross into Belize by boat. The boats runs daily each afternoon from Chetumal to the islands of San Pedro and Caye Caulker in Belize so make sure you book your tickets at least one day in advance.
Belize is the only country in Central America with English as its official language. It uniquely combines Central American culture from the mainland with laid-back Caribbean attitude from the many islands dotted along the coast.
Belize is home to the second largest reef in the world and thus offers great snorkelling and diving spots off the coast. I decided to spend a few days on the island of Caye Caulker, one of the many islands off the coast with great access to the reef.
Caye Caulker almost exclusively caters for travellers on a budget, so you’ll easily find nice and affordable hotels. That said, apart from affordable accommodation and very cheap rum, you might find Belize (or at least the islands) can be an expensive stop en-route through Central America.
Excursions like sailing trips, wind-surfing or snorkelling and diving excursions all come with a price so if diving the Blue Hole is on your bucket list; you should definitely put a few hundred dollars to the side to budget for this. It’s advisable to bring a good amount of cash to the island as there is only one ATM machine which doesn’t always work.
Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to the trips on offer, you can still chill out and relax at the well-known Split (Caye Caulker’s substitute for a beach as the island itself doesn’t really have a beach).
Guatemala was probably my favourite part of this trip, largely because of its stunning landscape. My first stop here was Flores. You can take a bus directly from Belize City to Flores in Guatemala but don’t expect to get much sleep as Guatemala has a lot of speed bumps… I mean a lot!
Flores is a beautifully peaceful little town on an island in a lake in northern Guatemala. The bus drops you at the bridge leading onto the island as only small cars can pass through the winding roads on this slowly sinking island (some of the outer roads are already halfway covered in water).
Flores is the gateway to the jungle ruins of Tikal, one of the biggest archaeological sites from the Mayan civilization. The complex is nestled and almost hidden in the middle of the jungle with several high temples peeking out of the trees.
I highly recommend booking a sunrise tour to Tikal. Hiking in the semi-dark, listening to sounds of the jungle awaking to the new day before watching sunrise over the trees from the very top of an ancient Maya ruin is absolutely worth getting the 4am start and the few pesos you pay for this tour. You’ll also have finished your Tikal ruins tour by midday, before the site is flooded by tourists and the sun reaches its peak making the heat and humidity in the jungle almost unbearable.
Once back in Flores, the perfect finish to the day is taking a water taxi to one of the many lakeside houses offering water, ropes and hammocks where you can cool off from the jungle heat and enjoy a wonderful sunset over the lake.
On my way from Flores to Antigua, I detoured to spend a few nights in Lanquin, a little town surrounded by richly green hills which is only reached by a small dirt road. The town itself is unspectacular but I recommend a visit for three reasons: the remoteness within this stunning landscape, the caves and the natural monument of Semuc Champey.
There is plenty of accommodation un and around Lanquin and most plces will offer day-trips to the caves and the water pools of Semuc Champey. We started the day with an adventurous ride standing on the back of a truck driving up and down the hills to the nature reserve where we changed into swim gear at one of the entrances to the cave system that runs through the area.
Equipped with burning candles we wandered into the depth of the caves, tracking and swimming through underwater rivers, climbing up waterfalls, jumping into underwater deep-pools and sliding down rivers from one cave to the next. The tour also took us to a giant water swing and the water pools of Semuc Champay, a truly fascinating sight where a river goes underground for about 50 meters and on top of the river, several water pools and terraces go down in steps, making it possible to jump and slide from one crystal clear pool to the next.
Located in Guatemala’s central highlands and at the bottom of several volcanoes is the town of Antigua. With its bumpy cobblestone streets, colourful single-story buildings and historic ruins this well preserved colonial town is a place of rare beauty and remains one of Guatemala’s must-visit destinations. It feels like a step back in time, and I personally enjoyed the variety of great restaurants as up until here I was quite disappointed by the central American kitchen!
My final stop was Lake Atitlan which is known for its natural beauty and colourful villages. Whilst the journey down to the lake was close to becoming the most uncomfortable ride I have ever been on, the view at the end was worth every bump and bruise. There are several small villages dotted around the edge of the lake in between the surrounding volcanoes, but most budget travellers stay at either San Pedro or San Marcos.
One of the best things to do here is take an early morning hike up one of the volcanoes which will reward you with the best lake views possible.
From the lake, you can do a trip to the town of Chichicastenango which twice a week hosts the great ChiChi market. This market spreads through several streets in the town, selling everything from crafts, pottery, hammocks, flowers, cloth and food. The best view of the event is from the flower market on the steps of the church, however this experience is not for those with claustrophobia!
If you’re ready to book a trip to Central America – I can build your perfect trip and can discuss ideas for multi-stop tickets including Mexico or Belize and a range of trip ideas and group tours. Contact Bryony to get planning.