Central America overland guide
2 MINUTE SUMMARY
What we rate & what we don't
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL’S BEST & WORST
Just look at Amnesty International’s homepage for a good snapshot of human rights abuses and please don’t turn a blind eye. Homosexuality is illegal in Belize, indigenous peoples mistreated in Nicaragua, women and women’s rights violated in Honduras, and former Guatemalan head of state Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity. Please support and keep up to date with work of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.
Although Guatemala is already famous for its magnificent Mayan ruins at Tikal, Topoxte and Yaxha, it is also a nirvana for nature lovers. Take a boat ride along the Rio Dulce and its eponymous national park all the way to the Caribbean coast. Hike to San Pedro volcano or kayak across the stunning Lake Atitlan, or swim in the sultry waters of Lake Petén Itzá, with the island town of Flores as your base.
If you hear this described as the poor man’s Costa Rica, think again. Nicaragua is completely different, but just as stunning and with a lot fewer tourists. Touching two seas, it is all about jungles, volcanoes and coast, as well as music, food and laughter. Highlights include the elegant, colonial city of León. And traditional Granada, with Volcán Mombacho as its backdrop. As is Lake Nicaragua and its magnificent Ometepe Island. text
A relative newbie on overland tours, this country has been slower to emerge from poverty than some of its neighbours, and many communities are now embracing tourism as a sustainable and sumptuous way to break the cycle. Highlights include Copán’s copious Mayan ruins, the Caribbean island resort and luscious lagoons of Roatán, or go hiking through the jungle- and waterfall-filled terrain of Pico Bonito National Park.
This is still the classic eco stop on overland tours in Central America. From the peak of the iconic Arenal Volcano, the flora and fauna of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, to the coastal mangroves of Tortuguero National Park where you can travel by boat to see green turtles, manatees and howler monkeys. Or enjoy the Afro-Caribbean vibe in Puerto Viejo, where the sound of surf segues sublimely with reggae music.
A 2,400km trail around the great pyramids, palaces and ancient principalities from Mayan civilisation, which dominated Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Overland tours are a great way to take in some of the greats, be it Chichén Itzá or Tulum in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves or Xunantunich in Belize, Cihuatán in El Salvador or Copán in Honduras.
Central America’s array of indigenous cultures is simply extraordinary, and really worth swotting up on before you leave for vacation. The Mayan people still thrive in Mexico and Guatemala for example, and in the former are only one of 60 indigenous groups. Many overland trips incorporate visits to small indigenous communities, such as the Bribri of Costa Rica or the Lenca people of La Campa in Honduras.
Cayes & Cenotes
Cayes are a Caribbean thing, and a particularly important part of Belize’s natural heritage, with over 200 of them. Pronounced ‘keys’, these are small islands formed by sand gathering on top of reefs, the most popular cayes being Ambergris and Caulker. Both are heaven for swimming and snorkelling. As are Mexico’s cenotes, particularly in Yucatán, where the collapse of limestone bedrock has created the most perfect natural swimming pools.
Please don’t assume you can get everything for nothing, especially in countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala, which some see as the “cheap Costa Rica.” Prices aren’t as high, but similarly these countries are developing their tourism infrastructures to, ideally, create good sustainable tourism. This costs money. So do remember that these are people’s real lives and, in many cases, their only income sources.
Busy US vacations
Not helped by the giant cruise ships, with their pollution records and generally highly irresponsible attitude to tourism, US vacations such as spring break, Labor Day or Memorial Day weekends are when the big port towns and daytrips pack out in certain Central American countries. Your tour operator will be aware of these and, ideally plan your days out accordingly, but do be aware of them if you want to avoid crowds.
The Yucatán Peninsula is exquisite, but Cancún is yucky. The land of all inclusives, irresponsible tourism and unthinkable concrete developments in such environmentally sensitive terrain, you can do better than this on your travels – even just a few miles away from the monster developments. Go cycling, hiking, swimming in cenotes or wildlife watching in the Celestún estuary, famous for its flamingos and turtles.
At the last count by conservation experts, there were 29 dolphins in captivity in Mexico, and many of them for the sole purpose of tourists getting to swim with them. Most tourism activities that are linked with captive wildlife are highly dubious in our books, and totally unethical when it comes to whales or dolphins. Even if they call themselves ‘eco’, know that these activities are much more about dollars than dolphins.