Central America overland activities


Central American overland vacations are not for couch surfers. You are hopping on and off buses and jumping into Mexican cenotes, walking through Costa Rican cloud forest, camping under ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala, kayaking through mangroves, and snorkelling around Belizean cayes. If you want the sort of vacation where you hang your t-shirt that got soaked under a Nicaraguan waterfall on the back of the bus seat to dry, or don’t mind getting up at dawn in order to catch the sunrise over the peak of a volcano, or an early boat to an unheard off Panamanian island idyll, then jump on board. These are bumpy but the most beautiful rides.

Mayan culture through the ages

The Mayan civilisation dominated Central America between 600-900AD and although visiting the archeological ruins are a feature of most overland tours, they don’t dominate the whole trip. Nor are they simply visits to dusty old ruins. Tulum in Mexico, for example, is located on cliffs overlooking turquoise waters and near a sleepy seaside town, not yet ravaged by resorts. Indeed, Mayan people still live in fishing communities here. Also on the Mayan Trail, a tourist route that covers 2,400km, is Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the largest excavation in Central America. Enjoy not only the history, but also the views across ever invading jungles from the top of five vast granite temples. A great setting, with howler monkeys as the soundtrack.

Belize has two Mayan beauties: Xunantunich in the west, with Mayan masterpieces stretching to over 40m tall, and Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), a colossal cave system where Mayans worshipped and sacrificed. Wade through this cavernous world in search of human remains, now calcified and crystallised. Less well known are Copan in Honduras or Cihuatán in El Salvador, but both fine reminders of just how ahead of their time these Mayans were when it came to ‘grand designs’.

Water babies

Central America’s idyllic isthmus has not just one coastline but two: Pacific and Caribbean. It’s just greedy for gorgeousness really. If you are doing an overland trip that goes through Mexico, Belize and Nicaragua, you might have a chance to wade in both water bodies. Many trips start or end in Playa del Carmen in Mexico, taking you out to spectacular spots along the coast such as Tulum, with its famous cliff clinging Mayan site.
Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful cayes to snorkel and swim around. Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica is where tropical forests meet the Caribbean, and there are plenty of hidden Honduran beach spots such as Cayos Cochinos and the Bay Islands. And if you thought Panama was all about a canal, then you’re in for a treat; the Bocas del Toro archipelago has nine islands, thousands of islets and over 50 cayes.

Climb, camp, canoe

Although you will be traveling a fair bit on an overland trip, you will always want to have your hiking shoes, swimsuits, water shoes within easy access. Go hiking up volcanoes in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, camp in Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, kayak across its magnificent Lake Atitlán, trek through island mangroves in Panama, and go scuba diving or snorkelling in Belize.

Eat up the local culture

Literally. Always eat what and where the locals eat if you can. Try the casado set lunch in Costa Rica, güirilas tortillas in Nicaragua, falmaau fish cooked in coconut milk in Belize and arrachera, a really tender cut of steak in Mexico. Choco Guate Maya in Guatemala is the biz. And every country has its own beer, and plenty of rum.
Photo credits: [Intro: thejaan] [Water babies: Adam] [Eat up the local culture: Richie Diesterheft]
Written by Catherine Mack
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Tati Nova photo Mexico]