Central America and the Caribbean

Cute sand castle on the beach in Barbados.
Trip 1 (2015)
Costa Rica -> Nicaragua ->
Guatemala ->Honduras ->
Barbados ->Trinidad and Tobago
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Guatemala Trip 1 (March 2015)
Antigua -> Flores ->
Tikal -> Yaxha ->
Lake Atitlan, San Pedro Village
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Guatemala Trip 2 (2016)
This was a 1 month trip to over 13 different cities and villages. See below for the specific locations.

Central America and the Caribbean

central america and the caribbean Final
If you like warm weather, sandy beaches and a cold rum drink, then look no further than the Caribbean. Generally, the Caribbean islands are more developed, expensive and not ideal for budget travel, but if you can afford it the beaches are amazing! If you like all of that plus some lively jungles, local grown coffee, ancient Mayan ruins, and you are on a tighter budget, then you need to check out Central America.
All of the nations in this region share a legacy of colonialism which can be seen in the architecture, culture, language, religion and ethnicity of these societies. Central America was colonized by the Spanish and gained independence in the 1820's. The Caribbean was controlled largely by the Spanish, British, Dutch, French and Americans. Many natives perished under colonial rule, but they were replaced by millions of slaves brought from Africa to work in the sugar/rum plantations. In 1804 Haiti was the first nation to gain independence, through a slave rebellion. The newest island nation is St. Kitts and Nevis, 1983. Although it appears small on a world map, this area between the continents is packed with a variety of different cultures, languages, and climates

Guatemala March 2015

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Why Guatemala?
Most American travelers will be familiar with the Caribbean beaches in Panama, Costa Rica and Belize, and, yes, these popular Central American destinations are lovely. So, why Guatemala? A few differences/benefits are:
1) everything is cheaper
2) many areas still inhabited by Mayans who speak an ancient language
3) visibly impressive Mayan ruins are not difficult to visit
4) parks, preserves, and other natural wonders to discover
Overall, Guatemala is an underrated destination for tourists. A word of advice - do not limit your trip to the usual suspects "Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, and Semuc Champey."

My first trip

to Guatemala in early 2015 was 3 weeks of easy living and relaxing in Antigua, San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, and Flores. The first trip was a perfect experience - lively hostels, cheap hotels, wifi, happy hour, cute restaurants and cafes, shuttle vans and new coach buses. Oddly enough, the ancient ruins at Tikal and Yaxha were the most authentic Guatemalan place I visited. Without a doubt these are must see places, but I missed the authentic Guatemala. Thus, trip 2.
---- Trip 1 route: Guatemala City to Antigua; Antigua to Flores (Tikal and Yaxha ruins); Flores back to Antigua; Antigua to Lake Atitlan (San Pedro village)
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1 Antigua

This is arguably the most popular first stop, or long-term stay, for tourists visiting Guatemala. This city is known for its historic buildings, churches, town square, authentic cobblestone roads,  and it was the capital during Spanish colonialism until earthquakes in the 1700's devastated the city. It's a lovely place, but also a very unique place.
Things to do:
1) Hike volcanoes Pacaya or de Agua
2) Follow a path north to hill of the cross overlooking town                       3)Restaurant/Bar: Por Que No? - perfect for a great steak or just a drink. Address:  2 Avenida Sur y 9 Calle Oriente casa Number 9

2 Flores

In the north part of the country, El Peten, is this small island city located in Lake Peten Itza. This is the main jumping off point to visit Tikal  and Yaxha (among the largest and most excavated Mayan ruins). The island is pleasant, and the tourist hotels, hostels, restaurants, and bars are usually crazy cheap. Interestingly,  a wide road with streetlights circles the island, but is mostly underwater. The water level was high enough to touch some of the buildings on the far side of the island.
Cool Beans Cafe is a great place to eat or just get a drink, relax, and enjoy the waterfront. Location: NE corner of the island.
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3 Tikal

This is a main attraction in Guatemala for good reason; Tikal is one of the largest and most excavated ruins in the Mayan world. The complex is massive, and I suggest not going with a tour guide so you will have more time to explore the area. The iconic temples facing each other are almost completely intact, and if you make a proper clap towards either one, you will hear it echo and vibrate back in the temple's top. It is really an amazing experience to be walking on the steps and across the paths of such a well preserved legacy of ancient Mayan culture. In my opinion, this is an achievement like visiting the Colosseum in Rome.

4 Yaxha

is another impressive, but less visited Mayan ruin, close to Flores. It's more difficult to visit without a guide, but the evening trip is quite good. As the sun starts to set, the group leader will take everyone to a temple overlooking a lake on the edge of the  complex facing the setting sun. Soldiers and park rangers working at Yaxha climb up to see the sun slowly set, shine across the lake water, and move towards the temple. On a clear day, a beam of sunlight would stretch across the lake and directly onto the temple - just as the Mayans planned. Simply an awesome sight!
View from the top of an ancient Mayan temple as the sunlight pierces through the clouds over the lake.
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5 Lake Atitlan, San Pedro Village

About a 2 hour ride from Guatemala City or Antigua, this lake is surrounded by high rising hills and about a dozen small, but different villages. Each village has a distinct character, so you would be wise to research the lake and stay at a few different places. I picked San Pedro, which is a cheap boat taxi ride from the main lake city Panajachel. Small local travel agencies offer a variety of cheap activities to do around the lake.
My Favorite Activities:
1) Go to the docks, find a boatman to take you around the lake.
2) Visit a coffee plantation, see the process, the farmers, and the land where your coffee originates. Buy some from the source!

Guatemala Trip 2

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I started researching, reviewing every travel website available, and slowly a map with potential routes across the country developed. What actually happened was a 27 day journey on chicken buses and packed Toyota minivans through the highlands, over the Cuchumatanes and Sierra de Chama mountain ranges, and across the country to the nation's largest lake, Izabal -  jungle boat rides to Mayan ruins and Livingston, a city not accessible by road - hiking to remote villages, hot springs and raging water falls -  sleeping in a national park with no electricity or food, waking up at 6AM to the jungle birds having a singing competition, sharing stories with fellow travelers over a drink - eating at restaurants too small for a menu and buying tacos from a street cart in the town center. Nothing short of amazing!
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---- Trip 2 Route

Guatemala City to Antigua --> to Quetzaltenango (Xela) --> to Huehuetenango (Zaculeu Mayan ruins) --> to Nebaj (hike to Acul and Cataratas) --> to Coban --> to Laguna Lachua --> to Sayaxche (Aguateca ruins) --> to Lanquin (Semuc Champey) --> to Rio Dulce --> to Livingston (riverboat) --> to Quirigua (Mayan ruins with largest stelles) --> to Guatemala City (Zone 1 Old Town)
Budget: Round trip plane tickets (including trip insurance): $411
Travel insurance 1 month: $41
Travel expenses in Guatemala: $1,050
Total trip cost for 27 days: $1,502
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El Castillo de San Filipe
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Laguna Lachua
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Lanquin (Semuc Champey)
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Guatemala City
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Huehuetenango (Zaculeu Ruins)
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Finca Paraiso Hot Spring

What to do next?

For more photos and information on current, recent and past trips, check out the Travelinman86.com youtube page and extended photo album.