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Embark on an in-depth Central American adventure with Lonely Planet and Intrepid Travel from Mexico's capital to the home of the Panama Canal. Pass through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama on a small-group journey through remote villages, traditional cities, ancient Maya and Aztec ruins, verdant cloud forests and pure Caribbean beaches. Get acquainted with the local cultures, spectacular landscapes and fascinating histories of Central America as you explore the wealth of tradition, spot the range of unusual wildlife, dive into unique underwater worlds and spend time travelling at your own pace. Did you hear that? Central America is calling - you better Belize it.
Day 1: Mexico City
Bienvenidos a Mexico City! This is one of the world's largest urban centres, a bustling metropolis with so many influences, offering a huge variety of museums, galleries and architectural delights, along with pumping nightlife and unparalleled street food. Your Lonely Planet Experience begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm, but if you arrive early, perhaps head to the Zocalo – the massive central square – and check out the Aztec ruins and colonial architecture nearby. There are also plenty of parks, plazas and gardens to relax in and adjust to the Mexican way of life.
Day 2: Mexico City
Wake up in Mexico City, ready for a leader-led walk to orientate yourself to the city, as well as to explore its historic centre. Pass by the Metropolitan Cathedral, Zocalo, National Palace, Bellas Artes, Paseo de la reforma and more. After exploring the main historic sights of Mexico’s capital, you sure would have worked up an appetite. For lunch, sample some authentic soft corn tacos from two different vendors – some of the best you’ll ever taste. The rest of the day is free for you to explore as you wish. If you’re looking for something to do in the evening, why not join the Mexican Night Out Urban Adventure tour and get among Mexico's Holy Trinity of entertainment: cantinas, mariachi and lucha libre wrestling.
Day 3: Puebla
Enjoy free time this morning to get in any last-minute exploration. Your group will head to the bus station in the late afternoon to catch a local bus to Puebla (approximately 2.5 hours), and if you're the grazing type, make sure you bring some snacks along for the journey. The local buses in Mexico aren't the colourful school buses seen in other areas of Central America – most are comfortable, coach-style vehicles equipped with bathrooms. The air conditioning will be blasted often, so don't forget to bring a jacket. On arrival in Puebla, your leader will take you out for an orientation walk and run through some common Spanish phrases to help you make the most of the days ahead. This will come in handy with an evening visit to La Pasita bar, where you’ll have the opportunity to taste pasita – a sweet liqueur made of raisins in one of Puebla’s most famous bars. Salud!
Day 4: Puebla
Puebla is a rapidly growing city featuring many well-maintained churches and buildings from the colonial period, and today is free for you to discover the city at your leisure. Though there are enough churches to visit a different one every day for a year, two of the best examples are Santa Domingo Church and the Rosary Chapel, located in town. Further afield lies the Great Pyramid of Cholula, containing over eight kilometres (five miles) of tunnels, with the enormous Popocatepetl Volcano serving as a backdrop. In town, Puebla also has plenty of markets where you can brush up on your bargaining skills or pick up some local handicrafts.
Day 5: Oaxaca
Journey by local bus to Oaxaca, arriving after approximately 5 hours. Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wuh-haa-ka’) is a beautiful, old colonial town full of graceful arcades and colourful markets. You'll find Zapotec and Mixtec influences around the city as ancestors have populated this region for thousands of years. Your leader will take you on a quick orientation walk to show you the ropes then the next couple of days are free for you to explore. The city is known for its arts scene, particularly its folk and fine art, but you'll also discover a grungier side to Oaxaca including some incredible examples of street art. Walk the narrow, cobbled streets, or maybe sit back in one of the squares, sipping mezcal and watching the world go by.
Day 6: Oaxaca
There's an opportunity today to visit the spectacular temples of Monte Alban just outside of Oaxaca. Monte Alban was inhabited for 1500 years by the Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples, and this World Heritage site is an outstanding example of a pre-Columbian ceremonial centre, with terraces, dams, canals and pyramids carved out of the mountain. Alternatively, why not take a day tour out to Mitla Ruins, relax at the mineral springs and calcified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua, and stop by a local mezcal distillery. In the evening, if you've any energy left, you could have a go at plating up some delicious local fare during a cooking class, or just head out for some food with your fellow travellers and enjoy the town's lively atmosphere.
Day 7: Oaxaca / Overnight Bus
Use today to take part in whatever optional activities you couldn't fit in yesterday or enjoy a relaxed day in town at your leisure. This evening the group will take a first-class overnight bus to the highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas – a journey of approximately 13 hours. There'll be a toilet, reclining seats and plenty of leg room. The bus is air conditioned, so be sure to bring a jacket on board. Please keep in mind that though the bus is comfortable, the road from Oaxaca to San Cristobal has some very winding sections, so if you suffer from motion sickness this is the time to have your medication handy.
Day 8: San Cristobal de las Casas
The bus will arrive in San Cristobal de las Casas early this morning. Leave your luggage at the hotel and begin exploring this highland town, hidden in green Chiapas valley surrounded by pine trees. Your leader will take you on a tour around town and point out all the important places, then the rest of the day is free for your own adventure. Take in the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, and soak up the old-world feel mixed with strong, pre-Hispanic roots. Stroll through the market, chat with the locals and maybe buy some of the colourful weavings they are known for, before grabbing a drink and some food with your fellow travellers.
Day 9: San Cristobal de las Casas
The villages surrounding San Cristobal are home to the indigenous Tzotzil and Tzeltal communities, who still maintain a strong sense of tradition both in dress and custom. Today you'll visit the village of San Juan Chamula, home to the fascinating Iglesia de San Juan. This church, with its pine-covered floor and air thick with incense, is often frequented by shamans who come to carry out cleansings using firewater and ancient prayer. Please note that there is a strict ban on cameras inside the church. Outside, the village is alive with colourful markets that sell local handicrafts and great street food. If you would like to try something more active, your leader can help organise an optional boating trip in the Sumidero Canyon, which is as old and impressive as the Grand Canyon, or a canyoning adventure through El Chorreadero (both at your own expense).
Day 10: Palenque
Travel along a windy road by private vehicle to Palenque (approximately 6 hours), stopping en route at the Agua Azul waterfall for a refreshing swim. Once you've arrived in Palenque, the afternoon is free for you to relax or explore. Situated in a steamy jungle, Palenque is a central town located close to the nearby Maya ruins of the same name, which you'll have a chance to check out tomorrow.
Day 11: Palenque Ruins / Merida
Today you have the chance to visit the Palenque archaeological zone. Situated on a hilltop, the ruins date back to AD600 and are some of the most impressive Maya relics in Mexico. As you walk among the temples (closed-toe shoes recommended), listen out for the eerie calls of howler monkeys echoing from the jungle. There are many ruins which are still un-excavated and remain hidden in the forest, and you can opt to take a guided tour of the ruins or through the surrounding jungle on your own Indiana Jones-style adventure. This afternoon, travel by private vehicle to the historic town of Merida (approximately 8 hours), the capital of the Yucatan region.
Day 12: Merida
Founded in 1542 on the site of Tho (an ancient Maya city), the colonial city of Merida retains much of its old-world charm thanks primarily to its people and architecture. Take an orientation walk with your leader, then enjoy free time for the rest of the day. Maybe take an optional trip to the Merida Contemporary Art Museum for an interesting perspective on contemporary life in the city. Or perhaps just spend some time wandering the Plaza Grande: a green, shady square enclosed by a 16th-century cathedral, City Hall, the State Government Palace and Casa Mantejo, or the outdoor markets where you can local food specialities like the seriously spicy El Yucateco hot sauce.
Day 13: Merida
Today you can choose to visit the Maya ruins of Uxmal, a 1-hour drive from Merida, on an optional tour which includes transport and a local guide. Not much is known about the site, but it's thought that the city was constructed around AD700, was home to around 25,000 people and once dominated the region along with Chichen Itza. Much of the site is decorated with masks of Chac, the rain god, and important buildings include the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, the Quadrangle of the Nuns, the Governor's Palace, the House of the Tortoises and the Ball Court. Alternatively, you can choose to visit the Celestun Bird Sanctuary, which is home to vast flocks of flamingos, herons and over 200 different bird species.
Day 14: Chichen Itza / Playa del Carmen
Travel to Playa del Carmen by private vehicle, stopping en route for an included visit to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza (this first part of the drive will take about 2 hours). Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza contains both Toltec and Mayan ruins lying alongside each other. The famous El Castillo pyramid dominates the site and there is also a large ball court where games used to be held. Nearby, excavations of the Well of Sacrifice revealed treasures of jade, copper and gold as well as many human and animal bones. The group will spend 2–3 hours at Chichen Itza before continuing on to Playa (approximately 3 hours). After a quick orientation walk, pick a place to kick back with a margarita and watch the sun go down.
Day 15: Playa del Carmen
Today is a free day to enjoy at your own pace. Perhaps use your time snorkelling in freshwater rock pools – cenotes – by booking yourself in on a day tour, or for an adventure further afield, take a ferry across to Cozumel, an island famous for its reef diving. If relaxing is on the cards, grab a towel and simply laze back on one of the pristine stretches of sand nearby – the tropical Caribbean is waiting. Later on in the evening, there is a group meeting booked for 6 pm where you can regroup and meet some new travellers joining you! Here, you will get briefed about the next stage of your adventure. Until then, go with the flow.
Day 16: Tulum
Leave behind one paradise for another, quieter version. Travel south by local bus to Tulum, where white-sand beaches and Maya ruins await after a mere 1.5-hour journey. Take an orientation walk with your leader around the small town when you arrive, then head to the cliffs or the shore to enjoy the sunshine at your own pace. The famous ruins that hug the cliff edge are no longer a well-kept secret, so if crowds aren’t your thing it’s best to get up early tomorrow to beat them. Enjoy free time to maybe grab a snack and a beer at a beach shack, then hit the sand and the water (rinse and repeat). In the evening, you could grab a few of your fellow travellers and find a spot to watch the sunset with a margarita in hand.
Day 17: Tulum
Today is as clear as the waters of the Caribbean, so you can spend it how you like. Perhaps start your morning by renting a bike and exploring on two wheels. Then maybe head to Akumal Bay for a change of scenery or check out one of the many local freshwater rock pools known as cenotes. You can buy an organised tour to each of these attractions or venture off on your own as both are easily accessible using local transport. Cenote Dos Ojos is perhaps the most spectacular of the natural pools, but it be prepared for a three-kilometre walk each way from the local bus drop off. Remember, pack plenty of water and snacks so you don’t get caught out! If you haven't already, you might want to take the opportunity to head to Mexico's most famous archaeological site, Chichen Itza, which is about a 2-hour drive away. Chat to your leader about what’s on offer and how to organise optional activities.
Day 18: Caye Caulker
Bid adios to Mexico early this morning and head south to Belize. Be prepared for a long day of travel on the road without a chance to stop for lunch, as the total driving time including the border crossing will be 8–9 hours. First, travel to the town of Chetumal by public bus (approximately 3.5 hours). Then jump on a local bus to the border (20 minutes). Undertake border formalities, then board the same bus to Belize City (approximately 3 hours). Once in Belize City take a water taxi to Caye Caulker (1 hour). Expect to arrive on Caye Caulker by 6 pm. Phew! What a day. But trust us, it’s worth it. Perhaps go for an evening stroll to get your bearings on the island, then if you have the energy why not hit a beach bar and unwind. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, which will make chatting with locals much easier.
Day 19: Caye Caulker
Good morning and welcome to heaven! Today is free for you to explore the island and surrounds or simply relax. Whatever you choose to do, it’s pretty much impossible to keep the smile off your face when the scenery is this magic. If you feel like snorkelling, ask your leader about organising a trip to the colourful coral reef nearby, or perhaps head further afield to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, home to the world’s second-longest coral reef. Manatee spotting is one option nature lovers should consider, as the chance to encounter these gentle giants is a special one. Of course, you could always take a stroll and find a swaying palm tree with your name on it. They make the perfect place to nap, read a book and soak up the island vibes.
Day 20: Caye Caulker
What’s better than one day in paradise? Two, of course! Wake up when you like, because you’ve got another free day. Like any good seaside Eden, Caye Caulker is home to super fresh seafood, which you can dig into with your feet planted in the sand at one of the many ‘floor free’ outdoor restaurants. The island's famous lobsters are available between 15 June and 15 February, and you can expect to pay far less than at home (though more than your average island meal). Some of the best meals can be found by the roadside, so why not grab some grilled shrimp and a rum and coke made with firewater to really get into the spirit.
Day 21: San Ignacio
From the islands to the highlands, today you’ll bid farewell to Caye Caulker and catch a ferry to Belize City (1 hour) and then take a local bus to San Ignacio (3.5 hours). Local buses in Belize are a little more basic and crowded than you may have experienced elsewhere in Central America. Get ready for a stop-and-go experience on the journey. There are very few official bus stops in Belize, so the bus will stop as required by roadside passengers. On arrival, your leader will take you walking tour of San Ignacio and its twin sister Santa Elena, which will give you a sense of how vibrant the local Garifuna and Maya communities are. Perhaps tonight head out in search of a classic Maya dish like cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus).
Day 22: San Ignacio
You have a full day at your leisure to discover San Ignacio. This beautiful town is surrounded by fast flowing rivers, waterfalls and Maya ruins, making it the ideal base. One optional activity that will appeal to history buffs is a day trip to Xunantunich, an impressive Maya ceremonial site positioned on a hill that overlooks the countryside. Getting to the site is half the fun, as you'll need to take a hand-cranked ferry to cross the river. Also nearby is the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a living museum of Maya relics. Wade through cool waters to find ceramic pots and crystallised skeletons preserved by the calcium-rich environment of the cave for over 1400 years. Easily spooked? Maybe you'd prefer a cave with fewer (as far as we know) skeletons, like the one in Mountain Pine Ridge. In the late afternoon, the barbecue stalls of Santa Elena start to set up for the dinner rush. It's only a 15-minute walk, so consider wandering over to enjoy a juicy chicken leg and a chat with the locals.
Day 23: Tikal
Rise and shine for an 8 am taxi ride to the Belize-Guatemala border. Once you've crossed over, board a bus to Tikal National Park (approximately 2.5 hours). In Tikal there will be time to buy lunch before visiting the impressive archaeological site. Towering above the jungle, the five granite temples of Tikal are an imposing sight and one of the most magnificent Maya ruins. Hidden in the evergreen forest are a maze of smaller structures waiting to be explored. The energetic can climb to the top of the ruins for spectacular views over the canopy and the chance to spot toucans, macaws and other colourful birds. Choose to explore on your own or pay a little more for a guided tour (or maybe see the site from above on an optional zip-line ride). Tonight, set up the tents and mattresses and spend some time under the stars. The weather is always warm in this part of the world but a thin blanket is provided for extra comfort. There are also basic shared bathrooms and showers at the camp.
Day 24: Rio Dulce
If you can't get enough of Tikal, you have the option to visit the site again in the (very) early morning at your own cost before departing at 8 am to Flores. It's just a 1-hour ride away, and on arrival your leader will take you on a walking tour of the island of Flores. Continue by private minivan to Rio Dulce (approximately 4 hours). On arrival in Rio Dulce, transfer to the hotel by boat. The easiest way to get back into town is also on the water, a journey which can be organised through the hotel. Alternatively, a 40-minute jungle walk will get you there. The hotel is a great place to relax and look over the water, with reasonably priced meals and drinks served in the hotel restaurant. Now that you are back in a Spanish-speaking nation, why not join an informal Spanish lesson put on by your leader? Muy bien!
Day 25: Rio Dulce
With plenty of free time today, consider taking advantage of some of the optional activities available. Maybe take a scenic boat trip down the river to the coastal enclave of Livingston for a taste of Creole-Caribbean culture. This laidback town on the Caribbean coast feels very different from the rest of Guatemala thanks to its Garifuna population. Or perhaps go boating on the lake, take a tour to spot local manatees or explore nearby San Felipe Fort.
Day 26: Antigua
Leave the 'Sweet River' behind and travel by private minibus to the city of Antigua, a journey which should take around 8 or 9 hours, allowing time for lunch. The road between Rio Dulce and Guatemala City is one of the busiest in the country. Traffic is slow, there are frequent road works and many, many, many (seriously) slow trucks. Be armed with patience, music and a good book and the journey will be easier to handle. Spend the night in Antigua before heading to Lake Atitlan tomorrow. Though there's not much tie in Antigua today, you owe it to yourself to reward you patience with a tamale – meat and dough steamed in a corn leaf. You could also give the pepian a try, which consists of a rich dark sauce served with vegetables and meat (usually chicken). You may also want to take this time to purchase a few snacks for your time at the homestay on Lake Atitlan as the meals there can be very basic.
Day 27: Chichicastenango / San Jorge La Laguna
Be up early and ready for an 8 am departure. Travel by private transport for 2.5 hours on winding roads to Chichicastenango. Home to perhaps the most colourful market in the country, on Thursdays and Sundays locals come from the surrounding villages to sell their wares and the streets are lined with stalls offering multi-coloured textiles and fresh produce. After doing a little shopping at the market, head to San Jorge La Laguna, a small Maya village overlooking Lake Atitlan (about 1.5 hours). Meet your host family and start getting to know each other. Locals in San Jorge La Laguna are both very friendly and very shy. In order to make the most of this experience, it may take a bit of effort from your side to break the ice first. Draw on your newly learnt Spanish and get ready for some serious hand signals. Enjoy dinner with your host family.
Day 28: Lake Atitlan / Panajachel
Say goodbye to your host family this morning and move on to the neighbouring town of Panajachel. Located on Lake Atitlan with distant volcanoes looming in the background, Panajachel has a thriving market, good eateries and many water-based activities to enjoy. Once you arrive in 'Pana' your leader will take you on a brief walking tour of town so you can get your bearings. The rest of the time is free for you to explore. Why not go for a swim, hike to San Pedro volcano or kayak on the lake, there aren't many places in the world that serve up active adventure in such a beautiful locale. The surrounding area is also dotted with villages which can be reached on foot or by boat. Watch women weaving at Santa Catarina Palopo or explore the colourful markets of Santiago Atitlan.
Day 29: Antigua
Hit the road again at 9 am and make the 3-hour journey back to Antigua by private vehicle. In 1773 the city was destroyed by an earthquake, but many of the colonial buildings have been carefully restored and the architecture from its glory days can still be seen. Your leader will take you on a walking tour of Antigua including Cerro de la Cruz lookout, the local market and the chicken bus station next door, where the colourfully-decorated American school buses you've probably seen on the roads come from. The rest of your time in Antigua is free for you to explore at your own pace. If you fancy a spin on the dance floor and want to learn some moves, Antigua is the place to be. Many dancing schools offer hourly lessons so you'll be able to perfect your moves. As always, ask your leader for details.
Day 30: Antigua
Enjoy a free day exploring this photogenic city. Perhaps check out the ChocoMuseo located on 4th Street West, two blocks away from central park. Learn all about chocolate, which was first documented by the Guatemalan Maya, as well as it's historical importance. Or maybe grab a coffee from one of the myriad shops in central park and sit back, relax and enjoy Antigua's chilled-out vibes. If you want to learn more about Guatemalan coffee, you can go on a coffee tour, visit the plantations, do some coffee tasting and buy some to take home.
Day 31: Antigua
Enjoy a free day exploring the city. You could grab a coffee from one of the many coffee shops in central park and just sit back, relax and enjoy Antigua's city vibe. Otherwise, today might be the day to learn more about the famous Guatemalan coffee. If you're into salsa dancing or if you'd like to learn some moves, Antigua is the place to be. Many dancing schools offer hourly lessons so you'll be able to perfect your moves. Keep in mind that there is another group meeting planned at 6 pm at the hotel this evening, where you’ll get briefed of the next stage of your journey, plus meet some new travel pals joining you!
Day 32: Copan
Rise and shine for a day of travel, leaving at around 4 am to beat the rush-hour traffic around Antigua. All up you'll be spending around 8 hours driving to Copan by private vehicle, and while the scenery is breathtaking in sections, it's a good idea to pack a book or have some snacks ready to make the journey more comfortable. During the drive, your group leader will run an informal Spanish lesson, providing you some useful phrases to break the ice with the locals. Head into Honduras through the wild countryside of eastern Guatemala, arriving in the charming town of Copan in the early afternoon. While most people use Copan as a base to explore the nearby ruins, there are plenty of other points of interest, both along the cobblestone streets and set into the lush surrounds. Maybe get started in the Central Plaza and follow your nose to a cafe, or perhaps head to the nearby natural hot springs. This optional tour gives you hours of soak time in mud, steaming natural baths and refreshing pools in the lush jungle, with an included dinner.
Day 33: Suchitoto
This morning, take a visit with your group to the World Heritage-listed ruins of Copan, the remnants of the southernmost of the great Maya sites for which Central America is famous. It's unique because of the numerous elaborate stelae – carved columns – still intact on site, and there are also temples, excavated vaults and walls inscribed with ancient faces. Otherwise, nature lovers may wish to travel two kilometres out of town to the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve. Dedicated to the conservation of the Central American macaw, the reserve also houses toucans, motmots, parrots, kingfishers and orioles. Wave goodbye to Copan early in the afternoon and head across the border to El Salvador by private vehicle. There's another substantial amount of time spent on the road this afternoon (approximately 7 hours). Depending on traffic and conditions, you are expected to reach the colonial town of Suchitoto in the evening, just in time for a late dinner.
Day 34: Suchitoto
Begin the day with a guided orientation walk of Suchitoto – widely considered the cultural capital of El Salvador. Stroll past gorgeous colonial facades and get your bearings. Birders will want to crane their necks – Suchitoto lies on a bird migration path. The rest of the day is all yours to relax or join the optional activities on offer. Suchitoto overlooks the Embalse Cerron Grande. Also known as Lago Suchitlan, this freshwater lake is a haven for the aforementioned migrating birds, particularly falcons and hawks. Maybe hustle a crew of four or more together and take a boat trip to Bird Island, or perhaps grab a historically-minded quartet for a guided walk through Cinquera Forest, where guerrilla fighters used the forest as cover during the civil war.
Day 35: San Miguel / El Cuco
This morning, get your chef’s hat on with a pupusa making session in a private home. These thick cornmeal flatbreads are a classic Salvadorian recipe from the Pipil culture, and are stuffed with some delicious ingredients, like cheese or chicharron (fried pork). Later on, head to coastal El Cuco (approximately 5 hours). There are some great dark-sand beaches close to town, including the beautiful Playa El Esteron and Playa Las Flores – one of the best surf spots in the country. Maybe head to a beach for a swim or relax under the palms with a beer while you wait for sunset. As night falls, you could enjoy a seafood dinner along the water – the local crab are some of the tastiest in the country.
Day 36: El Cuco
Today you're free as a bird to explore the beautiful coast around El Cuco at your own pace. If you and a few others feel like getting active, you could take a trip to see nearby Conchagua Volcano. The views from the lookout are stunning, but you'll need a minimum of five people to take part. Alternatively, you might prefer to take a boat out on the ocean, find some inner peace during a free yoga class at the resort or simply relax in a hammock on the beach. Life’s good.
Day 37: Leon
Rise early for a full day of travel by private vehicle. Leave El Cuco at around 8 am and drive to El Amatillo border crossing (approximately 1.5 hours), before a 2.5 hour drive by of Honduras (including a stop for lunch) to the next border crossing Guasaule, and finally reaching Leon after another 2.5 hours. Upon arrival your leader will take you on a walking tour of this charming city. Though it's the second largest in the country, Leon is relatively free of tourists, making strolling the mural-lined streets a real pleasure.
Day 38: Granada
Make the most of Leon in the morning. The street food behind the Lady of Grace Cathedral is some of the best in town, so why not grab a 'Nica taco'. Made with maize, rolled and then deep fried, these beauties are usually served with shredded cabbage and smothered in cream. Otherwise a thrilling volcano sand boarding adventure could be on the cards! In the afternoon, get ready for the 5-6-hour journey to the oldest city in the 'New World'. Featuring Moorish and Andalusian architecture and oozing colonial charm, Granada is set on the banks of Lake Nicaragua and is surrounded by active volcanoes. First, take a taxi from the hotel to the bus station, next board a local bus bound for Managua that will depart when it's full and takes around 2-3 hours depending on the amount of stops it needs to make and the complexity of onloading and offloading the passenger’s luggage. There will be about a 30-45-minute transit in Managua before taking the next public bus to Granada with a duration of approximately 1.5 hrs, and finally taking a 20-minute taxi ride to the hotel. Upon arrival, your leader will take you through the leafy Parque Central and 'La Calzada' – a lively pedestrian street with plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from.
Day 39: Granada
Today is all yours, so explore the city at your own pace. You may want to take a more comprehensive self-guided tour of the city, bargain hard in the markets, or wander the cobblestone streets snapping photos of the colourful buildings. Hundreds of evergreen islets dot the waters of vast Lake Nicaragua, and you can spend a few hours exploring them by boat. Or perhaps hire a kayak and find your own way around, stopping to wave at fisherman who live in wooden huts on the islets, or the monkeys who live in the trees the huts are built from. Just remember not to take a dip, as freshwater sharks live in the water! Alternatively, you could take a day trip out to Mombacho or Masaya Volcano National Park.
Day 40: Ometepe Island
Have a morning of leisure in Granada. Perhaps start the day with a classic Nicaraguan breakfast of eggs, rice and beans, soft cheese, plantains and strong coffee. Then maybe hit the Convento y Museo San Francisco and view the collection of indigenous stone statues. At 2 pm take a local bus to Rivas (approximately 1.5 hours) and transfer to the port of San Jorge to catch a 1-hour ferry across the seemingly endless waters of Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe Island. Hourglass-shaped Ometepe is formed by two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua, one active and one extinct. The island is home to fruit plantations, deep jungle and exotic wildlife such as howler monkeys, caiman and parrots. Spend the evening on the island, and maybe head out for a beer at one of the waterfront bars.
Day 41: Ometepe Island
Spend your free day however you wish on Ometepe. You can hike both Concepcion or Maderas Volcano, however, at 1700 and 1340 metres above sea level, the treks are no walk in the park. If you are going to tackle them, ask your leader for a recommendation for a local guide. You should also be aware that even for the very fit, both volcanoes will likely take all day (8–10 hours) to summit and then descend. Instead, you might prefer to splash around in the clear waters of the natural springs, soak up the sun on the beach or check out the ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) scattered about the island. While the restaurants on the island are of decidedly mixed quality, your leader can give you the lowdown on which places to avoid and which to eat at. Stick to local fare and you'll have more luck – perhaps try indio viejo: a stew of corn, beef, onion, tomatoes and capsicum.
Day 42: Monteverde
Today is another early start in order to grab a 7 am ferry to the mainland (1.5 hours) and a 1.5-hour transfer to Penas Blancas before crossing the border into Costa Rica. Once in Costa Rica, travel by private vehicle for 5 hours to Monteverde. Phew – long day, but you made it! Welcome to beautiful Monteverde, which you can begin exploring straight away on a walking tour with your leader. Monteverde was founded as an agricultural community in 1951 by a group of North American Quakers. These environmentally-aware settlers also established a small wildlife sanctuary, which has since grown into the internationally-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve. Cloud forests are like rainforests, but instead draw their water from a semi-permanent cloud covering the region. This is truly a nature lover's paradise. More than 2000 plant species, 320 bird species and 100 mammal species call Monteverde home. Be sure to keep an eye out for the resplendent quetzal, one of the most elusive birds in the world.
Day 43: Monteverde
You’ll have a free day to discover the lush reserve at your own pace. Perhaps take a hike through the cloud forest, check out the area by mountain bike or fly over the thick canopy on a zip line tour. Another way to see the forest from above is to take a Sky Walk tour along a series of suspension bridges. You can explore the park on your own or arrange for a local guide to accompany you. Guided tours are particularly helpful for those interested in learning more about the local flora and fauna, as well as the different roles wildlife play in Mesoamerican mythology. You can get guaranteed sightings of exotic insects and snakes at the Butterfly Garden or the Serpentarium.
Day 44: La Fortuna
Spend a final morning in the thickets of the Monteverde jungle, perhaps taking one last walk to search for wildlife. Depart in the early afternoon and head to La Fortuna. It takes about 1.5 hours to reach the shores of Lake Arenal, followed by a further 1.5-hour journey across the lake to the little town of La Fortuna. On a clear day you'll have fantastic views of the surrounding area, and watching the massive Arenal Volcano loom larger and larger as you approach is a spectacular sight. Once you reach La Fortuna take another vehicle to the hotel, then freshen up and head out on a leader-led walking tour. La Fortuna is a favourite among travel writers for a reason – words like picturesque and breathtaking spring to mind when trying to describe this town in the shadow of the volcano.
Day 45: La Fortuna
Why not start today with a smoothie and plan how you want to explore. Perhaps take a guided nature hike through the lush forest surrounding Arenal Volcano, keeping an eye out for rare plants and animals. You can also see the forest from a series of hanging bridges, which is a great vantage point for spotting wildlife like sloths and rainbow-coloured birds. The volcano’s inner workings also mean that the area is home to several thermal hot springs, an ideal way to relax in the middle of nature. Or instead, check out the 70-metre-high La Fortuna waterfall set in the middle of evergreen rainforest. Active types might want to hit the lake on a stand-up paddleboard. Otherwise, a boat safari down the Celeste River offers the opportunity to see lizards, crocodiles and tropical birds in their natural habitat.
Day 46: San Jose
Watch the volcano fade into the distance as you begin the 5-hour local bus ride to Costa Rica's capital, San Jose. Head out on a walking tour with your leader on arrival to see the main highlights. Later, perhaps visit the Gold Museum, which has an amazing collection of pre-Spanish gold art. If you're in the mood for a bit of shopping, head to the outdoor market in the Plaza de la Cultura or the city's Central Market, where you can buy anything from handicrafts to seafood.
Day 47: San Jose
Today is all yours to choose your own adventure around San Jose. A good place to start your exploration is the main plaza. Artisan booths are common here, so you never know when an art fair will pop up. The Gold Museum has an amazing collection of indigenous gold art. If you're in the mood for a bit of shopping, head to the outdoor market in the Plaza de la Cultura or the city's Central Market. There’s another group meeting at 6 pm tonight, where your group leader will fill you in on the details of the next stage of your adventure. Better yet, there’ll be some new travellers joining you, so come and say hi!
Day 48: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Today take a 5-hour local bus to Puerto Viejo. On arrival, get to know this laid-back jungle town during a bicycle ride with your leader, then the rest of the day is yours to explore. Small and coastal, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca has a lively main street featuring dancehalls, reggaeton bars and modern restaurants. If you’re after something more relaxed, you'll find great surf beaches and rainforest fruit farms. At some point today, your leader will take you through some must-have phrases during an informal Spanish lesson.
Day 49: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Enjoy a free day to ease into the vibes of the Caribbean coast. If you wish, take your time to explore Cahuita National Park, which is easily accessible from Puerto Viejo and home to sloths, monkeys, raccoons, snakes and a great variety of birds. Want to see adorable animals and support an organisation that’s helping the vulnerable among them survive? Maybe check out the Jaguar Rescue Centre, where sick, orphaned and injured animals are rehabilitated. If the waves are calling but your footing isn’t so sure, surf lessons are on offer in town. Alternatively, of course, you can always find a cool spot and relax with a beer in hand.
Day 50: Bocas del Toro/Isla Colon
Take a 1-hour local bus to the border, then walk across an old railway bridge into Panama. Continue by taxi or collective minivan to Almirante, where you'll take a short boat ride to Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Rapidly becoming a Caribbean favourite, Bocas del Toro has it all – palm-shaded beaches with crystal-clear water, spectacular snorkelling and lots of wildlife. Culturally, Bocas is home to West Indians, Latinos and expats, resulting in diverse music, nightlife and food scenes. For the next three nights, you'll stay on Isla Colon, the main town in Bocas del Toro. It's a great spot to start your exploration of the archipelago from, with most bars, restaurants and local activity operators just metres from your hotel.
Day 51: Bocas del Toro/Isla Colon
Today is the first of two free days to explore this tropical archipelago. There are several beaches within reach from town, lying between 8 and 14 kilometres from your hotel. With azure waters, pristine coral reefs and a rollicking nightlife, it’s easy to see why these islands are a favourite haunt for so many travellers. The safest beaches are Starfish, Sandfly and Big Creek. Be aware others may have strong riptides. When the sun goes down, why not head into town and check out the local bar and restaurant scene. Ask your leader about the best place to grab a drink.
Day 52: Bocas del Toro/Isla Colon
Enjoy another free day in the Caribbean sun. Maybe take the opportunity to do some surfing or snorkelling, to rent a bike and explore the main island, or simply soak in the chilled-out vibe while enjoying a cold one on the beach.
Day 53: Boquete
Travel by boat and local bus to Boquete, a lengthy journey that will take 8–9 hours. Be sure to have a book, podcast or daydream to keep you occupied just in case you get tired of swapping stories with your fellow travellers. Boquete is a picturesque town located in the highlands of Panama, surrounded by mountains, crystal-clear creeks and rivers, forest reserves, and colourful wildflowers, as well as coffee plantations and orange groves. Head out on an orientation walk with your leader on arrival. Tomorrow will be a free day, wide open for exploring. Most optional activities can be organised directly from the hostel, though it’s a good idea book them on arrival tonight if you know what you want to do.
Day 54: Boquete
There’s tonnes of ways for you to experience Boquete today, so be sure to chat to your leader and hostel front desk about the stuff you’re interested in. You could discover the secret waterfalls only locals know about on a walking tour in the jungle. Or maybe you’d prefer to soak it up in the caldera hot springs. If you’re a coffee lover, consider taking a visit to a plantation or simply kicking back in town with a cup of the local brew – some of the best coffee in the world is grown and processed right here in Boquete.
Day 55: Santa Catalina
Catch an 8-hour bus to Santa Catalina, situated on the Pacific coast of Panama. Remote and somewhat undeveloped, this region offers some of the best surfing in Central America, as well as relaxed vibes. Enjoy free time upon arrival. It’s going to be late afternoon or early evening by the time you get in, so perhaps find a spot to share a drink and fresh seafood dinner with your fellow travellers, or head to the beach for a sundown swim.
Day 56: Santa Catalina
Aside from surfing, the main way to pass the time in Santa Catalina is relaxing, preferably in a hammock. Enjoy a free day around the area and hunt down some activities in the process. Keen for something active? Perhaps take a trip out to Coiba National Marine Park, where you can snorkel with turtles, angel rays and schools of colourful fish. Alternatively, half-day fishing trips or surfboard hire is available in the town. Lessons are readily available, so there's no reason to fear the waves.
Day 57: Panama City
Trade in the beach for the city and travel to Panama City, Central America's glitziest capital (about 6 hours). Arrive late afternoon and head to the city’s gorgeous waterfront promenade, the Cinta Costera, for a walking tour with your leader. Take in great views of the historic Casco Viejo (Old Town) and the Panama City skyline as you stroll past crowded waterfront soccer fields, running paths and food carts. Stop at the nearby Fish Market, and perhaps grab some fresh ceviche. Afterwards, enjoy free time to sample Panama City’s thriving nightlife.
Day 58: Panama City
Today is free for you to discover Panama City. Perhaps explore the historic Casco Viejo (Old Town), which features an unusual combination of restored buildings, low-income housing, churches and ruins. You may also like to visit the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal, or take a stroll through the rainforest in the Metropolitan Nature Park. Panama City is also famous for its shopping centres, the biggest being Albrook Mall. For more traditional souvenirs, head to the National Artisan's Market.
Day 59: Panama City
Your adventure ends today, there are no activities planned. If you plan on staying on to check out some more of Panama City, why not do it on an Urban Adventure. With day tours like Taste of Panama City, you can sample local cocktails, craft beers and ceviche under the guidance of someone who knows the city well. Go to urbanadventures.com and search ‘Panama’ for more.
Antigua, Bajos Del Toro, Boquete, Caye Caulker, Chichen Itza, Chichicastenango, Copan, Granada, La Fortuna, Lake Atitlan, Merida, Mexico City, Monteverde, Oaxaca, Palenque, Panama City, Playa del Carmen, Puebla, Rio Dulce, San Cristobal, San Ignacio, San Jose, Santa Catalina, Suchitoto, Tikal, Tulum
- Mexico City - Leader-led Taco Crawl
- Mexico City - Leader-led City Tour of Historic Center
- Leader-led Informal Spanish Lesson
- Puebla - Leader-led orientation walk
- Puebla - Visit to La Pasita Bar
- Oaxaca - Leader-led Orientation Walk
- San Cristobal de Las Casas - Leader-led City Tour
- San Juan Chamula - Maya Church (entrance fee)
- Zinacantan - Maya Church (entrance fee)
- Agua Azul - Waterfall Visit (entrance fee)
- Palenque - Palenque Ruins (entrance fee)
- Merida - Leader-led Orientation Walk
- Chichen Itza - Archaeological site (entrance fee, no guide)
- Playa del Carmen - Leader-led Orientation Walk
- Tulum - Leader-led orientation walk
- Caye Caulker - Leader-led orientation walk
- Tikal National Park - Tikal archaeological site (entrance fee, no guide)
- Leader-led Informal Spanish Lesson
- Chichicastenango Market
- San Jorge La Laguna - Traditional Maya Homestay
- Panajachel - Leader-led orientation walk
- Antigua - Leader-led walking tour
- Leader-led Informal Spanish Lesson
- Copan - Archeological site (entrance fee and transport, no guide)
- Suchitoto - Leader led walking tour
- San Miguel - Salvadoran Pupusa cooking demonstration
- Leon - Leader led walking tour
- Monteverde - Leader led walking tour
- La Fortuna - Leader led walking tour
- San Jose - Leader-led walking tour
- Puerto Viejo - Leader-led orientation bicycle ride
- Leader-led Informal Spanish Lesson
- Boquete - Leader-led orientation walk
- Panama City - Leader-led walk along part of the Cinta Costera (Causeway) including a visit to the Fish Market
1 Breakfast(s) Included
2 Lunch(es) Included
1 Dinner(s) Included
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The trip was both both educational and exciting. I very much enjoyed the sights and culture.
The itinerary was just as I expected! The guide was very good as were the accomodations
Intrepid did such a great job. I never had to worry about where I was supposed to be and it felt so good not to worry about a thing but just to enjoy myself. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about culture and history.
Taiwan people very friendly. Accommodation were centrally located and easily accessible. Did extra activities then in brochure which was greatly.
Larus our tour guide did an excellent job and was very attentive to our needs. He is very knowledgeable and has a great sense of humor.
Our guide Tarang chandola was exceptional. Courteous, knowledgeable, organized, polite, professional and went above and beyond taking care of our needs and requests offen anticipating what that might be. He made sure we all had the best possible time and offered suggestions to meet the needs of everyone on the tour. This made the trip even more enjoyable.
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