Central American Highlights
|Central American Highlights
|Central America, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Latin America, Nicaragua
This trip crosses five Central American countries in just two weeks, taking in rich wildlife, rainforests and volcanoes, as well as sacred Maya sites, revolutionary cities and local indigenous villages. From the avid people-watcher to the wildlife spotter and mountain lover, this trip will capture the imagination of all.
Volcanoes – Active and dormant volcanoes pepper this region. Discover the impressive cones overlooking the picture perfect city of Antigua, Guatemala, and see lava bubbling in Nicaragua’s Masaya volcano
Land of the Maya – Take in the sights and smells of the indigenous market at Chichicastenango and the villages around Lake Atitlan, where the modern day Maya culture still thrives
Suchitoto – Enjoy the charms of this pretty colonial town beside the shores of Lake Suchitlan, and take the opportunity to learn the art of pupusa-making – an El Salvadorean speciality
Day 1 Join tour Antigua (Guatemala)
Join trip in Antigua Guatemala, the graceful colonial city that sits just next door to the country’s capital Guatemala City. Set in a beautiful valley between the volcanoes of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, its cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings make it one of the most charming and picturesque cities in Central America. Despite the damage caused by a series of earthquakes and floods over the centuries, Antigua’s colonial heritage has seen it designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Due to the number of evening flights into the international airport, your Leader plans to do the welcome meeting on the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you’ll need for the day. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Antigua at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you’ll need to arrive into La Aurora International Airport (GUA). The drive between the airport and our hotel is only 40km but can take between 1.5 and 4 hours depending on the traffic and the time of day.
If your flight arrives earlier in the day, we recommend a gentle stroll around the compact centre of town, famed for its well-preserved Spanish Mudejar-influenced architecture.
Day 2 Walking tour of Antigua, free afternoon to explore
This morning’s walking tour takes us to some of the spectacular colonial churches for which the city is famed, including those of San Francisco, Santa Clara, La Merced and Las Capuchinas. Some of the churches have museums and ruins attached which you can choose to enter later in the afternoon. The city is also famous for its jade, not only green but the rarer black and lilac, and we will visit a museum explaining more about this industry.
This afternoon has been left free for you to continue exploring at your own pace. You may choose to do a short hike up Cerro de la Cruz for panoramic views of the city, or enjoy a bit of bargain hunting in what is regarded as one of the best cities for shopping in Central America. There is everything here, from high-end jewellery to street vendors selling locally-produced crafts and textiles. Alternatively, try the choco-museum for a Mayan hot chocolate, which comes with pure chocolate, hot milk, honey and chili powder to mix to your personal taste.
Day 3 Travel to Panajachel; boat trip on Atitlan Lake
This morning, we continue our journey to the town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan, which will be our base for the night. An old volcanic caldera, Lake Atitlan is considered to be one of the most spectacular lakes in the Americas and is certainly the deepest in Central America. Encircled by the volcanoes of Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro, the lake’s fertile shores are sprinkled with small communities of farmers and fishermen who still uphold the traditions of their Maya ancestors.
Panajachel itself is an old Spanish settlement which has attracted visitors to this charming setting for years. Today, it is one of the region’s most popular tourist spots, filled with galleries, handicraft shops and cafes, and is a good place to start our exploration of the area.
This afternoon, we head out by boat to explore two of the many Mayan villages surrounding the lake. Santiago Atitlan lies at the base of the volcanic peaks of Toliman and Atitlan, and is home to the Tzutujil Maya people. The Tzutujil can trace their ancestry back to the post-classic period of the Maya (around 900-1500 AD). They still wear a traditional form of dress, with the women in particular sporting colourful blouses with embroidered geometric and bird designs. This is a busy village with lots of visitors and locals going about their business. Our second stop, on our return to Panajachel, is to the quieter island of San Antonio and the textile and ceramic co-operatives found there.
Returning to Panajachel by boat, we have the remainder of the evening to explore the town and enjoy dinner in one of its many excellent restaurants.
Day 4 Chichicastenango Market then drive to Guatemala City
After an early start, we will head north towards the highlands of the El Quiche Province and the bustling town of Chichicastenango. Steeped in Maya culture, the town is famed for its market, where you can buy everything, from chickens and copal, to pigs and pottery. The best way to enjoy the market is to throw yourself into the melee and haggle with the traders, or escape to the beautifully colourful cemetery located just a short walk from the market.
Following our visit, we travel to Guatemala City. Time allowing, we may enjoy a city tour in our vehicle before arriving at our hotel.
Day 5 Visit the UNESCO Site of Copan, free afternoon
Today we need to depart at around 4.30am to beat the traffic in Guatemala city and get on the road to Copan. The journey takes approximately 6 hours including the border crossing into Honduras, and we arrive into Copan where a local guide will escort us around the spectacular ruins – one of the richest archaeological sites to be uncovered in Central America and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Anyone familiar with Catherwood’s incredible drawings (which first appeared in John Stephens’ 1841 narrative – ‘Incidents of Travel in Central America and Yucatan’), will recognise scenes and objects from this marvellous site. Stephens actually bought the entire site from a local farmer for just $50.
The Great Plaza is one of the most amazing achievements of the Classic Maya period and contains the greatest collection of Maya sculpture anywhere in Meso-America. Next door is the Acropolis – a group of massive pyramidal structures where royal power was once concentrated. Ascending one structure is the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway. Composed of some 2500 individual glyphs, its sides flanked by serpentine birds and snakes, this is the New World’s longest inscribed Pre-Colombian text.
Copan has been the subject of exploration and investigation since the 1830s. Remarkable finds continue to be unearthed by archaeologists, making it the most thoroughly researched and understood of all Maya sites.
This afternoon has been left free for those who want to explore the site independently, or visit the accompanying museum of statues found in the site (not included). Alternatively, you may choose to participate in one of several optional activities in the area including horse riding or visiting the macaw mountain project, a tropical bird reserve that cares for rescued or endangered birds of the American tropics.
Day 6 Journey to Suchitoto (El Salvador)
This morning we have 2 border crossings, passing back into Guatemala before crossing through another Honduran border and then through into El Salvador. Driving through scenic countryside, we arrive at the pretty town of Las Palmas, with its charming walls covered with drawings by the town’s children. We make a little stop at the town’s handicraft markets before continuing on to Suchitoto. Nestled between the mountains and Suchitlan Lake, this charming colonial town, with its cobblestone streets and pretty houses, is a little slice of El Salvador at its timeless best. The town was once at the heart of the country’s indigo trade. Today, as a rapidly developing centre for art and culture, Suchitoto is filled with craft shops and a rich vein of historic and cultural highlights, making it a wonderful place to explore and spend the next two nights.
Day 7 In Suchitoto, optional boat trip on the lake
Today has been left free for you to spend as you wish. In the morning you may take a boat trip out onto the lake, where over 200 bird species have been recorded, including hawks and falcons. In the afternoon, options include paying a visit to the nearby Cascada Los Tercios – a 30 metre-high waterfall which flows over an impressive cliff of tightly packed hexagonal basalt rocks, or making pupusas, the typical food of El Salvador. These corn or rice ‘tortillas’ are stuffed with cheese, refried beans, meat, herbs and vegetables, before being grilled on a hot plate. They are sold throughout the country and are part of the staple diet of any self-respecting Salvadorean.
Day 8 Transfer to the colonial town of Leon (Nicaragua)
Before leaving El Salvador this morning, we will stop off in Ilobasco – a town famous for its ceramics. The journey today is a long one, and including the stops totals approximately 13 hours. We travel through rich agricultural land towards the Honduran border, following the Gulf of Fonseca before crossing from Honduras into the Pacific lowlands of Nicaragua. We finish our journey in the charming colonial town of Leon, where we will spend the next two nights.
As the country’s capital for 200 years, Leon is still considered the intellectual centre of Nicaragua, and was at the heart of the revolutionary years of 1978 to 1989. Lying in the shadow of seven volcanoes, its old buildings and massive cathedral contribute to the elegant atmosphere of a city that seems almost to have been trapped in time.
Day 9 Free Day; optional hike to Cerro Negro Volcano
After yesterday’s long travel day, today has been left free to explore this colonial gem at your own pace. Alternatively, you may choose to enjoy one of the optional excursions available in the area. One option is a hike on the nearby Cerro Negro Volcano – one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua. The hike takes approximately 1.5hrs at a moderate pace, and there are stunning views across to the Pacific ocean as well as the surrounding countryside. The fun is in bouncing down the volcano, as we run/jump/walk down through the scree. For something less exertive, Las Penitas Beach is a great place to relax for the day, whilst a visit to San Juan Venado Mangrove Reserve provides the opportunity to spot wildlife including crocodiles, caiman and iguanas.
Day 10 Travel to Granada via Masaya Volcano National Park
This morning we depart for the volcanic landscapes of the Masaya Volcano National Park. Before our arrival, we take a stop at Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, for a short tour of the city and views over Lake Managua. From there, we continue to one of Nicaragua’s most stunning natural highlights, the Masaya Volcano National Park, which was the country’s first national reserve and is home to two volcanoes and five craters. All being well, we will view the simply astounding geothermal activity at the Santiago Crater, before paying a visit to the park’s visitor centre, where we will learn a little more about Central America’s seismic history.
Leaving the park, we head to Masaya market to appreciate the town’s leather goods as well as other handicrafts. We’ll end our day in another of Nicaragua’s colonial gems. Atmospheric Granada is situated at the foot of Mombacho Volcano on the north-west shore of Lake Nicaragua. It was the first colonial city in Nicaragua, founded in 1524 by the conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba. Its magnificent setting, set off by baroque and renaissance buildings, is a visual delight and a superb location for our next two nights’ accommodation.
On arrival, our city tour will take in highlights such as the Parque Central, the monument to the War of Independence, the plaza and the San Francisco Convent. We also aim to visit the Casa des Tres Mundos and the neoclassical Bishop’s Palace.
Day 11 In Granada; explore the city or optional sea kayaking
Today has been left free for you to discover more of the city at your own pace. Granada is the perfect city to explore on foot, wandering through narrow lanes and alleyways and uncovering hidden delights amongst the lush greenery and historic buildings.
Alternatively, you may choose to visit Las Isletas by boat or sea kayak. This group of tiny islands just offshore is dominated by the Volcano Mombacho. Your Tour Leader will be more than happy to help arrange any excursions that you are keen on.
Day 12 Head to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast
This morning, we head for Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast for a chance to relax. Basing ourselves in San Juan del Sur for the night, this once sleepy fishing village is now a thriving coastal resort and a favourite for travellers and locals alike. The variety of restaurants that line its waterfront overlook a bay that is lined with fishing boats and yachts. The town itself still retains a laid back ambience, providing us with a perfect place to break the journey and enjoy some welcome beach time. You may wish to visit some of the neighbouring beaches at Playa Mayagal or Maderas.
Day 13 Travel to Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge (Costa Rica)
This morning, we cross the border into our final country of Costa Rica, with distant views of the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. Our destination is the Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge, where we will spend the afternoon enjoying a walk. Cano Negro lies in the centre of a flight path for millions of migrating bird species, making it an ideal stopping off point for glossy ibis, green backed herons, Nicaraguan grackle and roseate spoonbills.
Day 14 Optional wildlife boat trip, before driving to Sarapiqui
This morning, there is the option to take an early morning boat trip along the Rio Frio, in search of monkeys, sloths, iguanas and caimans. After breakfast, we continue on to La Virgen de Sarapiqui. A magnet for adventure-seekers, the Sarapiqui region contains a number of national parks and reserves, including the Braulio Carrillo National Park and the Sarapiqui Protected Zone. It is famed for its rich natural diversity and is home to the endangered Green Macaw.
Tonight, we will camp among the flora and fauna of this rainforest setting. Our accommodation is in fixed tents with en suite facilities – for anyone worried about camping, this is luxury. Each tent has two large beds with proper mattresses and blankets. There are tables and nightlamps in the tents, and each one has its own balcony, so that you can sit outside and listen to the wildlife in the evening.
Day 15 Morning free. Afternoon head to the capital, San Jose
This morning has been left free to enjoy any number of optional excursions in the area. You may choose to hike, horse ride, or ‘fly’ through the jungle canopy on a zip-wire, some 20-30 metres above the rainforest floor. Costa Rica has been rated as one of the best whitewater rafting destinations in the world and this morning also provides an opportunity to tackle the foaming torrents of the Sarapiqui River. Classified as a Grade III river, the Sarapiqui is fringed by lush vegetation that provides an ideal refuge for toucans, monkeys, parrots and all manner of birdlife. This makes it the perfect setting in which to combine exhilarating rafting with a stunning natural backdrop. All safety equipment will be provided and the excursions are run by professional and trained guides.
This afternoon, we continue through the scenic grandeur of the Braulio Carillo National Park to San Jose, Costa Rica’s colourful capital. Founded in 1738 and set in a fertile valley blanketed in a lush abundance of coffee and sugar cane plantations, the city is one of the youngest and most cosmopolitan capitals in Central America. A final evening in the city provides a fitting end to our remarkable journey across this incredible region.
Day 16 Tour ends San Jose
The trip ends this morning at our hotel in San Jose.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you’ll need to depart from Juan Santamaria International Airport (airport code: SJO), approximately a 30 minute drive from our hotel.