Explore Central American highlights between Mexico and Panama

Explore incredible worlds above and below the water on a journey from the sunny beaches of Mexico, through the jungle ruins of little-known corners of Central America, to the volcanic mountains of Costa Rica and the laidback vibes of Panama. Mix with locals in the buzzing bars. Try your hand at snorkelling or mountain biking. And discover the secrets of the ancient Mayans as you traverse incredible scenery on this fantastic adventure through Central America.

Start
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Finish
Panama City, Panama
Countries
Belize,
Costa Rica,
El Salvador,
Guatemala,
Honduras,
Mexico,
Nicaragua,
Panama
Themes
Explorer
Code
QVRQC
Physical rating
Cultural rating
Ages
Min 15
Group size
Min 1 Max 16
Carbon offset
366kg pp per trip


Highlights

  • Dive into the fun and games of Playa del Carmen
  • Explore the incredible Maya ruins of Tulum
  • Find tropical paradise on Caye Caulker in Belize
  • Eat some tasty tamales on a visit to Antigua
  • Discover the history of ancient Tikal pyramids
  • Be welcomed by a local community in San Jorge
  • Delve into a riot of color and sound in Chichi market
  • Relax on the spectacular black-sand beaches of El Salvador's Pacific Coast
  • Marvel at La Fortuna's mighty Arenal Volcano
  • Soak up the laidback vibes of Bocas del Toro

Itinerary

Welcome to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 7 pm today. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where it will take place. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting, so please ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader.

In order to make the most of what Playa has to offer, we strongly recommend that you extend your stay in Playa del Carmen for one or two extra days. Please contact us if you need us to assist you with additional accommodation. If you manage a few extra days in Playa, you may want to spend time snorkelling among the mangroves or strolling along the white sands. For adventures further afield, take a ferry across the turquoise seas to Cozumel, an island famous for its reef diving.

If you can't arrange a flight that will arrive to the welcome meeting in time, you may wish to arrive a day early so you're able to attend. We'll be happy to book additional accommodation for you (subject to availability).
Travel south today by local bus to Tulum, which should take around an hour and a half. Tulum is a beach paradise on the Caribbean coast, where you can spend your time relaxing on the beach or strolling along the white sands. For a taste of Mayan architecture, take an optional visit of the ruins of Tulum. These ruins sit atop a cliff amid palm fringed and white sand beaches. You can even go for a swim within its ancient walls. In the evening, use the opportunity to kick back and watch the waves with a margarita.
Today is free to relax, take part in optional activities and to generally do as you wish. Perhaps start your morning by renting a bike and cycling around the area - this is a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short time. There's also the option of heading to Akumal Bay for a snorkelling tour of the bay.
Leave Mexico behind today and head south to Belize. Be prepared for a long day of travel on the road, as the total driving time including the border crossing will take around eight hours. Travel by minivan to the border at Chetumal and then continue onto Belize City by private minibus. Once in Belize City take a water taxi to Caye Caulker, which takes around an hour. The Belize Cayes are a group of islands that are a short boat ride away from the coast. There are a number of these islands to choose from, but we base ourselves on Caye Caulker as this is one of the more popular islands with travellers.

On arrival there won't be too much time to explore, so perhaps go for an evening stroll to get your bearings of the immediate vicinity.
Today is free to explore. From Caye Caulker, it's possible to arrange day trips to other Cayes, to the best reefs for diving, or simply to take a local boat out to the reef of Caulker itself. Each island has its own particular character, but all of them have the unmistakeable Caribbean pace and charm. Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America, which will make chatting with locals much easier. There's also plenty of optional activities to keep you entertained during your time here.

Relax on the beach or head out to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, home to the magnificent Blue Hole and the world's second longest barrier reef. Snorkel among the colorful corals and see tropical fish, sharks and manta rays. You could also choose to go manatee spotting. These huge peaceful creatures are often called sea cows and are quite curious to meet their visitors.
Enjoy another day of exploration on Caye Caulker. If you're interested in sampling local cuisine, Caye Caulker is famous for its lobster. Not the cheapest meal you'll ever buy, but delicious nonetheless. Always make sure that you respect the season: the lobsters can only be caught between June 15th and February 15th. Some of the best meals on the island are cooked on the road side. How about some grilled shrimp and a lovely rum and coke made with the local fire water?

In the evenings, look out for the world famous island icon of 'Jolly Roger' - who has some of the best street food out here. There's also the 'cake lady' who comes out every afternoon with a trolley-full of freshly baked cakes for sale.
Today travel by local bus through the forested hills of the highlands to San Ignacio, which should take around three hours. The local buses in Belize are a little more basic than in Mexico but this is a great opportunity to mix with Belizeans and get a feel for local life. Get ready for stop and go on the journey, as there are very few official bus stops in Belize and the bus will keep stopping to pick up passengers. On arrival, the rest of your day is free.
You have a full day at your leisure to discover San Ignacio. This beautiful town is surrounded by fast flowing rivers, waterfalls and Mayan ruins, making the ideal base to explore the region. One of the optional activities here is a day trip to Xunantunich, an impressive Mayan ceremonial centre located with panoramic views over the countryside. The east side of one of the temples has a unique stucco frieze and the central plaza has three carved stelae. Getting to the site is half the fun, as you'll need to take a hand-cranked ferry to cross the river.

The cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal is a living museum of Mayan relics, where you'll have to wade through water until you reach the Mayan ceremonial site. Here you'll find ceramic pots and crystallised skeletons, preserved by the natural processes of the cave for over 1,400 years. Other options to fill in your time in San Ignacio include a day trip to the Mountain Pine Ridge area to visit waterfalls and warm swimming holes, as well as a huge cave system, the butterfly garden, canoeing or river tubing.

In the late afternoon and at night, many little street barbecue stalls open, and serve huge portions. Give it a try, sit down next to the road, chat with the locals and enjoy a juicy chicken leg.
Continue your adventure by collective minibus across the border into Guatemala, and then onto Tikal National Park (approximately four hours in total). Towering above the jungle of the Tikal National Park, the five granite temples of Tikal are an imposing sight and one of the most magnificent Mayan ruins. Hidden in the jungle growth is 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 you may even spot toucans, macaws and other colourful birds. While here, you have the option of taking a guided tour of the area or scale the canopies and explore by zip-line.

Tonight, set up the tents along with sleeping mattresses and camp under the stars by this majestic Mayan site. There are also basic shared bathrooms and showers at camp.
If you haven't already had enough of Tikal, you have the option to visit the site again this morning (entrance fee not included). Afterwards, continue onto the town of Flores on Lake Peten Itza, where there's time for you to grab some lunch and explore the town. Leaving Flores behind, jump on a local bus and head towards Rio Dulce, which takes around five hours. On arrival in Rio Dulce, transfer to the hotel by boat. The easiest way to get back into town is also by boat, which can be organised through the hotel, or take a short walk enjoying the jungle.

Your hotel is located a short distance from town in a spot right on the river. This is a great place to simply relax on the deck overlooking the water, with reasonably priced meals served in the hotel restaurant. A highlight for many guests is the 'Casa Natural' - an open-air accommodation with screened-in rooms, shared bathrooms and a lounge looking out to the surrounding jungle.
Use your free day here taking advantage of the optional activities to get out and about. Follow the local trend and go boating on the lake, take a tour to spot the protected manatees or travel up the river on a lancha to the thermal hot springs. For more land based adventure, hike through the jungle-strewn trails of the Chocon-Machacas Natural Reserve, or travel to Livingston to explore the San Felipe fort.
Say goodbye to Rio Dulce today and travel by local bus to the city of Antigua, which should take between eight and nine hours. You'll spend the night here, before heading to Lake Atitlan tomorrow. You won't spend too much time in Antigua today, but you should still go out for a stroll and try tamales - a local dish usually prepared traditionally on weekends and served in a corn leaf. You could also give the pepian a try, which is a meal that consists of a rich dark sauce served with vegetables and meat (usually chicken). The best value food you'll find is next to the artisan market that's close to the bus station.
Start the day by travelling by private minibus to the famous market in Chichicastenango, taking approximately two and a half hours. 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 visiting Chichi head towards San Jorge La Laguna, a small Maya village overlooking Lake Atitlan, which should take an hour and a half.

Arriving in San Jorge La Laguna, meet your host family for tonight's homestay. The group may be split in twos or threes, depending on the group size. 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. Learn as many Spanish words as you can and get ready for some serious hand language signals.

Houses in San Jorge La Laguna are very basic. Your room may only consist of a couple of beds with clean bedding, and the bathroom will most likely be outside your room and shared with the rest of the family. The mother of the family will cook dinner and breakfast for you. Meals can be very basic but filling, consisting of corn, rice and beans. You may want to stack up some snacks in Antigua.
Say farewell to your host family this morning, as you move 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. Why not go for a swim, hike to San Pedro volcano or kayak on the lake? The surrounding area is 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. Your whole day is free to take part in optional activities.
Hit the road back to Antigua by private minibus today, which takes around three hours. 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. Walk through the quiet cobblestone streets and past heavy carved-wood entrances. There are many fascinating markets and museums to explore, or hire a mountain bike and ride through the countryside if you fancy something more active. The views of mountain peaks and deep valleys, covered in lush vegetation provide an amazing backdrop. The rest of the day is free to do as you wish here.
Enjoy a free day exploring the city. Perhaps check out the ChocoMuseo located on 4th Street West, two blocks away from central park. Learn all about chocolate, its history and nutritional values and you may be lucky enough to get a sample bag of chocolates at the end of the tour. Otherwise, grab a coffee from one of the many coffee shops in central park and just sit back, relax and enjoy Antigua's city vibe. If you want to learn more about the famous Guatemalan coffee, you can go on a coffee tour, visit the plantations, do some coffee tasting and even buy some to take home. 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.
Today travel by private minibus to Copan in Honduras. The six-hour drive will take you through the wild countryside of eastern Guatemala. Copan is a charming town set into lush surroundings. On arrival, perhaps take a stroll through the cobbled streets and check out the central plaza. You might even like to make an optional visit to the nearby natural hot springs.
This morning you may like to pay an optional visit to the Mayan ruins of Copan. These World Heritage-listed ruins are the southernmost of the great Mayan sites for which Central America is famous. Unique because of the 21 stelae (columns) that have been discovered here, they also feature temples, excavated vaults and huge faces carved into the walls. As you stroll past ancient monuments, statues and staircases, it's hard not to wonder at the mysterious disappearance of such a creative civilisation.

Later, cross the border into El Salvador and head south for six hours to Suchitoto. A beautiful colonial town with colourful houses and cobbled streets, Suchitoto is a world away from modern El Salvador.
Today is free to enjoy a range of optional activities around the area. The town of Suchitoto overlooks the Embalse Cerron Grande. Also known as Lago Suchitlan, this freshwater lake is a haven for migrating birds, particularly falcons and hawks. You might like to take a boat or kayaking tour of the lake. Alternatively, you could go for a hike in the nearby Cinquera rainforest, or explore the impressive Mayan ruins of Cihuatan. You can even take a tour of the Guazapa Volcano; whether this ancient volcano is still active or not remains a mystery.
Heading south today, pass through the capital of San Salvador on your way to the laid-back surf village of El Tunco. El Tunco is known for its unique black-sand beaches and good nightlife, and is a great place to relax. In the evening, perhaps head to a local restaurant to fill your belly with some delicious pupusas, traditional Salvadorian corn pockets stuffed with cheese, pork and refried beans.
Head east along the Pacific coast to coastal El Cuco today. 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. In the evening, perhaps enjoy a seafood dinner along the water, or check out El Salvador's first microbrewery at Intipuca Beach. You'll be spending the next two nights in a beautiful and extensive eco-resort, dedicated to promoting a greener lifestyle in harmony with the local sea turtle, bird, lizard and marine populations.
Today is free to explore the beautiful coastal scenery around El Cuco. If you feel like getting active, you can kayak among mangroves or give surfing a go at the famous Las Flores beach. You could even take a trip to see the nearby Conchagua Volcano. Alternatively, you might prefer to take a boat out on the ocean, find some inner peace during a yoga class at the resort or simply relax in a hammock on the beach.
Today is a full day of travel across the Gulf of Fonseca to Nicaragua. Make sure you're stocked up with a good book, music, snacks and bottled water for the long 14-hour journey. After an early transfer to La Union you'll take a boat through the Gulf of Fonseca. Stop at one of the many beautiful islands to relax over lunch before continuing to the Nicaraguan side at Potosi. Once you've had your passport checked, the group will continue by minivan to Granada.

Nicaragua has flourished in recent years. Home to immense natural beauty and friendly locals, it is often a traveller favourite. Founded in 1524, Granada is the oldest city in the 'New World'. Featuring Moorish and Andalusian architecture and oozing colonial charm, the city is set on the banks of Lake Nicaragua and is surrounded by active volcanoes. You'll have a full day to explore tomorrow.
Today is free to explore Granada. You can take a guided tour of the city for around USD 20. Bargain hard in the markets and wander the cobblestone streets, snapping photos of the colourful buildings. You might like to cruise the islets of Lake Nicaragua by boat, stopping to say hello to the lively capuchin monkeys on Monkey Island. Perhaps hire a kayak or a bicycle and find your own way around, or take a hike out in the surrounding countryside. Alternatively, you could take a day trip out to Mombacho or Masaya Volcano National Park to get close to some steaming giants.
From Granada, travel by local bus to Rivas, where you'll transfer to San Jorge ferry port by taxi (approximately two-and-a-half hours in total). Catch a one-hour ferry across Lake Nicaragua to the island of Ometepe and head to your hotel. Hourglass-shaped Ometepe Island is formed by two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua ('Ometepe' literally means 'two volcanoes' in the Nahuatl language). The island is home to great beaches, deep jungle and exotic wildlife such as monkeys and parrots. The world's only species of freshwater shark circle in the surrounding lake. A great experience is to sit on the shore and watch fishermen return from a long day on the water with their catch.
Today you have a free day to discover the island. Perhaps take a hike up to the summit of either the Concepcion or Maderas Volcanoes. Be warned - at 1,700 and 1,340 metres above sea level respectively, these treks are no walk in the park. You might prefer to splash around in the natural springs, soak up the sun on the beach or check out the island's petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings).
Today continue your journey south, first by one-hour ferry to the mainland and then by one-hour taxi to Penas Blancas. After crossing the border into Costa Rica, travel by private minibus for five hours to Monteverde. Proof of onward travel is a requirement for entry into Costa Rica, so if you're flying out of San Jose, bring a printed copy of your flight details in case the border officials ask to see them.

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 Cloudforest Biological Preserve. Cloud forests are similar to rainforests, but instead draw their water from a semi-permanent cloud covering the region.This is truly a nature lover's paradise. More than 2,000 plant species, 320 bird species and 100 mammal species call Montverde home. Be sure to keep an eye out for the resplendent quetzal, one of the most elusive birds in the world.
Today you have a full free day to discover the reserve. Perhaps take a hike through the cloud forest, check out the area by mountain bike or fly over the 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. The guides are very knowledgeable and happy to engage in conversation. To see some guaranteed wildlife up close, visit the butterfly and insect gardens or the serpentarium. There are several cooperatives worth visiting in the local communities.
Today take the scenic route to La Fortuna (approximately 4-5 hours in total). Travel by shared minibus to Lake Arenal, which you'll then cross by boat. On a clear day you'll see fantastic views of the surrounding area. On the other side of the lake, re-board the minibus and continue on to your destination. La Fortuna is a small town situated just a few minutes from Costa Rica's most famous volcano - the majestic Arenal. While you're here, make sure you take some photos of the volcano reflected spectacularly in the lake.
There are plenty of optional activities to take part in today. 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. Check out the 70-metre high La Fortuna waterfall, or get active with some water sports on the lake, such as stand-up paddle boarding. 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. Alternatively, a boat safari down the Celeste River offers the opportunity to see lizards, crocodiles and tropical birds in their natural habitat.
Take a local five-hour bus to Costa Rica's capital, San Jose. Situated in the fertile Central Valley and home to over half the country's population, San Jose is filled with lively markets, intriguing museums and a dynamic atmosphere.
Enjoy a free day exploring the city. 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, where you can buy anything from handicrafts to seafood.
Today take a five-hour local bus to Puerto Viejo. A small town on the beautiful Caribbean coast, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca has two sides to it. While the main street has a party vibe, featuring dancehall and reggaeton bars and modern restaurants, further out you'll find great surf beaches, rainforest fruit farms and family homes. The area is home to a mix of Rastafarian, European and indigenous populations. You'll be spending the next three nights here.
You'll have plenty of time over the next two days to explore Cahuita National Park, which is easily accessible from Puerto Viejo. Wander through the park on the lookout for sloths, monkeys, raccoons, snakes and a great variety of birds. While entrance to the park is free, you will be asked for a donation. You can also visit a jaguar rescue centre or wander through the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, which is home to birds of prey and medicinal herb gardens. Back in town, why not hire a bike for the day or hit the waves for a surf lesson?
Today take a one-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 Bastimentos 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 a melting pot of West Indians, Latinos and expats, resulting in diverse music, nightlife and food scenes.

For the next three nights, stay on Isla Bastimentos. A short boat ride from Bocas Town, the island features a laid-back vibe, excellent beaches, turtle nesting grounds and mangroves. There are no roads or cars here - walking or water taxi are your only transport options. The main town is called Old Bank, home to just a few hundred locals.
The next two days are free for you to enjoy the islands. There are plenty of optional activities to choose from. Perhaps dip into the underwater worlds of the nearby reefs on a full-day snorkelling excursion. Catch a water taxi to Red Frog or Wizard Beach, or soak up the sun on the popular Starfish Beach. Why not rent a kayak and get your blood pumping for the afternoon, or take a tour of the Oreba Cocoa Plantation? When the sun goes down, head into town and check out the local bar and restaurant scene. Where better to live la vida loca than in the Caribbean?
Today travel by boat and local bus to Boquete. The total journey should take eight to nine hours. Boquete is a picturesque town located in the highlands of Panama. The town is surrounded by mountains, crystal-clear creeks and rivers, forest reserves, wildflowers and fauna such as howler monkeys and the resplendent quetzal.

Your hotel is located a short drive away from Boquete. Feel free to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery around the property, which has its own bar and restaurant. There is a free shuttle into town a few times a day and most optional activities can be organised directly from the hotel.
Today is a free day to explore. The area surrounding Boquete is famous for its coffee. While here you might like to visit a coffee plantation or kick back in town with a couple of the local brew. Why not take a guided bike tour or check out the mini canyons or hidden waterfalls outside of town? In the afternoon, perhaps soak your muscles in the local hot springs.
Today catch a local eight-hour bus to Santa Catalina, on the Pacific coast of Panama. This small fishing village is still a very remote, undeveloped destination and offers some of the best surfing in Central America. As there is limited accommodation available close to the beach in Santa Catalina, sometimes we have to use large multi-share rooms with up to six beds (not bunks).
Aside from surfing, the main pastime in Santa Catalina is relaxing, preferably in a hammock. Today you have the the day to do whatever you like. If you feel like doing 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, you could join a half-day fishing trip or rent a surfboard in town and ride the waves. If you don't know how to surf, fear not, as lessons are readily available.
Today, leave the beach and travel by local bus to Panama City for approximately six hours. On your last night of the trip, why not head out with your new travel crew to samba the night away?
Your adventure ends today in Panama City. There are no activities planned for the final day so you are able to depart the accommodation at any time.

We recommend staying a few extra days to make the most of this exciting city. If you need help booking extra accommodation, our reservations team will be happy to assist. If you extend your stay, explore the historic Casco Viejo, or 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.
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Inclusions

Meals
1 breakfast1 dinner
Transport
Boat, Bus, Taxi
Accommodation
Camping (with facilities) (1 night), Homestay (1 night), Hotel (41 nights)
Included activities
  • Tikal National Park - Entrance

Dates

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Important notes

SINGLE SUPPLEMENT:
A Single Supplement is available on this trip, except on Days 41-42 in Santa Catalina.

Trip notes

Want an in-depth insight into this trip? Your trip notes provide a detailed itinerary, visa info, how to get to your hotel, what’s included - pretty much everything you need to know about this adventure and more.

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Reviews

Our Best of Central America trips score an average of 4 out of 5 based on 2 reviews in the last year.

Best of Central America , April 2015

Best of Central America , December 2012