Lauren Merryweather tells The Gap Year Travel Guide about her travels following the Mayan trail, from Mexico to Belize and Guatemala and back again.
Every backpacker wants an original experience. Central America steps up to this challenge, guaranteed to astonish with the unexpected. The route I planned to take through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and back again promised to squeeze in as much adventure as possible into a tight three-week trip, with plenty of time to indulge in idyllic chill-out spots.
After landing in the gaudy tourist city of Cancun, we made a quick escape to laid-back Tulum, with plans to laze on the white Caribbean beaches. This was the beginning of our journey along the popular traveller route known as the Mayan trail, which passes through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.
One of our first stops was Gran Cenote, a place we’d heard was incredible for snorkelling and scuba diving through miles of intricate underwater passageways. Cenotes are natural underground water caves, teeming with bats, dripping with stalactites, surreal rock formations and shoals of toe-nibbling fish.
Deserts full of cacti are iconic of Mexico but the southern states are unexpectedly thick with forest greenery and steaming mountain scenery. San Cristobal in the southwest is arguably the most beautiful of the colonial towns. By day there is nothing better than sipping locally grown coffee on a café terrace, watching the bustling streets, followed by a stroll through the market chaos.
The streets are at the heart of Mexican entertainment. Locals fill the town squares on every night of the week to watch live entertainment, performers, browse the markets, dance to live music and enjoy plenty of fast food stalls. Merida in Yucatán is most famous for its fairs, street parties and shows that make the city buzz all day long, every weekend.
Mexicans here are all about tacos and tostadas; toasted big bread rolls, piled high with roasted meats, piles of cheese, onions and chilli, with lashings of chilli sauce. Habanero chilli sauce is the region’s speciality but beware, the green one is much hotter than the red. Street food is big business here, offerings include roasted corn-on-the-cob, flavoured sweetcorn cups and fried chilli sausage.
Caye Caulker, Belize
Arriving at Chetumal dock to catch a boat onto Belize, we were greeted by angry waves lashing at the jetty and distant rumblings of a heavy storm. The boats were cancelled, putting our tight schedule out for a whole day.
When we finally made it to tropical island Caye Caulker, we arrived in style, at sunset, by speedboat. Whilst ditching our bags at the beachfront hostel, we were recommended Marin’s for dinner, a candle-lit balcony restaurant playing smooth 50s jazz over the croaking crickets of the night. The garlic fish, coconut rice, baked potato and garlic bread dish (carb overload) was the most satisfying meal of my life.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve
A full day boating and snorkelling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve was the highlight of the island getaway. The reef is home to sting-rays, nurse sharks, moray eels, hundreds of colourful species of fish and we were lucky enough to swim with all of them.
When travelling from country to country, remember departure taxes and entrance fees. Make sure that you have enough cash on you when you reach the border as there are no ATMs. We were lucky to get a very kind border guard on the Guatemalan border who let us through for less money – you might not be so lucky.
After four days chilling out on Caye Caulker, the 4am wake up call to explore the ruins at Tikal, Guatemala, was a shock, but it was worth it. The supernatural and eerie atmosphere surrounding the grandeur of the enormous temples only adds more curiosity to the mystery of the ancient civilization of the Mayans. The noise of the rainforest is overwhelming. Howler monkeys roaring, parrots cawing, and millions of insects performing a deafening chorus of croaking, clicking and buzzing. From the top of the tallest temple, locals come to meditate and admire the endless forest canopy.
The next stop was Lanquin, the location of Guatemala’s top beauty spot, Semuc Champey. Settled in an isolated valley amongst smouldering mountains, the cosy hostel was simply a thatched roof, completely open for a 360 panoramic view, especially good for storm watching at night.
Another early morning saw us hopping into the back of a pick-up truck – this is how the locals travel – and descending down the mountain on narrow rickety roads, occasionally daring to look down at the sheer drop.
The day began with a cave tour. Heavy rain the night before had caused the river to swell and water was gushing rapidly from the cave. Nevertheless, we ventured in, clutching candles for light. At times we couldn’t see, clinging onto the smallest cracks in the rock to stop getting dragged away by the ferocious current. Two hours later, we emerged, soaked through and breathless. They don’t do health and safety in Guatemala; they’d rather you have fun.
We then got to swim in the tranquil pools of Semuc Champey. This spot is a series of clear turquoise and blue lagoons in the middle of the rainforest, surrounded by waterfalls. Guatemala only continued to amaze us with its natural beauty, other highlights including the dramatic expanse of Lake Atilan and the dark, barren landscape of Volcan Pacayo, Antigua.
Back to Mexico
Finally we arrived on Isla Holbox, a little known island paradise in the Gulf of Mexico, famous for the endangered whale sharks that mate off the shore each September and infamous for swarms of savage mosquitos during the wet season.
Strong winds and the unpredictability of the weather meant that we couldn’t swim with the huge whale sharks so we settled for a bike ride around the island. Leaving our bikes on the beach, we swam across the river to a smaller island, a reserve for flamingos, iguanas and parrots. The last night was spent on the sea front, with a glass of piña colada, watching a spectacular red, yellow and orange electrical storm far out at sea.
Throughout the trip, transport from place to place couldn’t have been easier which made the journey so enjoyable. Mexico has a reliable bus network serving most towns but it can be expensive. Save up to half your money by going second-class. These buses are as comfortable as first-class, with air-con, only there is no toilet and more stops.
Guatemala has a sketchy public ‘chicken bus’ service so hostels and hotels organise fairly cheap shuttle buses to your next destination. Expect a bumpy ride, but one with amazing views.