This past winter, I had the privilege of traveling through Central America for a couple of months. Stops on my itinerary included Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. As I worked my way north, I noticed a few trends. One was there were Mayan ruins and reminders of Mayan influence on the region just about everywhere. Where no evidence of Mayan inhabitation could be found, relics left behind by other pre-Colombian civilizations almost surely could.
While the regular reminders of the region’s ancient history were invigorating for me, there was plenty else to love about traveling through Central America as well. Here are some highlights of my tour that may give you a feel for the diversity and allure of this fascinating and beautiful region.
From the the fifth century to the ninth, a major Mayan Kingdom made a capital city of present-day Copan. The primary reason foreigners visit the area today is to see what this great kingdom left behind. Dozens of intricately carved sculptures, several public squares, an Acropolis, and three well-preserved pyramids spread throughout the complex give the visitor enough fuel to imagine what life was like for the royals and their servants. A visit to the ruins is made more magical by the brilliantly colored scarlet macaws who fly around and squawk as if they were paying homage to the kingdom or the beauty of the town they built. No visitor to the site could question its historical significance and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the Copan ruins are undeniably fascinating, the town that has sprung up alongside is worth a look. Clean and temperate in climate, Copan Ruinas is a lush gem in the Honduran Highlands. It also happens to be one of the friendliest and safest towns in the entire country. Throw in the tasty tacos, quesadillas, and fruit smoothies available at affordable, clean eateries, and Copan has really got it going on. Oh, and if you’re a coffee drinker you’re in for a special treat. Why? Because Honduras is the largest coffee producer in Central America. The fresh roasted espresso beans served up in Copan come from the fertile Comayagua mountains and other plantations nearby. They offer in flavor and zing what coffee snobs hope to get every time they order a cup of joe.
Three lush volcanoes tower over the valley in which Antigua, high in its own right with an altitude greater than 5,000, lies. Well-preserved Spanish baroque architecture dominates the cityscape, spreading out for miles in every direction. Ruins of citadels and colonial churches sit imposingly on many otherwise thriving streets. Avocados and coffee of the finest quality run cheap here and can be found in abundance. Opportunities for exploration within the city itself seem endless, and the hills and volcanoes that surround Antigua are equally rich in adventure fuel.
I’ll come right out and say it: Antigua is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. No amount of praise for this city could have built up my expectations too high, and I am not worried about building up yours. Aside from a population that is in large part descended from the Mayans, there are few visible signs Antigua was once a part of the Mayan Empire. The city’s architecture reeks of Spanish colonialism and baroque. The architectural styles and design features that define Copan are nowhere to be found in Antigua. This is alright, however, as the Spanish did a mighty fine job of creating man-made beauty that is somehow able to hold its own and impress in the midst of so much natural beauty. The Spanish chose Antigua as the capital of their Central American empire, and UNESCO has responded by designating it another World Heritage Site.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
The fact that Guatemala has multiple places that can rival Antigua for the honor of favorite destination among travelers to this Central American paradise speaks volumes about the the country’s treasures. Look at a map…Guatemala is no larger than Tennessee! Honestly, I was impressed by everywhere I visited in Guatemala – even Guatemala City! If I had to pick a favorite, however, I would not hesitate to say Lake Atitlan. Spend a few days here, and you too will see why Brave New World author Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan “the most beautiful lake in the world.”
Quiet and relaxed, the dozens of villages that surround this deep volcanic lake are populated with avocado farmers and coffee growers descended from the Mayans. Hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and other outdoor recreation options abound. The culinary scene has no space for chefs who have not perfected their trade, which means everything you eat is delicious. And that massive lake…there is something magical about it. I learned during my stay people of various backgrounds from all over Central America embark on pilgrimages to the lake for Easter, Christmas, solstices, and other occasions they consider special to celebrate and feed off of its energy.
I wrapped up my journey through Central America with a four-day stay in the city of Tulum, Mexico. Here, powdery white sand beaches and translucent turquoise waters battle with a hip downtown area where independent artists and fashion designers thrive for a visitor’s attention. My recommendation: Make time for both.
Since the Mayans are a theme of this post, it would probably be unfair to leave out the seaside ruins at Tulum. The coast here is said to be one of the oldest resort areas in the world, frequented by Mayan kings and other nobles as far back as 1,000 years ago. As the Mayans worked their way north, the rulers commissioned a walled city to be built along the coast. Spectacular in size and construction, the city housed 600 people at any given time. It thrived from around 1200 AD until the arrival of the Spanish some 300 years later.
Rich in culture, history, tradition, and natural beauty, Central America is a truly magical slice of earth. While instability and corruption have hampered the region for decades, there are still some places in Central America where you can travel safely. If you have some vacation time saved up and are feeling adventurous, why not pick a few destinations in Central America that appeal to you and follow the Mayans’ footsteps yourself? The comforts of your luxury apartment home will be waiting for you when you return!
If you could go anywhere in Central America, where would you go?
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