Central America Encompassed
31 days with Intrepid Travel Rating:
Day 1 Mexico City
Bienvenidos a Mexico City! This is one of the world's largest urban centres, a bustling metropolis of different eras, offering a huge variety of museums, galleries and architectural delights, along with pumping nightlife and unparalleled street food. Your adventure 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. Art fans will want to check out the Frida Kahlo Museum, otherwise you may want to visit the famous religious icon of Virgen de Guadalupe. In the evening, why not join the Mexican Night Out Urban Adventure tour, where you can get among Mexico's Holy Trinity of entertainment: Cantinas, Mariachi and Lucha Libre wrestling. Sip some tequila at a cantina, shuffle and sway to Mariachi music and watch masked wrestlers dive, fly, writhe, and grandstand for the audience for a truly loco night out.
Day 3 Puebla
Enjoy free time for a final exploration of Mexico City. 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, please 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 too. 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 bar. 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 8 kilometres (5 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. In the evening, why not try some mole poblano, a native Puebla dish that's famous all over Mexico? Perhaps you could even try making it yourself during an optional cooking class.
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 instead, strolling the pretty streets and people-watching with a tejate (cinnamon chocolate flavoured drink) in hand. 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, as well as air conditioning, 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, and 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 with your leader, home to the fascinating Iglesia de San Juan. This church, with its pine-covered floor and air thick with incense, is often frequented by shaman who come to carry out cleansings using firewater and ancient prayer. Please understand that there is a strict ban on cameras inside the church. Outside, the town of San Juan Chamula is alive with colourful markets that sell local handicrafts and great street food. Otherwise, your leader can help organise a boating trip in the Sumidero Canyon, which is as old and impressive as the Grand Canyon, or a canyoning adventure through El Chorreadero. Once you've returned to San Cristobal, why not hit up a local cafe for an elote: a traditional highland corn snack and the perfect treat after a big day.
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 a wander through Old Town, strolling the buzzing streets and visiting the city's museums. It's also worth walking down the mansion-lined Paseo de Montejo for an insight into the city's 19th-century wealth accumulated from harvesting the henequen plant. Spend some time hanging in the Plaza Grande: a green, shady square enclosed by a 16th-century cathedral, City Hall, the State Government Palace and Casa Mantejo, and check out the outdoor markets where you can stock up on hammocks or sample some 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, which lie just 1 hour's 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. In the evening, why not join in some dancing with Merida's locals. The town's streets are transformed into an open-air dance floor every Sunday, with salsa and merengue bands providing the tunes.
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 leg will take about two 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 offered up 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 (approx three hours). Blessed with azure waters, powdery beaches and a European feel, Playa del Carmen is a resort city close to Cancun that also has bit of a party atmosphere. 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 for you to enjoy at leisure. Make the most of it by snorkelling in the famous cenotes, strolling along the white sands or, for an adventure further afield, take a ferry across to Cozumel – an island famous for its reef diving. Keep in mind that there is another group meeting scheduled for 6 pm tonight, where you’ll get briefed on the next stage of your adventure, plus meet some new travellers joining you! Afterwards, why not get reacquainted with a local meal along the foreshore or get in fiesta mode with a stroll down the happening Calle Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue).
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 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 take 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 lobster 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 fire water 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 the 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 eight or nine 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
Your adventure comes to an end this morning, there are no activities planned for the final day. Please note you are required to comply with the check-out time set by the hotel. As there's a great deal to do in Antigua, we recommend staying a few extra days to make the most of this traveller favourite.
All This Included
Prepare for a unique Central American adventure from Mexico to Guatemala, packed full of vibrant cities, breathtaking ruins of Maya, Aztec and Zapotec origins, idyllic beaches and pure natural beauty. Journey from the madness of Mexico City through the Yucatan Peninsula and to the colour of colonial Guatemala. Discover the fiery flavours of Oaxaca, admire the lush Palenque archaeological zone, swim in the turquoise waters off the coast of Belize in Caye Caulker and marvel at volcano-rimmed Antigua. Join Lonely Planet and Intrepid as we discover places of astounding beauty, visit vibrant and colourful cities, explore ancient ruins and uncover hidden gems along the way.
Hotel (25 nights)
Overnight bus (1 night)
Camping with facilities (1 night)
Multishare Lodge (2 night)
Homestay (1 night)
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* The prices shown are U.S. dollars per person, based on double occupancy, and subject to availability. Prices quoted for land/cruise arrangements are subject to increase without notice. Once we have received your deposit, land/cruise prices are guaranteed. Air prices quoted via phone or email are subject to increase and are guaranteed only from the time that full payment is received. Also, air prices or air promotions mentioned on this site or on the phone do not include baggage fees imposed by airlines.