After a boat, a border crossing and a bus later, we finally landed in Flores, a small town in northern Guatemala in the Peten province. This town surrounded by dense jungle is a gateway for the nearby Mayan ruins and visiting Tikal had been on our radar for quite some time. Flores is situated on an island on Lake Peten Itza linked by a causeway bridge to the town of Santa Elena. It is a picturesque, quaint colonial town with a laid back atmosphere where you can find plenty of charming cafes, restaurants and shops. Our cuisine expectations were low coming to Guatemala as we had heard that the staple foods were rice & beans however we can confirm that this was incorrect and we had some delicious local cuisine here.
On our first morning we opted for an early start, a 4.30 am shuttle to Tikal to explore the famous Mayan ruins. The appeal of going at this time was to avoid the big crowds and the midday sun but also to hear the jungle awakening! Having recently visited Chichen Itza we were slightly apprehensive about visiting another set of Mayan ruins but Tikal exceeded all of our expectations. Firstly 75% of the site is yet to be discovered and so remains ‘under nature’ surrounded by thick jungle giving it a mysterious and unique feel. Secondly, it was much less commercialised and so we left feeling more educated and culturally enriched. The site itself dates back to 200AD and once covered an area of 16 square km, which we were told in the height of the Mayan era was completely paved and deforested. The impressive temples are the real highlight here with a number of them being completely uncovered by archaeologists for tourists to marvel in and enjoy. We were also astounded by the ability of the jungle to completely take over an entire city and we both left here with a new appreciation for nature and how quickly it recovers.
On our final day in Flores, we spent the day on the lake, renting kayaks and paddling to a nearby attraction, Jorges rope swing. Tiring ourselves out was the best option before we endured the overnight bus to Guatemala city!
Early morning trip to Tikal to explore the magical Mayan ruins
‘Go Slow!’, the motto of Caye Caulker couldn’t be more apt for this small Caribbean island off the coast of mainland Belize. Cars are absent here and golf carts, bicycles and walking are the main modes of transport. The only way to access this quaint village is to take a boat from the mainland and it is commonly known as a backpackers paradise so we had to pay a visit! Caye Caulker is famous for its balmy weather, fresh seafood and crystal clear waters with a barrier reef on its doorstep. We spent most of our time here at the Split which is a narrow waterway that divides the island in two. It is said to have been created during a massive hurricane in the 1960’s but nowadays is a popular spot for sun bathing and swimming amongst locals and tourists alike.
The highlight of Caye Caulker for us was exploring life underwater with a full day of snorkeling with Stressless tours. We opted for this company as they were an Eco agency that deliberately don’t feed fish or sharks at the famous ‘Shark Alley’ in order to retain the eco balance within the reef. Twenty sharks surrounding the boat is not a normal phenomenon and so we were quite happy to see one or two swimming in their natural habitats. There really is another world under the sea and we were in awe of how vast and spectacularly beautiful it was. We saw some of the most amazing coral and tropical fish including; Sharks, Rays, Manatees, Turtles, and even an Octopus. Although a full day snorkeling is tiring, it was well worth it and was one of our favourite experiences on our trip so far!
Back on the island, our favourite meal of day was lunch. Local families vying for business had BBQ’s set up along the shoreline with the freshest of produce on offer. We dined on fresh lobster, shrimp and jerk chicken whilst taking in the laid back vibe on the island. We really enjoyed our few days relaxing here but from speaking to locals, it is not the hidden gem it once was. It felt quite commercialised and catered mainly for Westerners. The most popular food and drink on the island was bagels and iced coffee which said enough for us!
Relax at the Split and swim here in the crystal clear waters
Full day snorkeling
Sample the local fresh BBQ lobster
Admire the sunset at Iguana Inn -but watch out for the brazen Pelicans!
Laguna de Bacalar (Lake of Seven Colours) was one of the most impressive freshwater lakes we have ever seen. The crystal clear waters looked nearly artificial and we were in dreamland when we arrived. However, when we were dropped at our accommodation, we were swiftly brought back to reality! Our small bamboo hut didn’t leave much to the imagination and so we quickly offloaded our bags, ran out to the wooden dock and jumped in to the lagoon for a refreshing dip. Our stay in Bacalar revolved around being near the lake and so, after we moved accomodation, we spent most of our time at a chilled beach club called La Playita. It overlooked the lake and had a private swimming dock whilst serving chilled fresh juices and tasty food. The area itself is a real haven for backpackers that are destined for Guatemala, Belize or further into Central America. We spent much of the next week with travellers that we met in Bacalar!
The highlight of our visit here was a private sailing tour across the lagoon. It was slightly more expensive than the motor boat tours but we felt it was the most environmentally friendly and peaceful way to enjoy this unique place. We stopped off at four different locations and had the opportunity to swim at leisure in the balmy, shallow waters. The first stop was Pirates Channel , an ancient connection between Europe and the Americas and the lake bed here was rich in minerals, perfect for exfoliating! We also stopped at Cenote Azul, Bird Island and Mayan Island.
There is a strong western influence here when it comes to restaurants, and we were glad to take a break from tacos and tortillas for a few nights! We treated ourselves to dinner at Nixtamal on our last night in Bacalar and it was one of the best dining experiences on our trip so far. The food was prepared on an open fire and BBQ and our mouth watering, juicy steaks and fresh jumbo shrimp were exquisite.
Sailing tour across the lake and through Pirates Channel
Visualise the opening scene of James Bond’s Spectre film and you will get a taste for Dia de los Muertos or ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico. On first viewing, one would assume it is a Halloween based ceremony, however being in Merida and experiencing their version proved to us that this celebration is far removed from the pagan festival of Halloween. Hanal Pixan is the name given to the celebrations in Yucatan and the term translates to “food of the souls” in the Mayan language. In this region, food plays an important role and traditional dishes are prepared for the spirits who are thought to return on this day and visit their families. We found that the event in Merida was less about parading through the streets and dressing up and more about honoring and respecting family members and friends that were deceased. The animated Disney film Coco gives a great depiction of the true meaning of Day of the Dead and watching it got us into the spirit (pardon the pun!) Families in Yucatan dress in their traditional outfits instead of dressing up as skeletons and they create ‘ofrendas’ which are usually outside their house or business. These are tables that are decorated like altars and contain pictures of their loved ones along with both food and drink that their family members were fond of. Both the ofrendas and the graves are also richly decorated with marigold flowers candles and insence. We loved the idea of remembrance in this way and we both found ourselves reflecting on the family members who have passed in our own lives.
Whilst in Merida, we also got some great authentic mexican food. Corn is a staple of their diet and most of the tortillas and tacos were all corn-based unlike the flour tortillas we were used to. Some local dishes included ‘Cerdo Ahumado’ and ‘Poc Chuc.’ These traditional dishes are both made with pork and were full of flavour and easy on the pockets!
After a red eye flight and a local bus from Oaxaca we settled in Valladolid. From colonial churches, cathedrals and architecture to natural attractions like cenotes, Valladolid is a popular stopping point for those wishing to explore the Yucatan penisula. Luckily, we passed through this town during the build up to ‘Hanal Pixan’ (Mayan version of Dia De Los Muertos) and so there was a programme of live events for us to enjoy. The first of these took place in Cenote Zaci on the night we arrived and involved a live concert and light show. This cenote is in the heart of the city and is a freshwater, underground sinkhole which was full of screeching bats! Cenotes are infamous in Yucatan and 3000 of them are scattered around the province having being naturally formed millions of years ago. They all vary greatly with the three most common being cave, semi- open and open cenotes. The next day we decided to explore a few remote cenotes and so we rented bikes from a local teller which was an interesting experience! Sadly Anna May’s bike had a slow puncture and so the return journey was challenging! However, we spent the day swimming in the most pristine, clear and fresh water and loved every second. Our first cenote even had a rope swing which landed us right in the middle of the water allowing us to cool off quickly as well as feeding our adrenaline rush!.
While in the area many tourists pay a visit to Chichen Itza which was recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza is the largest and most visited archaeological site in Yucatan and with its magnificently restored Mayan ruins, it is definitley a must-visit when travelling through the area. This great Mayan city dates from AD 600 and gets 1.2 million visitors each year from Merida, Valladolid and the nearby resort towns of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. The Mayan people were an extremely advanced civilisation known for their astronomy, mathematics and writing. Their precise astronomical calculations were used when building structures and their solar calendar closely resembles our current Gregorian calendar. They analysed the movements of the sun in detail and they used the solstices as indicators for harvesting and farming purposes. The main pyramid in Chichen Itza is El Castillo which was built to worship the serpent god Kukulkan, it has four sides with 91 steps on each side and one big step on top; making 365 steps in total, one for each day of the year.
Escape the midday sun and jump into a local cenote
Visit Chichen Itza, but go early!
Hang out in the Zocalo and savour the local entertainment
Oaxaca (pronounced; ‘Wah-haca’) is a city in southwestern Mexico famous for its cuisine, cultures, indigenous peoples and crafts and has been our favourite place on our journey so far. There was a special magic to be felt here and we both got a sense of authentic Mexico. The zocalo (or main square) is the main hub of activity with local mayan dancers, trumpeters, live bands and jesters entertaining onlookers. Oaxaca cuisine is world famous and many renowned chefs visit the region learning about the signature Mexican dishes that originated here. As agriculture is the primary industry in this region and the climate is favourable, farmers can grow corn, agave, peanuts, coffee and a large variety of fruit and vegetables and there are food stalls dotted all over the city offering up the most delicious fresh produce. We had the tastiest beef tacos here from a street vendor which were cooked as we waited. Even better was the phenomenally low prices, with 10 tacos costing us a mere €5. A visit to Oaxaca cannot be completed without a visit to the infamous Juarez Mercado in the town centre, an indoor market bustling with people selling just about anything. You’ll find everything from roasted grasshoppers (famous Oaxaca crunchy snack full of protein!) to dried chillies to whole raw chickens to jewellery and handbags.
One of our treasured memories on this trip so far was definitely our swim in the famous Hierve El Agua. It is made up of two mineral pools sitting on a cliff edge surrounded by natural limestone rock formations. The name in Spanish is “the water boils” relating to the way the water bubbles as it travels through the springs which we were told had medicinal properties for the indigenous Zapotec peoples. It is located remotely so it takes some time to get there but once you hike around the salt waterfalls in the humidity you are certainly ready for a dip in the natural pools. We spent a few hours here as part of a full day tour of the area which included a local Zapotecan family weaving business, Mitla – an ancient archaeological site, a mezcal distillery and Tule tree – the widest in the world!
Trip to Hierve El Agua, A MUST SEE!
Sample some of the local Mezcal in a margarita
Smell and taste the flavours at a street vendor
Visit the local Juarez mercado
Hang out in the Zocalo at dusk and savour the atmosphere
The overwhelming feeling flying into Mexico City from Cuba was one of shock, the sheer size of this place was mesmerizing. We later found out that the population of Greater Mexico city is over 21 million making it one of the biggest cities in the world.However, coming from Europe we recognised many similarities between Mexico city and any other major European metropolis. There is a lot see and do in the city but like any capital, it is full of global multinational companies and financial institutions and so we decided to stay on the open top bus tour for the whole route allowing us to see the city in three hours! Before we arrived in Mexico we were slightly apprehensive about our safety so we did our research on which neighbourhood to stay in. We decided on the Roma area of the city and we felt very safe wandering through this leafy suburb, even at night.The Mexican food was one of the things we were most looking forward to coming from Cuba and we were craving some spice after 10 days of fairly bland cuisine. Our first meal certainly didn’t disappoint, some tasty beef Tacos dripping with spicy salsa verde accompanied by two refreshing cervezas, Corona and Pacifico.Luckily we landed in the city during the build up to Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The main Avenue, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma became pedestrianised and numerous colourful exhibits lined the streets. They were all designed by local artists and included some colourful giant skulls and interactive displays. We also visited the Anthropology museum which is in Chapultepec Park. It is the largest and most visited museum in Mexico and it tells the story of indigenous Mexican people from before Columbus to the modern day and boasts many important Anthropological artefacts and relics. While travelling south towards Oaxaca we stopped off in a nearby city called Puebla. It sits beneath the vast Sierra Madre mountain range and is only two hours from Mexico City. Puebla was an important city in the Mexican War of Independence as it was where Agustín de Itúrbide marched his army into to declare Mexico an independent country. Cinco de Maya also has its roots in Puebla with out numbered Mexican forces defeating the French army on the 5th May 1862. We enjoyed wandering through the streets here and sampling the local mezcal which is a type of Mexican tequila made from the agave plant.
Trinidad, a picturesque, colonial town full of colour and life in central Cuba has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 together with the nearby Valle de Ios Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). We loved strolling though the historic centre which is lined with cobbled streets and elaborate buildings. During our walking tour, we were told that Trinidad had 56 sugar mills and as many as 30,000 African slaves working in the surrounding valley durnig the 1800’s. It was a major industry during this era and so the buildings here reflect the wealth of the landowners at the time. On reflection, we found that Trinidad is still reliant on its former glory and the local economy now depends massively on tourism.
Walking tour with a local guide giving us a history of Trinidad’s colonial past and how it compares to life today
Visit Museo Historico – the best views in Trinidad. Climb the spiral staircase to get a picture perfect view of the town to one side and the Escambray mountains on the other.
Visit Museo Romantico – Once the home of a rich sugar baron, this museum showcases various items that belonged to the Brunet family and is another great vantage point of the town
Spend a day at Playa Ancon beach for an afternoon soaking up the sun. However, the water temperature is 30 degrees Celsius so don’t be expecting a refreshing dip!
The food was surprisingly good here and we had some delicious local dishes. Avoid the tourist traps and do your research when it comes to dining out. We had lovely fresh snapper fish, Ropa Vieja (Shredded beef) and some great homemade hummus.
Taste the local cocktail Canchanchara which was the drink of Trinidad in the 19th Century and was used to cure illness. It is made with honey, fresh lemon juice, soda water, ice and of course the most important ingredient, Vitamin R (rum).
Casa de la Musica – Every night at 9pm locals and tourists head to the stone staircase at the Plaza Mayor to grab a drink, listen to a local band and maybe even have a salsa!
Cienfuegos, a city named after José Cienfuegos, Captain General of Cuba from 1816-1819 is a city located on Cuba’s south coast. We stopped here en route to Trinidad to break up the long journey from Viñales. Cienfuegos is an industrial town but the historic centre boasts a number of notable buildings and monuments such as José Marti Park, Cienfuegos Cathedral and Tomás Terry Theatre. Outside the town centre, you can take a walk out to the Punta Gorda. This is a flat boulevard that leads out to the water and is ideal for watching the sunset. We spent the afternoon strolling through the old colonial streets but we were happy to be just spending a single night here.
Walk to the Plaza Mayor and appreciate the impressive buildings
Approx 2 and a half hours drive in a colectivo taxi away from the hustle and bustle of Havana sits Viñales, a lush countryside town in the west of Cuba. Being from Ireland we are used to seeing green fields and agricultural land, however the beauty of this sleepy town rests in its lush valley, vast tobacco plantations and colossal rock formations. Valle de Silencio (The Silent Valley), an UNESCO World Heritage Site is a haven for tourists but also is an important region for many tobacco farmers. The most popular way to explore the valley is on horseback and you can learn en route how a cigar is manufactured, how coffee beans are produced and how local honey and rum is made. We were lucky enough to visit the town on a Saturday night when it was a hive of activity and became fully pedestrianised. Local people set up food and drink stalls along the streets offering freshly made cocktails such as Mojitos/Pina Coladas, fresh snacks such as popcorn and hot food such as pizzas and every sort of pork you can think of!
Horseback ride to the Valle De Silencio
Try the local Pina Coladas made with fresh pineapples and coconuts
People talk about visiting somewhere for the first time and how different and diverse it can feel for an onlooking tourist. However, I have travelled all over the world and can honestly say that Havana is the most authentic city I have set foot in. The vibrant colours, sounds of chatter, car horns, music and the distinct aromas wafting through the air stimulate all of the senses. Life here is simple and almost takes you back to an era where social media or image obsession did not govern society. The division of social classes is not as noticeable in Cuba and so most people have a reasonable standard of living. However, those working in the tourism industry definitely have an upper hand over the government-employed workforce. Emotion in Cuba is expressed through their music, be it through; dance, singing, playing instruments or just tapping along to the sounds in the street. Havana is a haven for musicians. The streets here though are the real heartbeat of the city and the most enjoyable part of Havana for us was just savouring the local atmosphere. It is a very safe place and walking for 10 minutes down any street you could find kids playing marbles/football/baseball, men selling fruit/meat/kittens/cigars, groups of men playing dominos, women attending their shops and elderly people keeping an eye on affairs from their windows or front porches. Its almost as though life hasn’t changed here in the last 100 years!!
Cycling tour around the west of the city visiting John Lennon Park, Revolution Square, Christopher Columbus Cemetery & Habana Forest
Historical Walking tour to learn about the rich past of Havana
Try the local Mojitos, Cuba Libres or Daiqiuris
Listen to the live Cuban music at Hotel Inglaterra, El Floridita or Plaza Vieja