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Traveling Central America for adventure

By on June 28, 2017 in Travel with 0 Comments

By Natalie Bennett

It started with a simple Google search, “How to get from Cancun, Mexico to San Jose, Costa Rica” and ended up with six weeks through five Central American countries with a backpack, walking shoes and a spirit to keep on traveling off the beaten path.

Natalie at the La Merced Church in Granada, Nicaragua. It is one of the oldest religious buildings in Central America. The Catedral de Granada is in the background.

My husband, Dennis, and I wanted to meet my sister and her husband in Cancun where they would be staying for a week — and we had previously talked with Jon Picard, a Wenatchee friend, about meeting up in Costa Rica where he was planning a trip.

I thought since we would already be so far south we could combine the trips, little did I know what would lie ahead for us over the next six weeks during the middle of February through March.

After spending a few days with my sister at an all-inclusive in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, Dennis and I headed back into Cancun to meet up with our Tucan tour group and host, Cesar.

Tucan Travel is an adventure tour company operating 450-plus tours in more than 60 countries.

Cesar is a 37-year-old from Antigua, Guatemala, he is multi-lingual, mainly Spanish and English, with a rare patience level that we soon found out is a necessity when traveling with 16 people, with ages ranging from 23 to 72 from 10 different countries with varying degrees of fluency in the English language.

During the pre-departure meeting we learned pretty quickly that this will be a cultural immersion tour.

No “American” type hotels, bellboy services or concierges, this is a carry your own bag, (fortunately we both just had backpacks the size of carry-on luggage), through cities with uneven and pothole-ridden sidewalks, hotels with no elevators and inadequate plumbing… translated to mean, you carry your own luggage up three flights of stairs to your room and do not flush the toilet paper.

Tucan Tours uses some private buses, but to keep with their immersion theme we also rode on the local chicken buses, on some occasions we rode with the locals who were on their three hour commute to work or some that would go shop two to four hours away because the prices were better in another town or in one case, another country.

After a brief stay in Mexico, the trip continued on to Caye Caulker, Belize. This tiny island has a laid-back atmosphere and streets of sand. Here we snorkeled in the aqua blue water with dozens of nurse sharks and sting rays.

In San Ignacio, Belize we first had to swim a river to reach the entrance leading into the ATM caves (Actun Tunichil Muknal) where Mayan sacrifices took place.

Through a combination of swimming and climbing over rocks for a half-mile into the mountain, we discover that there are skulls, bones, ceramics and stoneware left by the Maya that have been discovered and preserved. Eerie but impressive.

Crossing the border into Guatemala, we made a visit to the incredible jungle ruins of Tikal, a vast complex of temples and buildings in the heart of the jungle. It is so spectacular that scenes from Star Wars Episode IV were filmed there.

Still in Guatemala, we arrived in Rio Dulce, where we took a 45-minute boat ride to the Caribbean village of Livingston. Lunch was the local dish, Tapado, a stew made up of coconut milk, a whole fish, a whole crab, shrimp and plantains… delicious, but messy as it must be eaten with your hands.

Our last destination in Guatemala was Antigua, a beautiful colonial town and ex-capital. It has an impressive open-air market and is one of the best places to learn Spanish, due to the fact that their accent is not as strong, so it is easier to learn, or so I am told.

Our early morning and a six-hour drive takes us to Copan, Honduras. The border crossings are not easy, and can take up to a three-hour wait. Copan is also an ancient Mayan site, and was once one of the world’s top producers of tobacco. Today it relies heavily on tourism and coffee farms are scattered about the area.

After Copan we had several days on the island of Roatan, Honduras then we continued on to Leon, Nicaragua, which has recovered nicely from the Nicaragua conflict of the 1980s and is today a bustling tourist town.

A highlight of our trip was just outside Leon, where we hiked up, and then boarded — yes surfed a board — down the Cerro Negro volcano. It is an hour-and-half hike up in 85-degree heat on black volcanic rock and an exhilarating less than two-minute ride down.

Traveling onward via local bus, we crossed the vast Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. The lake was once a large ocean bay, but seismic activity caused the land to rise, cutting if off from the sea. This has left the lake with fresh water sharks.

A ferry ride took us to Ometepe Island, located in the middle of the lake. There is a fresh mineral springs swimming area that we took advantage of while enjoying fresh coconut water straight from the machete sliced coconut… ok there may have been rum involved as well.

Arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, Dennis and I left the tour group to join up with our long-time Wenatchee friend, Jon Picard.

The three of us rented a car and had an itinerary that took us through the city life of San Jose, to the hot springs, hanging bridges and rain forest (and did it ever rain) of La Fortuna, into the cloud forest biological reserve of Monteverde, where on a hike high into the forest we reached the Continental Divide, one foot will be on the Caribbean side and the other on the Pacific side.

From the mountains we made our way down to the beach town of Jaco and of course no Costa Rica visit would be complete without a visit to Manuel Antonio Reserve, famous for their sloths, monkeys and raccoons, who like to steal things out of your bag while you’re not looking, which we did see happen.

Jon, Dennis and I put hundreds of miles on the car, many miles on our shoes, saw some spectacular sunsets, had some good laughs, and met the friendliest people you could ask for.

Natalie and Dennis Bennett were long-time Wenatchee residents: Dennis is a semi-retired builder and Natalie owned Lemongrass Natural Foods. The couple recently moved to Boise to be closer to family.

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