Published on August 11th, 2016 | by Emma Hackwood0
Exploring Central America with Intrepid Travel
The Panama Canal, the barrier reefs, caves and ruins in Belize, the jungles of Guatemala – our Travel Expert Amanda Bennett got to see it all and more as she ventured on and off-the-beaten path on her tour with Intrepid. Here she shares her adventures in Central America and the time she felt like she had the entire Tikal ruins to herself:
Panama City has two sides. One side of the city is modern, New Town, a bustling city centre with skyscrapers as high as the eye can see. The other side of the city is Old Town, my favourite side; close to where all of the action is. Taxis are only about $5 USD to get from one side to the other.
Old Town is the place to be. As a foodie, I’m impressed with the variety of restaurants, cafés and bars in the city, ranging from high-end establishments to quaint hidden treasures. There are some great cafés, such as Unido, that serve amazing coffee – perfect for sipping on while writing postcards. If you’re looking for a more refreshing libation, head to the La Rana Dorada, a craft brewery on the edge of Old Town.
For exploring the city and its famous canal, I highly recommend taking one of Intrepid’s day tours, called Urban Adventures. I did two of them: the Panama Canal day tour and the evening food tour which were both led by an amazing guide, Kevin, who is very passionate about all things Central America and Panama.
Belize it or not, Belize City is a member of the British Commonwealth country and has the most Caribbean influence compared to other Central American countries. Small and rugged, there are no major chains present here. No McDonald’s, no Starbucks. This is highly refreshing. I really enjoy the bus system here! It’s perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but I really like travelling like the locals do which is how we will travel for the entire tour – like locals. Public transit buses are actually old converted school buses, which are actually old cheese wagons. There’s no real air conditioning system in the buses, so our windows are rolled down while we barrel down the highway. Our tour leader, David, is a local who’s passionate about Central America and shows off Belize’s best sides to us. David is so organized, always helpful, and so fun.
San Ignacio is the second largest city in Belize. The major draw here are the cave systems and ancient Inca tribe ruins. Try one of the most popular day trips and explore the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves. The tour starts with a 45-minute hike before entering the cave system by water. The majority of this excursion is spent on the water maneuvering through the caves until we reach the main chamber, which is thought by historians to have been used as a chamber for sacrificial ceremony. While the excursion is exciting and adventurous, it’s not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic. Shorts and proper footwear are recommended, either runners or good water shoes.
Tikal is close to the Belizean border and is surrounded by jungle. The plan is to camp out here for a few days and explore the picturesque ruins and temples of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal National Park. This day, by far, is one of my favourite days of the entire trip. Compared to the Mayan ruins in Mexico, the Tikal ruins are quieter and less crowded; there’s practically no one here while I wander around. I have so many photos of the ruins without a single person in them! At the end of the day, I end my time in the park by climbing up one of the temples, peeking over the jungle canopy, and watching the sun set over the temples.
The jungle wildlife is exotic, exciting… and kind of frightening at times. Edwin, a park ranger, leads our tour group on a nightwalk toward a watering hole that many tapirs and jaguars frequent. During the nightwalk, the tour group tells ghost stories and scares each other silly as we walk through the pitch black jungle. Looking up at the night sky I can see millions of stars. Being from a city, I just don’t see skies like this. It’s breathtaking.
We sleep in tents that night but not for long as our wake-up call is set for 3:30 a.m to make it for our sunrise hike. Sleeping in is not an easy feat anyway, with the waking sounds of howler monkeys bellowing throughout the jungle.
Some of the group head back to the same temple where we watched the sun set to watch the sun rise and some of the group head back toward the watering hole in hopes of seeing the elusive jaguar. We walk in silence for about 20 minutes and stop – it’s so serene. In all of the silence, I’m struck by how loud the jungle is. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard. We did not see jaguar or tapir but we did hear many twigs breaking, leading us to believe a large animal was nearby possibly circling around us but not appearing to us.
Caye Caulker is a little gem. I love it so much that I hesitate recommending others to visit because I want to keep it a secret to myself. There are no cars on the island; everyone walks, bikes or races around in golf carts. There are no hotel chains on the island. Each hotel on the island is unique and independently owned. Caye Caulker sits along the second biggest barrier reef in the world, which means although it’s set out in the Caribbean Sea, there are no swimmable beaches. With that being said, Caye Caulker sits along the second biggest barrier reef in the world – so snorkelling is a must. I could spot sea turtles, sharks, barracudas, so many colourful fish, a manatee, and many rays – manta, sting, and eagle. It is unreal. A word to the wise… wear sunscreen! The sun is very strong here, trust me, as someone who religiously applies sunscreen and yet walking around with a sunburn.
Because there are no swimmable beaches, many of the hotels along the beach have docks that stretch out over the water for people to swim. There is one area called the Spit, which is the go-to place for sunsets. There’s also a tiny manmade beach area perfect for relaxing in.
The food on Caye Caulker is incredible. The seafood is fresh and amazing and every restaurant knows how to serve it up well. We are on the island for two days and we’re eating like kings and queens because the restaurants are so reasonably priced and affordable.
I’m beyond impressed with my experience on this trip. The Land of Belize tour with Intrepid is wonderful for anyone who wants to see Central America, see the sites like a local and venture off-the-beaten-path. I really enjoy the culture, history, and the delicious food! So much delicious food.