The first month of our journey around the globe will take us to five of the eight countries that lie south of the U.S. and north of the South American continent. After landing in Mexico’s capital on New Years Day, we will travel by land through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, skipping over Belize and Panama. The daily itinerary of our trip will depend partly on what we happen to find in the places we go, but tentatively, the plan is as follows…
Two weeks in Mexico will give us enough time to explore not only the capital, but several smaller cities and towns with interesting things to see and do. We will start in Mexico City, home today to nine million people, and the historical capital since the time of the Aztecs. As depicted on the Mexican Flag, it was here that the wandering Aztec people saw an eagle and a serpent—a divine message telling them to settle and begin their great empire. Today the city is a sprawling chaotic mass of 16 boroughs, with remnants of the Indigenous and Spanish colonial past interspersed with modern skyscrapers and a whole lot of anything-goes cement construction. To really get to know the city one would have to spend years here—between museums, parks, street markets, and just walking the streets of the various distinct districts—so our six days here will just be a skimming of the surface, but we hope to take in as much as we can.Via the cheap, efficient subway grid, we will explore the historic district, visit the top floor of the one of the city’s tallest buildings, and listen to the mariachi bands that converge nightly in the historic Plaza Garibaldi.
We will then move east to the classy city of Puebla which sits under the shadow of Popocatepetl, an active volcano. Around Puebla there are pyramids, nightclubs, universities galore, and secluded indigenous towns that give you an alternative look into life in Mexico. Puebla sits atop the same plateau as Mexico City, which means cool, dry air will still be the norm, so it will be a welcome change to head south to the hotter city of Oaxaca, and on to places in Mexico that really feel like Mexico.Oaxaca is a small city that made the headlines a year and a half ago when a teacher’s strike turned into a citywide clash between workers and the government. Things have calmed down, and though Oaxaca has many more non-locals (tourists and expatriates) the local idiosyncrasies are still evident. We will have to try some of their roasted grasshoppers, and perhaps a hike into the hills overlooking the small, laid back city.
After Oaxaca we will head to the state of Tabasco, where a tropical storm left severe flooding throughout huge swaths of land along the gulf of Mexico. We will go to the state’s capital, Villahermosa, where some of the worst flooding occurred, to get a glimpse of how the recovery is going. Villahermosa is not necessarily a place where many travelers frequent even when it is not recovering from a state of emergency, so it will hopefully be a unique stop.
From Villahermosa we will head toward the Guatemalan border, passing through territory once ruled by the Maya, where their people, history and culture still dominate. As we head southward by bus we will stop off to explore pyramids amidst the Mayan rainforest.
During the second half of January, we will barrel toward Costa Rica, making our first stop in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. A mixture of Mayan, gothic European and traveler town, it is nestled in the mountains north of the looming chaos of Guatemala City, but within arms reach of interesting spots like Atitlán (a lake surrounded by peaceful little towns), Antigua (the most “American” part of Guatemala), as well as less well known cities like Cuatepeque, where few travelers go (which makes it all the more interesting). Guatemala is considerably more impoverished than Mexico, having emerged from decades of civil war and turmoil only in the late 80’s. That trauma is still quite palpable, even as an outsider. As we move south, national infrastructures become markedly less “first-world” — businesses become more local, and the “informal economy” begins to take over — which will require us to adapt and learn to embrace the unexpected.
El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua
After five days in Guatemala we will find the fastest bus route through El Salvador and Honduras where will merely spend one night, to Nicaragua, a country that has also seen its fair share of violence thanks to outside meddling, but is statistically one of the safer Central American nations. After exploring Leon and the small towns of the north, we will trek to the twin-peaked island of Ometepe—a quiet little place that has remained largely isolated from the mainland and houses a live volcano, its own wildlife, and a largely self sustaining society. We will be hard pressed to do anything for the four or so days we spend there, besides living off the land and scouring the surf for the worlds only fresh water sharks.
Our final destination in Central America will be Costa Rica, a country with no military and huge ecological reserves that harbor colorful birds, picturesque landscapes, and malaria. Avoiding these will be difficult, but hopefully they won’t be too all consuming to keep us from getting down to the real truth about the country that calls itself “rich coast”: Is it an Americanized sellout or an example for the rest of Central America to follow?