Follow our intrepid Sales Consultant Hollie as she travels from jungles of Guatemala to the beaches of Mexico.
What a beautiful sight Antigua is after coming from the traffic-choked roads of Guatemala City where the nearest airport is located. My taxi turned in to the cobblestone streets and we bumped along through the easily navigable grid system of this UNESCO world heritage site which is surrounded by volcanoes, lush forests and coffee plantations.
Instantly you can tell that the pace of life is much slower here. The roads themselves simply won’t allow any vehicle to travel at speed and residents and tourists alike amble along in no particular hurry.
The Spanish colonial buildings that line the streets have been lovingly restored after the 1773 earthquake that devastated the city and are painted in a variety of different colours from mustard yellows and deep blues to more subtle pastel shades. The result is a dreamy palette of 1-2 storey dwellings housing coffee shops, restaurants, artisan markets and chilled out watering holes, many with hidden courtyards adorned with bougainvillea.
This small city lends itself well to exploring on foot and myself and a couple of others from the group took our maps and delved in to some of Antigua's treasures, including the stunning baroque Iglesia de La Merced, Iglesia y Convento de la Capuchinas and its luscious courtyards and garden, and the iconic Santa Catalina Arch with the Volcán de Agua looming in the background.
The best way to start the day in Antigua is with a cup of Guatemala's finest export - coffee. The altitude and rich volcanic soil make the crop one of the finest in the world and so, being a coffee lover myself, I decided to take a tour of the Filadelphia plantation just a short drive out of Antigua. It was fascinating to learn of how labour intensive coffee production is from start to finish and has now made me really appreciate what goes in to every cup!
Back in Antigua, a couple of us went to check out what was on offer at the labyrinthine local market. We found stalls bursting with colourful fresh fruit and vegetables from this abundant region, street food vendors with sizzling snacks, and hand-embroidered textiles with the typical multi-coloured designs of Central American.
Beside the bustling market is the bus station and we spent some time here being amazed by the 'chicken buses' and their unique designs.
In the afternoon a few of us visited Casa del Jade; a museum explaining the importance of the stone in Mayan civilisation and the processes involved in preparing the stone and how techniques have changed over thousands of years.
Our local guide Victor has been fantastic so far with his insights into Central American life and has given us some great recommendations for places to try great local cuisine. Tonight was no exception as we spent the evening in a secret restaurant behind an unobtrusive doorway. We were treated to delicious purple corn tacos with toppings of pork and plum sauce, shredded beef, and bacon and shrimp, washed down with some not-so-local wine. Everything was cooked from scratch in front of us and the flavours were amazing. I didn't have Guatemala down as a foodie destination before I came but in just two days I've been converted to the fresh and healthy cuisine.
Day 3 - 4
Life on Rio Dulce, meaning Sweet River, is slow and relaxed. Everything is reached by boat in this lush verdant paradise.
Our hotel is perched on the river and my cabin has a beautiful view of the boats and copious amounts of water birds that inhabit the area. We had an 8 hour journey from Antigua to reach this place and it was completely worth it. We arrived before the sun set and there was time for some swimming and relaxing in the hammocks before dinner.
I went to sleep with the sound of lapping water beneath my cabin.
After a leisurely breakfast, most of us decided to partake in an optional excursion to Casacadas Calientes El Paraíso - a natural spa of hot springs, rock pools to swim in and a beautiful waterfall. We travelled by boat up river where it opens out on to the glorious Lake Izabal. After about an hour we moored and then squeezed into a pick-up truck and headed for the falls.
The hot springs are said to be therapeutic and there is clay enriched with minerals that we covered ourselves in for the true spa experience!
In the afternoon we took a boat going in the opposite direction to the town of Livingston which is at the mouth of the river where it opens to the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic beyond.
Livingston is a colourful town home to the Garifuna; mixed indigenous people who are descendants of slaves. There is a completely different feel to the place than the Guatemala we have seen so far, mainly for the Caribbean influence.
We reach the tiny island of Flores, nestled on Lake Petén Itzá, in the afternoon. It's so small that you can walk from one end to another in 15 minutes. Victor took us on a tour of the island to see the colourful colonial buildings and filled us in on the history.
Other than exploring the streets, there isn't a lot to do here but get a cool sundowner and enjoy the view from one of the rooftop bars. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon and evening!
The Tikal ruins and pyramids are arguably one of the finest examples of Mayan civilisation that we can see today. The temple complex has been uncovered over around 150 years and there is much more that still lies underground.
We were given a guided tour by a local guy named Boris. This involved a bit of hiking around the National park and climbing up some pyramids for a spectacular view of the rainforest. As we walked Boris gave us loads of fascinating insights into the history of the Mayans and how they were so ahead of the game when it came to astronomy, mathematics and science.
We were also able to see plenty of animals and birds as well including spider monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, toucans, black vultures, coatis, occellated turkeys and a scorpion.
Late in the afternoon we said adiós to Guatemala and crossed the border into Belize - a former British colony where English is still the main language spoken. We spent our first night in San Ignacio.
Day 7 -9
Today we were heading for the tropical island paradise that is Caye Caulker, but first we took advantage of some of the exciting optional activities available. The group split, some going to the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves, and the rest of us went cave tubing. The tubing involved floating downstream at a very leisurely pace through a network of caves. We saw a lot of bats and some incredible rock formations within the cave system and the experience was so relaxing that we nodded off a couple of times!
After lunch we made our way to the port of Belize City where we caught the water taxi to Caye Caulker. It took about an hour but the time passed quickly with rum punch. We arrived just in time to see the beautiful sunset.
If you like seafood then Belize is a food heaven with lobster, shrimp and fish dishes costing a fraction of the price we would pay back at home. Everything is fresh from the sea each day and grilled on the barbecue outside most restaurants and tastes fantastic.
On our first full day in Caye Caulker, Victor organised a snorkelling tour for the whole group. It was my first time snorkelling and I was a little nervous, but the crew on our catamaran explained everything really well, made sure all of the equipment was ok, and looked after me at every step. After an initial panic whilst in the water about breathing, I eased in to it and really enjoyed my first experience. It was like being in an enormous tropical fish tank and I saw many different varieties of fish, a large sea turtle, and some nurse sharks. The coral reefs in this part of the world have not experienced the bleaching that is happening to a lot of reefs in other places such as the Indian Ocean so it was a colourful sight and we enjoyed every minute.
The day ended with more tasty seafood and many fruity cocktails at a local restaurant, followed by karaoke and dancing to Caribbean beats late in to the night.
Our second full day on the island was a free one to relax and 'go slow' which is the mantra of Caye Caulker.
We departed our island paradise at 6:30am on a water taxi bound for Belize City where we were to take a local bus to the Mexican border.
We'd heard stories about how busy and cramped these buses could be and were bracing ourselves; however, we needn't have worried as it was a very pleasant journey. I sat next to a friendly local man named Michael who gave me a sobering account of life in Belize for the average person (basically anyone who isn't rich).
After a smooth border crossing we said ¡hola! to Mexico! Our first stop was for lunch at a locals’ café where I had some of the nicest Mexican food I've ever had. We then made our way to the penultimate destination on our itinerary: the charming town of Tulum.
The following day was free for us to enjoy the sights and so our first stop was the impressive Mayan ruins of Tulum which are perched in the edge of a cliff overlooking the beautiful palm fringed beach below. This site was considered sacred as it was the first to see the sunrise in the Mayan world. Another highlight for me was the large number of iguanas that live amongst the ruins. It was great to see them up close.
The afternoon was spent wandering around the town looking at the incredible street art and doing some souvenir shopping.
For our full final day of the tour Victor suggested we hire a bus and visit some beaches and cenotes, whilst learning about conservation in the area and seeing some of the effects of climate change.
Our first stop was a section of beach in the Tulum area. Fancy five star resorts line the coast as far as the eye can see but currently most are empty. The reason is the growing problem of sargassum seaweed washing up every day in such huge volumes that it's impossible for locals to keep on top of it. The seaweed collects in piles and gives off an awful smell of rotting eggs. Sargassum increases acidity and temperatures in the seas, which decreases oxygen levels. This type of seaweed is also poisonous in such volumes to some of the local species of fish and the coral reefs. It made for a very sad sight. It wasn't all doom and gloom though as we noticed several nesting areas for turtles which are being protected by locals. It seems that the turtles are doing pretty well!
At lunchtime we stopped off at a restaurant situated on one of the few stretches of coast that hasn't completely succumbed to sargassum. We were able to swim here and relax for a couple of hours.
After lunch we visited the cenotes of Casa Tortuga. Cenotes are sinkholes common on the Yucatan peninsula and attract snorkelers and divers who come to explore the clear waters and the limestone caves that hide underground networks of rivers and pools, some up to 40ft deep.
We were kitted out with life jackets and snorkelling masks and an enthusiastic guide took us on a tour of four cenotes, all of which were impressive in their own way. Being inside the caves was a very serene experience and it was great to see the weird and wonderful rock formations both above and below the water. We also saw bats up-close, nesting between the stalactites of the cave roof.
Our final stop was Playa del Carmen; a very busy tourist town and not necessarily a true representation of what Mexico has to offer, however, it is very well connected with Cancun airport being under an hour away by car or coach, and a decent bus station with good services to the interior of the country.
Playa was where we were to have our final meal of delicious Mexican food and cocktails as a group before going our separate ways the following day.
As with most of these kind of trips, spending long days together tends to bond fellow travellers and friends for life are made, so needless to say it was an emotional affair!
GROUP TOUR from £1205 for 12 days