These days travel to the USA is commonplace and travel to South America is by no means rare. But between these two Americas lies an extraordinary third: Central America.
South of the US border, you will find magnificent Mexico. Once home to rich pre-Columbian cultures such as the Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs, the ruins of their temples offer a fascinating glimpse into an ancient world. Some of the best archaeological sites, such as Uxmal, Palenque and Chichen Itza, are found on the Yucatan Peninsula, where you’ll also find more recent colonial history evident in beautiful cities such as Merida. I highly recommend staying in one of the gorgeous haciendas in this region – so atmospheric, and a truly authentic experience.
History aside, Mexico also boasts some incredible natural features such as the Copper Canyon. Seven times as large as the Grand Canyon and almost as deep, it is best experienced aboard the Chihuahua al Pacifico train, considered by many to be one of the most dramatic train rides in the world.
Further south, with the largest percentage of indigenous Indians in all of Central America, Guatemala is without doubt the most scenically stunning of all the countries in the region. The markets of Chichicastenango are a riot of colour, and the volcanoes rising above lakes of breath-taking beauty are astounding. A true must-see is Tikal, one of the greatest Maya centres in history, with seriously impressive pyramids and temples rising above the verdant jungle.
Keep going and you’ll reach the environmental jewel in the crown, lovely Costa Rica. A world leader in eco-tourism, it offers fantastic beaches, tropical jungles, cloud forest and amongst the most diverse range of bird, insect and animal life found on earth. The birdlife in particular is mind-blowing, with toucans and parrots being as common as sparrows are to us! Other drawcards include the charmingly laid-back three-toed sloth, many species of monkeys and a colourful selection of butterflies and frogs.
Lastly, there is Panama which for more than a century has provided the vital link between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. A great experience is to do a partial transit of the canal on a tourist boat through the Miraflores Lock near Panama City. The old centre of Panama City is an historical gem, and it was from here that the Spanish Conquistadores set out to conquer South America.
Much of the Inca gold plundered by the Spanish was sent just across the isthmus from Panama City to Portobelo on the Atlantic Coast. This incalculable treasure was protected from marauding pirates by imposing forts, some of which remain today. You could say these were the original Pirates of the Caribbean. A sense of history is everywhere.
San Francisco, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are all fantastic destinations. But next time you travel to one of these, why not take a side trip to the ‘other America’, you will be surprised and richly rewarded.
Words: Chris Lyons, World Journeys