Central America

6 Months in Central America

 

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My Final Mayan Ruin: Palenque

After Mirador I had one ruin left that I felt I had to see: Palenque.

For weeks I’d heard travelers talk about the allure of Palenque, a ruin whose jungle location and restored structures earned it top ratings. At this point I had already seen Teotihuacan, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal, Tikal, and El Mirador – I was pretty much “ruined out,” as people say, but told myself to push through for this final one.

So back to Mexico I went, and in the mosquito-ridden jungle heat I stayed, to see what all the fuss was about.

As so often happens, Palenque deserved the hype. Most of the ancient city is still covered by jungle, so wandering through the site feels like being part of an expedition. While there is a main uncovered square around which large temples and the palace stand, impressive in scale and design, it was the less crowded side temples and houses that I more enjoyed discovering. Buildings were scattered around, hidden by trees or up a stone staircase. A side group of temples had a fantastic view out over the main square and to the jungle beyond. I sat up there for a while, contemplating my final Mayan site and all the other ones I’d been to.

Palenque was that same appealing mixture of wild jungle and restored buildings that Tikal was, but the sheer mass of tourists, even within the first hour it was open, and stalls selling kitchy trinkets were distracting like at Chichen Itza. It’s the only ruin in Mexico in the jungle, setting it apart for most tourists, but I had just come from five days in the jungle at Mirador plus Tikal before that, so this typical fascination was lost on me. It was, however, the only one I saw with a river running through it that led to a beautiful waterfall, which made the walk to exit uniquely gorgeous. I appreciated being able to climb up and wander through most of its buildings, especially the expansive palace, reminiscent of Tikal and Uxmal but better due to how much was open to explore. In the end, I ranked Palenque second in my Pre-Columbian ruins tour.

What is the final ranking, you ask?

  1. Tikal
  2. Palenque
  3. Uxmal
  4. Ek Balam
  5. Tulum
  6. Chichen Itza

I purposefully left out El Mirador and Teotihuacan: El Mirador because it’s so unlike the others, it’s more of a jungle exploration than a visit to a ruin, and Teotihuacan because it’s not Mayan. I realize I put the New Wonder of the World last, but I suppose I just wasn’t as impressed as whoever comes up with those rankings.

I was in Palenque for just one night. I opted to spend my night in the town of Palenque instead of the more popular backpacker choice of El Panchan. I had had enough of the jungle by the time I got there and wanted to be near the bus station. The town itself is nothing special, although it does have some very delicious gringas (tacos with cheese), and was sadly uneventful for Day of the Dead. On a return journey to Palenque a week later (I’ll explain how that happened soon) I actually saw El Panchan so I can now recommend staying there instead of town, as long as you’re in the mood for some jungle time.

Since I was there on a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed, so my time at the Zona Arqueologica was done by noon. Anxious to get to San Cristobal, I got on a 2 pm bus out of town. A short but necessary visit, beautiful Palenque was a good way to close out my Mayan exploration.

Next Steps: Planning, or Lack Thereof, and Why I Got a Guidebook

So I’ve decided to go to Central America… Now what?

The planning process this time is much more low-key than it was for my RTW trip last year. In fact, it’s near non-existent. With the aim to travel totally flexibly and recommendation-based, I don’t want to do much research into specifics. I know some places I want to see in every country – obvious ones like Chichen Itza, Caye Caulker, Antigua, the Panama Canal – and that’s enough of a start for me. If I look into it too much then I’ll come up with all of these places that I’ll try to make it to like I did last time and feel rushed to keep moving. I’m going with a more “ignorance is bliss” approach this time; I can’t miss what I don’t know about.

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I still did buy a guidebook: Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring (if it’s not broke don’t fix it). In my last trip I thought the Shoestring guides were good resources to have with me even if they weren’t my first mode of planning. At the end of each country chapter there’s a history section that I would read on my way into the country to get a little background on where I was going and what I would be experiencing. If I found myself without a clue of where to stay when I arrived somewhere I would go to the accommodation page and target the neighborhood pointed out as a hostel-centric area. Plenty of times I tore out the maps and used them to get myself around a city or neighborhood, especially at night in search of a bar. And of course if I had a lack of advice on where to go next I could read through the locations for inspiration.

Most helpful though was the transportation information. Each country has a “getting to” and “getting away” section that not only helps with flight versus bus evaluations but also finding your way into town from the typically far away airport or bus station. Then there’s the call-out boxes of bus matrices that are good guidelines for frequency, length of time, and cost to get between between places of interest. But if I were to give a “most helpful section” award it would go to the border crossing information. These guidebooks highlight the best places to cross borders and explanations of how it all works. This information is hard to find elsewhere; many travelers referenced my books to see what we were up against.

As helpful as the internet is, there’s no way to beat having a physical reference in your hand when you have to make a snap decision in Bangkok traffic about whether you can ditch the southern bus station idea and instead go to the train station with your new travel companion to catch an overnight train to Surat Thani to make it to Khao Lak by tomorrow. With no cell phone service and no understanding of Thai where else are you going to get the answers you need?

Notice though that all of these reasons for getting the guidebook are not talking about planning, they’re focused on use on the road. I’ve barely opened it since I bought it and don’t plan on reading it much until I’m on my way into the next country. And of course I will again rip out the countries as I leave them, decreasing the heft of the book as I go.

I got one more reference book: Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary. Now that I have this, I wonder how I could have possibly gone to South America without it. The layout is so helpful, broken down into sections like transport, meeting people, and menu decoder, plus a small two-directional dictionary in the back, that I am already anxious to put it to use. I am also trying to keep up on my Duolingo app to refresh what Spanish I knew and learn more before I go. This time I really do want to learn Spanish, especially when I think about how easily I picked it up last time. I’ve even thought about taking a language class in Guatemala for a week or two.

My last written guide, for now, is BootnAll’s How to Plan an Extended Trip in Central America. I read this back when I was still debating what to do; I wanted to have some sort of idea what I would be getting myself into, and as I read about the different places and type of travel I would be doing I found myself only growing more and more excited. It’s part of the reason I ended up seriously looking into flights. As always, BootsnAll provided helpful inspiration. I marked the places the guide highlighted in a Google Map to get a general idea of a route, and I will again be using this website to outline my budget.

Otherwise I’ve already gotten extremely helpful tips from friends on where to go in Mexico and Nicaragua, and am hoping for more soon. So please, if you know anywhere I absolutely can’t miss, let me know!

Here it Goes Again

A funny thing happened at the end of June. I bought a flight to Mexico City.

It happened just like that – sudden and unexpected. But since it happened I haven’t looked back, so I am taking that as a sign that it was the right decision, since I feel pretty settled in it. So what does that mean?

I am going to Central America for 6 months.

Let me take a step back and explain how I came to this decision. When I returned to the US it was under the promise that I would be leaving again, I just didn’t know where to yet, so I was going to take the summer to figure it out. I knew I had a six month window between the end of my summer job and my sister’s wedding, an unmissable event in San Francisco next spring. With that in mind I narrowed it down to four options:

1. South America. To be honest, I really thought I would be going back to South America. I pretty much came back to go to South America. I knew the exact trip I wanted to do: I would fly to Lima, hit a few places I missed in Peru like Arequipa on my way to a few places I missed in Bolivia like Sucre and Potosi before a border-hopping adventure down Chile and Argentina into Patagonia, then I would loop around the southernmost point of South America and work my way back up to Buenos Aires. Sounds great, right? I even dreamed about continuing up the coast of Brazil to the beach towns I missed like Puerto Alegre, Fortaleza, and Jericoacoara.

2. Wanaka, New Zealand. I knew the work-study visa was an option until I hit 30 and I loved this town so much I thought about just finding a job and staying put for a while. It would be their summer so I could potentially farm or do something on the lake. I would hike, get to know a foreign country well, and do some wandering in the meantime. Maybe I would finally get to do more of the Great Walks or jump over to Tasmania or Perth.

3. Central America. This choice was a continuation of the backpacker lifestyle in a mostly new region. People raved about traveling through CA and my week in Nicaragua in 2011 was enough of a taste to make me want to go back and see more like it. It’s cheap, it’s got the kinds of adventures I like, and my timeline of September to March is the exact right time of year to explore it.

4. Europe. I’ve been talking about moving to Vienna for a long time now, and with so many friends going to Oktoberfest this year maybe it was time to bite the bullet and go for it. I have friends to visit across Europe who I’ve been telling I’ll see at some point, I could fly to England and go through France and the Netherlands on my way to Germany, with a quick Swiss interlude before ending in Vienna. I haven’t been to Europe in years and that should be corrected soon.

With four fantastic options I thought it would take all summer to decide and after Labor Day I’d end up flipping a coin or buying the cheapest flight to one of the regions I was considering. Turns out it didn’t take all summer to decide, but that cheapest flight idea may have been right.

I quickly eliminated Europe. As much as I want to go there, a six month window is not a time to try to move to a new place, it’s a time to do another adventure that I know I will return from. Europe would have to wait until after April. Next to go was New Zealand. I was forcing it on this time because of the age limit on the work-study visa. If I do want to go live in Wanaka I can do that any time, it’ll just be a little more complicated. But for any American under 30 who might be thinking about some extended time in New Zealand or Australia, I highly recommend looking into the work-study visa. It’s a great way to spend a year or two abroad and something I wish I’d known about before.

I was down to two options: South America or Central America. The two backpacking options that would again have me moving around quite a bit. South America had been calling me back ever since I left. I woke up in Myanmar longing for it, a physical pain in my chest that told me I needed to be on a different continent. I knew the exact trip I wanted to do and had originally said I needed 6 months for it. The time frame was right, an estimated December/January arrival in Patagonia would work out perfectly, and I would finally feel like I completed South America (at least for now). At this point you’re probably wondering why I don’t have a flight booked to Lima.

Central America wouldn’t leave my mind. The more I thought about what I wanted out of this six months the more I realized it was in Central America. I still have the stamina to travel in the backpacker way, on chicken buses and in hostels, and this region felt like the last frontier of backpacker life that I had to get to before I grew out of this phase. It has everything I liked from the last trip that would make for a great next trip: mountains and volcanoes to hike, jungles to adventure in, oceans to scuba and snorkel in, awe-inspiring architectural ruins from another era, charming colorful towns, cheap street food, and hammocks all over the place. It’s much quicker to travel around, with 3-hour bus rides between places instead of 24-hour bus rides, allowing me to cover more ground in my time frame. And the likelihood of being able to travel solely based on people’s recommendations was high. This is something that is really important for me on this next trip; I had such a positive experience going to places that friends recommended last time that I want to pick most if not all my locations that way this time.

Then there were the negatives for South America. First of all, it’s way more expensive to get to and from. Second, it’s freaking cold in Patagonia, and the stuff I would have to bring is bulkier and costlier. Third, I could actually do that trip in shorter spurts, going just to Peru or Argentina for two weeks at a time; it didn’t really have to be six months. Fourth, hiking alone is lonely, it would be nice to go with people, and that was putting a lot of stock in meeting people I wanted to hike with. I wasn’t really worried about it given the incredible people I’ve met on the road, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a buddy or few for a trip like that. Fifth, my motivation for returning now was partially fueled by the fact that I’d dropped a lot of money on visas for Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil that expire in 5 or 10 years, and I felt like I should use them again. I already said that visas weren’t a good reason for NZ so I had to remind myself of that again here.

Then there were the book-ends of Central America. I have friends in Mexico City who I would like to visit while they’re still there, and I would love to return to Colombia, which is possible by boat from Panama. Working at an eco-retreat or coffee farm in Colombia was also an option at one point, so ending my six months with a month in Colombia was an intriguing idea.

So one day I looked at flights, just to see what getting to Mexico City looked like. CHEAP. So cheap. And not only was the flight cheap but it was from San Francisco, meaning I could go see friends and family in SF on my way out of the country. Then I realized that my flight to SF could be covered by points, aka free. I slept on the idea and the next night bought the flight before it disappeared. Like I said, I thought I might just end up buying the cheapest flight out of the country…

I got a round trip flight SF to Mexico City and a one way flight Newark to SF all for $260.

September 10th I arrive in San Francisco. September 25th I leave for Mexico City. I plan to be back in San Francisco around March 25, 2016. In between, I will just see how far south I make it. If I end up loving Guatemala I could stay there the whole time, or if I get fed up with chicken buses I could jump down to Colombia early. The beauty of how I’m traveling this time is anything could happen.

I also still have a month plus until departure, and it’s not like Mexico City to Lima flights are totally outrageous, so if for some reason I have buyers remorse about this decision I could still change it at any point. The world is my oyster, and I will go where feels right. But for now, Central America feels pretty damn right.

Now begin the posts about my next adventure, what I have come to call my Round the Central America trip.

Here it goes again.