On this adventure for Our Man on the Ground I venture to that often-overlooked part of the world, Central America, at its narrowest only 12 miles separates the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean but much separates South America and North America. Read on to find out what I thought of the region, food, people and history.
Once the hotbed of revolution and unrest the collection of seven countries that separate the Americas are experiencing something of a renaissance, a revolution in tourism if you will. Visiting three of them gave me a flavour of what’s on offer to the more adventurous visitor. I started my journey in Guatemala, once the home to the greatest revolutionary pinup of them all, Argentinean Marxist Che Guevara. He lived in Pension Meza, Guatemala City where his room has been preserved you can even stay in it if you like.
Antigua is a beautiful low-rise UNESCO city with chunky cobbled streets. On my visit a massive parade was taking place with musicians, children, dancing girls and majorettes leading individual groups around the city. It was an anti smoking protest apparently. Locals carried on with their daily business, in the women’s case this usually means carrying a large basket or cloth wrapping some precious goods on their heads and walking without it even wobbling.
Full of colonial buildings and spectacular churches including the impressive La Merced the ‘yellow church’ built in 1548. The city is cornered by three volcanoes one of them called Fire is active and erupts daily with puffs of smoke visible. At 1500m above sea level you might find yourself a bit breathless after walking around the city centre. There are always the fabulously bright public buses to take the strain if you do. Painted in a myriad of colours they are American school buses converted for the job.
Tuk tuks and motorbikes make up the other motorised transport. Everyone on my travels was friendly and smiling. Despite the clear economic difficulties there is a pride here. Food is part of that and they will proudly show you their ‘barbacoa’ a Mayan word that became BBQ. It started with a hole in the ground with a fire in it that idea was brought back to Europe, by the Spanish, the rest is history.
A typical meal might contain four different stews the most popular is Kak Ik made with turkey and served with rice and corn cooked in its husks. Chilli sauces are served with everything so try a bit before you commit, some of them are very strong. Breakfast is usually refried beans, eggs, fried plantain and a spicy tomato sauce.
The local markets are another riot of colour and full of quality leather and woven goods. There’s a great hustle and bustle, the closest I came to being harassed by hawkers. The region is generally very calm and safe. The market at Chichicastenango a few hours drive from Antigua is one of the best. A large area dedicated to the stalls and St. Thomas’ church built in 1540’s sets the scene. This is a shared space in religious terms. The Catholics and the Mayans use it for their respective ceremonies. On my visit a Mayan was conducting an offering outside on the church steps, which involved a lot of fire and incense. The nearby cemetery is also impressive, the mausoleums and tombstones are repainted to celebrate the day of the dead every October. Behind the cemetery is a Mayan sacrifice area where they submit animals and other offerings to their gods.
The highlight of my visit to Guatemala was undoubtedly Tikal in the Northern lowlands. Flying to Flores in a tiny prop plane I arrived in a humid, lush and hot rain forest. This is real Indiana Jones country. The centre of the Mayan civilisation for centuries offers the chance to climb a pyramid, walk around the large site and get a glimpse into their life and history. Tikal National Park is large with many areas unexplored or excavated.
The Mayans were there from 1500BC – 1500AD the region was the last to be conquered by the Spanish. By 700BC there were 50 Mayan independent states connected by causeways 20km long, an average days walk, with Tikal the head state location. At this time the population was over 120,000, at the same time London had 30,000 and Rome 2 million.
As you pass through the entrance (a Jurassic Park look alike) you can also expect to see spider monkeys, parrots, cougar maybe a jaguar and howler monkeys. The explorer Alfred Mosley took the first photos of the site in 1880 and casts of the writing, which can be seen in the British Museum. The tallest pyramid is 70m (20 storeys), there are 3000 structures in the park but only 10% have been fully investigated.
Walking through the park with a guide I began to realise how important the Mayan civilisation was and the power and wealth it achieved. It’s an explorers dream, I could have wandered there for days and not seen it all. It is possible to do a five-day trek through the rain forest discovering other less visited sites. Tikal is a must when visiting Guatemala.
El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American countries but also the most densely populated. A turbulent history of invaders, revolutions and extreme weather conditions has left a diverse and fascinating history waiting to be discovered.
The great advantage of visiting several countries in Central America is they are all closely packed together and easy to get to. The flight from Guatemala City to San Salvador was only 35 minutes! They do have very different identities though I was to discover.
El Salvador has 25 active volcanoes and 380km of Pacific Ocean coast. Surfing is big here. Adventurous Californians have been coming for decades in search the ultimate wave (they are very big here) so the beaches are geared up for this lifestyle.
Central America’s Pompeii ‘Joya de Ceren’ was discovered by accident in 1990’s. The Mayan UNESCO site was buried under 14 layers of volcanic ash after the Llopango erupted 1600 years ago. No human remains were found suggesting that there was enough warning for evacuation throughout the weeklong explosion. A series of preserved homes and artefacts are on display with a detailed history within the site.
Near the site is a lava rock field known as The Black Sea, a result of a 1917 volcanic eruption, for miles around I saw the rugged black lava that devastated the environment and flattening everything in its wake.
In 1980 Bishop Romero was assassinated, an act that started a civil war in El Salvador. 100,000 were killed and many more displaced. After decades of military rule it was inevitable. Cinquere is a village that became a summation of the civil struggle. Abandoned during the war but now thriving again I met ‘Rafael’ one of the revolutionary leaders who lives there but spent six years in the surrounding jungles during the conflict.
He became a guerrilla aged 16. He was the youngest of a group of 10 trained by Cubans. He told me of the hardships they endured during the government’s scorched earth policy where they ate anything they could, lizards, monkeys and insects just to survive. The village became known as a mini Vietnam after an attack by 600 revolutionary fighters took on 200 heavily armed troops and won. The guerrillas shot down two helicopters, he smiled at the memory, as it was the beginning of the end of the war. Peace came through a UN led negotiations but the rebels found it hard to adjust. Eventually they became the new government through elections.
Blue gold or indigo is a high value commodity worth $200 per kilo to a producer. It has been a part of their economy for hundreds of years and only recently usurped by coffee. I visited one of the many small factories and made a scarf. I started by folding a long piece of cotton cloth in repeating triangles and then fastening it tightly with a rubber band. Then submerging it in a vat of blue indigo liquid for a couple of minutes. It comes out green then through oxidisation turns blue. Then wash and fix it and wait for it to dry. Very rewarding but a smelly job as the raw product is essentially rotting vegetation that smells of drains.
The natural world plays a big part in the personality of El Salvador. I visited a turtle monitoring operation at National Park on the coast staying at Puerto Barillas Lodge. They called the capture of giant sea turtles a ‘rodeo’, I wondered why. As sailed down into the lagoon ahead of us was a smaller boat. We stopped a little distance from them and watched two place a very large net suspended by cork in a large circle of 25m or so. Then as they looked into the water intensely one of them (fully clothed) expertly dived into the water, disappeared for 30 seconds and then appeared with a giant turtle in his arms. The other man helped him place it in the boat.
They repeated this extraordinary feat and we then all sailed to a sandy beach. Here the turtles were splashed with water and a wet flannel was placed over their eyes to reduce the stress. They were measured (about 75cm in length) and clipped for further monitoring and small DNA sample taken then with the flannel removed they moved graciously across the sand and into the water. They were thought to be around 50 years old and can live up to twice that age. Of the world’s seven types of turtles four can be found in El Salvador.
After getting back on land I fed some spider monkeys that live in the trees (they can catch any number of bananas thrown at them without dropping a single one) and then saw how they harvest and select cacao, the raw material that is used to make chocolate. El Salvador is a world-class producer of high quality beans. Belgium buys most of the seeds, which are left to dry on enormous (patios) trays in the sun until they reach optimum humidity of 7.5%. Then bagged up and sent for processing.
The currency is US Dollars so make sure you have plenty of small denominations and always remember to haggle in the markets!
Managua, the capital of Nicaragua can be recognised from the air as I came into land by the number large coloured metal trees that that are strewn around the city, at night they light up like a forest of Christmas trees.
My first mission was to see one of the natural ‘attractions’ of the country, a live active volcano in the Masaya National Park not far from the capital. It’s best to visit as the sun goes down as the lava is more impressive. There’s a timed visiting system so make the most of your 15 minutes. It’s worth it. The lava glows and bubbles away reaching 1200c down in a vast apocalyptic pit with smoke bellowing out. One of the most impressive natural sites I’ve ever seen.
Looking at volcanoes is not the only way to enjoy them in Nicaragua. You can also ‘board’ down them. This is a dirty business as the rock is very powdery. You are given boiler suits, a rudimentary wooden board and as you slide down with only your feet for breaks hope that you arrive at the bottom in one piece!
Leon was founded in 1524 by the Spanish and is the country’s second largest city. It is full of old colonial buildings, markets and little courtyards with cosy restaurants tucked away. The basilica contains the oldest artefact from Spain, a statue of Christ on the cross. The building is large offering plenty of cool air in the summer heat. You can view the bell tower and walk on the roof if you take your shoes off. On my visit it started to rain, it was very pleasant walking around barefoot on a hot day!
The market in Masaya is a good place to pick up some local craft wares its a large market with plenty of good quality leather and textiles and hammocks. I bought one, which has proved to be a firm family favourite. In some ways life hasn’t changed here for decades, horse and traps trot by while locals go about their business. Just outside town I went off road in an open 4×4 Parque Aventura Las Nubes that encourages eco tourism. If you have the head for it there is a zip wire route taking you through the rain forest, all very safe and harnessed up of course. Walking trails, canopy tours or even rappel into the jungle canopy where you’ll see monkeys, sloths, vultures and toucan, as I did.
My final stopover in Nicaragua and in Central America was at a jungle Xanadu, The Tree Casa Resort just 10 minutes from the coastal town of San Juan Del Sur. It’s a super laid-back yoga retreat with 36 vast individual lodges dotted around a few swimming pools and a great cocktail bar and restaurant. Run by the very capable Gladis Zapata and her trusty retainer of a dog, called Brando.
After arriving late the previous night I woke up to find an outdoor yoga class running, I walk down to breakfast for a perfect omelette and a cup of Earl Grey. This is a redefined luxury with philanthropy in mind. Healthy living is also on the menu with their own vegetable and herb garden run by volunteers working for their keep as part of the operation. The highlight of any stay would be the triple floored tree house with outdoor showers!
The last place I visited was Granada, a picture perfect Central American city. Wide boulevards and well kept colonial buildings with a population of 200,000 it is the most visited in Nicaragua. The ochre-stuccoed cathedral is an essential see. Enormous and calm with access to the bell tower that affords you a fantastic view of the city, this picture-perfect town is well worth a visit.
So my odyssey has come to an end. With the heritage and history of the Maya on offer in Guatemala, El Salvador with it’s monkeys and giant turtles and guerrilla fighters and finally the adventure that Nicaragua offers, off road driving, exploring jungles and chilling in a tree house I feel enriched and enlivened. This is a special spot in the world that demands a closer look. The only question that remains is where would you start your journey?
For more information about how to plan your travel in Central America, please visit: www.visitcentroamerica.com
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass