Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of 2011 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the top travel adventures of the year including falconry in El Salvador, diving in Honduras and Belize, and many Mayan adventures in Guatemala. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2011 and part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the Year. Part 4 includes the Top Travel Gear of the Year.
Yes, end-of-year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end-of-year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks, and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).
First, a few relevant stats. In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey thoroughly explored four, albeit very small, countries including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. We drove 8,055 miles (12,963 km) and spent US$2,300 on fuel. We had one flat tire (after driving over a nail in Copan, Honduras) and bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (vicious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many potholes.
Despite all that driving we did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the top travel adventures that made all that time on the road even better in 2011.
Best adventure travel of 2011
Best adventure surprise: There are only a handful of falconers in all of Central America and only one who’s certified to guide guests. That would be Roy Beers, owner of Cadejo Adventures. We walked through the hills above San Salvador with Roy and his Harris Hawk Chucky (named after the horror movie character). As we strolled through coffee plantations and forested hillsides Chucky followed along from tree to tree, landing on our gloved hands when we called and half-heartedly hunting (he wasn’t very hungry). Somehow the forest looks and feels different with a hiking buddy who can fly and the experience made hiking without a bird of prey in tow seem downright boring.
Best natural swimming pool: Guide books and travelers rave about the descending pools of water called Semuc Champey in Guatemala. We are happy to report that these pools, totally created by Mother Nature, lived up to the hype and were worth the serious side trip to get there. Crystal clear water (except in the rainy season), a perfect warm temperature, dramatic surrounding cliffs, not crowded (though avoid weekends) and we even got free pedicures thanks to gazillions of tiny fish intent on removing every last scrap of dead skin as we soaked.
Best adventure we did for the first time: We love to SCUBA dive and we’ve done it hundreds of times all around the world. However, we’d never been on a live aboard dive boat until we boarded the Aggressor III in Belize in 2011. Specially built and equipped to accommodate just 18 divers with plush cabins and a huge dive deck. Even better? The swanky SCUBA services including hot showers and warm towels post dive, freshly made snacks all day long (hey, diving is hard work) and great dive masters. Bonus:The 3-D dive site maps drawn by the staff on-board the Aggressor III were colorful, informative and playful (sometimes they even featured plastic sea creatures stuck on the white board for effect). Best of all, the maps were clear. Even directionally-challenged Karen could quickly understand the layout of the site and navigate around during our awesome underwater adventures.
Best national park name: Parque Nacional El Imposible in El Salvador.
Best guide: We don’t usually hire guides. However, when we wanted to get an authentic glimpse of the FMLN perspective on the decades of war between the El Salvadoran army and FMLN guerrilla fighters which started with genocide in the ’30s and really flared up in the ’70s and ’80s we went straight to Bar El Necio in Suchitoto and asked for the bartender. Luis Carrera is a treasure (and not just because rum cocktails and ice-cold beer are just US$1.50 at this revolutionary-themed bar). Luis has since quit his job as a bartender to focus full time on guiding. He will take you to nearby villages that were obliterated during the war and introduce you to elderly people and translate when they recount their often horrifying first hand experiences during the country’s darkest moments. He’ll even take you home to meet his mom, an infectiously bubbly woman who survived a massacre, fled into the jungle and quite literally gave birth to Luis on the trail while she was on the run. Contact Luis at sapitotours@gmail (dot) com.
Best voluntourism opportunity: Love and Hope Children’s Home in the hills above San Salvador lives up to its name providing a truly homey home for children whose own families are unfit or unwilling to care for them. Rachel Sanson, a native of Ohio, has been in El Salvador since 2001 and she helped start the home in 2004. She’s still there and she can use all the help she can get. Volunteers are accepted for short or long-term stays (room and board included). We visited the home and a friend of ours still raves about his experiences during a brief volunteer stint. We were impressed with Rachel and with the home’s policy of putting all volunteers through a background check before allowing them through the doors to help heal and teach her needy kids.
Best zip line: In the hills above Metapan in El Salvador, just shy of the Montecristo National Park, lies Hostal Villa Limon. In addition to a handful of lovely, multi-bedroom cabins with kitchens Villa Limon has one hell of a zip line. Eight different sections criss-cross the slopes up to 300 feet (91 meters) above the jungle and coffee plantations below. One particularly steep stretch is 1/4 mile (.40 km) long. It’s almost enough to distract you from the awesome views of volcanoes in the distance.
Best private waterfall: For US$120 you can reserve your own private waterfall, swimming hole and rustic picnic pavilion in the vast protected area around Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize. They’ll even bring you a four-course champagne lunch and string a handmade Do Not Disturb sign across the trail to ensure complete privacy.
Best hot springs: Just outside Ahuachapan in El Salvador lies Termales Santa Teresa, a paradise for anyone who likes to soak in water super-heated and full of healing minerals. Huge, deep pools (US$10 pp for a full day of access) already exist in the shade of a well tended garden surrounded by a vast coffee plantation. A few large villas are also available for rent right around the pools and a new hotel and reasonably priced dorms are being constructed right now. Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto from the lovely La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapan for taking us to this hidden gem!
Best borrachos: The pro partiers in the town of Todos Santos in Guatemala know how to drink and these borrachos (Spanish for drunks) don’t let a little inebriation get in the way of a good time either. A popular regional pass time is drunken horse racing which is every bit as baffling (and dangerous) as it sounds…
Best tour operator: Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours in El Salvador. He knows the most unique places, the most enjoyable activities, the most innovative guides and tour operators and he devoted a tremendous amount of time, effort and passion to make sure that we got acquainted with all of them. And he’ll do the same for you: suchitoto.tours@gmail (dot) com
Best adventure honeymoon suite: Eric and I are well past the honeymoon stage but if we weren’t we might consider spending part of our honeymoon inside a cave owned by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize. First, you hike for an hour into the jungle then you rappel nearly 300 feet (91 meters) down a cliff face called the Black Hole Drop (we did this as part of our awesome cave adventures with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch). After the rappel, a short walk leads you to the mouth of a cave where a real bed has been set up and strewn with flowers, candles have been lit and champagne has been chilled. Your guides cook you a romantic dinner, then wander off to leave you two alone. In the morning, they cook breakfast and guide you back out.
Best jungle hike: We were hot. Our feet were sore. Our minds were blown. Hiking through the jungle to reach the El Mirador Mayan archaeological site in northern Guatemala isn’t easy, but the remains of one of the biggest and hardest to reach Mayan cities is worth it–as is adding a day onto your adventure so you can hike back out via Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites (where we finally saw a jaguar, sort of). Our thanks to Manuel of Tikal Connection for providing us with the gear and guides needed to have this amazing experience.
Best religious festival: Turns out, there are very good reasons why the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala are world famous. In 2011 we were spent the entire week leading up to Easter in Antigua (huge thanks to Gene and Judy for letting us stay in their gorgeous home). We watched elaborate religious floats paraded through the streets. We saw artistic but temporary alfombras (carpets) created on the streets and even got to help make one thanks to Evelyn of Hotel San Jorge.
Best national park entrance: The swing bridge that gets you into Parque Nacional Pico Bonito in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.
Best (easy) bird sighting: Quetzals are known for three things: the technicolor plumage and extravagantly long tails of the males, their shy nature, and their love of a narrow swath of remote cloud forest. In other words, they are exciting to see but usually very difficult to see. However, during their mating season (roughly March to June) all you have to do is manage to wake up at dawn and stumble from your basic room at Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel on the edge of the Biotopo del Quetzal in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala and head down to the hotel’s humble dining room. There, you will find a hot cup of coffee and quetzals waiting for you. You almost don’t even have to leave your seat to watch the extraordinary birds dip and dive from tree to tree, tails streaming and feathers glinting.
Best (worth the effort) bird sighting: The resplendant quetzals we saw during our morning at Ranchito Quetzal came so easily that we almost felt like they didn’t count. So we made the rough journey to a remote privately run nature preserve called the Chelemha Cloud Forest Reserve & Lodge. In addition to a stylish, sustainably handcrafted guesthouse and gourmet, organic, locally grown food you will find quetzals here, but you’re going to have to hike for it. We walked for three hours high into the protected cloud forest where our guide finally pointed out a known nest site inside the hollow stump of a dead tree. After sitting silently nearby, camera at the ready, the male emerged from the nest and obligingly posed on a branch for a while.
Best dive site: During a few days of diving with Utopia Dive Resort on the island of Utila in Honduras we visited a dive site called The Pinnacles. In the course of a 55 minute dive in warm, crystal clear water we saw dramatic coral and rock pinnacle formations, the most enormous green moray we’ve ever seen (easily 6 feet/ 2 meters long) plus spotted morays, golden morays and a turtle feeding serenely on a coral head with a bevy of colorful angel fish scavenging around it.
Best camp site: We spent our very last nights in Guatemala camped on the shores of Lake Ipala, a lake in the crater of the Ipala volcano. The road up was wicked, it rained like hell and some dude stole our cooler, camp stove and camp chairs (which were all recovered with the help of our friend George Boburg of Guatemala’s awesome Proatur tourist assistance organization). Still, what we really remember was the scenery and serenity of this spot.
Best national park infrastructure: Parque Nacional Cerro Azul in Honduras was developed in partnership with a Canadian NGO. This helps explain the extraordinary infrastructure which makes it such a pleasure to explore this park. In addition to a variety of very comfortable rooms, the park has a covered camping area with running water, flush toilets, cold showers and electricity. The park’s 9 miles (15 km) of trails through the jungle and past waterfalls are all well marked and well maintained. And the restaurant even has Wi-Fi service. Well worth a night or two.
Best church: We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is the irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario in Spanish). The church, located in downtown San Salvador, was created in 1971 by artist and architect Ruben Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America. The exterior looks like a particularly ugly crumbling airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews. To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadorean independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia el Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this ground-breaking church.
Here’s more about travel in Belize
Here’s more about travel in El Salvador
Here’s more about travel in Guatemala
Here’s more about travel in Honduras
Here’s more about Adventure Travel