September saw me leaving behind the Indian summer for some Central America adventures in Guatemala and Belize. Guatemala had been my first port of call on my gap year some seven years ago and I was keen to return to the highlights and explore new territory including my first dalliance with Belize.
Much as my first time in the country, I did not linger long in Guatemala City, but headed straight out to the delightful colonial town of Antigua for two nights. Whilst it may lack the intimacy of the beautiful Posada del Angel or the grandeur of Casa Santo Domingo, our hotel El Convento was a real find: a calm haven just a few blocks from the centre, where attention to detail and customer service were second to none. Our free day in Antigua we visited the community of San Miguel Escobar for a fascinating As Green As it Gets Coffee tour which proved to be so much more than just a coffee tour and one I would highly recommend.
From Antigua we moved on to Lake Atitlan taking in the market town of Comalapa and the Maya site Iximche en route. Comalapa has a remarkable history which is depicted in the impressive mural along the cemetery walls at the entrance to the city; a collaboration of the local naïf painters and townsmen. Whilst it may not offer much in the way of souvenirs for tourists the market is an experience in itself and quite the contrast to the tourist attraction of Chichicastenango. The lake so famously described by Aldous Huxley as ‘really […] too much of a good thing’ was indeed breath-taking with its dramatic background of vast volcanoes. After heavy showers upon arrival, a glorious day of sunshine allowed us to enjoy the lakeside villages of San Juan and Santiago at their finest.
From the lake we travelled back to Antigua, this time via the renowned market of Chichicastenango for our fill of shopping. Our journey fell on the 15th of September, Independence Day in Guatemala; this did mean a two hour hold-up as the main road was shut for processions, but all part of the fun! We took the crack of dawn flight to Flores for the Maya site of Tikal and the chance to see a couple of other lesser visited, atmospheric sites. I would certainly recommend a sunset tour at Yaxha for which we were lucky enough to be the only people in sight (and what a sight it was). Watching the sunset across the lake from the temple summit whilst enjoying a glass of crisp white wine one had the feeling that life didn’t get much better! The ultimate experience in Guatemala however, was camping at Uaxactún with an unforgettable dinner at the foot of the candlelit temple.
From Tikal we crossed over the border into the Cayo district of Belize, first stop was for a wonderful criollo lunch at Chaa Creek. 'Wow, this place looks so relaxing!' Prince Harry is said to have exclaimed upon his arrival at the eco-lodge earlier this month and with good reason; the impressive grounds make the perfect retreat. Sadly, the river was too high to cross over to the Maya site of Xunantunich but we were able to visit the small site of Cahal Pech and the grand Caracol during our stay. For those seeking that 5* hotel experience in the jungle environment, you couldn’t get much better than our hosts at Ka’ana Boutique Hotel.
From the Cayo District we headed south down the Hummingbird Highway. Stepping back in time as we passed the fascinating Mennonite community around Spanish Lookout, we stopped for lunch in the chilled out Caribbean town of Hopkins. Early evening we arrived in Toledo, the least populated and most unspoilt region of Belize, a cultural melting pot comprising various ethnic groups where Maya culture is still quite strong. A pleasant day saw us visiting Lubaantun, a small and quite unique site dating from very late in the Maya period portraying an unusual precision of construction. A picnic lunch and a swim at the Rio Blanco Falls were followed by a visit to a cacao farm.
Four stops on a turbo-prop Tropic Air plane transported us to the final destination on our two week tour; Ambergris Caye for three nights at the glorious Victoria House. Despite much anticipation and hype which I feared could only lead to disappointment the hotel, a short golf-buggy ride out of the buzzing town of San Pedro, did not fail to live up to my high expectations. Beach front casitas dotted around tranquil grounds with two fabulous swimming pools and a private jetty for boat excursions made the perfect setting for a romantic getaway; sadly there was work to be done! As the island with the highest population and a large tourism market Ambergris does not offer that isolated rustic experience, however the hotels out of town do offer some respite from the madness whilst boasting the advantage of some excellent restaurants and some night life, lacking on the smaller cayes. The absolute icing on the cake was Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley just off the coast of Ambergris; shoals of fish, turtles, giant sting rays and of course dozens of nurse sharks made for an unforgettable snorkelling experience.