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crellston Jan 28th, 2018 01:02 AM

Help with planing for Mexico and Central America
I could really do with some help planning for a part of the world that we have yet to visit.

We spend much of our time travelling for extended periods, South America, Asia, Australasia etc. This year have decided to spend much of this summer back home in the U.K., house and pet sitting in various parts of England with a few side visits to mainland Europe.

We both speak reasonable, if a little rusty, Spanish. We usually stay in a wide variety of hostals, homestays etc. With the occasional splurge now and again. We tend to intersperse travelling around with stays in one place for two weeks or more - my wife is currently looking at places around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala which seem beautiful - any thoughts or suggestions.

Generally we like to get off the tourist trails ( except for the obvious places), dislike big resorts intensely and are always keen to avoid the mass tourism areas.

We enjoy (in no particular order), arts and culture, historical sites, hiking, nature, photography, food wildlife scuba diving, big cities and small villages.

Potential Itinerary

In the autumn we plan to spend maybe 3-4 months. In Mexico and Central America. I am currently wading my way through the many guidebooks picked up from the library and could really do with some help narrowing down the seemingly infinite options. It does seem that ( as we have in the past) that we may well make a return trip.

We will probably fly in and out of Mexico City from London and will almost certainly top and tail our trip there. Is a week to much? Too little?

Oaxaca is calling to my wife especially as she has a keen interest in food.

We would like to include a few days diving somewhere.

What areas of Mexico should I be concentrating on?

Which other Central American countries should I throw into the mix? So far Guatemala and Nicaragua are drawing us, although we re not fixed on these.

How to allocate our time between Mexico and other Central America countries?

How easy/difficult would it be to include times side trip to Cuba?

Any thoughts or suggestions really would be appreciated.

baldone Jan 28th, 2018 08:21 AM

Given your criteria, I might suggest a Mexico itinerary something like the following. And 1 week in Mexico City is a decent amount of time. So, starting there, visit Puebla and Cholula. Puebla's regional food is arguably second only to Oaxaca's, and the city is a colonial gem. Cholula has supposedly the world's largest pyramid by volume, (though it's mostly covered with dirt and doesn't look like a pyramid), plus some 365 churches for every day of the year.
From there, Xalapa. The city itself doesn't have a spectacular colonial center, but it does have the country's #2 anthropology museum which has some fine examples of the colossal Olmec heads, and is easier to navigate than Mexico City's museum. From there, it's easy to visit the colonial cities Coatepec and Xico, which besides being in the heart of coffee country, the falls of Texolo are nearby and you can hike to the base.
Next, Veracruz. While it's a port city, it's still fascinating. Unbeknownst to most tourists, who tend to focus on Cozumel for diving, Mexico's largest reef system is in (near) Veracruz. There's a number of wrecks in the waters as well. Diving in Veracruz
There's also the San Juan Ulua fort, an aquarium, and naval museum. Music and dancing in the zocalo; Son Jarocho. No visit to Veracruz would be complete without cafe con leche at either Cafe De La Parroquia or Gran Cafe Del Portal. Or both. The city has some nice French influenced colonial architecture as well. Nearby ruins of Cempoala.
From there, you can bus to Oaxaca, but if you wanted to break up the trip, you could stop in Orizaba, and visit Cordoba too. Orizaba's Cerro De Borrego can be hiked, but also has a teleferico that you can take either up or down, or both. Spectacular views. There's also the 500 escalones down to some falls on the Rio Manzinga, not really a hike I guess, but good exercise. The river walk in Orizaba is pleasant and is some 3km right in the city, though the 'zoo' areas might not appeal to everyone. Orizaba was recently voted Mexico's number one Pueblo Mexico by readers of Mexico Desconocido, which by the way, is a great resource for trip ideas. Veracruz is not on the typical tourist trail, that's why I was so wordy.
From there, Oaxaca, where you could easily spend up to a week, sounds like you've done research there already, so I won't elaborate. If you're thinking of entering Guatemala via land, then you could visit Chiapas on the way. Waterfalls of El Chiflon, Agua Azul, Misol Ha. Palenque ruins.
Anyway, given your interests, that's the part of Mexico I'd focus on.

ekscrunchy Jan 28th, 2018 11:39 AM

I will elaborate more but I more or less agree with Baldone's tips. But how much time do you want to devote to Mexico? I would do about 5-6 full days in Mexico City, try to have one of these a Sunday. I wrote a small food report on a trip I took about three years ago..we spent a week in DF and then took bus to Puebla and then on to Oaxaca for one week or so...

I would consider the Colonial Highlands, maybe Guanajuato, and/or Michoacan for the area in and around Lake Patzcuaro. Lots of indigenous people in this area and I will give more tips if you decide to go. The town of Patzcuaro is a gem; I was there two years ago in March for about 5 days, coming from Morelia.

I've not been to Veracruz in years and years; not sure I'd recommend but that depends on total time allotted to Mexico.

Oaxaca is a "must." A week is not too long if you and wife love handcrafts; easy to visit the indigenous villages outside the city by car or taxi. (Please see recent NYTimes article on the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle) Market, for example, in Tlacolula is fabulous, fabulous. Also main Abastos Saturday market in Oaxaca city. Yes, food is excellent but it is in just about every area I've been to in the country (some areas you need to seek out non-touristy places), and I've been to most areas over the years. Very varied from region to region, which makes is so fascinating. The Pacific area of Oaxaca is interesting but they just had a bad earthquake near Juchitan so not sure of the situation and again, my days of traveling around that area and on to Guate were so long ago.

Easy to access the coast from there but I doubt if there is great diving in the Pacific region of the state.

In Chiapas San Cristobal de las Casas was once superb but I've not been there in decades. Easy to go on by road from there to the border with Guatemala. I've done this by bus but unfortunately, I have not visited Guatemala since the 80s and things appear to have changed a lot since then, not always for the good. Read about the highland villages and the weaving and gorgeous Colonial architecture in places like Chichicastenango, Huehuetenango, Solola, etc. But again, I know nothing about what it's like now. Antigua de Guatemala, near the capital, is lovely but might be very touristy by now. I also loved Flores, the gateway to Tikal..very different in this area than in the highlands....
Lake Atitlan has become a major tourist destination but might be still worthwhile...the natural beauty must be the same....

I've never been to Nicaragua or El Salvador, or Costa Rica, for that matter.

Sorry to be sketchy here..wanted to respond asap and to thank you for the Bogota info.. Food is my big interest so maybe I can offer some tips in that area, especially.

Just ask and I am happy to help..many thanks for the Bogota info; you've given me confidence for that..

hopefulist Jan 28th, 2018 11:55 AM

Our only México trips have been to the Yucatán Peninsula and to Chiapas. We have a place on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala now, having visited since the 80s. We visit 2 or 3 times/year and generally end up on the water in either Belize or Honduras. I think Guatemala is the cultural gem of Central America. Belize has a huge diversity of cultures, great caving, wonderful blue water options. In Honduras we're repeats customers of Copán Ruinas, the mountains near La Ceiba (Omega Lodge) and the Bay Islands: Utila, Roatán, and Guanaja, loved them all for different reasons. You'll find the diving on Utila and Roatán to be the best bargain, much cheaper than Belize.

My photos with blog, travelogue, and review links on the main page of each collection (except the two 2017 trips - I'm behind!) are below in case you're interested - all my recommendations are embedded there. Happy trails!

kja Jan 28th, 2018 12:19 PM

Like hopefulist, my only time in Mexico has been in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas. If you decide to spend any time in those areas, or if you are interested in the Mayan ruins of the area, speak up and I'll tell you want I can!

I second ekscrunchy's recommendation of San Cristobal de las Casas, and if you go there, I agree that it's easy to reach the amazing ruins at Palenque and the waterfalls in between -- Aqua Azul and Misol Ha.

glover Jan 28th, 2018 01:25 PM

Wow, Crellston, 3-4 months in Mexico and Central America. Sounds wonderful. Besides wonderful Oaxaca city, we loved Oaxaca coast when we finally got there. Another place to look into in addition to above is the mountain town of Cuetzalan. Very interesting culture/area. In Nicaragua you two intrepid travelers might enjoy long passenger boat trip across Lake Nicaragua to Los Guatuzos. No interest in Panama where we’re now enjoying our third trip. Lots of diversity here: Beach city, mountains. Canal is way more interesting to see than many people might think. We enjoyed our time at Lake Atitlan.
we stayed on the new age island, name of which eludes me at moment. Not because that interests us but because of lodging and husband has high school friend who lives there. We met a nice guide Luis Cholotio who took us over to his island SaN Juan Labuan, which looked interesting....

glover Jan 28th, 2018 01:35 PM

Sorry, bad typing . San Juan Laguna. And meant to make a question: do you not have any interest in Panama? Now that we’ve been to Costa Rica 3 times and Panama 3 Times, you might skip CR and go to Panama. CR is of course beautiful, but Panama has similar nature but ALSO interesting vibrant capital city and canal. More diverse population also.

baldone Jan 29th, 2018 01:36 PM

There have been reports in the Mexican media of increased violence in the Cuetzalan area, including against tourist transport vehicles, and the assault and murder of a family from Mexico City visiting a cave popular with tourists. Their guide escaped.
I agree Patzcuaro is a beautiful town, but for hiking in Michoacan in general, it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to inquire about what areas to avoid. Who that'd be, I dunno.
The reasons I mentioned Veracruz was the ease of making the loop from CDMX and going down to Oaxaca, safety of hiking, diving, and lack of tourists. I should add that Pinocateca Diego Rivera in Xalapa has the widest collection of his work in the country, if that's your thing. If one did opt for Veracruz, a trip south of the city to the Tuxtlas and Tlacotalpan might be rewarding, though hot.
Another interesting itinerary starting from CDMX might be the Grutas De Tolantongo, then on to the mountain/mining towns of Mineral Del Chico (with it's national park for hiking), Mineral Del Monte, Huasca De Ocampo. Nearby are some old haciendas converted into hotels (San Miguel Regla and Santa Maria Regla) and the Prismas Basalticas. From there, we went on to Veracruz, again, (hey I just like Veracruz, can ya tell?) and on to the ruins of El Tajin, visited easily from Papantla.
Near Puebla at Huamantla, one can hike the Volcan Malinche. Too much for me, however. Between Puebla and Xalapa is the Cofre De Perote for more hiking. Both are generally regarded as safe.
I should also add that the fall is still part of the rainy season, in Mexico as well as Central America, and hurricanes can even affect inland locations. Last season some roads in Veracruz and Puebla's sierra were washed out.

crellston Jan 30th, 2018 01:24 AM

WOW! Thanks all for your responses. This is all incredibly helpful and will take some time to digest. I was fortunate enough to find a current copy of the Lonely Planet guide for Mexico in a local charity shop so will now be busy using all this info to cover the book with sticky labels!

baldone - Veracruz sound like our sort of place ( and the title of a great Santana song!) so I will have a good look at that and your other recs. Thanks for all your suggestions I need to plot these on a google map.

Ekscrunchy - thanks for your insights. I am sure I will come back to you for your food recs. My wife blogs a fair bit on food matters - I just eat it! Not sure how we will split our time between Mexico and elsewhere. Baldone’s comments re the hurricane season may well cause me to review our time in the region as we probably need to be back in the UK by early Jan so leaving in say early oct would give us three months/13 weeks, so maybe 8wks Mexico and 5 elsewhere. BTW your are welcome re Colombia we loved it there and if I am not mistaken it was largely due to Glovers comments that we included it on our last visit to the continent.

Glover - have been following your exploits in Panama and yes, I think we would probably include Panama in preference to CR as the latter does seem expensive and possibly a little too developed. BTW I am pretty sure it was you that suggested Madidi for one of our previous trips - I have now finally got teh photos across this week to our new blog

kja - interesting to hear your comments re the Yucatan and esp. Palenque. We met and American couple in Saigon on our last trip. the husband was a Vietnam vet of Mexican origin and we got chatting about travel and they invited us to join them on a trip to Palenque. their second time there and they were raving about it. I am thinking that we should be able to make it there if we base ourselves in Oaxaca for a while ( or maybe I am underestimating the distances involved?).

hopefulist - I guess there can be no better recommendation for a place than to buy a property there! Coincidentally my wife just sent me some stuff on apartment in Lake Atitlán! it looks wonderful. thanks also for the diving recs. we haven’t dived for a couple of years and have been getting withdrawal symptoms lately. it seemed to have gotten very expensive on our last trip was in Asia. Thanks for the links, I will have a look at your blog. I sympathise with being behind with posting - we still have two missing months in New Zealand to catch up on form sept last year!

Many thanks to all of your for the detail. it is very much appreciated!

SusanInToronto Jan 30th, 2018 02:47 PM

You've had some real experts weigh in. I've visited Mexico many times, and will be going back to Merida in a week's time (3 times in the last 3 years). It's been years since we visited Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, but I loved both cities. (Actually we've been to Oaxaca twice.) Food is excellent for sure and I loved the textiles. San Cristobal, in some ways, is similar to Antigua in Guatemala. I'd love to spend some more time in Mexico City - so much to see and do there. We've also been to many other places in Mexico over the years. I know that some of them have changed a lot (e.g., Playa del Carmen) but others are probably less affected by tourism. I really love Mexico. Merida has caught our fancy lately - we've met people there, it's not expensive and it's very easy for us to get to from Toronto.

In terms of central America, we've been to Costa Rica, Belize, Roatan off the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. Again, some of these we visited many years ago. I'd definitely like to go back to Guatemala again. I've also been thinking of a visit to Nicaragua, although I don't think it'll be this year unless I can persuade my husband otherwise :)

kja Jan 30th, 2018 06:44 PM

Whether Palenque is within reach of you from Oaxaca would, I think, depend on specifics, but I can’t imagine recommending it as a day trip, if that’s what you were thinking. The ruins themselves can easily take a full day; maybe a bit more to see the exquisite artifacts at the small museum attached to the site. There’s a bus between Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas that takes the better part of a day, with stops at 2 waterfalls – Misol Ha briefly and Aqua Azul for a few hours (which makes sense, because those falls are travertines spanning a long stretch of a river, and it can be very nice to stroll along the river’s edge, seeing the stunning – if sadly damaged – travertine formations while watching people swimming and picnicking on one side and bartering for local crafts at the over-priced market on the other side). The bus also stops briefly at a pretty, quiet place where one can cross a very clear and narrow stream – the Aqua Clara – by either suspension bridge or locally rowed (poled? I forget!) boat. I thought San Cristobal itself a gem – beautiful setting, an incredibly vibrant crafts market, some wonderful Spanish colonial buildings, etc. AND one can visit some of the outlying semi-independent (and fascinating) Mayan communities (San Juan Chamula and Zinacuntan) quite easily by tour, perhaps one that includes a guide who will tell you about those communities.

BTW, I thought the Lonely Planet very good for the places I visited in Mexico. I thought the Moon Guide exceptional, so if you see a copy, you might want to snag it!

Did you just say that your wife blogs about food? I had been wondering whether I should start a thread on eating in Peru, and had been telling myself not to bother, as I have lots of notes from various guidebooks and internet resources -- including your blogs -- but if there are additional tips to be had, maybe I'll start one after all! Consider yourself warned -- and responsible. ;)

crellston Feb 2nd, 2018 01:16 AM

I would definitely start another thread. I have a few favourite places, especially in Lima and Cusco and I know mlgb does. My wife does blog about food. I know she has done a lot about food in Vietnam not sure about Peru. I will ask.

When I say visiting from Oaxaca I am more thinking about renting a place for a few weeks and then spending a couple of nights here and there. We have found that in many places the additional cost of renting for say a month over two weeks can be very cost effective - we did that in Peru a couple of times.

Thanks for your comments Susan. You have just given me and idea!! We spent a long weekend in Toronto years ago and loved it and have always been talking about a return visit. Flights from London are usually cheap so I may look at routing with a stopover in Toronto en route.

The places you mention have abeen added to my ever increasing list of possibles!

kja Feb 2nd, 2018 06:23 PM

In that case, take fair warning: I’ll start a thread on dining in Peru in another month or so!

If the idea is to have an extended base in Oaxaca and then a few days here and there elsewhere, you could do worse than San Cristobal de las Casas. And even though it’s been an age since I’ve been there, you might want to look at Bela’s B&B, which still gets some outstanding ratings.
Bela's Bed and Breakfast ? Best Pet Friendly Acomodation at San Cristóbal de las Casas (Chiapas)

SusanInToronto Feb 3rd, 2018 01:31 PM

Kja, wow, Bela's is where we stayed way back when. We loved it - very nice breakfasts, and the property was charming.

kja Feb 3rd, 2018 01:47 PM

Originally Posted by SusanInToronto (Post 16667337)
Kja, wow, Bela's is where we stayed way back when. We loved it - very nice breakfasts, and the property was charming.

How cool! I'll add that Bela and her husband were charming, too. :)

crellston Feb 12th, 2018 06:12 AM

I am now looking again at timings for or foray into Mexico and Central America, partly because of new house and pet sitting gigs, but also due to Baldone’s comment

"I should also add that the fall is still part of the rainy season, in Mexico as well as Central America, and hurricanes can even affect inland locations. "

We seem to have a knack of turning up at places in time for volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes etc. So far so good but don’t want to tempt fate! Fall/Autumn means different things in different parts of the world. is there an increased probably of issue in October? Does this carry on into November? I appreciate that I these days of global warming etc. that nothing is certain but I am just wondering if it would be better to defer Mexico and CA until say mid Feb next year? I am trying to get a sense of how to balance the likelihood of hurricane issues in Oct/Nov with increased crowds and prices in Feb-April?

Any thought would be apprececiated

baldone Feb 12th, 2018 09:56 AM

October-November, as you've probably figured out, is on the cusp of the rainy/dry season. February-April will definitely be drier, and April, at least in Mexico, tends to be much warmer. The end of November in Mexico's highlands can actually get quite chilly, with lows sometimes around freezing. Semana Santa will bring more crowds and higher rents to touristy areas and beaches, for sure. And even if it doesn't rain, skies can be kinda overcast. I'm rambling, aren't I? If it were me, (and it isn't) I'd probably hold off until February-April, when you're pretty much guaranteed good weather. Again, I'm talking Mexico primarily, although I've been in Guatemala and Costa Rica in both seasons, and found the weather patterns similar to Mexico's.

hopefulist Feb 12th, 2018 10:05 AM

Originally Posted by glover (Post 16662196)
We enjoyed our time at Lake Atitlan. we stayed on the new age island, name of which eludes me at moment. Not because that interests us but because of lodging and husband has high school friend who lives there. We met a nice guide Luis Cholotio who took us over to his island SaN Juan Labuan, which looked interesting....

Islands? Do you mean villages (San Marcos and San Juan La Laguna)?

baldone Feb 12th, 2018 02:25 PM

I probably should add, crellston, that if part of your Mexico itinerary might include La Huasteca Potosina or some of the falls in Chiapas, during the rainy season, the water may be more cafe than the normal turquoise due to runoff even if it hasn't rained for a week.

glover Feb 13th, 2018 05:04 AM

Thanks for correction, Hopefulist. Villages of course! Guess I had Islands in my head because of boating from one village to another.

Re: weather. We have always enjoyed Mexico in January and February, though one year we experienced some colder wetter temps than norm. A couple years ago Jan/Feb was great in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras. Sunny, dry and warm/hot, depending on location. (In fact they were in drought conditions): Hot and dry in most places in Panama now this Jan/Feb. But in Western Panama (mountainous) you can expect spring like temps, a lot of wind, and sometimes an interesting blowing mist called bahareque by locals.

Crellston, if you are interested in seeing the magnificent quetzal bird, that can happen in Jan/Feb, though the odds improve toward March April when nesting gets going.

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