One Year of Travel in Latin America!
Wowie! November 1, 2016 marks exactly one year since I set out on my very first explorations of Latin America. To kick that off I flew from Florida to Guatemala on Nov. 1, 2015.
The date is supremely easy to remember – Nov. 1st marks the annual Day of The Dead festivities throughout Central America and Mexico. In fact, that festival is the reason I selected my travel date.
I’d read that Guatemalans celebrate the holiday on two days, November 1st and 2nd. Ha! When I finally arrived in Antique, Guatemala in late afternoon I found out that it was pretty much all over already. Dag!
Luckily, this year I’m in Mexico on November 1st and will be able to celebrate here in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas state.
(Find out why I decided to start my Latin American odyssey in Guatemala and my tentative itinerary here.)
As for one full year of travels in Latin America, somewhat amazingly, I only explored four countries: Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Well I do tend to travel slowly, and I do especially love Yucatan, Mexico, which slowed my travels markedly, but still I’d expected to visit several more countries than merely four.
When I arrived in Guatemala, to my great surprise, I quickly began discovering that Central America and Mexico not only are as wonderful as SE Asia, but are in fact even better! I never in my wildest dreams expected to find a place better than my beloved SE Asia.
What I found in Guatemala and Mexico were all the great things I love about SE Asia – beautiful and diverse natural areas, tropical beaches and islands, warm-hot climates, interesting cultures, gorgeous architecture and delicious cuisines.
But these countries exceed SE Asia because of their low population densities. They’re not crowded! The lack of dense populations means these countries are quiet, relatively free from pollution and traffic and have an infinitely cleaner natural environment. All the things I love – clean unpolluted nature, peace & quiet, few people.
Of the four countries I explored, Guatemala and Mexico are my favorites.
I spent two full months traveling around Guatemala. Highlights included:
* Antiqua, a beautiful colonial Spanish city and UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by volcanoes
* Lake Atitlan, a huge crater lake that’s considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world and which is dotted by lakeside villages and rimmed by volcanic peaks.
* Monterrico, a backward beach area on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, boasting black volcanic sand
* Flores, a quaint European-ish lakeside town perched on a tiny island in Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala
* Tikal, one of the most extensive and impressive Mayan ruins in the world
* Rio Dulce, a jungle-clad tropical river in eastern Guatemala that runs into the Caribbean Sea
* Livingston, sea-side ramshackle town on the Caribbean Coast
As for Mexico, Well! Where to begin?!
I arrived to the Yucatan Peninsula overland from Belize, expecting to explore about one month then head to Cuba or other Caribbean islands. But from the moment I arrived I felt some ‘special magic in the air’.
Every place I went was amazing. I began meeting exceptionally interesting people who I clicked with amazingly well. I started online dating, interacting with quite a few interesting men. I started making a lot more money. My whole life began escalating. I felt supremely happy.
So I ended up exploring Yucatan for three months, visiting gorgeous colonial towns & cities; enjoying stunning beaches, cenotes and lagunas; and joining other unique adventures like diving in cenotes, watching huge flocks of pink Flamingoes, floating in pink water salt flats and being smeared with white clay.
Yucatan highlights included:
Laguna Bacalar – a long narrow lake in southern Yucatan with the most amazing water colors
Valladolid and Campeche – 2 gorgeous colonial Spanish towns with hundreds of beautifully restored buildings, stone streets and pretty churches
Nomadas Hostel in Merida – I don’t usually consider hostels a highlight of my travels, but Nomadas was pretty incredible. Set in a massive restored colonial building with a plush swimming pool in gardens and free salsa lessons, yoga classes and cooking sessions. I stayed one week in Merida just for the hostel!
Rio Lagartos – boat trip to view pink flamingos, float in highly-saline pink water and take a mud bath
Tulum Beach – stunning Caribbean beach backed by eco-resorts and lush vegetation, along the incredible aquamarine sea
Hyatt Hotel in Playa del Carmen – Although Playa is much too over-developed for my tastes, it does hold some charms, including the amazingly designed Hyatt Hotel that I enjoyed hanging at many times
Later in the year I explored central & eastern Mexico, including the beautiful cities of Cuernavaca, Puebla, Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas; hanging out at incredible Bohemian beaches on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast; and visiting steaming jungles, Mayan ruins, waterfalls and a stunning canyon in Chiapas state.
Belize overall is great, too. It offers beautiful beaches and islands, a stunning Caribbean sea with the most amazing shades of turquoise and aquamarine, diverse cultures and natural areas. There are jungles, rivers, ancient Mayan ruins, pristine coral reefs.
But compared to neighboring Mexico and Guatemala, Belize just doesn’t quite cut it, for me. It’s much too Americanized – full of horrid retro American pop music and American suburban type architecture, food and visitors.
The other major music & cultural influence in Belize is from the Garafuna people, whose descendants now blast hip-hop & rap music everywhere. For an entire month I was caught between old American pop and black rap. I wanted to shoot myself. In addition, the food in Belize is pretty limited and not very good.
Belize is also much more expensive than neighboring countries. On a tight budget I was able to live for $30 US / day – aka $900 US per month. That isn’t too bad really in the scheme of world living/travel costs. But Guatemala and Mexico cost me under $600 US per month, basically the same rate as traveling around SE Asia.
For my two-week trip to Puerto Rico I was aided greatly by Puerto Rican friends that I visited. They put me up in their home and escorted me all over the island to see dozens of beautiful natural places and historic San Juan. I would not have been able to explore most of those places on my own, at least not without an expensive car rental and hotels. So thanks very much to my lovely Puerto Rican pals!
From Puerto Rico I returned to St. Pete, Florida in early May to organize a big surprise birthday party for my mom’s 80th. I spent one month visiting family before returning to Mexico.
It’s true that I immensely enjoyed Yucatan, Mexico, enough to return there from Florida. But the real reason I ended up spending so much time in Mexico (more than 7 months in total) was that I fell in love with a Mexican man in Tulum! Ayi yai yai!
We had a wonderful, intense partnership, with high hopes of a long future together. But, alas, we only lasted six months. So sad. It was one of those wonderful and simultaneously difficult relationships that, very unfortunately, was doomed to fail sooner or later.
So with much regret and many tears I resumed my solo travel life, slowly exploring more of amazing Mexico. At the time of writing, I’m still here and will continue enjoying Mexico until my visa expires in early December.
Throughout the year I naturally wrote many travel tips, stories and insights about Guatemala here, Belize here, Puerto Rico here and Mexico here. Mixed in are many photo galleries of gorgeous towns, islands and other natural places in each country. Find my photo galleries under the same country categories above.
I also started writing monthly travel reviews. I noticed that I share a lot of personal in-the-moment travel information, insights and adventures in short posts on FB. But that info was never getting into articles on LashWorldTour. In essence, a lot of useful and interesting travel info was just vanishing over time into FB archives.
So I started gathering all those short FB posts into monthly articles to recap my adventures and not lose the great details of travel life. I plan to continue these monthly recaps indefinitely. They’re also a handy way for everyone to catch up on anything they missed and/or to read about particular regions I visited.
For those of you looking for budget travel costs, here are my run-downs for three countries:
Here are my 10 biggest take-aways from my first year of travel around Latin America:
1. Mexico is incredible and has easily become one of my favorite countries in the world.
2. Guatemala is also awesome, full of diversity in nature and cultures.
3. With the exception of Belize, travel around Central America and Mexico is as cheap as in SE Asia.
4. The Caribbean Sea has the most incredible shades of aquamarine, turquoise and teal. Wowie!
5. Guatemala and Mexico are volcanic countries with several impressive volcanoes, many that are still active to varying degrees.
6. A unique feature of Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico is its more than 3000 cenotes, natural water holes set in hollows below the land surface.
7. The region now known as Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan Peninsula was the original homeland of the vast Mayan civilization. Many astounding & diverse Mayan ruins dot the region and can be easily visited by travelers. Today many Mayan people still live in these areas, making up significant proportions of the populations in some regions.
8. Huge colonies of Menonites live in Belize! They have large, successful farming businesses and still dress as if they’re in the 19th century. It’s pretty bizarre.
9. Mexico is nothing at all like the picture painted by US government & media. I’ve found it to be very clean, safe, modern and full of a huge diversity of cultures, cuisines and natural topographies.
10. Gorgeous, wealthy, sophisticated cities and towns were established all over Mexico by the Spanish in the 1500s. That’s more than 100 years before the USA was even colonized by the pilgrims! Those stunning Spanish cities are still in tact and beautifully renovated throughout the country. See some samples and more details in this article.
In December I return to Florida to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with family and friends in St Pete. Then I will either be heading south to island hop around the Caribbean or else return to Central America to continue my Latin American explorations through Central and South America.
Stick around to follow my continued world travel adventures! Thanks for coming along. I love your company!