Central America: Roads Less Traveled

Scenically stunning, culturally captivating, ecologically exciting. Correct, we’re talking about Central America. And we’re looking at a region that is easily accessible from a dozen U.S. gateways and we’re highlighting seven nations—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama—that individually and collectively offer your leisure travel clients:

  • Natural wonderlands of reefs and rainforests, beaches and volcanoes, national parks and private islands—habitats for hundreds of species of exotic birds and butterflies, flora and fauna.
  • Action-packed adventures for those who want to accent vacations with hiking and mountain biking, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing, river rafting and sea kayaking, canopy touring and canyoning.
  • Cultural encounters with magnificent Mayan monuments and colonial towns, cosmopolitan capitals and meet-the-people country markets.
  • Tour packages for everyone and every occasion—locally hosted and escorted, tailored to special interests and wishes of families or honeymooners, golfers or anglers, birders or medical travelers.
  • Creature comforts ranging from rustic (and not-so-rustic) jungle lodges and mountain inns, to seaside resorts liberally laced with sybaritic spas and all-suite treats.

While the countries of Central America have moved decidedly upmarket in products and services, they certainly haven’t lost their appeal for travelers looking for involving experiences and new horizons—somewhat exotic places of discovery, if you will. This special section highlights just samplings of some of the roads less traveled within each destination.

And next year, one historic “highway,” La Ruta Maya, is due to find a special place in international travel demand, as the Mundo Maya countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras observe the historic year (2012) and date (Dec. 21) when, after 5,125 years, the official “long count” Mayan calendar comes to an end and creation begins anew. These pre-Columbian people fashioned brilliant societies, remembered today in monumental temples, palaces and royal tombs—most often in wildlife areas. Luckily, this wondrous world is linked by a network of upgraded roads and TACA’s regional air services to a whole new world of special interest and soft adventure travel: along the Route of the Maya.

belize Toledo District Sweetens a Great Outdoors Vacation with Chocolate

You may have missed it, the 5th annual Toledo Cacao Festival that is, held this year May 20-22 to celebrate all things chocolate—from cupcakes and kisses to cacao wine and chocolate cocktails—and to salute the local chocolate producers who all use hand-picked beans from local farms: the Belize Chocolate Company, Cotton Tree Chocolate, Goss Chocolate and Cyrila’s Chocolate.

Chocolate touring is now a leading component in the Toledo District’s unique Maya Village Homestay Network whose various communities welcome tourists with storytelling, music and dance, craft lessons, village tours and traditional foods. Some villages offer overnight stays here in the heartland of the living Maya. In San Felipe village, for instance, Cyrila Cho, whose family has been farming chocolate for generations, welcomes travelers to her “Chocolate Factory” to learn the traditional Mayan chocolate-making process on a farm-to-table tour. It starts by picking the organically grown fruits along the cacao trail, then adjourns to her kitchen for home roasting and crushing the beans into chocolate-lovers treats. From personal experience, believe me, this is work; however, guest-workers revive with a traditional lunch and hot chocolate.

Another sweet choice takes place at Cotton Tree Lodge (cottontreelodge.com), which hosts two Chocolate Week packages annually—one coinciding with Valentine’s Day, the other with the Cacao Fest in May.

Chocolate “trails” are only a small part of the scene in Southern Belize, a discovery land, where rainforests drape across the Maya Mountains just an hour from the Caribbean shore; where ancient ruins (Lubantunn and Num Li Punit are the best known) share the landscape with 40 current-day Mayan villages; and where offshore, the Belize Barrier Reef (a UNESCO World Heritage site) provides a playground for world-class fly fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling.

The gateway is Punta Gorda, a 50-minute plane ride from Belize City and roughly four to five hours by car from the capital, and the last port before the Guatemala border. This laid-back town (a.k.a. P.G.) comes to life on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the open-air markets throng with a cultural mix of Toledo folks, including the Kekchi Maya, Mopan Maya, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, and Europeans. Staying in town, one good choice is Coral House Inn (coralhouseinn.net), a B&B occupying the highest point of Punta Gorda’s shoreline. It has four rooms overlooking the Caribbean, a pool and bar area. Catering to eco-tourists, The Lodge at Big Falls (thelodgeatbigfalls.com) sits on the banks of the Rio Grande outside the village of Big Falls. Its six cabins have verandahs with hammocks, and facilities include a pool. Top-of-the line is Machaca Hill Lodge (machacahill.com), an all-inclusive resort set high in the rainforest. Its features include super-spacious bungalows, a pool, a spa, and fine wining and dining.