Outside Dubai International Airport at 2am to begin my journey to Central America.
And airside at the Marhaba lounge getting an early morning bite to eat.
Central America was one of the last parts of the world I had yet to visit. With seven countries sandwiched in between Mexico and Colombia, it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle for me to try and work out the best way to visit, especially the distance I would have to travel to get there.
I toyed with several options including spending a week in Costa Rica paired with a stopover in Panama City, or to head to Belize to do some scuba diving and then head over the border to Tikal in Guatemala.
With all the myriad of possibilities I started looking at the Intrepid Travel website for some ideas and inspiration. My initial plan was to just organise the trip myself but gradually realised an organised trip with Intrepid was the best way to cover the most ground with my finite vacation time.
They also had a sale on and their nine day trip from Guatemala to Nicaragua was a very reasonable $900. Although my last Intrepid trip was five years ago to Nepal, my numerous trips with them to Kyrgyzstan, Botswana, Tanzania etc. also meant that I would be eligible for a $1800 'loyalty' voucher which I could use towards another trip, including Antarctica.
Another issue that was vexing me was the ban of drones in Nicaragua. Apparently someone flew one at a political rally a few years ago and they have been banned ever since. If you enter Nicaragua at one of the main border crossings or at the main international airport and your drone is discovered it will be confiscated. After a bit of research I realised that the entry into Nicaragua for the trip would be at a little used (<10 people a day) border crossing where there would be no X-ray and just a cursory hand search of luggage for customs (and perhaps an opportunity to sneak my drone into Nicaragua).
Hence I signed up for the four country Guatemala & Beyond Intrepid trip, starting in Antigua, Guatemala and finishing in Granada, Nicaragua.
I also planned a few days in San José, Costa Rica and in Panama City, Panama before flying back to Dubai.
For my flights I booked an open jaw ticket through KLM to Guatemala City and travelling home via Panama City for $1660. To get from San José to Panama City I bought a simple one-way ticket on Copa Airlines for $135.
Hence my flights for the trip were:
Day 1: Flying KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL) from Dubai to Panama City via Amsterdam (DXB-AMS-PTY).
Flying Copa Airlines (CM) from Panama City to Guatemala City (PTY-GUA).
Day 14: Flying Copa Airlines (CM) from San José to Panama City (SJO-PTY).
Day 17: Flying KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL) from Panama City to Dubai via Amsterdam (PTY-AMS-DXB).
Flight KL430 showing ontime as I made my way to the gate.
And the A330 waiting to take us to Amsterdam. My first and last time flying KLM was six years ago when I went on a trip to the Baltics.
Actresses Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively welcoming us onboard with rather serious faces.
Bottled water, refresher towel and a discount voucher for dutyfree handed out soon after a take-off. Interestingly three weeks later KLM announced that they were completely ending onboard dutyfree sales.
A snack of a chicken wrap and some orange juice before I put on the eyeshades and earplugs to grab a few winks in the early morning.
Waking up three hours later somewhere over Eastern Turkey.
Enjoying the Marvel anti-hero flick Venom.
Hot breakfast and black coffee served somewhere over Central Europe.
Looking out to the streaked blue sky on finals to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
After landing I made my way through security and headed to the gate for my onward flight to Panama City. I needed a new pair of sunglasses too so bought a pair of Raybans at dutyfree on the way.
About to board the Boeing 777 for the 11 hour flight to Panama.
As it was February 14th, heart-shaped chocolates were handed out for Valentines Day along with the earphones which was quite cool and unexpected.
Tasty meatballs served for lunch.
Icecream for dessert.
And Baileys on ice to finish.
Tom Cruise looking much younger than his 56 years in Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
The IFE map as we fly over the mid-Atlantic.
Watching the film Solo for a second time.
Pizza, cheesecake and coleslaw for our second meal. It was my first time having pizza on a plane and it was actually not too bad.
After arriving at Panama's Tocumen International Airport, by far Central America's most busiest airport.
The airport is the main hub for Copa Airlines and who have a fleet of over 80 737's flying everywhere from Toronto to Buenos Aires.
Turkey pastry and potato chips while watching some Friends on the just over 2 hour flight.
Somewhere over El Salvador as we get close to Guatemala.
And getting stamped into Guatemala for 90 days for my 124th country visited after arriving at La Aurora International Airport.
After going to the airport taxi desk I hopped into a taxi for the 40 kilometre / $35 drive to Antigua.
And in my room for the next two nights at Posada Los Bucaros in Antigua. The lady at check-in spoke zero english so it was great to practice some basic Spanish with her.
I then crawled into bed for some much needed sleep after the exhausting 30+ hours of travel!
After a good rest I managed to get up for a bit of an early morning walk at dawn.
Looking south to Volcán de Agua looming over the city. The volcano is now extinct and was last active between between 10,000 and 80,000 years ago.
Bottom-left is the Iglesia de La Merced.
The summit of Volcán de Agua, now glowing orange from the rising sun to the east.
Volcán de Fuego (left) and Volcan de Acatenango (right) to the west. At 3,976 metres tall Acatenango is the second highest point in the country. Fuego is famous for being almost constantly active and the last major eruption was in June 2018 which resulted in 159 deaths, at least 300 injuries and the closure of La Aurora International Airport.
A panorama with the green coffee plantations stretching up to the slopes of Volcán de Agua in the distance.
And back at Posada Los Bucaros for hash browns and scrambled eggs for breakfast to fuel up for the day.
I then went out for a walk through the city again.
And just before 8am where I met up with my guide for the day, Miguel, at the famous landmark of Antigua, the Arco de Santa Catalina.
Built in the 17th century, Miguel said that the Arch originally served as a bridge from Santa Catalina convent to a school, allowing nuns to pass from one building to the other without having to go out on the street.
We then walked down Avenida Norte and stopped for an espresso at Café Condesa opposite Plaza Mayor.
Outside the remains of Iglesia y Convento de la Compañía de Jesús, which was destroyed by the Santa Marta earthquake in 1773.
Next to the church remains was the Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española.
The cultural centre housed a gallery with work from local artists.
It was quite interesting walking through the old colonial building with the various contemporary works hanging on the wall.
Gato y Caballo.
Walking past the local McDonald's on Calle Poniente.
The restaurant was located in an old colonial residence and included a very picturesque courtyard where you could sit and eat your Big Mac while looking up at Volcán de Agua.
Across the road from Anitgua's main market.
We then ventured for a walk through the mercado.
It was interesting to see President Trump has fans in Guatemala too! (Translation: Donald, you are a fool).
Antiguans grabbing a bite to eat.
We then stopped at a restaurant in the market to try some ceviche, Guatemalan style; shrimp marinated in salt, pepper, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, onion, tomatoes, chilies and cilantro along with crackers on the side. Very tasty!
Abuela y nieta.
Next we headed to the comedor, or dining hall of the market, a place where locals could get a cheap bite to eat.
And where we could try some traditional Guatemalan cuisine such as salpicón made from minced beef, Chile relleno (a pimiento pepper that is stuffed with shredded pork and vegetables), beans, beetroot and tortillas made from blue corn.
We then continued our walk through the market.
Meat hanging from hooks in the wet section of the market.
Tienda de vegetales.
Colourful piñatas for sale.
Dueño de puesto de frutas.
And trying some exotic fruits I had never heard of before such as Zapote.
At the bus stop beside the market which was filled with colourful 'Chicken' buses, named either after how often people are crammed into them, and / or that people often take farm animals onboard!
Formerly school buses in the United States, they were now on a second life transporting the locals around in Central America.
We then hopped onboard one of them for the ~20 minute drive south to Barrio San Miguel Escobar.
San Miguel Escobar is a neighbourhood of Ciudad Vieja. A view of the town with Volcán de Fuego and Volcan de Acatenango shrouded in cloud in the distance.
And looking south from San Miguel Escobar to the coffee plantations on the slopes of Volcán de Agua.
After meeting up with our guide and local farmer, Carlos, we walked up towards the coffee plantations.
This coffee plantation was a co-operative and shared amongst 28 farmers.
Carlos among some of the Arabica coffee plants. In my very basic Spanish I asked him how old they were and he said they were older than him!
A handful of the dark red coffee cherries.
Carlos explaining how the seedlings are cultivated, selected and eventually planted to become coffee plants.
We then wandered through the coffee bushes back to the family home in town. Carlos showing how the fruit pulp is removed from coffee cherries.
A photo on the wall with Carlos and his family with an earlier version of the de-pulping machine that was pedal-powered.
Beans covered in parchment on the right and the green beans with it removed on the left.
Coffee beans drying in the sun on the roof.
Carlos's wife showing how the beans are traditionally roasted on a pan over a wooden fire.
Then grinded on a milling stone by hand.
Getting to try the finished product. I am not sure if it was due to the whole experience of visiting a real coffee finca but it tasted ten times better than Starbucks!
And I couldn't resist buying a bag to take home back to Dubai.
After saying farewell to Carlos and his family and thanking them for the very interesting and insightful experience, we then walked down to the main road and caught the next chicken bus back to Antigua.
Back in Antigua where I thanked Miguel for the great tour and then went for a afternoon stroll through the city.
Looking down on Plaza Mayor with Antigua Guatemala Cathedral on its east side and the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales to the south.
Arco de Santa Catalina (bottom-right) from above.
And looking south from Avenida Norte with the typical 'postcard' shot of the arch.
At 6pm I met up for the group meeting for our Intrepid trip at the Posada and where we got to meet and introduce each other for the first time and get a briefing from our guide, Juan, for the next nine days.
There was a mix of thirteen other people on the trip including from Switzerland, Canada, USA, Scotland and Germany. I also got to meet my roommate for the first time, Frank, an auditor from Germany. He was well travelled too and had been to 100+ countries. His wife and kids preferred more conventional holidays so allowed him to escape on his own to more exotic locale.
For most of last year the trip had avoided Nicaragua due to anti-government protests. Juan recounted that when the troubles first began they had to stay holed up inside their hotel in the Nicaraguan city of León and just order pizza as there was a curfew and it was too unsafe to go outside in the evening.
Luckily everything had calmed down now though and he wasn't expecting any issues on our trip.
Even though it would be a Saturday morning, due to the notorious traffic in Guatemala city we had to get an early start tomorrow at 5am to avoid the worst of it.
As we would miss the posada breakfast the ladies were busy in the kitchen making sandwiches for us to take instead.
After the briefing we then went for a walk to Café Rainbow for dinner.
The live band playing away with burning brazier and marshmellows.
Chatting with our guide Juan who was from Guatemala and lived a 30 minute walk away in San Isidro.
Tequila shot for everyone to get into holiday mode!
The menu was largely Tex-Mex so I went for the chicken fajitas.
With having to get up at 4:30am tomorrow we then called it an early night and headed back to the Posada.
Just before 5am we boarded the mini-bus for the drive to Honduras.
The plan was to first head east to Guatemala City and then onto the border with Honduras before continuing on to the town of Copán Ruinas.
At a service station on the eastern outskirts of Guatemala City to refuel, use the bathroom and buy some snacks.
Stopping for something to eat about the half-way mark in Santa Cruz. I tried to pay for my meal with US dollars but they were very picky with the condition of my $20 notes as apparently the Guatemalan banks are also quite super fussy. Juan said not to worry though as Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua readily take US currency.
Bienvenido a Honduras! We arrived at the border just after midday and crossed over into Honduras, my 125th country visited.
Outside Hotel Calle Real in the town of Copán Ruinas just before 1pm.
And my room for our one night stay.
Copán Ruinas is a town close to the border that serves as a gateway for people traveling to see the nearby Mayan ruins of Copán, a UN World Heritage site.
A match underway on the local football pitch.
We then went for a walk into town.
Parque Central with the Parroquia San José Obrero Church on the bottom-left.
Some of the locals enjoying the shade in the main plaza on their weekend.
At Restaurante La Casa de Todo for lunch, enjoying banana pancakes with a decent sized Tiste horchata de cacao con leche (cacao thirst quencher with milk).
Over lunch I chatted with Bruce, a very interesting guy from new Orleans on the trip also. He was 83 but could pass easily for someone 10-20 years younger. He used to work for Boeing in Houston including for the Moon program in the 1960's. His wife of 60 years had passed away a few years ago, and as she hadn't been too keen on travelling he was now catching up with adventures all over the world including visiting Antarctica and going on safari in Africa.
In the afternoon we climbed into a couple of minvans for a 45 minute ride into the Honduran countryside to the appropriately named village of Agua Caliente (Hot Water).
Crossing over a swing bridge over the Rio Managua at Jaguar Moon Spa.
Wandering along the stone path through the jungle.
And soaking in the lovely hot and relaxing springs.
A great way to unwind after the long journey from Antigua.
We then enjoyed a traditional Honduran dinner at the restaurant before returning in the minvans back to Copán Ruinas.
I got up early at dawn on Sunday morning. The Copán archaeological site was quite close to town so I went to check it out.
The large number of trees around and on the ancient ruins reminded me of Ta Prohm in Cambodia.
Looking down on Temple 16 at the main Acropolis, dating from the mid 5th century.
The nearby Rio Copán which was diverted to preserve the Copán ruins.
The East court in the Acropolis below with the town of Copán Ruinas in the background.
Parque Central below as I headed back to town.
And the desayuno típico and café negro at Hotel Calle Real after the early-morning excursion.
After breakfast we all metup to head to visit Copán via a small convoy of tuk-tuks.
A scale model of the Mayan Ruins of Copán. Built between 400 and 800 A.D. until it suddenly was abandoned, Copán was rediscovered by the Spanish explorer Diego García de Palacio in 1570 and is considered to be one of the most important cities of ancient Mayan civilization.
Walking with our guide for this morning, Obed, through the sun-dappled forest to the ruins.
Some of the resident Scarlet macaws at one of the feeding stations. The macaws were released at the ruins as part of the Guaras en Libertad (Macaws in Freedom) program to rescue, breed and release rare birds like the macaws back to the Copan Valley.
There is macaw imagery all around the Copan Ruins from the carved macaw heads to feathers in the headdresses of the gods.
The colourful and strikingly beautiful macaws are also the national bird of Honduras.
One of the Mayan stela. The stone stelae were three to five meters tall and were carved with the portraits of the historical rulers of the city. On one side was a figure of the ruler and on the other a series of hieroglyphs that described their power and politics.
Obed pointing out the mouth of a serpent statue in the Great Plaza.
Bruce at the base of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Originally commissioned by the 14th governor of Copán, K’ak Joplaj Chan K’awiil, it was eventually completed around 755 CE. Covered in around 2,000 glyphs, researchers were first stumped by the hieroglyphs, but gradualy realized that the stairway was a record of the royal history of Copán.
The stairs document the rule of 16 Copán kings, beginning with Yax K’uk Moh at the bottom step and ending with the death of a ruler known as “18 Rabbit” at the top. This understanding was achieved despite attempts by earlier archaeologists in the 1930's to liberally rearrange the stone blocks in a clumsy attempt at reconstruction.
A carved stone statue at the ballcourt dedicated to the great macaw deity.
Looking down on the ballcourt from the top of the West Court.
And a 1000+ year old smiley emoji!
The ruins of Copán have been a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1980.
Venturing underground to check out previous eras of the city. Copán underwent three main stages of development with the Mayans building on top of previous structures. To uncover the previous temples, mouments and tombs below, archaeologicists in the 1970's excavated extensive tunnels under the ruins. It was quite interesting to literally step back in history through the successive layers of Mayan history.
And thanking Obed at the end of an amazing and insightful tour of Copán.
We then rode in the tuk-tuks back to town to pack up and get ready to leave Honduras.
Our journey for today was to drive back over the border to Guatemala again before heading south to the old Spanish colonial town of Suchitoto in El Salvador.
Back in Guatemala again after a brief stop at the border.
Buying some snacks as we stopped to spend the last of our Guatemalan quetzal and to complete our immigration forms for the El Salvador border.
Queueing up to get stamped out of Guatemala.
If your life is in danger and you can not return to your country, you have the right to request protection as a refugee in Guatemala.
¡Bienvenido a El Salvador!
Stopping at a service station. The currency of El Salvador is the US dollar but interestingly with a local one dollar coin to supplement US one dollar bills.
Baño Damas y Hombres.
Passing a red tuk-tuk as we get close to Suchitoto.
Arriving at Hotel Posada Alta Vista in Suchitoto just after 4pm.
And the basic but clean room for the next two nights.
Parque Central with the Iglesia Santa Lucía Suchitoto that was built by the Spaniards in the 18th century at its eastern end.
The historic Spanish colonial architecture was beautiful and very well preserved.
Lake Suchitlan in the background to the north and east.
The sun slipping behind the mountains of Cuscatlán.
We then headed out for an evening stroll through the cobblestone streets of Suchitoto.
Alejandro Cotto Theatre, founded by a famous Salvadorian filmmaker that was born in Suchitoto.
Locals congregating at an outdoor food stall.
At the interesting entrance of Restaurante El Arado for dinner.
A complimentary shot of rum for everyone!
And enjoying the king prawns for a delicious meal at the end of day 4.
The sun rising from the east over Lake Suchitlan at the beginning of day 5.
Lake Suchitlan is a man-made lake formed in the mid-1970s with the construction of the Cerron Grande Hydroelectric Dam.
Isla del Lago Suchitlan.
The warm morning sun now cascading over the red rooves.
Out for a morning run in Suchitoto.
And trying to get lost in the cobblestone streets and alleys.
Hotel Posada Alta Vista didn't have any dining facilities but they had organised a tasty breakfast of flapjacks, bacon and fried eggs for us at the nearby Restaurante El Arado.
One of the options for our day in Suchitoto was a tour with a local guide. We were picked up in a couple of pickup trucks and went for a short drive to a viewpoint of Lake Suchitlan.
Our guide Pablo explained that although the man-made lake had displaced farmers from fertile land, it had created a new habitat for fish and birds to flourish.
After a short walk / climb / stumble down the hill we came upon the Cascada los Tercios. Formed by volcanic molten rock that has solidified as packed hexagonal stone spires. In the wet season it also turns into a very beautiful waterfall.
We then drove back into town to visit a local lady for a lesson on rolling cigars.
Showing us how prepare the outer wrapper leaf and then to roll together the filler and binder leaves, and finally gluing it together with a white rice paste. We then got to attempt to roll our own cigars with varying degrees of success.
Bundles of her finished cigars. She sells them for the amazingly cheap price of only $5 for a bundle of 25. I would have been sorely tempted to buy a few if I smoked!
We then walked to Parque Central.
Outside Iglesia Santa Lucía Suchitoto, which took 9 years to build and was finally completed in 1853. Pablo explained that the small dimple domes covering the rooves of the three bell towers were actually leftover soup bowls from a wedding many years ago.
Next stop was a local clothing shop where we got a brief history of the rise and fall of Suchitoto’s indigo industry.
Indigo dye, originally in the area from indigofera plants, it was gradually supplanted by chemical synthesis in the late 19th century which lead to the downfall of the local industry.
At the Centro Arte para la Paz, founded in 2005 by Sister Peggy (right), an American Nun who has lived in Suchitoto since the 1980s.
The centre houses a museum, gallery and gardens in a former convent.
A painting of a local character, painted by a Suchitoto artist called Santiago on a denim jeans canvas. Pablo said that the artist was commissioned a few years ago to do a similar painting in the US but was repeatedly refused a visit visa. He was eventually given a visa after the US sponsor guaranteed his return to El Salavador. He soon absconded and has been in the US illegally since however.
A mural of Archbiship Oscar Romero, who was shot dead in 1980 by right-wing paramilitaries and canonised as a saint by Pope Francis in 2018.
And a shot of Guazapa moonshine to end a great tour of Suchitoto!
After the tour I walked back into town to Parque Central.
For lunch I went to a café on the plaza, La Lupita del Portal.
With some tasty chorizos and tortillas for the main.
And cheesecake and a double iced cappuccino for dessert.
After the tasty almuerzo I went for an aimless stroll through the streets of Suchitoto.
Mujer y perro.
A Piñata getting a thrashing from some eager niños.
I then headed to Lake Suchitlan again.
A tributary leading to the lake.
Farm fields on the lakeshore.
Suchitoto with the northern end of Lake Suchitlan in the background.
And looking down on the beautiful colonial town as the sun begins to cast long shadows in the late afternoon.
For dinner we headed for a short walk to a small streetside Pupusa restaurant. Pupusas are thick cornmeal flatbreads that originated from the indigenous Pipil people of El Salvador that are stuffed with either cheese, pork rinds, beef, squash, refried beans and / or chicken.
As a bit of a bonus Juan had organised a brief cooking lesson for us and we each got to select our ingredients and make our own Pupusas.
And enjoying my fresh off the grill chicken and pork pupusas for dinner at the end of a great day 5.