With a no-frills budget and no itinerary, Rowena Crowley set off with six friends to see Central America in six weeks
I don't think anyone travelling to Central America for the first time really knows what to expect. Six friends and I set off on a six-week adventure into this land of mystery and magic last summer, with the only condition that we had to fly in and out of Cancun, one of the region's main gateways.
Before we left, we were following hurricane paths, getting vaccinated against every possible infection and debating whether to bring pepper spray as a weapon, given that we were seven girls. We had no hostels booked and no route planned. 'Just go with it' was the motto we adopted.
Our first stop was the Yucatan peninsula in the south-eastern corner of Mexico. Flying into Cancun, its seaside hub, was a shock. The place locals call 'plastic city' did not meet our expectations of the 'real' Mexico -- indigenous markets, ancient ruins, cheap food and empty beaches.
Instead, there was an ultra-modern strip, known as the Hotel Zone, consisting of five-star hotels, glamorous shopping malls and hi-tech nightclubs. Everyone spoke English to us, and if you could muster up the basic 'gracias' you were thought of as a genius. After two nights, our budgets had enough and we left the Mexican version of Miami by bus in search of some authenticity.
Valladolid was our next destination. We stumbled upon what we presumed would be the worst hostel of the trip -- complete with fluorescent orange walls, broken beds, power cuts, and no air- conditioning, doors or toilet seats. But at $4 (€2.80) a night, who's complaining?
We finally felt we were in Mexico -- the guacamole and beer were cheap, there were lots of dogs that looked ravaged by rabies, and many of the townspeople were wearing the traditional dress of the Maya.
The Maya were one of the most advanced pre-Colombian civilisations who prospered in Mexico and northern Central America between 300 and 900AD. Much archaeological evidence has been left by the Maya, most famously the ruins of Chichen Itza (Mouth of the Well). In an attempt to beat the crowds (there are 4,000 visitors each day) and the sweltering heat, we got up early and were at the ruins by 9am. Our guide told us that human sacrifice was a key element to Maya traditions, but being singled out for sacrifice was a huge honour, as these people chosen from an early age had a far better life than the average Mayan.
While in Valladolid, we also embarked on the first of many cycling trips. We rented bikes (some with no brakes, others with flat tyres) and cycled to the Cenotes Dzitnup and Samula. Our bikes were 'watched' by enterprising eight-year-old locals while we climbed down a treacherous stone staircase into a huge cave, wherein lies the perfect swimming hole.
Cenotes are a geographic phenomenon found only in this Yucatan area and are sinkholes that make the underground rivers accessible. The water is crystal clear and is lit up by a tiny shaft in the ceiling, dripping with stalactites that reach the water. The Maya considered Cenotes as gateways to the underworld.
Our final destination in the Yucatan Peninsula was Merida, which heralded for us an amazing road trip to see the flamingos of Celestun, a colonial city that lays claim to having the oldest cathedral in Latin America (completed in 1559) and, more importantly, our first major laundry session. It was here that we also waged war on the mosquitoes, armed with nets, repellent, citronella shower gel, incense and a local herb called La Ruda.
We left Merida and got our first overnight bus to Palenque in the Chiapas region. We weren't sure if we would even get seats and at least expected livestock of some description, so we were very surprised to discover that we all had reclining seats, there was a functioning toilet and not a chicken in sight!
Somewhat delirious from lack of sleep, we embarked on a day trip to the ancient Maya ruins of Palenque, which are surrounded by an encroaching jungle. This was our first experience of the jungle and we learnt to appreciate Ireland's lack of humidity.
The town itself has little to offer but we used it as a base to get to the famous Agua Azul waterfall, which is a major tourist destination. We were promised impressive waterfalls and a refreshing place to swim. In the hour that we were there, two of our group had to save a man from going under in the strong currents that were produced by the powerful cascades and a Mexican man drowned from jumping off a rock into the water (an activity that many, including my friends, had been engaged in). When we were leaving we saw a hidden sign saying swimming was prohibited but it was a little late for that.
Leaving Palenque, we had our first experience with a second-class bus. It was scheduled to leave at 5am but it wasn't until 6.30am that it trundled up the street. The bullet holes, broken windows and the fact that the door wouldn't open properly was somewhat off-putting. Strangely, there were no other tourists on the bus, and what should have been a three-hour ride turned into a seven-hour trip.
We eventually arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas, one of our least favourite places. Rebellion and resentment towards foreign influence has always been a feature of this region since its establishment as a town in 1528. Selling their local crafts to tourists is the indigenous people's main source of income, yet the presence of visitors is not appreciated.
From here we travelled 12 hours to rugged, southern Oaxaca, one of the best places we visited. The city bears witness to both its colonial and indigenous past, making it both beautiful and of historical interest. But for us, it was all about the food. We sampled chapulines (grasshoppers, which were salty and crunchy -- it was best not to think what you were eating), Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), shots of mescal (a drink similar to tequila that usually has a dead worm at the bottom) and mole (Mexico's version of curry served as a sauce to meat, combining chilli and chocolate).
We also endured another cycling trip -- what we intended to be a two-hour trip to an indigenous village turned into a seven-hour nightmare when we got lost along a mountainous dirt track. With no food or water and a map that had the new names of landmarks -- and not the indigenous names that the locals could recognise -- we began to lose hope. Eventually we hitched a lift with the first car we had seen in hours. The driver seemed somewhat confused as to how seven pasty Irish girls had ended up alone in an Oaxacan valley. When we made it back to civilization, we said goodbye to Mexico and headed for Costa Rica.
After travelling for 60 hours on a bus, we finally made it to Costa Rica, a land where Bob Marley is God and where taxi drivers hand you a beer and open one up for themselves. Multi-tasking is an important feature of the economy, where the same few people seem to work in all the establishments of a town.
While San Jose, the capital, wasn't hugely interesting, visiting the most active volcano in Central America, Arenal, was definitely worth the effort. At night we swam in hot springs and watched lava spew down the mountainside while sipping cocktails.
In Monteverde, we went zip-lining through a cloud forest. At times, we were dangling 1,800 metres off the ground, harnessed to a rope. This Cloud Forest Reserve has been a nature reserve since 1972 and only allows a maximum of 150 people in the area at any one time. We happened to bump into some Irish people we knew here as, yes, the world really is that small.
Montezuma, Santa Teresa and Puerto Viejo were all hippy, surfer towns where the Costa Rican laid-back motto of 'Pura Vida' (literally meaning 'pure life,' referring to enjoying life leisurely and to the full) is particularly embraced. These towns were the type of place you go for a few weeks and never leave.
It seemed we were doing a fairly set tourist circuit as we kept bumping into people we'd previously met. Our plans to become pro-surfers were thwarted by torrential rain, which was an effect of Hurricane Dean.
On our last day in Costa Rica we had a great day white-water rafting in the river Pacuare, doing class four rapids. That night we slept soundly in the check-in area of the airport in San Jose. After travelling down by bus, we frantically found a cheap flight to travel back up to Mexico. Our flight landed in Belize City, where we intended to spend a few days, but at the airport we were made to evacuate on the last bus out of Belize as Hurricane Felix was set to hit the country. We spent the remaining few days in and around Cancun. The people, places and food of Central America won us over -- we all plan to return one day.