Hike through virgin cloud forest. Dive down to a coral reef. Climb a Mayan temple. Shop in a native market. Commune with nature. Memorize the symphony of the street--then get lost. And if you want to experience the heart and soul of Central America, whatever you do, don't spend too much money. The deep and rich experience of Central America that every true traveler yearns for is one of the things that money can’t buy. No other area in the world exists like the one where the waters of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans bleed into one another. The land itself--a seven country isthmus fusing North and South America--is overwhelmingly surreal. The sun beats down over lowland fields of sugarcane and cotton that seem to expand, then melt away in wavy, dreamlike heat. In the highlands, the invigorating mountain air provides a respite for the taxing equatorial climate. On a clear day, climb high enough and you may be treated to a singularly stimulating view of two oceans that will make your knees weak.
Belize: One of a Kind
South of Mexico and east of Guatemala, this English-speaking nation is physically isolated from its Latin neighbors by the rugged, nearly impassable Maya Mountains to the south and west, and by a spectacular barrier reef along its coast. The result is a country more Caribbean than Latin American. Here are only some of the ways you can experience the unique magic of Belize. • The Best Places to Get Tanked: Belize has more than 560 km of reefjust waiting to be dived. The ultimate diving experience awaits outside the Barrier Reef, at one of Belize’s three atolls: Glover’s Reef, Lighthouse Reef, and the Turneffe Islands. There are spectacular wall dives, coral caves, as well as cartoonish giant yellow tube sponges and zillions of brightly hued fish. • Bona Fide Bush Medicine: Feeling out of sorts? For over 30 years, Aunt Barbara, certified herbalist, has dispensed bush remedies from her stall in Belize City’s central market on Queen Street. She can set you up with a steaming herbal brew made from jackass bitters, plus 11 other secret herbs and spices. • Bird’s-Eye View: The bird-watching at the Parrot Nest cabins in San Ignacio is excellent, especially in those rooms that rest on stilts at treetop level. The record claim for sighting parrots is 125 species in two and a half days. The four thatched-roof cabanas stand on the banks of the Mopan River, each with two single beds, for only $20 a night for two.
Costa Rica: Beyond the Obvious
Costa Rica grabs the attention of travelers around the world for good reason. Very few places on Earth offer everything this tiny country does: you’ll find morpho butterflies the size of your hand, enchanting beaches, sulfur springs, and vistas verging on the orgasmic. Getting off the beaten path is easy in Costa Rica--here’s a handful of ideas. • Superlative Costa Rica: Travelers usually come to the southwest for a feeling of accomplishment--to climb the highest mountain, Cerro Chirripó, or surf the world’s longest left-breaking wave at Playa Pavones. Cheap places to stay do exist, but many have no phone, no address and no English speakers. Make the effort--you’ll find vast, untapped, and untouristed stretches of tropical wilderness, silky sand beaches, and sweeping valleys. • Hamburger Heaven: Guanacaste is without question the weirdest region in Costa Rica. Imagine a typical shit-kicking, tobacco-spitting, Marlboro-smoking kinda place full of cattle and cowboys, then shift it to the land of tropical rain forests. Much of the beef raised here is used for fast-food hamburgers, but Guanacaste is also the center of Costa Rican folklore and you can sometimes hear typical songs wailed in the canteens of smaller towns. • Light Up Your Life: Puerto Limón isn’t exactly famous for its natural beauty. Beach lovers, don’t despair: just 3 km north, Playa Bonita, a clean white-sand beach seems light-years away from Limon’s crumbling buildings. Take a dip at night and watch your body light up as phosphorescent plankton attach to your skin and glow like stars. Ask a local if the plankton are out or watch for them glowing in the crests of waves.
Guatemala: Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen
Guatemala’s appeal as a travel destination is its mind-boggling diversity of people, culture, religion, and landscape. Traveling here means preparing yourself for sights and events like nothing you could encounter in the first world. Here are a few to whet your appetite. • A Taste of the Highlands: From May to June, the market in San Juan Sacatepéquez, located in the Western Highlands, sells sanpopos de mayo, giant roasted ants with salt and lemon. Just a tip: Remove the head and wings before you chow down. • Decked Out: In much of the world, men have lost traditional ways of dress. Not so in Sololá. The men here look like Technicolor cowboys, with red pin-striped pants, an authentic, multicolored cowboy shirt, and a big ol' hat. • All is Forgiven: San Andres Iztapas is relatively unknown to tourists. Not so for many índigenas, who frequently pay homage to San Simón, the drinking and smoking saint. Believers usually offer him a cigar and stiff drink before asking for his help in personal matters. When you arrive, ask around for la casa de San Simón. A different family houses the idol each year, and people are happy to help you find him.
Tourism is one of the world's largest industries, so as a traveler it's important to recognize the influence you exert, particularly in developing countries. The Center for Responsible Tourism (Box 827, San Anselmo, CA 94979, 415/258-6594) works with various organizations to promote mindful traveling. What follows are excerpts from their Code of Ethics for Tourists:
• Travel in a spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to meet and talk with local people.
• Learn about local customs;respect them.
• Be aware of feelings of the local people and prevent what might be offensive behavior. Photography, particularly, must respect persons.
• When shopping by bargaining, remember that the poorest merchants will relinquish a profit rather than give up their personal dignity.
• Make no promises to local people or new friends that you cannot implement.
• The contents of your backpack may be worth more than what many of the people you meet will own in a lifetime.
Insider tips for making the most of your trip anywhere
Milking It for All It's Worth: To really get a taste of
New Zealand life, try a farm stay. It's a great way to get to know the lands and the people. You are usually welcome to try your hand at milking a cow or taking part in other activities.
Dane to Socialize: Fail-safe ways to make Danishfriends: offer a beer, criticize the Swedes, or compliment the Danish Soccer League.
Through the Grape Vine: Although Napa Valley receives all the hype, Sonoma Valley is better for budget travelers. Also, before stocking up on vino at a winery, check the local supermarket--they often have lower prices.
Hungary for Business: During the off-season (winter and early spring or late fall), lodging rates in Hungary can dip very low. If approached politely, hotel managers are often willing to bargain rather than leave a room empty.
It's All Greek to Them: Learn to say efkharisto (thank you) in Greek and you’ll earn a smile and a parakalo (you're welcome) from even the huffiest toilers in the tourist industry.
Cheap Seats: Next to the Eglise de la Madeleine, you'll find the most beautiful pay toilets in Paris--a stunning display of art deco and porcelain. Using this luxurious loo costs a mere 2 francs.
Amazed in Morocco: Nicknamed "the most complicated square mile on earth," Old Fez in Rabat is a maze of streets, each no more than two feet wide. If you get lost, just remember that uphill is out and downhill is deeper into the medina.
Gogh Take a Break: Suffering from museum fatigue in Amsterdam? The best place to picnic is on the lawns of the Vondelpark. In July and August, the outdoor stage hosts free concerts and plays.
About Fodor's upCLOSE
Upbeat and full of insider advice, Fodor's upCLOSE guides provide insights into local culture and history and smart opinions on the best values in restaurants and lodging. Fodor's upCLOSE aims first and foremost to show readers how to achieve the richest possible experience in their destination.
Other destinations covered in the series include Central America, California, Europe, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, London, Los Angeles, Mexico, New York City, Paris, and San Francisco.