A world of contrasts await on this epic adventure covering 5 countries in just 25 days, discovering the highlights of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Discover verdant rainforests, smouldering volcanoes, paradise islands and ancient ruins. Caribbean - Unwind on the beautiful islands of Bocas del Toro and Roatan, snorkelling in the warm waters of the Caribbean sea Copan - Discover the ancient Maya at this impeccable UNESCO World Heritage site Wildlife - Search for the beautiful quetzal in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
Join trip in Panama City, Panama's eclectic capital and a curious mixture of old colonial Spanish architecture and modern American city buildings. Built on the back of the trade and plunder from the Spanish colonies in South America, Panama City was a key trade route as gold and silver were transported by mule through the rainforest of the Darien region, up to the Caribbean. Due to the number of evening flights into Panama City, your Leader plans to do the welcome meeting on the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you'll need for the day. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Panama City at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Tocumen International Airport (airport code: PTY), approximately a 45 minute drive away from our hotel. If your flight arrives earlier in the day, we recommend a visiting 'Casco Viejo', the heart of the colonial town. Its ramparts were built to fend off marauders, and from the top you have excellent views of the 'Bridge of the Americas'.
This morning we will visit the Miraflores Locks to see the famous Panama Canal and appreciate the scale of this engineering miracle. Running 50 miles, the canal was carved out of the rainforest and through hillsides, lakes were dammed and locks built. After a serious French attempt costing in excess of 20,000 lives, the US successfully completed this remarkable endeavour after 10 years of toil in 1914. This afternoon has been left free for you to indulge in a little exploring of your own. 'Casco Viejo', full of Spanish plazas and colonial buildings, is a total contrast to the giant skyscrapers of the modern town and a great place to absorb the ambiance of the city.
This morning we take a public bus to Panama's beautiful southwest Chiriqui Province. This region is home to the Volcan Baru, a volcanic peak that at 3475m is the highest point in the country. The volcanic soil makes this a productive region, abundant in coffee and banana plantations, sugarcane crops and livestock. Heading for the provincial capital of David, we transfer into the cool fertile highlands to the town of Boquete. Located amidst a spectacular natural setting Boquete is a perfect base for walking into the surrounding hills, relaxing, or bird watching.
With a morning to enjoy time in Boquete before we depart in the afternoon for Almirante Port, from where we take a boat to the Isla Colon and the small town of Bocas de Toro, our base for exploring the stunning archipelago and the equally spectacular Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos. The archipelago itself is made up of a number of beautiful forested islands lying in the warm Caribbean waters just to the south of Costa Rica and the laid back beaches and dazzling reefs make this the ideal Caribbean paradise to relax or explore.
We have a full free day today to enjoy fully this lovely island. There are a number of optional activities that you might like to try. The island is ringed with stunning beaches and there are opportunities to snorkel or dive the rich waters off shore. You may like to take a boat trip around the archipelago, which will go dolphin spotting or visit one of the outlying islands, such as Isla Bastimentos with its lovely beaches and tropical forests. The marine park itself can also be visited and is an important nesting ground for sea turtles, as well as being an important reserve for an abundance of marine and land based life.
Returning to the mainland by boat we turn north and head on a full day's drive to the Costa Rican town of Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui. We cross the border at Guabito, into the Caribbean lowlands of Limon Province. Puerto Viejo lies at the confluence of the Puerto Viejo and the Sarapiqui rivers, an area of tropical rain forest that was once an important hub on the Caribbean trade routes. The area lies in the shadow of the Central Cordillera Mountains, sandwiched between the Braulio Carrillo N.P. to the west and the Tortguero N.P. and Barra del Colorado National Refuge to the east.
This morning we have a chance to explore a little more of Puerto Viejo and its environs. This area has been in the forefront of conservation for a number of years and La Selva biological station on the outskirts of town has done a great deal to involve the local community directly in the research and conservation of the area. You may like to take a walk along one of the many trails, or perhaps take a boat ride along the river, to see for yourself some of the beautiful forest that covers this fertile region. In the afternoon we drive, skirting the great central volcanic massif, past fertile farmlands, rich with a diversity of tropical crops, bringing us within sight of Arenal, Costa Rica's most active volcanic cone. This classic cone, which rises to 1,633m and is covered by a tangled mass of vegetation on one side whilst the other is starkly barren and scarred by lava flows. We recommend an evening bathe in the nearby thermal baths this evening (optional).
This morning we visit the still active Arenal Volcano, set in an area of national park covering some 9,884 acres. The volcano has been fairly constantly active since the late 1960s and together with the impressive manmade Lake Arenal, the largest in Costa Rica, has helped the area to regenerate through tourism. After our visit we continue to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the last remaining habitats in Central America of the famous Resplendent Quetzal, only occasionally sighted by eager travellers. The reserve covers an area of 10,522 hectares and contains within it a staggering diversity of flora and fauna; 2,000 species of plant, 400 species of birds and 100 different species of mammals.
Rising early, we head into the reserve for a guided walk through the cloudforest, searching for a glimpse of the three-wattled bellbird or the Quetzal, whose feathers were traded as valuable items throughout pre-Columbian America. You have the afternoon free to explore this forest haven; you may wish to participate in the many amazing optional activities around the Reserve such as an exhilerating zip-wire experience as you whiz through the canopy, or perhaps exploring the forest on suspension bridges strung at canopy height. Alternatively the area's butterfly farm and orchid gardens are both well worth a visit. Tonight we also have the option to take a night walk, discovering how the forest comes alive after dusk.
Our journey through Costa Rica's forests and jungles continues today as we head towards the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, an enormous adventure playground located close to the Nicaraguan border in the Guanacaste Province. The National Park has room for two volcanoes, of which one is still active, surrounded by a lush area of lagoons and craters, punctuated with steaming vents and pools of boiling mud. The changing elevation ranges of the park have resulted in an area of diverse habitats that house a variety of vegetation and wildlife. On arrival we will have the option to relax at our eco lodge, or alternatively we can choose to do some nature walks in the National Park, take a horseride to the Oropendola Waterfall, or walk to the park's mud and hot springs.
This morning we visit the Rincon de la Vieja, with the aim of hiking along the Las Pailas Trail. This approximately 3 km hike is moderately difficult due to the uneven ground and the many large roots and rocks to tackle, but we'll take a leisurely pace and enjoy the diverse scenery of the trail. We'll be crossing bridges, walking through forest and across fields, all the while discovering the most impressive features of the park: the steam vents, or fumaroles. These incredible volcanic features pop out of the woods and forests as if from nowhere, along with bubbling ponds and mud pools from the underground volcanic heat and gases. During the first section of the trail we'll have the opportunity to spot wildlife in the forest, from a variety of bird species (toucans, blue-crowned motmots and flycatchers among many others), as well as spider monkeys, coatis or sloths if we're lucky. This afternoon we have free time to enjoy some of the many optional activities on offer. There is plenty of hiking to be had nearby, as well as a walk to mud and hot springs, or if you're a fan of adventure, undertake the canyon swing at the Rio Blanco Canyon, or explore the surroundings on horseback or by bike.
Crossing the border into Nicaragua this morning a short drive brings us to San Jorge, the departure point for ferries to Ometepe Island. Ometepe is made up of two volcanoes connected by an isthmus; indeed its name comes from the Nahuatl language and means 'two hills'. The perfect cone of Concepción volcano soars from the depths of Lake Nicaragua to 1610m, only just dwarfing the neighbouring Maderas volcano at 1394m. We leave the time here free to explore at your own pace and there are many things to do during our time here. You can explore by local bus or truck, perhaps searching out pre-Colombian petroglyphs carved by the indigenous people, or taking in some of the highlights of the island and some short walks on the volcanic slopes (all optional). The forests echo with the sounds of howler monkeys and parrots and the canopy hides sloths and hawks amongst its lush foliage. Alternatively you could visit the San Ramon Falls. For the less energetic, some of the black sand beaches are the perfect spot to drink in the stunning views across the lake.
Today is left free to further explore these amazing volcanic islands.
We return by boat to San Jorge this morning and from there drive to Granada. Atmospheric Granada is a colonial gem, situated at the foot of Mombacho volcano on the northwest shore of Lake Nicaragua. It was the first colonial city in Nicaragua, founded in 1524 by the conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba and is set off by baroque and renaissance buildings which is a pure visual delight. We plan a city tour this afternoon, which will include visits to the Parque Central, the Monument to the war of independence, the plaza and the convent of San Fransisco, which holds the largest collection of stone sculptures from the early Americans who lived in Granada before the Spaniards.
Granada is the perfect city to explore on foot, wandering the narrow lanes and alleyways, discovering hidden delights amongst the central Plaza and historic buildings. It is possible to visit Las Isletas by boat or sea kayak - a group of tiny islands dominated by the Volcano Mombacho, located just offshore. You can glide through the forest canopy on a zip line - a remarkable experience, or venture farther afield, into the surrounding area, a prosperous agricultural centre growing hemp and tobacco. There are also possibilities to arrange visits to the Mombacho Cloud Forest. Your tour leader will be more than happy to help arrange any excursions you may like to try.
We drive to the old colonial capital of Leon today, lying in the shadow of the Cordillera de los Maribios Mountains. Heading northwest from Granada we stop at the famous market town of Masaya to visit the Masaya volcano. From here we continue to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. In comparison with colonial Leon and Granada, Managua is not the most attractive of Nicaragua's cities but it does have its own curious, if somewhat unorthodox, charm. Badly damaged in the 1972 earthquake, the city is gradually being rebuilt. We plan a short tour to see some points of interest. We then drive to Leon, today considered the intellectual centre of Nicaragua, Leon was founded in 1525 and was the capital for 200 years. In the afternoon we will have a walking tour of Leon, where our local guide will introduce us to some of the city's most important sites visiting Plaza del las Armas, the Cathedral arguably the largest in Central America and a UNESCO heritage site and the Sandinista Murals and Ruben Dario Park, named after one of Latin America's most renowned poets. The city of Leon was home to the revolution that shaped Nicaragua's future, and since then it has played a crucial part in the social and political history of the country. On our walking tour we will see many murals depicting the civil war and the revolution - a testament to the importance of this movement in the country's turbulent history.
This morning we have some free time, and the intrepid amongst us may head out of the city to summit Cerro Negro, an imposing active volcano just a short journey from the city of Leon. The ascent takes around an hour, and although the climb is only around 500m, the path is steep and tough. The absence of trees on the slopes of the mountain provides fantastic 360 views of the area one we are at the crater rim, and if we are lucky, we may see the smoke and gas often emitted from this central crater. For something less exertive, Las Penitas Beach is a great place to relax for the day, whilst a visit to San Juan Venado Mangrove Reserve provides the opportunity to spot a wealth of wildlife, including crocodiles, caiman and iguanas. This afternoon we depart from Leon, crossing the border into Honduras and continuing our journey to the capital, Tegucigalpa. Founded by the Spanish in 1578, the city was once a trading centre for the locally mined gold and silver for its colonial masters and its ideal location must have made it a pleasant respite from the oppressive heat of the coastal regions.
This morning we will fly to the beautiful Bay Islands, home to some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean. The 3 islands lying some 50km off the Honduran coast are a marine wonderland, with reefs that teem with life. For the next two nights we base ourselves on the island of Roatan, the largest of the islands and the perfect location from which to enjoy the spectacular beaches and rich waters of this underwater haven.
Here you are free to do as much or as little as you wish. The obvious activity for most people who come to these islands is to explore the offshore reefs, part of a chain that is only second in size to the Great Barrier Reef itself. There are a number of dive shops on the island for any qualified divers (don't forget to bring your certification with you) and the snorkelling is second to none, with reefs that are alive with corals and sponges and colourful reef fish of every size, shape and hue. It is also possible to hire boats and kayaks to explore farther afield, or go fishing. Those who prefer to stick to dry land might like to stroll through the palm fringed lanes and wander the island in search of macaws, toucans and parrots, or perhaps just some peace and quiet at the nearby Sandy Bay's resort or visit the nearby botanical gardens.
Leaving our island paradise early this morning, we head back to the mainland for a full days travel. Our destination today is the magnificent Mayan ruins of Copan. Travelling around the town of San Pedro Sula in the rich hot fertile lowlands of the Sula Valley, we arrive at Copan Ruinas, a lovely village of adobe buildings very close to the ruins themselves.
This morning we visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site with a local guide. Everyone familiar with Catherwood's incredible drawings (which first appeared in John Stephens' 1841 narrative - 'Incidents of Travel in Central America and Yucatan') will recognise scenes and objects from this marvellous site. Stephens actually bought the entire site for US$ 50 from a local farmer! The Great Plaza is one of the most amazing achievements of the Classic Maya period (AD 750) and contains the greatest collection of Maya sculpture anywhere in Meso- America. The famous Hieroglyphic Stairway is composed of 2500 individual glyphs; its sides flanked by serpentine birds and snakes. We have the whole day to enjoy this special place, leaving you plenty of time to explore on your own. In the afternoon you may like to visit the museum dedicated to the site, or visit some nearby hot springs or to Macaw Mountain (optional).
We head into Guatemala this morning, to the stunning city of Antigua, set in a beautiful valley between the volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. An orientation tour of this graceful old colonial city, with its cobbled streets and lovely old buildings identifies it as one of the most charming in the country and shows how it can justly claim to be one of the most picturesque in Central America, despite the damage caused by a series of earthquakes and floods over the ages. This afternoon we intend to take a walking tour of the town. Much of Antigua has been repeatedly devastated by earthquakes, but still it retains a graceful charm and its buildings and ruins give it the air of a snapshot in time.
The next two days are free to explore more of the city and its environs as you wish. Antigua itself deserves at least a day's wandering, you may like to visit churches, colonial buildings, museums as well as spending time shopping in its many markets. Alternatively may like to visit the close by Mayan site; Iximche, once the capital of the Cakchiquel Maya, founded in the 15th century. Set within pine forests the ruined city was once believed to be home to some 10,000 people at its height, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors resulted in its eventual destruction in 1526. There is also the option, on one of your two days in Antigua, to visit the Maya site of Tikal. This full day trip entails a domestic flight from Guatemala City to Flores, before the drive to the majestic jungle-clad ruins, which were, in their prime, the pride of the Maya empire.
For those not wishing to spend the day exploring the city, a day trip to Lake Atitlan takes in one of Guatemala's most stunning locations. Panajachel, on the shores of the spectacular lake, is an old Spanish settlement that has attracted foreigners to its charming location for years. The lake itself is an old caldera, its deep waters surrounded by the towering volcanic peaks of its neighbours. This is an ideal place to shop for those last minute presents, or just enjoy the ambience of its lakeside setting. Alternatively, you could visit Guatemala City, the bustling country capital, is situated on a high plateau (1495m) and possesses all the usual contradictions found in large Latin American cities: elegant tree-lined boulevards and high-rise architecture alongside crowded shanties. It also has a number of sites and museums that are worth visiting, including the Ixchel Museum, with its displays of Guatemalan textiles and arts, or the majestic Palacio National in the Plaza Major.
The trip ends this morning at our hotel in Antigua Guatemala. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to depart from La Aurora International Airport (airport code: GUA). The drive between the airport and our hotel is only 40km but can take between 1.5 and 4 hours depending on the traffic and the time of day.
17 Break Fast(s)
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