The great expanse of land from Mexico down through Central America and the continent of South America offers incredibly diverse landscapes scattered with colonial architecture, indigenous villages and 115 Unesco World Heritage sites. Then there’s the history — not just of colonisation but Aztec, Maya and Inca, slavery, pirates, gold, silver . . . a trip to any Latin American country will be richly rewarding. But with so many destinations to choose from, how do you narrow it down to a practical itinerary?
Here are some of my must-sees — pick your own path and visit as many as you can manage.
MexicoMexico City has traces of Mesoamerican cultures in its architecture, art, museums and food. In the weekend, be a local on a traditional boat on the chaotically colourful Xochimilco Canals. For ruins, visit close-by Teotihuacan Pyramids.
Further afield, Yaxchilan and Palenque ruins have Maya pyramids and temples still shrouded in jungle giving a mystical atmosphere. Tulum, with Maya ruins overlooking the sea, has picturesque cenotes (giant sinkholes) amongst rainforest. Dive,snorkel or swim the crystal clear water in hues of topaz, turquoise and sapphire.
Oaxaca, a Unesco World Heritage site, and San Cristobal de las Casas both have brightly-coloured historical centres, Spanishcolonial architecture, cathedrals, cobbled streets and markets. San Juan Chamula, an autonomous, indigenous town not far from San Cristobal de las Casas revolves around a mixture of Catholic and traditional Maya religion. On a religious festival day it’s fascinating with fireworks, alcohol and pine needles involved. Take a guided tour.
Belize (English speaking)Actun Tunichil Muknal is an Indiana Jones adventure. Wade and swim 3km underground before climbing to an eerie cathedral cavern featuring stalagmites and stalactites where Maya sacrificial items and skeletons remain.
Caye Caulker, a coral cay an hour’s ferry trip from Belize City, is 8km long with sandy streets and no cars. Down-to-earth, it has snorkelling, diving and flights available over the Great Blue Hole which has stunning blue hues.
HondurasRoatan Island has great snorkelling and diving just offshore on the world’s second-largest barrier reef. If you have the money, Stanley’s Submarine, a deep diving submersible can take you down to 900m.
Scarlet macaws greet you at the Maya ruins of Copan, comprising pyramids, statues, carvings and hieroglyphics. It is located in rainforest and the buttress roots of the giant Ceiba trees grow through and around the ruins.
GuatemalaThe Mayan city of Tikal has some of the tallest Mayan pyramids. Otherworldly at sunrise, shrouded in mist, the jungle awakens with parrots screeching, woodpeckers pecking, toucans flying and monkeys crashing.
Antigua, a Unesco World Heritage site, has a charming, historical centre of cobbled streets, Spanish Baroque architecture, churches, quiet squares and is a base for volcano treks to nearby active Pacaya and Fuego.
Costa RicaSpot sloths, coatis and hummingbirds in Monteverde’s Cloud Forest Reserve then zip-line above the forest, like Superman. On a night walk in an animal refuge you may spot sloths, 2-3cm frogs, snakes, tarantulas, brilliant bird life, beetles and luminescent fungus.
ColombiaCartagena, on the coast, has one of the most vibrantly colourful historical centres I’ve seen. Its enthralling history involves gold, pirates, slaves and Spanish conquistadors.
EcuadorHead to the Amazon jungle to learn about the medicinal values of plants used for centuries, spot caiman (a reptile similar to an alligator) at night and birdwatch at dawn. Chorusing birds and insects at daybreak are incredibly loud. As is the call of the howler monkeys.