Central America

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Central America.

lake-atitlan

Getting Active Among the Volcanoes – Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala

Guatemala’s Lago de Atitlán is so much more than a beautiful body of water — spend at least a week hiking, kayaking and cycling around it for a full immersion in modern Mayan life.

To be completely honest, I didn’t feel like hiking up Volcan San Pedro. While strolling around San Juan la Laguna, the 3,020m cone loomed over me somewhat menacingly. The sky was overcast. It was 7am. I’d spent the night in a homestay and had only slept for about five hours. Breakfast had been a tiny muffin and a cup of instant coffee – hardly preparation for a hard climb.

But then mountain guide Hector Rogelio Puac arrived on a boat. I had to make a decision. He wolfed down breakfast and somehow I found myself following him – he was small, wiry and fast – around San Juan as he bought bread, bananas, drinks and chocolate.

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Lago de Atitlán and a local boat – Guatemala

Pride, or some alpha-male thing, got the better of me. Or perhaps it was the power of the place: I was spending a week on Lago de Atitlán, a big, beautiful crater lake surrounded by volcanoes. If I couldn’t conquer at least one of its handsome cones, I didn’t belong here.

Land of fire & fury

Guatemala is all about fire, lava, mountains and magma – which is why I’d decided not to dash around the country but linger in one area, absorbing life around some of the country’s most magnificent volcanoes. I’d arrived by taxi from El Salvador, where volcanoes are numerous but small and the weather had been balmy. As I wound up into the Guatemalan highlands, I’d felt the chill. Along the road, people wore bobble hats and ponchos. I was still in flipflops.

The active Fuego-and-Acatenango massif and Volcan de Agua, near Antigua, looked unnaturally voluminous as I journeyed deeper into the country. I wasn’t sure if my sense of scale was still Salvadorean or if it was a trick of the light. The clouds turned black and apocalyptic shortly after Antigua, where the Panamerican Highway fords a high pass. But, suddenly, they lifted, and there below was the lake, shimmering at one end as the low sun splashed down.

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The active Fuego-and-Acatenango massif – Guatemala

From my hotel in Santa Catarina Palopo, on the eastern edge of the lake, I watched what seemed like a slow sunset, wispy salmon-coloured clouds scattering around the cone of San Pedro.

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San Pedro Volcano

This is the most perfectly conical of the three big volcanoes on the west bank. To the south I could see Volcan Toliman, flanked by Volcan Atitlán; a few clouds shifted around this less photogenic pair.

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Volcan Toliman

Walking around town I asked two men, in Spanish, where was the best place to eat. They responded with a string of words that sounded like smashed glass and pointed to the beach. I later found out the local language is Kaqchikel. I ate some tortillas, drank a beer and slept well thanks to the pleasantly cool climate.

The next day I took a boat, skippered by the amiable Juan Ismael Xingo, from Santa Catarina Palopo to Santiago de Atitlán, the largest of the lakeside settlements. Crossing the lake allows you to see the three volcanoes and the water under a new light and from new angles. En route I talked to Juan about the Mayan language I’d heard, and he explained that we were now crossing to a Tz’utujil-speaking area.

It’s about 14km – 30 minutes by boat – from Santa Catarina to Santiago; it would take a car 2.5 hours to do the trip overland.

As we reached the centre of the lake, a wind was getting up and there were small but choppy waves. Juan shared a Romeo and Juliet-style legend about a more powerful wind. The Xocomil, he explained, is a divinely ordained gust that blows to bring together two lovers from the two language groups, which have long been rivals.

The Toledo District – Belize

Trek out to the partially excavated tombs and pyramids of Nim Li Punnit and Lubaantun and on most days it’ll just be you, the jungle and the ghosts of the past for miles around.

Essential information:

Population: 30,500

Visitors per year: 25,000

Main town: Punta Gorda

Languages: English, Maya, Garifuna

Major industries: agriculture, some tourism

Unit of currency: BZ dollar (BZ$)

Cost index: meal on the street BZ$6 (US$3), meal at resort BZ$30-40 (US$15-20), shared bunkroom at Rio Blanco Ranger Station BZ$20 (US$10), cottage at eco-resort BZ$200-1000 (US$100-500).

Why go ASAP?

With gorgeous islands, protected jungles and ancient Maya ruins, it’s no wonder that the small Central American nation of Belize welcomes 300,000 visitors annually. But though Belize’s Toledo District possesses all these splendours and more, only a single-digit percent of visitors to Belize ever make it to the deep south. Thank geography for that: Toledo sits at the end of the Southern Highway, making it Belize’s only dead-end district, still largely the province of adventure travellers willing to go the distance to experience the country as it was in days gone by.

But as Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a-changin, and Toledo’s days as a backwater are almost certainly coming to a close as the $8 million asphalt road – which, when completed, will form part of the Pan-American Highway – continues to be built from the Southern Highway towards the border of Guatemala. Once the road reaches the tiny village of Jalacte, Belize’s third (and Toledo’s only) international border crossing will open, connecting Toledo’s tiny Maya villages with neighbouring Guatemala and the world beyond What changes the road will bring to the area is uncertain.

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Mayan village near Toledo – Belize

As of mid-2014, the road was paved just until Rio Blanco National Park, a protected wildlife area with waterfalls, hiking trails, and Belize’s most beautiful swimming hole. From the park, it’s less than 15 miles through jungle and Maya villages over a rough and unpaved (for now) dirt road to Jalacte, site of the future border crossing.

Festivals & Events:

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Toledo’s Maya Day 2015

Celebrated in the village of Blue Creek, Toledo’s Maya Day celebration is hold on Sunday 22 March. Like chocolate? Then you won’t want to miss the Chocolate Festival of Belize (formerly the Toledo Cacao Festival), which will happen on Commonwealth Day weekend in Punta Gorda. Bringing together drummers from around the country, Punta Gorda’s Battle of the Drums weekend will happen from 13 to 15 November.

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Punta Gorda’s Battle of the Drums Festival

Life-changing experiences:

Take a jungle hike through the stunning Rio Blanco National Park followed by a swim in the protected wildlife area’s crystal blue waterfall-fed pond.

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Rio Blanco National Park – Belize

Learn the ancient and delicious Maya tradition of cacao production and chocolate-making at Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate (formerly known as Cyrila’s), sampling along the way chocolate bars, hot chocolate, cacao wine and more.

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Snorkel and scuba dive in the Sapodilla Marine Reserve or the Snake Cayes, a chain of tiny, protected islands in southern Belize undiscovered by tourists.

Study traditional Creole and Garifuna music and drum-making with Emmeth Young or Ronald Raymond McDonald, two master drummers who have schools in Punta Gorda.

Defining difference:

Those who make it to Toledo will catch a glimpse of Belize as it existed in decades gone by. While most of the Maya villages in the deep south have electricity (many through solar power), meals and accommodation in San Pedro Columbia, San Antonio and San Jose will likely be with local Maya families rather than guesthouses. Trek out to the partially excavated tombs and pyramids of Nim Li Punnit and Lubaantun and on most days it’ll just be you, the jungle and the ghosts of the past for miles around.

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Nim Li Punnit Mayan site – Toledo, Belize

You may run into fellow travellers in Punta Gorda (Toledo’s largest – and only – town), but even there you’ll experience none of the tourist-town vibe of Caye Caulker or Cayo.

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An aerial view of Caye Caulker – Belize

Trending topics:

That the building of the Pan-American Highway will bring major change to the region is a given. Christopher Nesbitt, founder of Toledo-based Maya Mountain Research Farm (which promotes economic security and environmental conservation throughout Belize), has spent much time in recent months working with villagers along the new road to develop solar and other sustainable forms of power to cope with the coming increase in traffic and visitors. ‘People in the Maya communities are all talking about the changes the road will bring,’ says Christopher. ‘Increased traffic will bring some benefits, but most people are worried that their traditional way of life may be eroded by the creation of this highway.’

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City at a glance – San Francisco, California

Dig deep into this rollicking city that is consistently shrouded in fog, yet entices with its clement weather, panoramic Pacific Ocean views, iconic structures and soulful cuisine

“San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal. That is the whole truth” – Academy award winner William Saroyan

Mention San Francisco and all these come to mind: colourful parades, free speech, culinary experimentation, the famed Golden Gate Bridge, and historical cable car rides. Debatable issues were mainstream in this city before it hit the rest of the world, which means that social revolutions have often started here.

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Historical Castro Theatre – San Francisco, California

This cosmopolitan city is teeming with exciting and diverse events throughout the year that you’ll always have something new to see or do in town, which probably explains why it topped the charts of America’s favourite cities. Just in 2015 alone, 24.6 million visitors were reported to have visited the hilly city, with a significant 85-percent of them here for leisure purposes.

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The annual San Francisco Pride parade takes place on the last week-end of June

Predominantly, tourists visit for the lively atmosphere, infectious ambience, and mesmerising scenic beauty. Take the Coit Tower for example: perched atop the summit of Telegraph Hill, this 64m flutelike cylinder provides a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city. Art aficionados will likely linger about the ground floor longer while admiring the wall murals painted by some 30 local artists in 1933, with each piece depicting a different aspect of the Great Depression.

If the visit piques your interest, consider taking a trip down to the newly opened Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

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Museum of Modern Art – San Francisco

Not only is this home to an impressive contemporary art collection, it also comes with a gift shop fully equipped with quirky gift ideas or unique home décor pieces.

Cutting down on time-consuming transfers to make your trip more enjoyable, Singapore Airlines has recently relaunched its non-stop flight between Singapore and San Francisco, which will operate on a daily basis with effect from 23 October 2016. The 14-odd- hour flight is timed conveniently to leave Singapore in the morning and arrive in San Francisco in the morning as well to help you maximise your daylight hours. Pick up Lonely Planet’s San Francisco city guide for more great tips on how to uncover the best of this colourful city (US$21.99).

Nicaragua’s Coastal Gem – Mukul Resort

With a new airport providing quick and easy access to this remote part of the country, Mukul becomes an even more appealing luxury resort.

It takes me three passes in my rental car before I find the entrance to the Mukul resort. I’m a long way down a dirt road on Nicaragua’s wild western coast, far from anything else, with Google Maps maddeningly insisting that I had arrived. Wouldn’t the most luxurious hotel in the history of the country at least have a sign?

I finally stop at a development called Guacalito de la Isla and ask the security guard. “Esta aqui, señor,” he says, giving no indication that I’m an idiot. It happens all the time, apparently. Mukul almost doesn’t want you to know about it, which feels like the theme up and down the stretch of Pacific shoreline known as the Emerald Coast.

But that’s about to change. A new airport, Costa Esmeralda, opened in November; it’s just 5 miles from Mukul, nullifying the 2½-hour drive from Managua.

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A joint venture between the Nicaraguan government and Mukul’s billionaire owner, Don Carlos Pellas, the airport promises to be a game changer for the resort and surrounding area. Initial commercial flights are from Managua and Liberia, Costa Rica, with regional airlines La Costeña and Sansa; though with a growing number of million-dollar homes in residential developments attached to Mukul and nearby Rancho Santana resort, the runways are already seeing their share of private jets.

Naturally, the fear is that Nicaragua’s beachfront will be chopped up and sold off to the highest bidder. It’s largely unfounded — at least anytime soon.

Most of the Emerald Coast’s beaches are isolated within rolling hills of tropical dry forest. Mukul is only a dozen miles or so up the Pacific coast from San Juan del Sur, which is the region’s surf capital, home to a growing residential community of expats and wealthy Nicaraguans.

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San Juan de Sur Coast

But you need to drive 20 miles back to Rivas, a colonial village near Lake Nicaragua, and drive another 20 miles to get to the coast. There is nothing in between except rugged terrain that rarely sees anything more than a rancher searching for a lost cow. It’s untouched — and that’s what makes staying here such a different experience from other Central American resorts.

My bohio, a sort of ultra-luxe standalone bungalow with an apartment-size bathroom and a private plunge pool, is built into a hillside overlooking the 1,600-acre property.

From the deck, I can make out only a few neighboring bohios — comprising some of the 37 total units, which also include beach villas and casonas — and a handful of buildings down below. Otherwise, the entire view is dominated by forest-covered hills and the curve of the beach. There are multimillion-dollar homes and condos out there too, but they are hidden within the wild landscape. And wild it is. Howler monkeys are easily spotted in the trees, and colorful birds like turquoise-browed motmots flutter about. Within a couple of hours of arriving, I’m in an electric golf cart — the primary transportation around Mukul — heading to the farthest reaches of the property. From October to December, turtle eggs begin to hatch; just one in 100 baby turtles survives. These odds increase when rangers, most of them former poachers, collect the hatchlings and wait for the right time of day to release them. I’m lucky enough to be there when they do.

Mukul is the legacy project of Pellas, whose family’s 135-plus-year history in Nicaragua includes, among other things, founding Flor de Caña rum. His presence is everywhere. In the dining room of one of the three restaurants on the property, there’s an oversize black-and-white picture of a seemingly Italian-looking couple getting married. “Is that from The Godfather Part II?” I ask the waiter. “No,” he tells me. “That’s Mr. Pellas’ parents.”

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Mukul Resort – Nicaragua

Not surprisingly, rum is found everywhere at Mukul. There are bottles of Flor de Caña in every room; a tasting room with select $500 master blends from Pellas’ private collection that are only available here; and Flor de Caña is poured in the mojitos by the pool. Then there are rum barrels that have been turned into lanterns, wall art and wall paneling.

“I think Mukul is better than any other advertising you could do for Flor de Caña,” the rum sommelier tells me as we taste a few select vintages before dinner. Nearly everyone who comes to Mukul has a tasting; sometimes Pellas knocks on the door, quietly comes in to listen, then adds his input to surprised guests.

Pellas’ wife, Vivian, played a hand in designing the resort. The spa was created as her personal place of rejuvenation and relaxation. Here, each of the six treatment rooms is set in its own private indoor/outdoor compound, its own little world. Themes range from a Moroccan hammam to the rainforest, and each one offers a signature treatment.

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During my stay, my sanctuary was the sea. There are 4 miles of white-sand beach at Mukul, so naturally, that’s where most guests tend to gravitate. But the resort is so big — and there are so few people — that most of the time you won’t cross paths. It’s just you and the pelicans gliding over the crests of the waves, above the fish and the manta rays.

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If there weren’t fresh fruit smoothies and a beach staff catering to your every whim, you could mistake Mukul’s Playa Manzanillo for some lost, uninhabited coast. Hopefully, that’s how it will remain. From $500 per night; mukulresort.com

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Blissing Out in Barbados

This island had such a grand history of British sophistication intertwined with laidback island swagger that a cup of tea, chased by a cold Banks beer, is not unheard of.

I like it in Barbados!

The island’s diverse terrain keeps me interested; even though traversing the entire country can be done in a day, if so desired…why would you? Gazing at the waves on the Atlantic side of the island, I can bask in the sun and take in the action of surfers who simply adore the swells that whip them closer and closer to shore. On the East Coast, the most famous surf spot on the island, The Soup Bowl is where I park and ride the emotional waves of watching people time the pace of the swells and try to catch their next ride. That’s a sight that never gets dull. The view sucks me in, but I’m content bravely cheering from the shore. One of these days I’ll take surfing lessons and get out there…

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Martinique – The “Français” Island and Its Loads of History

I had no idea that yet another island could capture a piece of my soul, but here I am – in love with in love with a destination whose heart is exquisitely French and whose veins pulsate with rich Afro-Caribbean traditions. It’s not a land of contradiction, but one of a unique melding of the best of both worlds.
From the cuisine and cocktails to the je ne sais quoi air of Gallic sophistication, this island offers unique, effortless unpretentious chic.

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ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA

Miles of beaches and a number of national parks and reserves provide the perfect playground for rafting through the wilderness surfing epic breaks or hiking through clouds.

SURFING

Pavones
Home to one of the longest left-hand breaks on the planet, Pavones is legendary among surfers and, on a good day, can offer a satisying two-or three-minute ride. Conditions are usually best with a southern swell but if you’re there when the waves aren’t, just head a short distance further south to Punta Banco, a reef with decent rights and lefts.
Salsa Brava
This Caribbean break near Puerto Viejo has the country’s biggest surf and, in December, waves can reach 7m high. The swell pulls in from the east, pushing a wall of water against the shallow reef, in the process generating a thick and powerful curl. The wave, baptised by some locals as ‘the cheese grater’, has turned Puerto Viejo from a barely accessible town 30 years ago into the world-class surf destination it is today.
Playa Grande
A wide, gorgeous beach that, by day, has steep and powerful waves, and by night sees the arrival of nesting leatherback sea turtles. It’s Costa Rica’s most accessible, reliable break and draws hourdes, though it’s so big that it never seems crowded. Rent boards, sign up for lessons and recover with a deep-tissue massage at Frijoles Locos Surf Shop.

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Catching a wave at Playa Grande, on the Pacific Coast

RAFTING AND KAYAKING

Rio Sarapiqui
The Rio Sarapiqui isn’t as wild as the white water on the Rio Pacuare, but the dense jungle that hugs the riverbank is lush and primitive. You can run the Class II-IV rapids year round – the river fluctuates with rainfall so if it’s been raining, the river will be at its best. It’s also a great place to learn how to kayak and several operators offer lessons.
Rio Pacuare
The Rio Pacuare arguably offers the most scenic rafting in Central America. The river plunges down the Caribbean slope through a series of spectacular canyons clothed in virgin rainforest, through runs named fort heir fury, and separated by calm stretches that enable you to stare at near-vertical green walls towering a hundred metres above. Exploradores Outdoors runs rafting trips.
Canals of Tortuguero
Created in 1974 to connect a series of lagoons and meandering rivers, the canals are an excellent introduction to the Parque Nacional Tortuguero, a huge coastal park that’s the most important breeding ground of the green sea turtle. Kayaking through the canals will get you up close to abundant birds and wildlife, such as kingfishers, herons, turtles and caimans. Hire a canoe or kayak in Tortuguero village.

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Kayaking in the 120 square-mile Parque Nacional Tortuguero

HIKING

Parque Nacional Corcovado
Labelled by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on Earth’, this national park is home to scarlet macaws, Baird’s tapirs, giant anteaters and harpy eagles. Paths are primitive but provide a supreme look at the wonders of the rainforest. You’ll need a guide – Osa Wild is excellent.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
There are eight miles of marked and maintained trails within this virginal forest dripping with mist, sprouting with ferns, dangling with mossy vines and gushing with creeks. The most popular trails make a triangle to the east of the reserve entrance. Note, trails can be muddy, and you should arrive early as visitor numbers are restricted.

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The Monteverde Cloud Forest is home to over 2,500 plants species

Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio
The heavenly blue river, waterfalls and lagoons here are among the most spectacular natural phenomena in Costa Rica, which is also why the park is known to locals as Rio Celeste. There’s a well-signed trail that circles volcanoes and misty waterfalls – it’s about four miles in total, but allow three hours as some parts are steep and rocky.

COSTA RICA ESSENTIALS

TRANSPORT
BA flies from Heathrow to Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria, 10 miles northwest of San José. There are frequent buses to San José. If you have the budget, chartering a private plane is the quickest way to travel around the country – it takes under 90 minutes to fly to most destinations. Costa Rica’s airlines are Nature Air and Sansa. Or consider a private bus for door-to-door service, with companies such as Interbus.
WHERE TO STAY
Just 200m north of the entrance to Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Cabinas Tortuguero has 11 brightly painted bungalows surrounding a neat garden. Rooms are simple yet immaculate and there are hammocks for lounging.
Hotel Banana Azul sits astride a tranquil black-sand beach in Puerto Viejo. Best is the Howler Suite, a corner room with multi-directional views. There’s also an onsite bar-restaurant.
Every room at eco-resort Hotel Belmar has an incredible view of forest or gulf, or both. Wooden furniture, high-thread-count linens and floor-to-ceiling windows feature as well as large balconies. There’s also a spa and a great restaurant.

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Hotel Belmar’s Sunrise room looks over the Monteverde Cloud Forest

THE KNOW-HOW

costa-rica-hummingbirdCosta Rica is a veritable Eden, with varied birdlife…
Toucan: Costa Rica has six species of this classic rainforest bird. Huge bills and vibrant plumage make the chestnut-mandibled toucan and the keel-billed toucan hard to miss.
Scarlet macaw: Unmistakable for its size, red body and ear-splitting squawk, it’s common in the Parque Nacional Carara and the Peninsula de Osa.
Resplendent quetzal: The dazzling quetzal once held great ceremonial significance for the Aztecs and the Maya. Look for its iridescent-green body, red breast and long green tail near Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. Hummingbird: More than 50 species of hummingbird have been recorded in Costa Rica, and most live at high elevations. The largest is the violet sabrewing, with a striking violet head and body and dark-green wings.

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Archipelago de San Blas – Panama

A Glimpse of Living History

Living a timeless existence on a scattering of small, idyllic tropical islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama, the Cuna Indians are a self-governing island community that Panama has encouraged to live according to their ancient ways. They are colorful and proud people, and their autonomous and matriarchal province is a throwback to the Caribbean before the onset of mass tourism.

The Cuna jealously guard their traditional economic and governance systems, music, dance, and dress. The men’s attire is more Western than that of the women, who wear vividly colored skirts and gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and often nose rings and a black line tattooed down the length of their nose. They are known for elaborate hand-stitched molas, cloths made from many layers of colorful fabrics – the most popular of Panamanian handicrafts. The San Blas Archipelago comprises 365 islands, although the Cuna say there are many more than that – some are nothing more than a palm tree on an uninhabited spit of white sand.

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Panama Canal – Panama City to Colón, Panama

The Greatest Engineering Show on Earth

Built across the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the epic Panama Canal remains one of the greatest engineering achieve­ments of the 20th century. The ingenious network of dams and locks linking two oceans took more than 75,000 workers more than ten years to build, Centuries of bankruptcy, mismanagement, and malaria delayed the project a number of times after the idea was first presented in 1524 by King Charles V of Spain.

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An aerial view of the Panama Canal

The first ship sailed through in 1914. Today ships line up on each side, waiting their turn to enter the canal, which operates around the clock. Most cruise ships offer on-board lecturers, who describe the three sets of double locks and how they function during the eight-hour, 50-mile crossing. Large ships worldwide are built with the Panama Canal’s locks in mind (1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide), so no one has gotten stuck so far. Ships are charged according to size, the average com­mercial ship paying approximately $30,000. Individuals can no longer swim across, as Richard Halliburton did in 1928; he was charged 36 cents.

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Roatán – Bay Islands, Honduras

The Way the Caribbean Used to Be

The lovely coral reefs off the unspoiled Bay Islands are an extension of Belize’s barrier reefs – world-famous as the largest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But the unparalleled marine life here may seem even more beautiful, due to less tourism and less development. Of the three principal Bay Islands (four lesser islands and sixty small cays stretch 70 miles in a northeasterly arc), Roatán is the largest and most popu­lar.

With the only paved road in this mini-archipelago, it’s also the most “developed.” The reefs fringing these mountainous islands are home to the greatest diversity of corals, sponges, and invertebrates in the Caribbean – heaven to legions of divers, including scuba snobs who come here to avoid the overtrafficked and the done-to-death. As an escapist destination, these Islas de la Bahía are as lush and allur­ing as a tourist poster, attracting nondiving travelers as well. Many come to Roatán’s Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS), a research and educational facility working with dolphins, where training demonstrations are open to the public. Located on the peripheral grounds of Anthony’s Key Resort, the island’s best-sited and best-all-around hotel, RIMS offers guests the chance to swim, snorkel, or dive with bottlenose dolphins in the open ocean or inside the lagoon.