Essence of Central America

Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico,

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12 people
30 days
Code: QVKAC
Activity and Adventure, Discovery, Tours
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Overview of Essence of Central America

Discover the culture and landscapes of this fascinating region on a trip that takes you from Mexico City to Havana to San Jose – with a spattering of enticing stops along the way. In Mexico, discover Maya history and culture at the incredible Chichen Itza ruins, and visit traditional communities in the charming San Cristobal de las Casas, and snorkel in the brilliant Caribbean waters. Cuba’s imminent political and cultural change makes it something to experience now before it evolves. Wander through Havana’s glittering colonial architecture, soak up the clear mountain air among Soroa’s vibrant mountain orchards, relax on Playa Ancon’s vast white beaches and admire Trinidad’s unrivalled ambience. Then onto the jewel of Central America, Costa Rica’s environment is world-renowned for being diverse, vibrant and healthy. Visit San Jose’s colonial streets; La Fortuna’s hot springs and volcano; Monteverde’s cloud forest; and Manuel Antonio’s turquoise seas. From food to ruins, then old cars to fragrant cigars then onto intense volcanic landscapes and superb Pacific beaches, this Central American combination is a trip not to be missed!
 

Trip Summary for Essence of Central America

Start Location: Mexico City,   End Location: San Jose

Countries Visited: Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, 
Meals Included: Breakfast: 29   Lunches: 3   Dinners: 2
Highlights:

    • This is one of our most comprehensive adventures in Central America, rich in historical and cultural highlights. Start by getting up close and personal with the country’s diverse heritage, from the magnificent Aztec temples of Teotihuacan to the brightly-dressed Maya folk of the hills of San Cristobal.
    • A guided walking tour of  Old Havana sheds lights on the difference between the lives of city and rural life in Cuba. Take in all the colours and aromas of Soroa, the stunning valley area known as the ‘rainbow of Cuba’.
    • Stroll along the rural dirt roads of Vinales as tractors, vintage cars and horse-drawn carriages pass you by
    • Finally, experience the diversity of Costa Rica’s environment, spot wildlife in the lush Monteverde cloud forest
    • and swim in the warm waters of Manuel Antonio National Park
    •  

 

Day 1 - Mexico City
Arrive at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport and be transferred to your hotel. Settle in and, if you have time, take a stroll to get a feel for this vibrant and rapidly growing capital where the ancient and modern collide. In the evening, usually around 7 pm, you will meet your leader and other members of your group for a pre-trip meeting. The exact time and place of the meeting can be found at the hotel reception. Generally the meeting is followed by an optional group dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Day 2 - Mexico City
Enjoy a guided city tour. You'll visit the Metropolitan Cathedral, Zocalo, National Palace and Museum of Anthropology. After that, the day is yours to spend as you please. Learn some dance moves from the locals, or try out your own to the music of a mariachi band. Ask your leader about where to find Aztec ruins in the city centre, or perhaps take the subway right through to one of the temples. If you'd rather venture out of the city, take a trip to the beautiful canals and gardens of Xochimilco, located 28 kilometres south of the city.

Day 3 - Teotihuacan – Puebla
Head to Puebla in a private minivan. Along the way, you'll stop at Teotihuacan, about 50 kilometres northeast of Mexico City. Here you'll discover the amazing Aztec ruins known as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon which dominate the skyline. This was once the Aztec capital, and one of the biggest cities in the world. Stroll down ‘The Avenue of the Dead’ with your local guide and see the clues to what life was like here nearly 2,000 years ago. Continue to Puebla, a town of palpable colonial heritage despite rapid development. You'll visit the local markets, where some excellent hand-paint tiles are available. To finish off a busy day, perhaps sample some mole Poblano, a local specialty that's famous across Mexico. You can even try cooking it yourself in an optional cooking class.

Day 4 - Oaxaca
Take a minibus to Oaxaca, the beautiful colonial city known for its cuisine and lively art scene. It's also a great place to browse for traditional Mexican handicrafts, with descendants of the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians selling an array of bright woven blankets and shawls. Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the streets and take the opportunity to feast on some regional delicacies. From the delicious banana-leaf-wrapped ‘tomales’ to the spicy baked chilli and lime grasshoppers, there's no shortage of unique and delicious fare, usually sold by the lovely old ladies of the markets.

Day 5 - Monte Alban – Oaxaca
Today you'll travel up a nearby hill to see the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. The Zapotec civilisation began construction of this city around 200 BC, and Olmecs and Mixtecs have inhabited it at different times. Have your camera ready to go, because up here you can get an amazing view across the three legs of the valley of Oaxaca. With the help of your local guide, you will explore the remnants of plazas, tombs, palaces and temples that make up this intriguing site. Return to Oaxaca for the afternoon and enjoy some free time. Season depending, a folkloric ballet performance is a great optional activity while you're here. There's also the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre which is worth a visit.

Day 6 - Tehuantepec
Drive south towards the Pacific coast on your way to Tehuantepec. En route you'll stop to see the Tule Tree, a massive Montezuma cypress generally regarded as one of the most stunning trees in the world. You'll also visit a Mezcal factory to learn the backstory of this heady Mexican drop, which you may have sampled by now. Another stopover on today's drive is Mitla, an important Zapotec archaeological site that was originally built as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Continue then to Tehuantepec, where you'll spend the night.

Day 7 - San Cristobal de las Casas
Continue driving east into the state of Chiapas. On the way you will visit Sumidero Canyon, a gorgeous, 800-metre-deep canyon carved out by the Sumidero River. It's roughly as old as the Grand Canyon. Continue to San Cristobal de las Casas. Stretch your legs, take a walk and soak up the strong old-world atmosphere of this town, which is due in no small part to the grand Spanish colonial architecture, prominent indigenous cultures and winding cobblestone streets.

Day 8 - San Cristobal de las Casas
Take a tour around the Mayan villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan today. Nestled in the highlands, these villages serve as marketplaces and religious ceremonial centres for the indigenous folk who live in the surrounding hills. The local people have retained their traditional way of life and can often be seen wearing their own distinctive, colourful costumes. As you explore these villages with a guide, you'll learn more about these mostly Mayan communities.

Day 9 - Palenque
Say goodbye to San Cristobal de Las Casas as you head for Palenque. Enjoy some free time exploring the town when you arrive.

The local Zapatista movement in the region around Palenque has been quite active in recent months, occasionally holding protests or blocking roads. Our local operations team is constantly monitoring this situation to ensure the safety of our passengers and leaders. In some cases we might need to use an alternative route from San Cristobal to Palenque to avoid this activity - more so to bypass long traffic delays than any real danger. It's also possible that the Misol-Ha and Agua Azul waterfalls will not be accessible at the time we are scheduled to visit.

Day 10 - Palenque
Today you will visit the ruins of Palenque. Located on a hilltop in an area of hot jungle, these are some of the most astounding Mayan ruins in the region, dating back as far as AD 600. Some of the ruins remain unexcavated and are hidden in the surrounding forest. Enjoy a guided tour of the site. As you explore this lost city keep an ear out for the strange calls of howler monkeys reverberating through the jungle.

Day 11 - Campeche
Pack your swimmers today as you drive north towards the Gulf of Mexico. On the way there you'll be stopping at the beach, so take the opportunity for a refreshing dip. Continue to Campeche where you'll spend the night. Enjoy an orientation tour of the city and visit the San Miguel Fort and museum. Campeche is a charming Spanish colonial harbour town, a UNESCO World Heritage site complete with walls and fortifications. Many of the buildings have been restored, and as a result the townscape is quite a sight.

Day 12 - Merida
Head for the ancient ruins of Uxmal this morning. Here you'll visit the amazing Palace of the Governors, considered by many to be the best example of classic Mayan architecture. You'll also visit the mystical Pyramid of the Magician, comprising five super-imposed temples. Continue to Merida and take a tour of this 'white city'. See its many dazzling colonial buildings and learn more about the Mayan heritage of the town.

Day 13 - Merida
Enjoy free time exploring the many sights of Merida. The Regional Anthropology Museum of the Yucatan and the shady Plaza Grande are both good places to start. At the latter you will find the 16th-century cathedral, City Hall, State Government Palace and Casa Mantejo. The outdoor market is essential, with an array of hammocks and Mayan replicas for sale. Here you can sample some local fare, including the dish cochinita pibil ('little pig') or the mind-blowingly spicy El Yucateco hot sauce. Ask your guide for some more recommendations.

Day 14 - Playa del Carmen
Chichen Itza is your first stop today. This is possibly the most famous Mayan site in Mexico. You'll see the marvellous Temple of Kukulkan standing over the ruins. Not far from the temple is the ‘ball court’, where many disputes are known to have been settled by way of a ball game that employed only the elbows, hips and wrists. Stone carvings depicting violence suggest it was not such a casual sport. Following a guided tour of the site, continue to the resort town of Playa del Carmen. Here you can spend your time snorkelling among the mangroves, diving in underground caverns or strolling along white sands. In the evenings, kick back and watch the waves with a margarita. It's possible to take a ferry from here across to Cozumel for some reef diving too.

Day 15 - Playa del Carmen / Havana
Travel to Cuba. Although the flight is not included, a complimentary arrival transfer is included with your trip. Please ensure you provide your flight details to your booking agent at least 14 days prior to travel so the transfer can be organised. If you arrive early, please note most activities in Cuba can only be booked through the tourist desk in the lobbies of the larger hotels or direct with the venue. Otherwise, there are plenty of good museums to check out, including the Museo de la Revolucion and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

There will be a welcome meeting at approximately 6pm this evening. Please expect a letter in your room or a phone call on Day 1 from your leader to confirm the time and place of your meeting. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting, so ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader. The briefing is generally followed by an optional group dinner.

Day 16 - Soroa – Vinales
Enjoy a walking tour of Old Havana, a perfect first taste of the city. Your local guide will show you the cathedral, Plaza de Armas, San Francisco de Asis, Plaza Vieja and Central Park. The entrance to the Camera Obscura is included. Later you'll make the drive to Soroa, a lush enclave nestled in a beautiful valley. You'll stop in for lunch and tour the orchid garden there. Continue to lovely Vinales, where tobacco and agricultural fields lie side by side and limestone outcrops dot the landscape. The scenery here is some of the most picturesque in Cuba. There are many ways to take it all in, including cycling, walking through tobacco fields and hiking to mountain caves (all optional activities).

Day 17 - Vinales
A walking tour of the farmlands and crops is included today. Learn more about the simple lifestyle here and see first hand the farmers who grow tabacco for some of the most expensive cigars. 

Vinales is a small and charming rural village. It's probably the easiest place to mingle with locals in Cuba, who are very sociable. Many of them love nothing better than to drink rum and dance the night away. An informal salsa lesson is included so you are confident to be involved. There are only three bars in this town, so you probably won't find yourself getting lost! Later head to an ecological farm for an included dinner. 

 

Day 18 - Bay of Pigs - Cienfuegos
Head towards Cienfuegos today, it is a long travel day. You will be stopping via the Bay of Pigs to learn more about the learn about the botched US Military counter-revolutionary invasion in the Giron Museum then stop at the bay itself, for a swim in the crystal clear water or simply enjoy the stunning surroundings.
Then the short drive to your destination for the night, Cienfuegos. This is the gem of the south, a seaside town of relaxing streets and dazzling buildings that strike a beautiful pose by the water. You will enjoy a photo stop at Palacio del Valle, which is Cienfuegos' architectural pride and joy. Learn more about its history as you take in the beauty of its intricate carvings of Venetian alabaster. If you haven't done so already, perhaps try some Cuban coffee while you're here – it's served black, strong and super sweet.

Day 19 - Trinidad
Today you will board the bus for a short drive to Trinidad. There's no doubt it's one of Cuba's alluring destinations, a great place to wander around, with almost every scene offering a photo opportunity. Watch as locals casually smoke their huge cigars on the doorsteps of their homes, and hear the old Chevrolets rumbling by. Kick things off by strolling along the cobbled streets and marvelling at some of the colourful colonial architecture on display (this town was put on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1988 for good reason). During your orientation walk you visit the Santeria Priest to learn more about the unique religion followed in this area. At some point, your group can decide when they want to schedule their informal Spanish class.

Day 20 - Trinidad
Enjoy a day of free time. There are some great Spanish-style churches to see, and nearby is the Valle de los Ingenios, where sugar plantations stretch out as far as the eye can see. For some seaside fun, head down to Playa Ancon and stroll its long stretches of white sand. You can go for a snorkel too. Just be careful when you're in the water, as sea urchins can be a problem here. Back on the land, you can go cycling or hiking. If you rent a bicycle, be careful on the cobblestones, and remember your bike will be of the vintage variety. The trekking is great in the Sierra del Escambray, the local mountains. A folklore dance and music show in one of the open-air venues is highly recommended – a great chance to immerse yourself in Cuba's African, French and Spanish-influenced music and dance culture.

Day 21 - Santa Clara - Havana
On your way back to Havana, you'll stop in at Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara mausoleum and memorial. In the museum you can get a rare insight into the legacy of the revolutionary leader, with some interesting ephemera and artefacts on display – letters, firearms, even medical devices. Upon arrival in Havana, stop by Revolution square and then take a stroll around the grounds of the infamous Hotel Nacional. Then prepare for a final night of celebrations. 

Day 22 - San Jose / Havana
Travel to Costa Rica. Although the flight is not included, an airport arrival transfer is included. Please provide your flight details at the time of booking, or at a minimum 15 days prior to travel. Once you have provided your details a transfer representative will be booked to meet you at the airport and transfer you to your hotel.

Your adventure begins with a Welcome Meeting at 6pm on Day 1.

Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where it will take place. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. The new leader will be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information once again at this meeting.

Following the meeting, there is generally an optional group dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Costa Rica’s capital sits in the centre of a lush, wide valley which has a comfortable subtropical climate. The streets of the town are laid out along a grid iron pattern, with avenidas running east to west and callés running north to south. Many of the most interesting buildings are in the region of Avenida Central – the Teatro Nacional is an elaborate confection of marble staircases, statues, frescoes and mirrors.

There are a number of interesting museums in the city; the Museo de Oro has a good collection of golden pre-Columbian figurines. The Mercado Central is the main market which dates back to 1881 – there are some good food stalls here as well as countless artefacts for sale.

Day 23 - La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano
A scenic drive by private minibus takes us to La Fortuna (approx 4-5 hrs).

La Fortuna is a small town situated just a few minutes away from Costa Rica's most famous volcano - the majestic Arenal. The views here are spectacular as the volcano is reflected on the lake for postcard perfect photos. Besides the panoramic views the town offers a range of other activities such as the 70 metre high La Fortuna waterfall, stunning lush forest, rare plants, animal watching and watersports on the lake.

Day 24 - La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano
Today is free for optional activities. Take a trip to the volcano, visit La Fortuna waterfall or take a canopy tour for a bird's eye view of the forest. Otherwise head out into the beautiful surrounds and explore by bike.

In the evening we include a visit to one of the hot springs in the area. Surrounded by lush foliage and naturally heated by the volcano, the springs are the perfect way to relax.

Day 25 - Monteverde
Travel by shared minibus and boat to the cool cloud forests of Monteverde (approx 4 hrs).

Monteverde was founded as an agricultural community in 1951 by a group of North American Quakers; they cleared virgin forest to create verdant pastures ideal for dairy farming. These environmentally aware settlers were conscious of the danger that unrestricted settling and farming could cause to this precious habitat. Consequently they established a small privately-owned wildlife sanctuary, which has since grown to become the internationally-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. These forests are similar to rainforests, but instead of relying on rain for essential moisture, adequate water comes from the semi-permanent cloud that covers the region. It is lush and full of wildlife. This is truly a nature lover's paradise. More than 2,000 species of plants, 320 bird species and 100 different types of mammals call Montverde home. Be sure to keep an eye out for the resplendent quetzal, one of the most elusive birds in the world.

In the afternoon, your leader will take you on a walking tour through the protected reserve.

Day 26 - Monteverde
Today you can choose from some great optional activities. Explore the forest canopy on a combination of suspension bridges and platforms built in the cloud forest. Another option is the Monteverde Butterfly Garden and the Hummingbird Gallery, a must for those with a penchant for these winged, coloured jewels of the forest.

At night you can choose to enjoy a night hike in Monteverde, hiking at dusk in the forest. Some of the wildlife you might see include porcupines, toucans and other sleeping birds, owls, agoutis, coatimundis, snakes, walking sticks, tarantulas, katydids, and an array of other cool insects. Of course, there are no guaranteed sightings, so don't expect all these creatures to be waiting just for you! Typically though this time of transition into night offers a good opportunity to view nocturnal mammals as well as diurnal animals as they prepare for night.

Day 27 - Manuel Antonio National Park
Travel by private minibus to Manuel Antonio National Park (approx 4-5 hrs). Situated on the Pacific Coast, the area of mangrove swamps and beaches now known as the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio was first documented by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1519 during his (unsuccessful) search for the Fountain of Youth.

Long, white beaches extending around the headland of Punta Catedral are set against an evergreen forest backdrop that grows right up to the high-tide line. Incorporating 12 small islands scattered just off the coast where migrating whales can sometimes be observed, the park is home to hundreds of mammal and bird species in a region of lagoons and fertile mangrove swamps.

Day 28 - Manuel Antonio National Park
Your time here is your own to enjoy some of Costa Rica's finest beaches or you can enjoy some of the fine hiking trails through the tropical forest.

Day 29 - San Jose
We'll spend the morning in Manuel Antonio before returning to San Jose and your centrally located hotel. You can enjoy one last night out to celebrate the end of your journey.

Day 30 - San Jose
There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart the accommodation at any time.

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