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How much does it cost to travel through Central America?

Border Crossing Costa Rica Panama

Long-term travel is all about the benjamins. Your budget becomes your bible, how much (or little) you spend determines how long you will be able to keep up the lifestyle of constant travel. We have already posted our six-month budget and our 1-year budget, but both of these include time spent either in the U.S. or Europe, which are much more expensive and so don’t adequately reflect the cost of traveling in Central America.

This is why we wanted to write a separate post specifically breaking down the costs of traveling through this region, in order for those planning a trip to have a rough idea of how much traveling through Central America costs.

Overall Budget Breakdown

We spent exactly six months traveling through all Central American countries – Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – spending a total of $10,685.65 for both of us.

That is about $890.47 per person per month, or $30.36 per person per day (for the exact amount of days we were in Central America).

Central America moneyOriginally we had a rough goal in mind to shoot for under $1,000 per person per month, per month, but we ended up spending even less thanks to keeping a close eye on our spending. This number is the average over six months, but there were major differences in how we spent our money in the various countries, so we have also broken it down per country:

Central America travel budget breakdown per country

Belize: $54 per person per day

Belize was by far the most expensive country in Central America, but we enjoyed our time there immensely. We could have spent less here, but couldn’t pass up the adventure ops available like snorkeling and caving, which would have been much more expensive in Europe or North America. Minus the adventure, Belize would have cost around $40 per person per day.

Accommodation: $7.50 – $12.50 per person in a double room average A double room cost $25 on Caye Caulker, but only $15 in San Ignacio.
Transport: A long-distance bus from Belize City to San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border was $3.50, boats between Belize City and Caye Caulker were $10.
Food: $10 per person including beer. Beer $1.50 – $2.50.
Activities: Full day snorkeling tour $40, cave tours between $45 and $70 per person.

Belize snorkeling

Guatemala: $23.12 per person per day

We splurged constantly in Guatemala. We took advantage of the high quality international cuisine in Antigua and around Lake Atitlan, putting away pots of fondue and bottles of wine, and discovering the wonders of Israeli food. Still, we managed to spend less than $25 per person per day by staying away from overpriced tourist shuttles and keeping our booze easy and local, plus we chose budget accommodation under $10 per person in a private room.

Guatemala hostelsAccommodation: On average we spent $9 per person per night. The cheapest private room we stayed in was $4.90 per person, the most expensive was $16 per person.
Transport: Local buses cost between $0.50 and $3.
The most expensive bus we took was a night bus from Flores to Guatemala City for $29 each. After that, we only traveled by local buses and never spent more than $3.
Food: $6 – $10 per person including drinks. Beer $1 – $2.
Activities: Pacaya volcano $13, Tikal including transport & guide $30, ruins in Antigua $5

tienda Chichicastenango Guatemala

Honduras: $28.68 per person per day

Honduras can be done on the super cheap, but as we spent the Christmas holidays here, we treated ourselves to nicer hotels (maximum $25 for both of us together) and special holiday meals. Only for that reason did we end up spending more per day than Guatemala or El Salvador. We avoided the famous islands of Utila and Roatan, however, and visitors to the islands would most likely also average similar costs, as the mainland is considerably cheaper than these popular diving isles.

Accommodation: between $7.50 and $12 per person in a double room
Transport:
Buses are between $2 and $4, the most expensive bus ride was $7.
Food:
$5 – $7 per person including drink. Beer $0.60 – $1.50.
Activities: The most expensive activity was visiting the Copan ruins at $15 per person

Honduras Tegucigalpa church

El Salvador: $24.05 per person per day

Accommodation was the most expensive aspect of traveling in El Salvador – we found everything else (transport, food, drinks) super affordable. We did fall hard for pupusas; eating them every meal (almost) kept our food costs way down. In general El Salvador doesn’t have much in the way of expensive tourist sites, museums are free on certain days, and even surfing can be done for $10 to $20 per lesson.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room with shared bathroom, $12.50 per person in a double room with private bathroom and hot shower
Transport:
Buses are seriously cheap here, between $1 – $2, with the most expensive bus ride costing $4.
Food:
A meal was around $4 per person, including drinks (beer). Again, pupusas cost 40 cents each, and beer is usually $1.
Activities: The most expensive activity was a guided hike in Alegria for $7.50 per person.

Sunset over river El Salvador

Nicaragua: $31.81 (including the Corn Islands)/$20.76 (excluding the Corn Islands)

In Nicaragua, we treated ourselves to a well-earned splurge, and made the trip out to the Corn Islands. This raised our daily average significantly, but not everyone is going to make the trip to the Corn Islands. Without the trip, Nicaragua would have been the cheapest country in Central America for us. Even with eating out twice a day almost every day, we barely spent more than $20 per person per day.

leon hostelsAccommodation: $7.50 per person in a double room average
Transport: Buses were usually less than $1; the most expensive ride was $1.80
Food: Breakfast was between $2 and $3.50; dinner was $4 and max. $7 with beer between 50 cents and $1.20.
Activities: Movie theater tickets cost $1.90 (snacks around $1.80), daily bike rental $3.90

Horse-carriage granada nicaragua

Costa Rica: $26.62 per person per day

Rumor has it that Costa Rica is more expensive than the rest of Central America, but we had a great time and easily kept costs down. Sure, it was quite a shock to see the prices in Costa Rica after coming from super cheap Nicaragua, but they didn’t vary much from prices in Honduras or El Salvador. Spend your money wisely, and those extras such as zip-lining, guided hikes and National Park visits won’t break the bank, or put you above budget, but if you’re not careful (and you like to drink beer), it’s easy to burn through Colones in a snap. There is cheap accommodation in Costa Rica, but the quality you get for $20 here is certainly far less than in the rest of Central America.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room
Transport: $1.20 for short distance bus rides, $2.50 for medium-distance rides, $8.00 for long distance bus rides
Food: A meal in a restaurant or in a soda runs at around $5 to $9. Beer $2 – $3.
Culture: The National Parks in Costa Rica are exceptionally beautiful and well worth the entrance fees, which range from $10 to $20. Ziplining is around $40 from the cheapest provider in Monteverde.

Monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Panama: $35.71 per person per day

Like El Salvador, Panama also uses the U.S. Dollar, but here the inflation caused costs in Panama to be significantly higher than anywhere else in Central America. Goods and services here are often priced equally to the US thanks to a seriously large ex-pat population (especially in Panama City), but with beer still average 75 cents a bottle…who’s complaining! The islands of Bocas del Toro were above average in price, while the mountain town of Boquete was easily affordable. As a global city, Panama City is home to the finest luxury accommodation as well as 25 cent bus rides and street food for $1.

Accommodation: $10 per person per night – the cheapest accommodation was $6.50 per person in a triple room, the most expensive was $12 per person (also in a triple).
Transport: $1.50 for short-distance bus rides, $7 for medium distances, 12.50 for long distances. Inner city buses in Panama City cost between $0.25 and $0.50.
Food: A meal is between $3 and $8, depending on the location.
Culture: The Panama Canal visitor center at the Miraflores Lock is $8, a ferry ride to Taboga Island is $12 for a return ticket, and movie theater tickets are $3.

Panama Hats in Panama City

Practical information:

  • We were able to stick to our budget mainly because we used Lonely Planet’s Central America on a shoestring guidebook, which has super useful budget information for each individual country. It’s not a light book and it takes up quite a lot of space, but carrying it was well worth it for us (not only for budget tips, but also hostel recommendations, maps, and up-to-date information on how to get from A to B.)
  • We chose almost exclusively very cheap local transportation instead of the more expensive tourist shuttles.
  • We ate at cheap local restaurants but also opted for pricier tourist restaurants more often than other travelers. If you eat where the locals eat and sleep in dorm rooms, you can travel Central America on less money than we did.
  • Note that we didn’t party a lot while we were there – we know lots of backpackers who party much more in Central America than we did – so if you’re planning on going out a lot, make sure to add that to your budget.
  • Wondering what to pack for your trip to Central America? Check out our packing list for the things we can’t travel without and the gear we’ve ditched over time.

Have you traveled through Central America? If you have, what countries did you find budget-friendly? Where did you splurge? If you haven’t gone through Central America, let us know if you plan to go and if you need any budget advice.

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Spring break alternatives in Central America

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The buzz around spring break 2011 destinations has begun with internet top ten lists spouting out the usual spring break ‘hotspots’. Some people might prefer the predictable debauchery in places like Cancun, Acapulco or Panama City, but for those looking for beach holidays with warm weather, cheap beer and, for the young ones out there, a lower drinking age, we have some alternative spring break destinations tips, after spending the past eight months traveling through Mexico and Central America…

Skip Cancun/Cozumel -> Explore the Yucatan

There are countless Cancun spring break package deals for those looking for the ultimate party. But Mexico’s Yucatan has much more to offer than the package party scene. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun is the tiny island of Isla Mujeres, easily our favorite beach spot in Mexico – for a country of thousands of miles of beautiful coastline, that is saying something. The island is so small you can see beach on both sides while standing in the center. The north end has ankle-deep crystal clear water stretching out over 100 feet in front of you. Visit the many restaurants, bars and very chill lounge bars by golf cart – the main mode of transport on Isla Mujeres.

Back on the mainland, visit Puerto Morelos, a sleepy fishing village which is an easy 30 minute bus ride away, or head down past Playa del Carmen to the beautiful beach town of Acumal, an almost undiscovered beach paradise. There are hotels and timeshare resorts surrounded by several small restaurants , but this is an insider spot, and very near to Tulum. Here, visit the indigenous Mayan ruins which have the most beautiful backdrop of any we’ve ever seen – the brightest blue water that looked photoshopped to our bare eyes.

Skip Acapulco/Mazatlan -> Go to Mazunte and Zipolite

On Mexico’s Pacific coast, Acapulco has had some bad press recently as dangerous drug-related incidents continue to happen here and while it and Puerto Vallarta have traditionally been spring break hotspots, we much preferred the two tiny pacific coast beaches of Mazunte and Zipolite. The two beaches, separated by a 15 minute ride, offer up all sun, beach and beer you need.Visitors here tend to be total hedonists, but hedonists who like a laid-back vibe. Zipolite is Mexico’s only nude beach (though this is frowned upon by locals), and at both beaches there isn’t much more to do than lay out (nude or not), explore the nearby jungle and party the night away with beach bonfires.

Skip Costa Rica -> Head to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Costa Rica is gorgeous – who wouldn’t love the stunning beaches, wild animals and great nightlife. In fact, we are in Costa Rica right now and loving it! However, culturally and economically Costa Rica is much more similar to a vacation in the United States or Europe. This is why we suggest heading to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua instead. The Nicaraguan beach town has everything you would ever need for parties, but spending a week in this chilled out surfer town will easily cost you half of any trip to Costa Rica. Beers here will run you $0.50 instead of $3 per beer in most Costa Rican vacation towns, dinners don’t cost more than $16 for two people, while in Costa Rica even a trip to the local ‘soda’ or diner, sometimes cost us $18 for two– no beers included. There are several neighboring beaches which are even more beautiful than the town beach, easily reachable by rent-a-car or group transport, and supposedly the best surfing in all of Nicaragua.

Skip Panama City, Florida -> Go to Panama City, Panama

The beaches of Florida are stuffed to the gills with wet t-shirt contests and binge drinking – the classic spring break party madness. But rather than go to Panama City in Florida, you could spend the same amount of cash dancing salsa with sexy strangers in Panama City – Panama. The city has the most beautiful skyline in all of Central America and a sexy nightlife to match Miami, plus you can visit the Panama Canal and ride the train along it through the lush rainforest. If a beach is a must, Bocas del Toro is Panama’s party place on the beach. The chain of small Caribbean islands off the coast of Panama has a motto of ‘take it easy’ by day, while people go snorkeling, surfing, or just chill out and take in the sun. By night, the drinking, dancing and party offer up the perfect spring break vibe.

Skip Jamaica -> Head to Belize

What draws so many people to Jamaica – its crystal clear azure waters, verdant jungle countryside, laid-back attitudes, reggae, plus no foreign language to muddle your way through – can all be had in Belize at a fraction of the price. We visited both popular Cayes (pronounced keys) off the coast of mainland Belize – San Pedro and Caye Caulker. The two cayes are very different, with San Pedro home to a large, and mainly older, US ex-pat community (who still like to party hard, so don’t let the ‘older’ bit completely turn you off), and Caye Caulker is a much more laid-back, car-free island with dirt roads and one main dancehall, though there are plenty of spots serving up the local rum punch for next to nothing. The snorkelling through Shark-Ray Alley here was the best we have ever experienced, as we saw not only loads of sting rays and sharks, but also turtles, loads of schools of fish and amazing coral. We don’t dive, but the tours off the Cayes are the best in Central America, and we don’t eat fish, but the just-caught fresh seafood is supposedly super cheap and delicious. We do drink beer, however, and we loved washing down our food with the Belizean Belikin beer. Tours on the mainland of Belize can also be organized, with everything from visits to Mayan ruins and ziplining to the ultimate caving adventure – the ATM tour – one of National Geographic’s top recommended adventure experiences in all Central America, and by far the most adventurous activity we have undertaken during our time here.

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Goodbye 2010: Our year of travel in pictures

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An amazing year is coming to an end – our first as full-time travelers! Rather than rattle off a list of everywhere we’ve been, check out our year in pictures, from the pre-trip ‘planning’ phase to the rather unexpected place where we are ringing in the New Year!

In January we made the semi-spontaneous decision to become digital nomads and to leave London, where we had been living since 2007.

In February, we packed up our apartment and Dani drove a few boxes to her hometown of Erfurt in Germany, where she stored our stuff and said goodbye to friends and family.

Jess did the same in March, home in chilly Chicago.

In April, we met again in Britain and spent one last ‘stay-cation’ in the seaside town of Brighton, before starting off the trip of a lifetime:

We started our adventure in Las Vegas, of all places…

…before heading to San Francisco up the Pacific Coast Highway in May, the first of many road trips to come.

June saw us exploring the Arizona desert during our Tucson house-sit, then the canyons (Antelope, Canyon de Chelly and the Grand Canyon) in the north during one last road trip in the U.S.

We stopped in Los Angeles again in July…

…and from there we flew into Mexico City, where we started our Mexican adventure.

We spent August exploring Southern Mexico from Oaxaca to the Pacific Coast, San Cristobal, Palenque and the Yucatan.

In September we discovered the beautiful beaches of Belize

…and in October we began our two-month tour of Guatemala, which included Mayan villages, market towns, volcano climbing, the colonial town of Antigua and Lake Atitlan.

In November, we took a 2-week detour to El Salvador, where we found some rough Pacific beaches, hiked a volcano crater and visited colonial towns like  Suchitoto (pictured) and those on the Ruta de las Flores.

In December, we headed to Honduras, where we finished the ‘Maya trail’ by visiting the last of the series of Maya ruins at Copan. We’re ringing in the New Year at Lake Yojoa, before heading to Nicaragua to start of 2011!

Happy travels to all fellow travelers and happy New Year to all our readers out there!

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11 things we love about Belize

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Belize was meant to be a quick week on the way to Guatemala, but ended up being eleven excellent, adventurous days like none other on our trip. In celebration of our new love of this country, read on for our listing of eleven things we love about Belize, one for each day:

1. 174 miles of beautiful coastline – Belize might be small, but the entire eastern side borders the Caribbean Sea, with many white sand beaches and turquoise waters.

2. Banana Bread – the supersoft Belizean banana bread is unrivaled, especially when it comes fresh out of the oven.

3. The amazing caves in Western Belize: Both Barton Creek and Actun Tunichil  Muknal are home to amazing rock formations, floor to ceiling stalagtites & stalagmites, and fascinating Maya artefacts.

4. The cultural mix – we were surprised by the peaceful mingling of Latinos, the Garifuna, Mestizos, Maya and Mennonites.

5. The beautiful, undiscovered nature – Traveling through Belize, you see green everywhere: woods, fields, meadows, and much of it still seems so untouched. Many of the caves and Maya sites have only recently been found.

6. Belikin Beer, enjoyed ice cold.

7. The laid-back lifestyle on the Cayes – ‘Go slow’ is the motto of Caye Caulker, and that is exactly how life is lived. Stay away from the Cayes if you’re in a rush, because nobody else is (including service staff at bars and hotels).

8. The ‘small town feel’ to the country – Everyone will stop for a friendly chat, and within days, you already feel at home. With a population of 300,000, Belize is small not only in size, but also in population. It is likely to run in to locals you meet in one place while exploring somewhere else way across country.

9. Swimming with sting rays, nurse sharks, turtles, barracudas, and tons of other fish on the Meso-american reef (plus the beautiful corals).

10. The ‘swing bars’ on Caye Caulker make even the longest term travelers feel on holiday.

11. The diversity of the country: from tiny islands, subtropical woods, mountainous rain forests, fruit orchards, cattle meadows, caves and waterfalls – all filled with abundant wildlife.

Have you been to Belize? There are still plenty of places we have left to visit in Belize, so please feel free to join in and share the things you love about Belize in the comments below.

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Belize on a shoestring

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Although technically a part of Central America, a trip to Belize, with its white sand beaches and English-speaking Rasta culture, is decidedly Caribbean. A trip here is more similar to Jamaica holidays or Caribbean vacations than to its neighboring Guatemala. The clear blue sea and laid-back culture makes Belize a top travel destination, it also means it is much more expensive than elsewhere in Central America. Even as an experienced budget traveler, more money will fly out of your hands in Belize than anywhere else in Central America or Mexico. Snorkeling costs at least $40, diving gear runs $100 for a day out on the world’s second largest reef and any tour will vary from $40-80: adventure cave tours, tours of Mennonite villages, nighttime jungle tours. You need to book a tour, however, as access to all of these amazing opportunities in Belize can not be done without a guide – but if you go to Belize, you must take part in at least a couple of these tour. Skimping on these high-expense activities means factoring out the adventure and amazing natural and cultural experiences unique to Belize. What would be the point in traveling to Belize at all?  Instead, it is best to know beforehand the best ways to reduce expenses in other areas in order to maximize fun and, with careful planning, stay within your budget in Belize.

Here is how we managed to keep our trip to Belize on a shoestring:

Travel in low season

But, doesn’t low season sometimes mean rainy season? Yes, in fact, it was hurricane season when we visited Belize and we did indeed get stuck on Ambergris Caye as the locals boarded up windows in preparation for a tropical storm that never came. While it might rain for part of your time if you travel during the fall, the financial benefits outweigh a few rainy days – and we were able to take part in all the activities we had planned anyway.

In the low season (Spring or Fall), prices are negotiable. In the Summer or Winter, they are not. We got two deals for hotels on Caye Caulker: at Jeremiah’s Inn we paid US$15.00 including tax (normally US$30.00 plus 9% tax) and at the Barefoot Caribe Hotel we paid US$25.00 for a double room instead of US$35.00. In San Ignacio, at Mayawalk tours, we were able to reduce our ATM tour rate from $75 to $65 each.

Discount: up to 50 %

Stock up before you go

Toiletries are expensive in Belize. If you are taking a vacation to Belize, buy everything at home before you go. If you are a backpacker or digital nomad, get your supplies in whatever country you are coming from. You will need to get a nice big can of insect repellent and sunblock – in Belize these cost us $15 and $19 respectively, while in neighboring Guatemala the same exact products would have cost us $6 and $7. Not having to buy essential toiletries in Belize will save loads of money.

Hunt for cheap food

The reason why we found eating in Belize more expensive than in neighboring countries is that we did not find as many street food stalls or sandwich places as usual, and supermarkets within walking distance of hotels are anything but super, with half empty shelves and products like Pop Tarts and Kellogs Rice Crispies, but no fresh fruit or fresh orange juice, for example. As hostals are also hard to come by, preparing your own food is not often an option. Caye Caulker has one hostel, Yuma’s House, which has a kitchen. Otherwise, most nights will be spent in hotel rooms with no cooking facilities.

There are plenty of cheap restaurants – just make sure to hunt for them. We had Indian in San Ignacio for under $10 for the two of us leaving stuffed, on Ambergris Caye we recommend the Latitudes Café for cheap breakfast and Ruby’s Cafe for giant, cheap, strong coffee. If you like fried chicken, you can get a takeaway almost anywhere in Belize for cheap.

On average, a meal in Belize will set you back at US$3.50 – US$7.50

Note: The Cayes are more expensive than mainland Belize.

Take public buses

The public transportation system in Belize consists of the same 20 year old ‘retired’ North American school buses crammed with twice as many grown adults as the number of pint-sized school children they were meant to hold. Not the glamorous way to go, but certainly cheap and efficient. Distances are short in Belize, where a ride east to west cross country lasts only three hours, so don’t waste money on private shuttles or taxis, they charge up to ten times the price of the bus and get you there no more quickly. Tickets are cheap and the ride is most definitely entertaining – buy yourself a bottle of all-healing home-made seaweed milk, a ham and cheese sandwich and the newspaper from the vendors who board the bus, and you’re set for the trip!

Cost: US$0.75 – US$5.00

Accommodation

Belize has only very few hostels, and many more guesthouses and hotels, where a double room is no more expensive than a private room in a hostel. The cheapest accommodation was a hostel we found on Caye Caulker – Yuma’s House (formerly Tina’s Backpackers) with $12 in a dorm. Caye Caulker is the backpacker island, it is smaller, more relaxed and there are several budget hotels of similar quality for around $25-$35 a night (two people sharing). The only hostel-like place on Ambergris Caye is Pedro’s Inn, outside of San Pedro, where a double room costs $25. We did stay here, and the room was the smallest we have ever stayed in, plus we left a bit itchy. Much better was Ruby’s, right in town and by the beach, for the same price, with a private bathroom included.  Research well before booking on Ambergris Caye as it can be pricey.

On the mainland in any major town or tourist hub, you will find several budget guesthouses that charge around $20 for a double room, but be careful as quality definitely varies.

Cost: $12 –$15 per person per night

Happy Hour

With Reggae music blaring, hammocks swinging and crystal blue water surrounding you,  no doubt you will be in the mood for some drinks while in Belize. Even for long-term travelers, something about traveling in the Caribbean makes you feel like you are on ‘vacation’. Unfortunately, drinking can be very costly, much more so than in the rest of Central America, with a small beer costing up to $3 even at a local dive. But don’t worry – go to Happy Hour. Most bars have 2 for 1 drinks and some even have all you can drink for $20. You can also save money by sticking to Belikin beer (made in Belize) and local drinks such as rum punch, which usually costs around $1.50 and does the job quite nicely.

Do your research

However you choose to cut your costs – cheaper accommodation, less drinking, and/or opting for public transportation, a trip to Belize requires more careful planning and shopping around with various tour companies than neighboring countries where a few extra Quetzales or Pesos won’t dent your budget the same way several dollars each time will in Belize.  In San Ignacio, we chose Mayawalk tour agency for our ATM tour, whose original rate (pre low season discount) was $75, whereas a few of the other agencies wanted $90 per person for the same exact tour. Lower prices is one important reason to do your research, and another is to maximize value for money. On Caye Caulker, most tour agencies will do a full day snorkeling tour for $40, but shop around and see what you get for that price. Some companies do exactly what it says on the box – take you to three snorkeling locations and provide a soggy lunch. With Harry and Steve of Blackhawk tours, for the same price we got an excellent guide (Harry) who took us to three locations, Steve made us lunch, snacks, gave us water, plus bottomless cups of rum punch, nachos and homemade salsa and ceviche (made on the boat that day) for our hour long trip back to the dock.

Have you been to Belize? If you know any bargains or cheap places to stay, please share them in the comments below. Prices in this article are quoted in US Dollars.

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Reflections: 200 Days on the Road

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It is amazing how much life you can squeeze into 100 days. It seems like forever ago that we wrote our first 100 days on the road post from Mazunte, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Between then and where we are now, in San Salvador, we have visited four countries, explored caves with Mayan skeletons, climbed volcanoes, swam with sharks and sting rays in the Caribbean, lived for a month in a beach front apartment in Playa del Carmen, had two fairly major illnesses, almost got robbed, traveled to places almost completely off the beaten path, met loads of people, worked full time, even took on extra work, blogged more, and we are nearly finished with a globetrottergirls.com website redesign.

In short, during our second 100 days, we have really gotten the hang of long-term travel. Balancing full-time work and full-time travel has gotten much easier, and it no longer feels as though we are ‘squeezing in’ time for the blog, either. Life on the road is certainly more spontaneous than stationary office life, but habits develop and life inevitably takes on a new, but distinct rhythm. What may have initially felt exotic is now second nature – chicken bus trips flinging us faster than roller coaster rides, hopping in and out of tuk tuks, bellying up to market stalls to wolf down street food, and even things like negotiating prices and striking up conversations with complete strangers now come with ease.

While some things have gotten easier, there have been some definite lows: Dengue, Giardia, bed bugs, serving as a mosquito buffet, and the typical bouts of some painful stomach cramps. In addition to interrupted good health, our work/travel pace has also been severely interrupted at times. A trip to Todos Santos and Chichicastenango in Guatemala and a hectic week in El Salvador kept us offline a lot recently, and we have had to make up for a lot of lost time.

During these offline times, it has become clear that the longer you travel and fall in love with exploring, the more you tend to fall off the beaten path, which means invariably means away from quality internet connections. This is fine for the mind-blowing life experiences column, but makes managing priorities a challenge, walking a fine line between staying planted online along the beaten path which ensures a much easier time of balancing work and travel, but strictly following the ‘Gringo Trail’ can be less than fulfilling for the explorers in us, even if it satisfies the worker inside. Our time in Antigua has also come and gone – a milestone of sorts for us. I lived in the colonial ex-capital for two years from 2001-2003, and since we met in 2006, I had constantly told Dani stories and even introduced her to some of the crazy characters from my time there. Finally after four years together and over five months on the road, we arrived in Antigua, staying for two weeks. We worked, I overcame the rest of my Dengue, we ate out (a lot!), and we basically recuperated and prepared for the heavy weeks of constant movement to come. It was amazing to have Dani explore with me not only the town, but this part of my path that may have always just been stories, had we never set off on this trip.

Two weeks was a great amount of time to rest in Antigua, but we spent even more time, an entire month, in a great apartment just two minutes from a nearly deserted section of Caribbean beach in Playa del Carmen. Here we worked intensely full-time, both of us, using the beach as the ultimate lunch break. Thinking back to the days of grabbing a sandwich and running an errand before stuffing ourselves back in the office in London, we appreciated every moment we had on the beach in Playa.

The Playa del Carmen segment of these last 100 days extended the Mexico leg of the trip even longer. After nearly three months, we semi-grudgingly cut off our time in Mexico toward the end of September, forcing ourselves to head on to Belize.

Of course, we ended up loving Belize, and Guatemala and El Salvador, too. During the former Reflections post one hundred days ago, we remarked that people, at least so far, are inherently good. Having now traveled to more countries, cities and smaller villages, our faith in people deepens, even despite an attempted robbery on my bag in a bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango (she razored the side, but didn’t get anything). Our enthusiasm for the people of Mexico (friendliest people on the planet) still stands, but we have been met with kindness, helpfulness and new friendships in each of the places we have visited.

One downside to our trip has been the fact that we eat out. A lot. We are tired of eating out in restaurants, and wish it were easier cook for ourselves. The food usually ranges from edible to delicious, but the waiting, the ordering, the clarifying what it means to be vegetarian (it has chicken, is that okay? No? Well, we have a lovely fish dish you might like to try….nothing with a face, you say?)…these things are time-consuming and complicated. Cooking for ourselves more often would be great, but only comes with our apartment rental and housesitting gigs, as the minority of hostels we stay at offers a guest kitchen.

But listen to us, complaining about the luxury of eating in restaurants, or eating at all. How ridiculous, considering the level of poverty we see as we move southward through Central America. It is not only the poverty, but the sharply defined divide between rich and poor. It is so absurd to see a shoeless man, whose feet are both black from dirt and bloody scamper quickly past an exclusive Nine West luxury shoe boutique in San Salvador to avoid bumping into an elegant middle-aged woman as she steps out of her Lexus SUV to purchase yet another pair of $200 shoes.

Shoes, in fact, have been a sensitive issue with us and we recently bought six pairs of them for six boys in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Some of the boys, on their feet selling goods all day long, wore tattered and too-big hand-me-downs or even only plastic sandals during freezing cold evenings and mornings. If you were to go to Chichi in the next couple of weeks and mention Dani and Jessie the kids of Chichi would probably still know who you are talking about. Rather than buying ourselves anything in the most popular market town in the country, we ended up buying only shoes and nearly 20 kites for about 15 different kids, and had kids chasing us around and in their best English begging, “Shoes por me, miss?”

With each day our awareness of poverty increases, as we see human beings fighting for their lives as a result of the most basic illnesses and it breaks our hearts. Just as heartbreaking for us are the terrible conditions of the thousands of street dogs running rampant through these countries. For any of you who can watch a film with murders without flinching but turn down the volume and cover your eyes when a dog dies in a film – you will understand how we feel here. For every dog treated as one of the family, there are one hundred street dogs treated like rats. People shoosh them away and even throw shoes at them to force them away. All breeds of dog, from tiny Chihuahuas and West Highland Terriers to Rottweilers, Collies and an amazing range of mutts, are bone-thin, starving, constantly scavenging, nose in any heap of garbage to lap up the remaining crumbs. Their skin is often open, bleeding, gouged from dog fights, or worse, the wrath of remorseless teenage boys. We have seen several dogs lying on the side of the road or in a park, breathing shallow sips of air in what are most certainly their last few breaths. In Quiche, near Chichi, I am sure that one of the dogs, had we gone back just an hour later, would most certainly be dead. But who to help first? How to start? This is where we are at now, and each and every day we see another dog, man, kitten, child, woman that we would like to help. And although we considered it, we can’t buy everyone their own pair of shoes or take in all of the stray dogs.

Even though we have recently decided to kick up our travels into a higher gear to make it to South America hopefully by January / February, don’t be surprised if we stop along the way to volunteer, and any recommendations for volunteering with children in Honduras/Nicaragua/Costa Rica/Panama are happily accepted in the comments below.

Lastly, in these last 100 days, as our site has grown and filled with content, we have decided to take globetrottergirls.com to the next level, and are working with bundled.co on a redesign of our site which should go live today. We need a fresh design to display much more content at once, rather than the straight chronological blogging format. Some kinks and links might still need adjusting, but we would love to hear comments on the new look and feel of globetrottergirls.com. We also finally have a subscription box, so please please please feel free to sign up to receive email updates with new posts as they are published.

We can’t believe how long we have now been on the road and how quickly another set of 100 days has flown by. We have no idea where we will be after our next 100, which, unbelievably will come at the end of February 2011 – stay tuned and follow our journey along the way…

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6 months on the road – Our Travel Expenses

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October 30th marked our 6-month travel anniversary, and while we’re sharing our Travel Tops and Flops and reflection on ‘200 Days on the Road’ on our 200-days travel anniversary on 15 November, the six-month marker seemed the right time to take a look at our expenses so far – including how much we have spent, where the money went, and what our average per day spend has been in each country. Luckily, Dani keeps a very exact expenses sheet calculating our outgoings to the last centavo, with up-to-date exchange rates telling us each day just how much every hotel room, bus ride, and ice cream cone costs in British Pounds (the currency we earn), US Dollars and the local currency.

Please note: Our daily spendings are meant to be used as a guide for future travelers, or as a comparison for those of you currently on the road. However, as we work while we travel, we are not stuck to a fixed budget which we will one day deplete. We might spend a little bit more than the average backpacker, but we are guessing that our expenses are quite average for digital nomads in Latin America.

Expenses in the U.S.

When we left London for Las Vegas on 30 April, we had no idea how expensive the U.S. would be. Even with the strong British Pound lining our pockets, the U.S. was much pricier than we thought.

By far our most expensive country so far, we spent a mind-boggling $8,333.00 /£5,530.60 in those 70 days. Major expenses within this figure include both our flights from London to Las Vegas and L.A. to Mexico, plus an Enterprise rental car which we had for two months. Excluding these numbers, our actual daily spend was $4,628/£3,071.60, or roughly $1,356/£900 per person per month.

Transportation: Our trusty Chevy Aveo rental ran us $1700 / £1,128 (including optional $560 insurance), which averaged out to $28.33 / £18.80 per day. At first glance (and second, and third) it might seem a luxury, but without the car, we could never have explored the South West, or drive the classic Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco as well as from San Diego to Tucson, making this a totally necessary expense. We drove 5200 miles, and of course the cost of gas and parking fees also added up to be quite expensive.

Accommodation: During the times we were not reviewing hotels or doing long-term housesits, we paid a higher price for accommodation than we originally expected, as many places that we visited did not have hostels. Dusty roadside motels were cheap ($29 – $39 / £18 – 25), while city center digs ran us upwards of $69. We paid a ridiculous $119 for a tent cabin (!) in Big Sur, and a last minute Holiday Inn Express was $109 in the three-hotel, no-vacancy town of Chinle where we holed up for the night during our visit to Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona.

Average accommodation per night based on two sharing: $45/£29.

Tip: Accommodation costs might be higher in the US than in Latin America, but there are also incredible deals to be found online which are much harder to come by in the less deal-savvy neighbors to the south. Websites such as booking.com or lastminute.com allowed us to score excellent rates on hotels than just showing up ever did. On a few rare occasions we were able to negotiate a better rate on site.

Food: The occasional treat aside, our restaurant choices were of the roadside variety, cheap diners, fast food and the like. The average meal at a cheap diner cost around $25 for both of us. While house-sitting we were able to shop at the grocery store, spending an average of $100 per week during our two house sits.

Regardless of the relatively high costs of exploring the southwestern United States, we managed to do both Los Angeles and San Francisco on a shoestring and kept our spending lower by including house-sits and visiting friends.

Average per day per person: $45/£30 (including car).

Mexico

Our spending dropped significantly once we crossed the border into Mexico – in total we spent $3622.26/£2367.78 in 88 days.

Accommodation: In Mexico, we stayed in mix of hostels and budget hotels. The cheapest accommodation cost $12/£8 for both of us at one of our favorite places– La Candelaria in Valladolid. The most expensive room at Posada Ziga in Mazunte was $35 /£23.

Average accommodation per night based on two sharing: $21/£15.

Food: Our meals in Mexico cost around $12/£8 for dinner for two, and breakfast for about $10.50/£6.90 for two people. As anyone who reads us often will know, however, inexpensive (and delicious!) street food was our main meal of choice and we rarely ate in restaurants.

Culture: Mexico is teeming with cultural options and we visited everything from museums to galleries to both Maya and Aztec ruins. The ruins all have a set price of 51 Pesos, or $3.95/£2.55 per person, with one exception: Chichen Itza, which costs around $14/£9 per person.

Transportation: Long haul bus travel in Mexico is much nicer, but also much more expensive than in Central America. You travel in relative style, but you pay for it. The most expensive overnight bus rides tend to cost around $31/£21 per person. The cheapest long-haul trips cost us each $8.50/£5. On average we paid $10/ £6.70 per person.

Average total cost in Mexico per person per day: $20.58/£13.45

Belize

We already knew through the grapevine that Belize was going to be more expensive than the rest of Central America (Lonely Planet suggests US$40 – $60 per day), but we were still surprised that costs were as high as they are for such a sparsely populated and economically struggling country like Belize (read our tips for Belize on a shoestring here).

Accommodation: We stayed in fairly basic accommodation in Belize, no bells or whistles, but always private rooms.

The average cost was US$22.50/£14.20 for a double en-suite room.

Transportation: This is one low cost area for travelers in Belize. Chicken buses, which appear to be held together by masking tape and a lot of luck, cost next to nothing for long distance travel in Belize. A two hour bus ride from Belize City to San Ignacio, nearly completely cross country, costs only $3.50/£2.21 per person. Speed boats between the Cayes in the Caribbean costs about $10/£6.32 to go between them, and golf cart rental on Ambergris Caye costs around $35/£22.10 per day.

Food: Meals in a restaurant both on the Cayes and in San Ignacio cost around $20/£12.60 for two, including a beer or two here and there. Belize is not that big on street food, so sitting down and ordering is a must for your main meals of the day.

Adventure: We took advantage many of the adventurous activities available to visitors in Belize. Snorkeling with Harry and Steve (recommended, just ask around) on Caye Caulker cost US$40/£25.25 each for a full day, or US$20/£12.63. The ATM cave tour was $65 each (discounted). All of our fun over 11 days totals $348/£200.

Average Cost Per Person Per Day: $54/£34.10

Guatemala

Crossing the border into Guatemala after our expensive stay in Belize felt good, and our expenses have been much less here.

Accommodation: On average, we spend $18.43/£11.65 per night for a double room including breakfast. Dorms are cheaper for single travelers, but for anyone traveling with a partner, private rooms only run about Q10 or $1.25 more.

Transportation: Take a chicken bus, and this will be your cheapest expense in Guatemala. Long-distance bus travel by chicken bus costs around $4.00/£2.55 per person – the more comfortable 1st and 2nd class coaches are considerably more expensive – the overnight bus we took from Flores to Antigua was $29.50/£19.50 per person.

Food: You can eat like a king in Guatemala and easily stay on budget. A decent meal for two in a restaurant costs around $10/£6.60, though in Antigua, depending on the restaurant, this average can more than double.

Tikal: The highest expense in Guatemala was our trip to Tikal, which was around $66/£42.00 for both of us. This does not include accommodation in Flores, but does include the shuttle service to Tikal, the guide and entry fees.

On average, we have been spending $27.50/£17.58 per person per day, which might seem a bit high to some, but includes pricey medication for Dengue and Giardia, neither of which was cheap.

Total Budget at 6 months

In total, we spent around US$14,720/£9,646 for the two of us in 6 months, which includes all flights and public transportation, and more than two months in the U.S. We hope our next budget post in 6 months will be much less, with no major flights, hopefully a few more house-sits, and lower expenses in South America than we had for the first 70 days in the United States.

Total cost per person for 6 months: US$7,360/£4,823.00

We showed you ours… now you show us yours! We would love to hear about your budgets and expenses in the comments below to see how our spending compares with that of backpackers and digital nomads. If you have tips on great deals, cheap but quality accommodation in the US, Mexico, Central America or South America, or other ways to save money, please do share as well!

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Belize’s Northern Cayes: Ambergris Caye vs. Caye Caulker

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Any trip to Belize is sure to include a stay on Ambergris Caye and/or Caye Caulker, both a part of the Northern Cayes, or islands, of Belize. Although only a twenty minute boat ride separates them, these two Cayes are worlds apart in terms of the travel experience available on each island.

For long-term travelers, backpackers or digital nomads, a trip through Belize on a tight budget can be a challenge and a choice might need to be made about which Caye to choose if a visit to both is impractical for budget or time purposes. Read on for a summary of the two Cayes to help decide which of these two strikingly different Cayes might be more your style.

Ambergris Caye

Ambergris Caye, population 10,500, is the larger of the two islands by far and is much more developed than Caye Caulker. Also referred to as San Pedro, Ambergris Caye is more upscale than Caye Caulker – not only are there more than 50 hotels on the islands, there are also dozens of new condominium buildings which serve as retirement homes for American expats. The roads are paved and the island is big enough to use golf karts as their main means of transport, in such numbers that they can even cause traffic jams in San Pedro. There are several supermarkets in San Pedro including the large Island Supermarket, which, with its (overpriced) food and drink from the States, caters mainly to the American expat population.

The main reason that people visit is to go on diving or snorkeling trips, as the Mesoamerican reef is only half a mile from the West side of the island. There are beaches around San Pedro stretching along further south, and the town has several beach side restaurants.

We found that the tourists on Ambergris Caye were older and mainly American; there were hardly any backpackers – which might be due to the higher prices on the island (in comparison to Caye Caulker) for both accommodation and food.

Where to stay:

Pedro’s Inn is the only hostel, offering double rooms for  US$25.00

Ruby’s Hotel is in a great location right on the beach in San Pedro, a little bit run-down but the rooms have ensuite bathrooms and it is much better value for money than Pedro’s Inn. Double rooms are US$25.00

Ramon’s Village has beautiful beachside cabanas, a fabulous pool and a great beach. Rooms starting at US$145.00

Where to eat:

Elvi’s Kitchen has a big Maya buffet on Fridays

Caramba has cheap Mexican and Caribbean food

Latitudes Café has great breakfasts and smoothies

Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker is considerably smaller than Ambergris Caye, with a population of just 1,300. It has always been the backpacker destination of the Cayes, but the number of more expensive hotels is growing, including the brand new Caye Caulker Plaza. There is still plenty of budget accommodation, including one hostel – Yuma’s House, formerly Tina’s Backpackers. Restaurants and hotels are cheaper than on Ambergris Caye though, and the feel of Caye Caulker is much more laid back – ‘Go Slow’ is not without reason the island’s motto. Whereas San Pedro is busy with the whizzing of golf carts, on Caye Caulker most people are out and about on foot or bicycle.

The three unpaved roads are aptly named Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street. Front Street is on the west side of Caye Caulker where the ferries arrive and where most of the hotels and restaurants are located. The village measures not even one kilometer north to south, you can explore it in its entirety on a two hour walk.

Not surprisingly, infrastructure is limited, leaving tourists with very little choice. The lack of a swimming beach (lots of seagrass, no beachfront chill spots), leaves visitors the option of sunbathing and swimming at the Split on the north side of Caye Caulker, where a hurricane literally split the island in two.

The best thing to do on Caye Caulker is snorkeling or diving – there are various tour operators that offer boat trips to the Reef where snorkeling is excellent. Snokerling is fine, no need to dive really, as the water is very shallow).

Where to stay:

Yuma’s House, Caye Caulker’s hostel – Dorm US$12.00 per person, private room US$27.50

Jeremiah’s Inn – Rooms between US$15.00 (shared bathroom) and US$20.00 (private bathroom) in low season

Caye Caulker Plaza – Rooms are between US$49.00 and US$69.00 in low season

Where to eat:

Happy Lobster Big breakfasts (with strong coffee and free re-fills) and cheap food

Sandro’s -Very good Italian food, eat-in and take-away

Glenda’s – Long-established economic breakfast place on the island (apparently the best)

Lonely Planet has more restaurant suggestions for Caye Caulker, and a full list of accommodation can be found here.

Verdict

We enjoyed Caye Caulker much more than Ambergris Caye. While Ambergris Caye was mainly filled with American expats and tourists, Caye Caulker attracted a much younger, more laid-back kind of traveler. It is on Caye Caulker where you meet other backpackers and because the island is so small, you meet people quickly as you continue to bump into each other frequently strolling up and down Front Street or in one of the restaurants. The locals are also much friendlier, starting a conversation with you and living the ‘go slow’ lifestyle and telling you: “Smile, you’re on vacation”.

How to get to the Cayes:

The Marine Terminal in Belize City has ferries running to both islands every 30 minutes.

Cost:

US$10.00 Belize City to Caye Caulker

US$15.00 Belize City to San Pedro

US$10.00 Caye Caulker to San Pedro

Ambergris Caye has a small airport which is served by Tropic Airline and has hourly flights from Belize City.

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The day we became cave explorers

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We had just spent a few relaxing days off the  Caribbean coast of Belize, and were enjoying our last supper on Caye Caulker at Sandro’s Italian restaurant (excellent, eat there if on Caye Caulker) when an enthusiastic American girl told us about this ‘ATM’ tour we just had to do when we got to San Ignacio the next day.

“You, like, climb all through this cave, and swim through a river to get to these, like, real Mayan artifacts, skulls, and there’s even a skeleton. It’s, like, really intense and everyone says it’s the ultimate cave adventure!”

We left shortly after wrapping up our feigned interest in the tour, and once outside looked at each other and said, “Yeah, right! Who are we? Indiana Jones?”  Little did we know that 24 hours later we would be booking two places on the next day’s ATM tour, about to set off on one of the more adventurous day trips of our lives.

San Ignacio, Belize, sits far inland, 12 miles from the border of Guatemala. Apart from two small Maya ruins around the town, the tiny ‘city’ has little to interest the tourist, except a baker’s dozen of tour agencies which organize outdoor and adventure tours in the surrounding area. Our list of to-dos included visiting one of the bigger Maya sites and maybe some lazy canoeing on the Macal river. However, hurricanes and tropical depressions had raised the water levels of the river so high that we could not canoe, and a bridge had been washed out, thus eliminating the possibility to visit the ruins of Xunantunich.

“So, what can we do?,” we asked  at Mayawalk tours. Lucky for us, he said – gearing up for his best businessman spiel, the only tour running  is actually the best tour of all. Had we heard of the tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, he asked. The ATM tour?! A laugh slipped past our lips as we clarified that we are not that adventurous, and after all, we had just spent the last week swimming with sting rays, nurse sharks and barracudas out on the Cayes and wasn’t that enough.

Somehow, twenty minutes later, we left the office with two tickets and a list of what to bring and what to wear for tomorrow’s ATM tour. The list was helpful and a nice touch, but in no way revealed the true intensity involved in tomorrow’s activities.  We knew that hundreds of Maya artefacts (mostly pottery) had been found in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, we knew there were bones and skulls, and that everything remained in its original place, nothing removed, or set up on ‘display’.

What we didn’t expect was to find ourselves wading through waist-high water not even five minutes after the bus dropped us off somewhere in the middle of the Belizean wilderness. Two more waist-high river crossings and a 45-minute hike through the jungle ensued before arriving, huffing and puffing, at the cave entrance. The ATM tour had only just begun.

After the necessary picture-taking, we plunged into a 10-ft deep pool of water at the mouth of the cave and swam inside. We had been told to bring a set of clothes to change into and that our shoes would get ‘wet’ – but not that we’d be swimming in freezing cold water inside the cave!

For the next two hours, our guide Martin led us through this cave as we rock-climbed, waded and even full on swam through different parts of the cave. At one point we found ourselves in complete darkness, as Martin led us (hands on the shoulder in front, head lamps switched off) to the dry hinterlands of the cave. Not sure why he did that, but it was actually very cool and very, very dark.

Waaay relieved to reach ‘dry land’, we were hoping for an easier hike from there. No such luck. Shoes came off to protect the area of artifacts to come, and we hiked in (drenched) socks along the rough, sometimes sharp and always damp cave floor, to view the pots and vases left as offerings to the Gods by the Maya. We also spotted two skulls and a half-spider half-scorpion cave monster, which suddenly made us even less excited about wearing only socks.

Finally, we climbed our way deep into the back of the cave to see the skeleton of the Crystal Maiden, an impressive 1,200 year old full-body skeleton of a young female, which Martin explained would have been the Maya’s ultimate sacrifice to the Gods. Somehow the structure of this back pocket of the cave has diverted the water away from the skeleton, allowing it to remain perfectly in place for over a millennium. Calcified in the course of the years, it has a crystallized appearance – hence the name.

Having now walked in the dank, dark cave in soaking wet clothes for over an hour, it was time to slide back into our shoes, dive back into the water and scramble and swim our way back out the exact way we came in. As we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we were so happy we nearly cried, but instead we swam  out, ate lunch and hiked and waded our way back to the bus, where dry clothes and towels were awaiting us.

Would we do it again? An emphatic No! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we are so glad (and proud!) that we conquered the ATM cave. It’s one of the most fascinating tours we’ve ever done, and the history lesson in the depths of the sacred and in-tact location of Maya sacrifice and worship is the most tangible contact one could ever have with the ancient Maya.

The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave has been featured on Discovery Channel, History Channel, twice on National Geographic TV and in the New York Times. Adventurous types come to San Ignacio just for this tour, sometimes waiting days for enough people to sign up. For the extreme travelers out there, the ATM tour even has an overnight option which includes a night hike, some repelling inside the cave and of course, camping in the wilderness.

For the less adventurous cavers, we would recommend Barton Creek Cave, another cave tour we took from San Ignacio. You discover the much-wider cave seated safely on a canoe, led by an experienced guide who allows you to admire Maya artifacts and amazing stalagmites and stalactites of this vast cave from a comfortable (and dry) distance.

After going with a different tour company for the Barton Creek adventure, we can recommend Mayawalk Tours as the better of the two, and we should note that during the dry season the adventure level, along with the water level, is decidedly lower on the ATM than what we experienced at the end of the rainy season.

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