The Year in Review - The Best of 2012

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December 24th 2012
Published: December 24th 2012
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Our son Michael’s plane got delayed from San Francisco to Houston so he won’t be able to make it tonight as scheduled. It seems that the next time he could get fully booked all the way through to Mexico was on Christmas day so we have to find something to do for the next 2 days until he arrives. Luckily he was able to extend his trip by a couple of days so at least we will still have the same number of days with him once he arrives.

Since we haven’t really done much of note in San Miguel since we last wrote, we decided to write a year end recap of 2012. It seems like a crazy year when we look back to where we were at the end of last year. We celebrated New Year’s Eve in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. We had only lived in 4 cities in Mexico and had never crossed a border or been anywhere except Mexico. Since San Cristobal, we have visited 7 countries (9 if you count Mexico and our quick trip to the US) and lived in 8 different houses and countless hotel rooms. We drove almost 20,000 miles on some of the toughest roads in the world. We have seen both the Caribbean and the Pacific (once in the same day). Along the way we saw volcanos, jungles, rivers, islands, waterfalls and beaches. We toured Mayan sites, bird refuges, countless churches and scores of historic ruins. We learned a good part of a new language and learned the histories of many countries. We learned to read maps and to find our way when no maps existed. We learned to live without cable TV, cell phones and sometimes even hot water. Probably the most important thing we learned was, through thick and thin, how to live no more than 50 feet apart from each other for more than a year.

While there is no way we could capture all the adventures we have enjoyed for the last year the following are some of the highlights that, as the year ends, we want to go back and reflect on. We’ll start by picking the top 5 things that we enjoyed during our travels:

Chichicastenango, Guatemala-There are literally thousands of wonderful markets throughout Mexico and Central America. They all offer an opportunity to view local life and give a chance to see the vast diversity of food and handicrafts that the local people have to offer. None that we visited compared to Chichicastenango. After a long drive from Antigua, Guatemala we exited the Pan-American Highway and crossed through fog-enshrouded hills and valleys and finally reached Chichi. The smells of the juniper leaves burning near the church met us before we even reached the market and led us toward the seemingly endless array of masks, blankets, produce, flowers and art. It seemed little changed from hundreds of years ago and even if it didn’t have busloads of tourists, I think it would go on as it is forever.

Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica-Unlike most of Costa Rica that seems to be mass marketed and well-marked, we found Tortuguero magical. We drove through small towns and banana plantations to reach the landing where the boats were docked. The boats were fast and took us through beautiful, overhanging jungles full of crocodiles and monkeys. We reached the wider river that took us to the small, Caribbean island-like town of Tortuguero. It didn’t seem we were in Central America anymore as we enjoyed the best Caribbean chicken ever and breakfasts full of excellent pancakes and fruit unlike any we had tasted in the past. To top it off, a nighttime walk through the jungles to the sandy beaches where we found the 300 pound turtles laying there eggs under a star filled night.

Bocas del Toro, Panama-Perhaps Bocas came at a good time for us, after enduring a month of seemingly endless rain in Boquete, Panama. Maybe a little vacation from the vacation. The drive out of the mountains and towards the Caribbean was spectacular. The towering pines magically turned to endless palm and banana trees surrounding the simple houses on stilts. It seemed extremely, but welcomingly hot until we reached the launchesthat gave us a refreshing, cool salt filled breeze as we crossed the bay to Bocas Town. I have to say we didn’t do much except explore the narrow streets and enjoy the view from an island bar and our hotel built on a pier over the crystal water, but it seemed a magical place to enjoy a break from the road.

The Flamingoes of the Yucatan-Although we enjoyed seeing the multitude of colorful and luminescent birds especially in Panama and Costa Rica, none compared to our day spent with the flamingoes of the Yucatan. We drove from Merida towards Progresso and continued south along the coast towards Telchuc Puerto. Along the narrow beach road we looked through the mangroves to the shallow marshland and saw our first flamingo. We parked the car on a dirt road and walked across the muddy shallows until we came to the limestone ponds filled with tiny fish and shrimp that were the favorite food of a vast menagerie of every type of seabird that could be imagined. Thousands of flamingoes seemed to be everywhere, eating, primping, squawking, flying here and there and just generally looking unbelievably regal. They seemed tame almost as we walked across the natural rock walkways that led into the marsh where we set for an hour and enjoyed our surprising discovery.

Copan, Honduras-We visited Honduras on our long trip from Costa Rica to the Yucatan. Honduras was the only country in Central America that we had not spent a significant amount of time in during our travels. We decided to stay for a few days in Copan to visit the famous Mayan Ruins and basically take a few days off the road. We awoke early and took a local moto-taxi arriving at the ruins just as they opened. We had the site to ourselves. The macaws were still warming their wings as the sun rose over the main court of the ruins. We explored the stelae, pyramids and famous stairway for nearly 2 hours before anyone else arrived at the site. After the ruins we returned to our hotel as the rain began to fall. The rain turned to a torrential downpour. The power went out and we sat on the veranda of our colonial style hotel and watched the rushing water flood down the hilly cobblestoned street. The sun set over the ruins and the entire town was dark. Watching the people bring their chairs onto the street and chat with neighbors ended a perfect day.

I think that most of the top 5 things we did this year are pretty well known and will come as no surprise to people who have travelled the area. We would be remiss if we did not pass on a few “undiscovered” finds that we came upon during our year. There were literally hundreds, but we selected just a few.

Pipeline Road, near Panama City, Panama-Another wildlife wonder on our trip. Just north of Panama City driving along the Panama Canal past the Gamboa Rainforest Lodge we reached Pipeline Road. Pipeline is famous for having the most bird species spotted in one day of anywhere on earth. We passed hundreds of beautiful Blue Morpho butterflies as we progressed from the pavement to the nearly impassable (at least in our poor Saturn) dirt road that is Pipeline Road. We parked and walked into the jungle listening to the screaming insects and viewing the endless variety of jungle trees. We watched 3 different families of monkeys pass through the treetops feeding on the fruits of the large fig trees. Young leading the way with moms and babies following and trailed by huge males. Families of both Spider and Howler monkeys seemed to be everywhere. As if that wasn’t enough several Toucans flew into the trees and paused long enough to let us view them for some time.

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal - TheMiraflores locks near Panama City on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal are well visited and justly so. Less visited and possibly even better are the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side of the canal. You can get literally feet from the passing ships and even drive across In front of the huge lock door that leads out to the Caribbean. There were no other visitors while we were there and the attendants seemed to enjoy practicing their English with us by describing how the locks work and giving us an in-depth understanding of their importance to Panama and the world.

Ataco, El Salvador - Located on the famous Ruta de los Flores in northern El Salvador the town of Juayua is famous for its excellent weekend Gastronomy Fair. Every kind of meat that can be grilled is available and the scores of stands seem to compete with each other to see who can put on the most delicious faire. A little further up the road is the less famous Ataco. What Juayua is to food, Ataco is to murals. The entire town seems to be covered by murals, all bright and covering every type of subject from local heroes to children to the political struggles of El Salvador. A true photographer's dream come true. The people were friendly and seemingly unspoiled by the few tourists that make it this far.
Ipeti, PanamaIpeti, PanamaIpeti, Panama

End of the Pan American Highway

Ipeti, Panama - We visited a small Embera Indian village here but the actual highlight for us was this was as far we made it south on the Pan American highway. Standing on the bridge overlooking the river and on a Sunday afternoon watching the entire town wash clothes and bathe was a fitting end to the road. We stopped in a local bar filled with roosters, dogs and a few rough looking locals to have a celebratory beer. A group of locals bought us a second round of beer. We bought a round back for everyone in the bar and suddenly rounds were appearing at our table at a rapid pace. We had a long drive back to Panama City and everyone seemed to be disappointed as we had to make speedy retreat before we ended up having to find a hammock in a thatched hut for the night.

Ancon Hill, Panama - Panama City is a bustling metropolis with a vast diversity of people living in a modern city that seems to be in a constant state of change. The old part of town (Casco Viejo) exists just a short walk from the modern high rises that look like they were transplanted from Miami Beach. Slums are interspersed with beautiful mansions and food ranges from the simplest creole menu to state of the art cuisine that would make you think that you are in the finest restaurant in New York. We found that Ancon Hill is a quiet place in the center of town where you seem to rise above the confusion and yet can still be right in the center of it. Beautiful views of the Pacific, Panama Canal, Casco Viejo, skyscraper downtown and surrounding jungles. It is a break from the heat of Panama with wonderful breezes as an added benefit.

Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua - What could be better than driving to the top of a very active volcano and looking into the bubbling pit of activity. Add ancient lava tubes teeming with 80,000 bats and we found an exciting adventurous and convenient destination.

Lamanai Mayan Ruins, Belize - Lamanai is less well known than nearby Caracol or Tikal. Admittedly the ruins are not as spectacular as either of these, but what sets Lamanai apart from all other Mayan sites we visited is how you get access to the site. A 2 hour boat ride through beautiful jungles and wetlands teeming with wildlife, from crocodiles to monkeys to birds to iguanas and everything in between gets you to the island-like ruin site which has climbable ruins and good trails. A picnic lunch supplied by the boat driver which included a delicious rum punch to ease your aching legs and make your sunburn tolerable. A perfect day.

Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador - Let’s face it. El Salvador is hot. Where can you get a little relief? Cerro Verde National Park is your place. Located high above the plains of El Salvador on the side of a volcano with spectacular views over neighboring Izalco volcano and Lake Coatepeque. There is a constant breeze and as the fog rolls in it can actually get cold which is a welcome change at times while traveling in Central America.

Travelling full time definitely has its share of challenges and at times the difficulties seem to outweigh the pleasures of all the adventures we have had. Taking a few minutes to go back and reflect on all the things we have done throughout the past year gives us a chance to recognize how lucky we
Lamanai Mayan Ruins, BelizeLamanai Mayan Ruins, BelizeLamanai Mayan Ruins, Belize

View from the top of the High Temple
are to have had the opportunity to travel and see a little bit of the world and view the vast diversity of people’s lives. We are glad that so many people have followed our travels and sent us so many nice comments and offered encouragement when we most needed it. We are making plans now to take on a new continent during the next year so we hope to offer our loyal readers a change of pace soon. We wish everyone a happy holiday season and look forward to seeing you during the New Year.

Additional photos below
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25th December 2012

We're so proud of you guys and so jealous of your journey. I loved the recap! When will Michael be back in San Fran.? We'd love to hang out with him.
26th December 2012

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us...
We hope Michael made it on Christmas and that you had a great time together.
27th December 2012

Thanks you for your comments
Michael just missed making it for Christmas, but we'll enjoy him for eight days!
27th December 2012

Great information
I've not been to Central America, so this blog will be very useful for planning my trip when I do eventually head to that part of the world. Thanks for sharing!

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