Welcome to another edition of Travel Notes, where I gather together, region by region, a compilation of sights and sounds, travel tips, and sweet spots for booking your flights and accommodations. Today our focus is on Mexico & Central America, where ancient history and an emerging modern-day dynamism collide to boost the region to the top of many travellers' bucket lists.
Without a doubt the most popular tourist activity in the region, ruins from the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica are dotted all over Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras and are not to be missed. Popular sites include the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacán near Mexico City and the Mayan Tikal in Guatemala (pictured).
Eco-tourism in Costa Rica
The swathes of rainforest in Costa Rica and Honduras are a huge draw for nature lovers, home to hundreds of endemic species and nature reserves that'll give "panoramic" a new meaning. Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica's remote Osa peninsula provides a particularly immersive setting for eager eco-tourists.
Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
Nicaragua's so-called "black hill" is actually an active volcano and is home to the exhilarating volcano boarding tours. Hike up the 728m-tall behemoth before sliding or surfing down a slope of black, gravel-like basalt in all of three minutes. The volcano is located about an hour away from León, Nicaragua's second city.
One of Honduras's Bay Islands, Roatán is one of many of Central America's beachfront gems that often get overlooked in favour of their neighbours to the east. Incredible reefs nearby make Roatán a diving hotspot, and with tourism rising in recent years, it's worth visiting before the Cancún crowd overruns the place.
The above list is by no means exhaustive. For example, one of world's oldest and largest metropolitan areas, Mexico City, has solidified a global reputation over the years as a powerhouse in commerce, food, and the arts, and ranks high on my personal list of major world cities to get lost in. The same is true of Panama City – also bustling, also eponymous – and its famous canal.
El Salvador may get a bad rap for its crime issues, but venture not far out of San Salvador and you'll find breathtaking countryside vistas and serene villages that act as gateways to some of the lesser-known Mayan ruins in the region. Lastly, Belize, the only English-speaking country in Central America, often flies under the radar, but its unique mixture of indigenous Mayan and British colonial Afro-Caribbean culture is well worth a trip to discover. And of course, like the Caribbean to the east, the entirety of Central America is lined up-and-down with pristine, secluded beaches along the shores of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
Given the region's proximity to Canada and the US, direct flights are aplenty. Mexico City's Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX) is undoubtedly the prime gateway to Mexico, with Air Canada operating twice-a-day flights from Toronto and daily flights from Vancouver and the American legacy carriers providing seamless connectivity to pretty much every major population centre in the US.
Furthermore, Aeromexico also operates a very comprehensive route network between its home country and its northerly neighbours, even picking up the slack on some routes neglected by the US and Canadian majors, such as Montreal–Mexico City and Chicago–Guadalajara.
Given all the traffic between the two countries, it's no surprise that leisure and low-cost carriers from both the US and Mexico, such as JetBlue, InterJet, Aeromar, and Volaris, are fully in on the action as well, providing solid coverage in secondary markets.
Central America is similarly easy to get to: major leisure capitals like San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) are very well-served, while smaller destinations, such as Belize City (BZE) or Roatán (RTB), are connected to the US and Canada by a few flights as week. Panama's national airline, Copa Airlines, is the chief carrier serving Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City, and fellow Star Alliance member Avianca flies nonstop from San Salvador (SAL), El Salvador's capital, to several US and Canadian cities.
Airfare can be very, very cheap at times – I regularly see round trip fares from Toronto or other major cities to places like Mexico City, San Jose, or Liberia (the Costa Rican tourist spot, not the West African nation) in the $200 to $300 range, for both last-minute and reasonably far-out bookings. These usually have a layover somewhere, but the prices are a steal. Given how inexpensive airfare to the region can be, as well as the relative lack of outstanding business class products serving the region, I'd say that it's rarely worth it to use miles and points on flights to Mexico or Central America.
Of course, cruise ships and overland travel are very popular ways of discovering this part of the world as well, and several intrepid travellers have attempted to traverse the Americas on two or four wheels. Just be wary of two things: the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia that makes continuous onward travel extremely difficult, and the fact that a wild fence might appear sometime soon as you're trying to drive into Mexico!
Regional flights in Mexico and Central America are primarily operated by three airlines: Aeromexico, Copa, and Avianca. (Despite being a Colombian airline, Avianca bought out several smaller Central American airlines and now have a huge presence in the area.) These airlines will get you between the national capitals and major cities pretty reliably.
The aforementioned Mexican low-cost carriers are also good options for domestic flights within Mexico, while there are plenty of tiny local airlines, mainly operating small turboprops, that can fly you over to the neighbouring country or to hard-to-reach places in the middle of the jungle.
It's by far more popular and cost-effective, however, to travel through Central America by going overland. All seven Central American countries are pretty much arranged in sequence, so it's not hard to follow the Pan-American highway down along the Pacific coast, exploring each country as you go. Driving rental cars across borders is a no-no in most of these countries, however, so you'll either have to take your own care or catch the bus – several bus companies offer services up and down the region and can get you pretty much wherever you want to go.
Where to Stay
By now, you've probably guessed that I mainly consider Starwood and Marriott hotels when I'm travelling, and that's because it's easiest for Canadians to earn points to redeem for stays at those brands. Both chains have very good coverage in Mexico, with a good mix of city hotels and beach resorts.
In the former category, the St. Regis Mexico City seems like the best value among the capital's three Starwood properties, all of which go for 20,000–25,000 Starpoints for a free night.
The latter category is, unsurprisingly, centered around the Spring Break destinations of Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, and Cancún. If redeeming Marriott Rewards points, the JW Marriott Los Cabos (40,000 points/night) or Ritz-Carlton Cancún (50,000 points/night) make for pretty sweet redemptions.
Central America is a bit cheaper to stay, but coverage is a bit more sparse. There's a Westin in Guatemala City, a Sheraton in San Salvador (both 7,000 Starpoints/night), and a Marriott in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras (10,000 Marriott Rewards points/night). Highlights in Costa Rica and Panama, where Marriott's footprint is stronger, include the Hotel Punta Islita (40,000 points/night) on Costa Rica's Pacific coast and the JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort (35,000 points/night).
I hope these notes have been helpful to anyone who's hoping to knock Mexico and the Central American countries off their bucket list. There's certainly a wide variety of things to see, do, and experience in the region, ranging from sacred ancient temples to vast swathes of untouched natural beauty. With such good deals available out of North America, there's no better time to go check it out.
If you have any particular region of the world you'd like me to write about in the next installment of Notes, please do let me know in the comments! These are pretty time consuming (but also a lot of fun) to write, so I want to make sure I'm providing you guys with the greatest benefit.