"The locals have an enviable pace of life here. The sense of tranquillity is assisted by the daily siesta which, while initially frustrating, became a favourite part of my day… A good time to practise pronouncing most of the place names here…"
"Places like the mysterious Tikal and Palenque, home to magnificent Mayan monuments peering out of the jungle. The fantastic market in Chichicastenango, visit the beautiful colonial cities like Antigua, San Christobal de las Casas and Merida, treking in the jungle of Peten or climb the active volcano Pacaya. When it came to chilling out again, the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker provided the clearest waters and the most relaxed atmosphere of the entire trip. Central America has never stoped amazing me since I visited for the first time in 1995. I’ll see you there!"
JP - Traveller
Mexico: Mexico City
Guatemala: Guatemala City
Official Language: Spanish and Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca.
Please Note: If you spend time in smaller towns and villages you may wish to bring along a phrasebook to help you pick up a few words of the local language.
Voltage: 220/110v twin prong round European and twin prong flat US sockets.
Citizens of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and almost all European countries do not require a visa for Mexico. A government tourist card, available from embassies and border crossings, is required for stays longer than 72 hours. You will have to show a Yellow Fever Certificate if arriving from a country where the disease is endemic. You will have to fill out an immigration form on arrival which will be checked, stamped and left in your passport for the duration of your stay. If you do not have this paper on departing Mexico you must pay a fine of approximately US$42.
Most nationals do not need a visa to enter Guatemala, but it is important to check the rules for your nationality with your nearest embassy or consulate. Entry is granted on production of a passport valid for more than 6 months and proof of funds to support yourself. As a tourist you are entitled to 90 days; however, depending on the immigration official, you may be allocated 30, 60 or 90 days. You will probably be asked to fill out an immigration card. A copy of this card should stay in your passport until you exit the country.
Passport holders from the EU, US and Commonwealth countries do not require a visa for Belize. Most other nationalities do. Belizean consulates and embassies are located in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Guatemala, US, UK and Mexico.
The monetary unit in Mexico is the Mexican Peso which is divided into 100 cents. Usually the dollar sign ($) is used as an abbreviation. Current exchange rates (as of May 2008) below:
The monetary unit in Guatemala is the Quetzal (GTQ). Usually a “Q” is used as an abbreviation. The quetzal is divided into 100 centavos. Approximate exchange rates (as of May 2008) below:
The monetary unit in Belize is the Belizean Dollar (BZ$) which is divided into 100 cents. Approximate exchange rates (as of February 2005) below:
XE.com is a useful site for currency conversion.
US dollars (cash) are accepted for some purchases in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. However, you will need local currency for most purchases. Even if you have the choice of paying for things in US$ it will be in your favour to use local currency. Therefore we advise you to obtain a considerable amount of local currency as soon as you enter each country.
Remember that once out of Central America you will generally not be able to use or exchange local currency (except at the border towns). Therefore you must make sure you spend/exchange/donate any left over money before leaving the country. US dollars and travellers cheques can be changed at Change Houses (Casas de Cambio), banks and border crossings. Change Houses are privately owned, usually have longer opening hours, attend to you faster than banks and have roughly the same exchange rate. Hotels/restaurants will sometimes change US$ cash, but at a much poorer rate. Airports are just about the only places in Central America where you can exchange currencies other than US$. Therefore it is recommended that you do not bring other currencies.
Often the easiest way to obtain local currency is to use the ATM machines (cajeros automaticos) located in most cities. Visa, Plus, and Cirrus/Maestro are accepted in most ATMs, as long as you have a 4 digit pin number. ATM machines will ONLY give you local currency. You should also be able to get a cash advance on a Visa Card at the bank. Note that some banks will require a copy of your passport.
Credit cards are accepted in some shops/restaurants/hotels. The most accepted credit card is Visa, although authorisation can sometimes be denied due to poor computer connections or other problems. Note there may sometimes be commission charged when paying by credit card (up to 8%).
Although bank cards are often the easiest way to go, there are times where they will not work for you even if your bank at home tells you it will. Do not rely on your card as your only source of money. Always have a few back-ups with you. In Guatemala and Mexico you will NOT be able to use US$ notes which are torn or marked even slightly. If your notes are at all damaged you may use them in Belize, but NOT in Guatemala or Mexico.
Traveller’s cheques can be very time-consuming to cash in Central America and many personal details are required. If you choose to take them, make sure they are in US$ and ‘American Express’ cheques (they are by far the most widely accepted). They may also have a limit to the amount of US$ you can exchange. Always try to exchange as much as you can at one time and try to ask cashiers for small notes billetes pequeñas as you will find it very difficult to break large notes throughout Latin America. Always make sure you put your cash inside your money belt before you leave the premises. Pickpockets tend to loiter near banks and change houses.
The Pre-Departure Information contains general information about the things you will need to consider when budgeting for your holiday. Below are some specific notes relevant to our tours in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize.
There is no fee to enter Mexico by air, but crossing a land border will incur a US$23 fee to be paid at a Mexican bank or at the airport on departure.
There is a US$1 fee to enter Guatemala, and you are usually charged about US$2 to exit the country by land.
There is no fee to enter Belize, but a departure tax of approx. US$19 is applicable.
Adventurer style trips do not include any entrance fees. Please see your tour dossier for a guide of these expected costs. While you can always try, student prices are usually only available to the local people.
Some breakfasts, lunches and dinners are included in tour itineraries; however outside included meals you will have the freedom to explore your own lunch and dinner options. Approximate costs for meals in Central America are as follows:
For a guide to the type of food you will find in Central America see the Local Food & Drink section of this dossier.
Tea and coffee is provided with breakfast but all other drinks (i.e. bottled water and soft drinks) are at your own expense. Approximate costs for drinks bought in a shop in the street are shown below, but note that prices in restaurants and hotels can be as much as double those specified.
Local tap water is drinkable in Central America’s major towns and resorts; however the same cannot be said of Central America’s smaller villages. Caution should be taken not to drink surface water in remote regions. Bottled water, soft drinks and fruit juices are widely available throughout the country.
Taxis are recommended for all journeys within a city. Taxi meters are generally not in evidence, so you may have to haggle with the driver to agree upon the fare. This can be fun, but it is a good idea to find out in advance, from your tour leader or the hotel receptionist, approximately how much the fare should be. It will also help if you can speak a few words of Spanish. You will almost certainly have to accept that you will pay more than the locals do.
The Pre-Departure Booklet that you will receive once you have booked your tour contains a comprehensive list of items that you should consider bringing with you. Please also check your Trip Dossier for any special requirements.
The Imaginative Traveller Recommends: Bring a backpack or easy to carry luggage and travel light. You will have to carry your own luggage frequently – don't let this be an ordeal.
As a general guideline, clothing should be lightweight, loose fitting, hard-wearing and easily washed. In the hot summer months, cotton clothing is much more comfortable than man-made materials like nylon. Be prepared for cooler evenings - for this reason you will generally find it better to pack several thin layers rather than one thick layer. A fleece can be invaluable and double as a pillow. Water resistant jackets are essential during the rainy season between June and September.
Whilst few of our tours can be described as physically demanding you will find all activities more enjoyable if you are reasonably fit and active.
Sometimes on tour toilets are not available. When you do answer the call of nature please bring your toilet paper back to the camp where it can be placed in a rubbish bin and disposed of appropriately or bury it.
Whenever you use a western or squat style toilet please place your toilet paper in the rubbish bin provided – DO NOT flush it down the toilet as this may block the sewerage system. You may also want to carry your own toilet paper as not all toilets will supply it.
The Imaginative Traveller Recommends: You may find it useful to take along a supply of antiseptic gel (i.e. water free soap) and plastic bags to put your toilet paper in if it cannot be burnt / placed in a bin.
Throwing rubbish on the floor may be acceptable to some locals, but please hold on to your waste until you find a litterbin or somewhere appropriate to dispose of it.
Wooden/stone carvings, leather, textiles, hammocks, blankets, wall hangings, gold, silver, jade, typical costumes and ceramic potteries are attractive, cheap and plentiful. The Highland area of Guatemala has by far the best bargains and most variety, due to the strong indigenous influence in this area (Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango). Bargaining is expected whilst shopping in the markets of Guatemala. In shops it is considered rude to bargain, but you can ask for a ‘discount’ (‘descuento’ in Spanish).
Bargaining is not common in Belize, as shops usually have set prices on goods. Belize is not known for its handicrafts and textiles as the neighbouring counties are, but you can find some nice hand-made jewellery in Caye Caulker. In San Ignacio you can buy some interesting ‘rainforest remedies’ (health products), and throughout Belize you can buy world-renowned reggae and Punta music CDs.
Bear in mind that it can be very expensive and not always reliable to send packages home, so try to buy only what you can carry home.
The Meeting Point for your tour should be clearly marked on your travel vouchers.
If you decide not to book a transfer with The Imaginative Traveller to/from Guatemala City airport and Antigua (45km from Guatemala City) you will need to arrange your own transport. Taxi services are readily available within the immediate vicinity of the airport. These taxi services will be cheaper than a pre-paid service, however you may have to face bargaining and language barriers with the driver. Guatemalan taxis do not have meters, so you should agree on a price before getting into the taxi.
A taxi to Antigua should cost between US$20-25, but of course they will try to charge you more. A shuttle bus should cost approx. US$10 per person, and they usually need at least three people to depart. Public buses are very cheap, but extremely difficult to take if you don’t speak Spanish.
Please note: Driving time from Guatemala City to Antigua can take anything from 40mins to 2hrs depending on traffic and other circumstances. Whichever way you decide to make the journey, you should be prepared for Guatemalan drivers.
If you decide not to book an arrival transfer with The Imaginative Traveller to/from Cancún Airport (50km from Playa del Carmen) you will need to arrange your own transport. Official taxis (approx US$80 per taxi) do not have meters; however drivers will accept taxi vouchers sold at the official taxi stands. Note that taxis are much cheaper going in the opposite direction back to the airport (about US$40). The cheapest option is to take a bus. ADO has a non-stop bus service from the airport to Playa del Carmen bus terminal. The cost is only 85 pesos ($8.50) each way, and they run until late (the last bus from the airport leaves at 12:30 am). Note that this is different to the airport workers bus which discourages luggage. Catch this bus at Terminal 2, at the other end of the terminal from where international arrivals exit customs. You will then have to get a taxi from the Playa del Carmen bus terminal to the hotel which will cost roughly 10-20 pesos (US$1-2).
Crime in Latin America is not as bad as the region’s reputation suggests but you still need to be sensible and alert. Like anywhere in the world, you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Care should be taken, especially whilst walking around the larger cities. Try to keep away from dark quiet areas if on your own, particularly late at night and try to always take a taxi. We suggest that whenever possible you leave all of your important documents in the safe (“caja fuertes”). However you should always carry some form of ID or a photocopy of your passport.
It is advisable not to wear expensive looking watches or jewellery. Keep your camera concealed when not in use. Remember that most thieves don't use violence but rely mostly on diversionary tactics which can take place at anytime of the day or night. Do not be paranoid, but just be aware that it could happen at anytime. Always be vigilant and the chances are nothing will ever happen to you. The safety of our passengers is our tour leaders’ number one concern and they will provide all necessary local information during the pre-departure meeting.
Your Tour Leader's role is to ensure all aspects of the trip run smoothly. He/she will share their local knowledge, advise on how to fill your free time and co-ordinate the day to day running of the tour – although occasionally he/she may need your understanding if things do not go according to plan. If you have any problems on the tour, please let your Tour Leader know so that steps can be taken to put it right. Tour Leaders are supported by our regionally based office staff and, in most cases, a locally based manager.
Please note that some styles of trip, such as Imaginative Escapes or Imaginative Honeymoons, do not have a Tour Leader. However, there will be representatives on hand who will be able to assist you in arranging any excursions that you wish you take.
Our main criterion for choosing hotels is cleanliness. On Adventurer tours hotels are simple, but comfortable. Bathroom facilities may sometimes be shared and rooms may sometimes be multi share rather than twin. Hotels on Traveller tours almost always have private bathrooms, air conditioning and bar / restaurant facilities. Please bear in mind that hotels can sometimes suffer from minor problems and technical difficulties.
At each hotel your Tour Leader will try to organise the rooming arrangements to suit everyone's requirements. If you are travelling alone you will be allocated a room with another group member of the same sex (unless you have paid a single supplement). If you are travelling as a couple please note that we cannot guarantee the availability of double beds.
Note: Single supplements are only applicable to single travellers who wish to have their own room. Single supplements are also only available on Traveller tours and are not applicable on overnight boats, trains and while camping.
People are often surprised by the quality and variety on offer in Central America. This is partly due to the number of ex-pats who have opened up a range of different international restaurants. There is also local cuisine to suit every budget. Chicken, pork and beef are available throughout. Most meals come with corn tortillas and sometimes salad, but often lack hot vegetables. Although you might expect the food to be spicy in this region (‘picante’ in Spanish), this is not usually the case.
Corn (maize), is the staple diet of Central America’s indigenous people and you will certainly get a lot of it. Mostly it comes in the form of tortillas which are flat pancake-like objects made of corn dough and grilled. The following are a few Central American specialties: Guatemalan enchiladas - Different to the Mexican enchiladas, these ones are more like western taco shells topped with chicken/pork, salad and cream. You can buy 3 for about US$2
Bistec or Pollo Asado - Beef steak or grilled chicken. These are common meals, usually served with tortillas, rice, spring onion, white cheese and salad. Prices average around US$3-5. Note that steak in Central America tastes good, but can be very tough.
Platanos Asados - (roasted bananas) These are topped either with sugar or cream (or both) for less than US$1 a serving. Keep in mind that the bananas aren't bananas proper...they are a type of plantain, very sweet tasting and are also often served with savoury meals.
There is some seafood available in Belize – particularly lobster and shrimp. Chicken and pork are also readily available as well as steak on the mainland. Most meals come with some kind of salad. Other common side dishes include coleslaw, potato salad, rice & beans and sweet fried bananas (platanos). You can get a very good, cheap set meal for lunch, as this is the main meal of the day. Apart from the delicious local food, there are also many international restaurants to be found in Belize. Italian, Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants are abundant. Some examples of local foods include:
Lobster or Shrimp - grilled, fried, marinated, served with various sauces and spices – not to be missed. You will pay US$10-17 a plate, depending on how big the portions are. Lobsters are only in season from mid-June to mid-Feb. The conch (shellfish) season begins when the lobster season ends. Shrimp are usually available year-round.
Central American burritos are some of the best in the world. You can get vegetarian, chicken, shrimp or lobster fillings. (US$1.50 to $4 each)
There is a fantastic chilli sauce to be found on every Belizean restaurant table called ‘Marie Sharp’ – it comes in mild, hot and extra hot. Beware.
If you have any allergies to foods, please come prepared with a list to give to your tour leader who can then translate it into Spanish for you to show every waiter who takes your order. If you are vegetarian you must always specify “no carne / puerco / pollo / pescado” etc.
Fruit juice is really fresh and really cheap. Go to one of the many juice stands and ask for a “liquado de fruta” (fruit smoothie) or “jugo de naranja y zanahoria” (orange & carrot). Papaya, melon, watermelon, mango, and pineapple are very popular, but you can also get fun things like celery, beetroot, & chaya (a spinach-like leaf). Liquados can be made with either water or milk. Always specify if you don’t want sugar (“sin azucar”). Latin Americans have a very sweet tooth and will usually automatically add the sugar.
Coke and Pepsi are everywhere. You will also find all sorts of orange, grape, lemon, and lime soft drinks (“Gaseosas”). “Agua Mineral” is sparkling water.
Generally speaking it’s best not to expect good coffee/tea in this part of the world. Be warned that Americano (weak black coffee) is the most common, followed by “café con leche” (more like milk with a bit of coffee), and cappuccino (sometimes good). If you ask for tea (“té negro”) you will get teabags. Always ask for “leche fria a parte” (cold milk on the side) as the alternative is likely to be a hot cup of milk with a tea bag inside.
If you only learn one word in Spanish it’s bound to be “Cerveza” – beer. There are countless lagers, and a few dark beers. A beer will cost you anywhere between US$1.50 and $3. In Mexico the world-famous Corona with a lime wedged into the bottle neck will help quench the fiercest thirst, you also find other ones like ‘Modelo’ and ‘XX’. In Guatemala, the most common beers are ‘Gallo’, maybe the best beer in Central America.
Belize beer is a little stronger in flavour than the other countries. ‘Belekin Beer’ is the National beer. It should cost you between US$1.50 and $2.
White rum (ron) is definitely the most commonly drunk spirit in Central America which is not known for its wine. It is best to order Chilean wine (although this may be expensive).
There are cheap and reliable internet cafés located throughout Mexico and Guatemala. The average cost is US$1.50 an hour.
In Belize internet cafés are not as numerous. When they can be found, prices are generally upwards of US$5 per hour.
Most public phones in Mexico only take Ladatel phone cards, priced at US$3-5. Privately run casetas or telephone booths where you pay after phoning are generally more expensive. Pre-paid Ekofon accounts are the cheapest way to contact home from Mexico. You can open your account from anywhere in the world, online.
To call overseas from Guatemala (and all of Central America) you must dial ‘00’ followed by the country code, city code etc. There are very few Guatemalan international phone cards (although this may change in the future). The ones that are easy to find are the standard local cards you insert into the phone, but these cards are not recommended for international calls as they will run out very quickly! (E.g. a US$12 card will only give you a few minutes to most overseas numbers.)
Internet cafes offer international calls via the Internet. This is catching on throughout Guatemala and it should only cost you approx US 30c per minute.
The telephone network in Belize is often criticised for being ineffective but things are improving. Payphones and card phones are common in Belize City and some of the bigger towns. An international call to UK and Europe will cost approximately US$3 per minute; to the Americas, US$1.60 per minute; all other countries US$4 per minute.
One of the most common ways to explore Mexico’s cities is by Turibus or tram tour. The Turibus hop-on hop-off double decker bus takes you around the city with a commentary in every language from 9am - 9pm every day. Tickets can be bought on board and cost US$10 (1 day), US$14 (2 days), US$18 (3 days). The tram tours also take you around the cities, but with a live commentary (English-speaking guide in some cities). Tickets are also bought on board for approx. US$3-7 per tour.
In some places you will have the opportunity to take a day excursion. Tours vary in price, usually approx US$30-40 for full day which would include the transfer to/from the hotel and an English-speaking guide.
Optional activities in Mexico include:
Please note: Some of the above may be paid in US$ cash, but the majority should be paid in quetzales.
Visit 3 snorkel spots including Shark and Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve & Coral Gardens.
Visit the breeding and feeding area of the manatees (Sea Cows), a protected sea mammal. From there you go by boat to the deserted island of Goffs Caye where you anchor the boat and have time to swim, snorkel or just relax.
Includes the hiring of the boat with a guide, and all fishing tackle. The price includes up to 4 passengers.
This excursion takes you out to sea and goes to 3 contrasting dive sites. You must already have your dive licence and the excursion will only go on days when there are enough people to fill the boat. There are also other cheaper dive options on offer.
This is one of the most fascinating and adventurous things you can do on this leg of the tour. You will be taken by 4WD vehicle to the point where you must walk 45mins to the cave. You enter the cave by wading through the river, once inside you reach dry land and see the remains of Mayan ceremonial sites. This includes pottery and skeletons which you can walk right up to and which your guide will explain in full. The tour includes all equipment, lunch and guides. An unforgettable experience.
Visit the Thousand Foot Falls, the Rio On Pools, the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve and the Rio Frio Cave. A relaxing day out, with very little trekking involved.
Float on your tube down the river through caves. Some small rapids, but not difficult. A really fun day out!
Please note: All of these excursions include guides and transport. You may pay in US$/BZ$ cash, traveller cheques or Visa/Mastercard (credit cards are subject to a 5% fee).
The wet season throughout Central America starts around May/June and gradually finishes in September or October. The only place where rain is almost guaranteed is Rio Dulce, located in the middle of the rainforest. Here the rainy season sometimes continues until February. The temperatures in Central America are similar to other northern hemisphere countries, where it's warmer in summer (July/August) and cooler in winter (December/January). In the highlands, temperatures at night are quite cool (Antigua, Lake Atitlan and especially Quetzaltenango). Dec/Jan nights in the highlands can drop to freezing. Generally, the hottest time in Central America will be the months of April to May (before the rain comes!).
The following shows average daytime temperatures in degrees celcius:
B – Belize
G – Guatemala
M – Mexico
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