Central America - No Shortage of Beautiful Places, People and Cultures

Central America - No Shortage of Beautiful Places, People and Cultures

» Featured Columnists | By Mike Cooney | April 27, 2012 9:00 AM ET

As the saying goes, "Everything works out for the best," and our trek through Central America is a great example the adage always holds true.  The original plan was to sell our house for its 2005 appraised value, have lots of cash and begin our trek in Europe.  However, when the house did not sell and the Euro skyrocketed against the Dollar, we had to find a less expensive route.  Central and South America fit the criteria perfectly, and gave us the cultural immersion we were seeking.

As typical Americans, we had many preconceived notions about our destinations.  Some were affirmed, while many others were dispelled.  For example, we had not expected many of the countries or locations to be eco-friendly or take any serious steps toward reducing global warming.  To the contrary, everywhere we stayed in Central America used energy-saver compact fluorescent bulbs versus incandescent.  Several of the hotels where we stayed were almost entirely environmentally self-contained, and used a variety of natural alternatives including solar dryers, gravity-feed showers, recycled construction materials and water features stocked with fish to reduce the mosquito population.

One issue most countries and communities did not handle well was disposing of plastics.  Plastic bottles were ubiquitous; mostly because bottled water is the only way to ensure safe drinking water.  They littered the roads and were scattered around huts and houses.  Many times their solution for getting rid of the waste was to burn it, which gave off a noxious odor that permeated the entire village.

While traveling almost exclusively by bus throughout Central America, we found it to be low cost and reasonably efficient, albeit a bit crowded on most occasions and not very punctual.   However, time is not as highly valued a commodity as in most western countries.  The people are much more laid back and not as uptight as their Estatos Unidos (United States) neighbors.  In the U.S. we sometimes view most people in Central America as lazy or less driven than we are.  In reality, we learned they simply have a different value system.  While our culture places great emphasis on success and making money, they put a greater emphasis on family and earning what is needed to sustain themselves and their kin.  As a result, their simpler lifestyle leads to a more content society with far fewer stress-related illnesses.

Our visit to the remote village of Santa Maria Tzeja offered additional proof that success and happiness do not correlate to big houses, fancy cars or closets full of clothes.  We visited the local school, and even helped some of the kids with their English - in most cases their English was better than our Spanish.  Our host acted as interrupter during a question and answer session.  When asked where they would most like to live, the universal answer was Santa Maria Tzeja.  Some students dreamed of one day attending the University in Guatemala City, but planned to return to help their people and village.  By U.S. standards the kids in the village were deprived - no mall, no video games, no cell phone and only an occasional use of computers when the generator was on for a few hours each day.  However, just the opposite was true.  They were happy, healthy and enjoyed hanging with their friends; just not at a mega square-foot air-conditioned building with more stuff than they wanted or needed.

Transitioning from tourists to travelers was easier than we expected.  In the beginning we ate at local restaurants; however, we quickly learned that was cost prohibitive for a family of five.  The most cost-efficient solution was buying food and fresh fruit from the local markets.  We prepared breakfast and dinner in the hotel room, and lunch was eaten mostly on the go while touring a local attraction or riding the bus to our next destination.  Self-serve Laundromats were uncommon so we washed our clothes in the shower or sink and hung them to dry overnight.  Throughout Central America, Internet access was cheap and plentiful.  Most hotels and hostels provided it at no charge.  If it did not, there was an Internet cafe nearly every 20-feet along the street - regardless of the size of the town.

Learning and experiencing the various cultures was one of the highlights of our journey.  Although our Spanish was rudimentary at best, we were able to converse with almost everyone.  A smile was universal and combined with a sincere attempt to speak the language; we successfully negotiated our way through every situation.  Being respectful of customs and cultures was paramount.  For example, it is very important to ask permission to take someone's picture in Guatemala, especially Mayan women and children.  Taking pictures without their consent is highly offensive.  Most agreed to be photographed, while others politely declined.  I would always show them their pictures on my digital camera afterward, which resulted in big grins and occasionally a request to take more.

We visited many amazing places throughout our Central America odyssey.  The following are just a few of the locations we recommend to any traveler or tourist: Mexico - Ek Balam and Tulum; Guatemala - Flores, Tikal and Antigua; Nicaragua - Surf Sanctuary; Costa Rica - Manuel Antonio and Cahuita.  Depending on how adventuresome you are there are a variety of ways of getting to each one.  The most rewarding will be the option that gives you the greatest opportunity to interact with as many locals as possible.  It certainly was for us.

The day we left Costa Rica for Peru was historical, and not for a good reason.  I recall standing in the airport in San Jose waiting for our flight, and saw all of the news channels were covering the 2008 financial meltdown.  We received many emails from people saying they wished they were with us and could escape the unsavory realities back home.  Many found some escapism by living vicariously through out travels.  We were glad to be of service.

Peru was the next stop on our journey.  It was a land of contrasts between modern and ancient times.  Next week's article will highlight many of the contracts.

And remember . . . "Travel is the ultimate education."

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