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Alcion: Central America Discovery

22 days from £2007pp

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Alcion: Central America Discovery:
Trip Dossier

Jumping off from the Panama Canal, this really is a journey of discovery, revealing the highlights of 6 countries crammed into the isthmus linking Mexico with South America. Crowned by a chain of volcanoes, dotted with twinkling lakes, defined with coral beaches, blessed with a balmy mix of tropical and temperate climate, and punctuated with lively indigenous villages, Mayan ruins and impressive colonial towns, these lands offer a breathtaking experience for visitors.

The area is especially rich in its biodiversity, and extensive national parks have been established in the sultry rainforests, along the sparkling coastline and across the rocky mountain slopes, where profuse wildlife can be observed in its natural habitat. Explore some delightful towns, hike, ride, raft, shop, snorkel; there is something here to indulge every enthusiasm.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

UK clients depart on Saturday, arriving Panama City the same evening.

Day 1

Overnight in the capital.

Day 2

Explore Panama City and the Canal.

Day 3

Head west to the highland town of Boquete.

Day 4

Travel to Colón Island.

Days 5-6

Bocas del Toro

Day 7

Cross into Costa Rica and continue to the capital, San José.

Day 8

Explore the city independently or go white-water rafting.

Days 9-10

Visit the Monteverde cloud forest.

Day 11

Cross into Nicaragua.

Day 12

Ometepe Island.

Day 13

By boat and road to colonial Granada.

Day 14

Visit Masaya National Park

Day 15

Travel to the former political hothouse of León.

Days 16-17

Bus through Honduras and into El Salvador to historic Suchitoto.

Days 18-19

Visit the Mayan ruins of Copán.

Days 20-21

Cross into Guatemala and continue to colonial Antigua.

Day 22

Depart for international flight or extension.

UK clients arrive home the following day, Sunday

Detailed itinerary

UK clients depart on Saturday, arriving Panama City the same evening.
 

Day 1

Overnight in the capital.
 

Those passengers arriving on an international flight will be met at the airport by the tour leader or a local representative and escorted to the group hotel.

Day 2

Explore Panama City and the Canal.
 
Your guided tour explores Central America's most cosmopolitan and wealthy capital, built along picturesque Panama Bay. The contemporary Hong Kong-style skyscrapers of the Paitilla district dominate the skyline at one end, whilst at the other lies the decaying, peeling colonial heart of San Felipe. After discovering the narrow streets, delightful plazas and overhanging balconies of this area you continue to Panama Viejo. This is the site of the city's original settlement until it was ransacked by the infamous British buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1671.

The excursion proceeds out of town to the Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks. As the excellent visitors' centre elaborates, this extraordinary feat of engineering was started by the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1880, following his success with the recently inaugurated Suez Canal, but was only completed in 1914 after the Americans assumed ownership. To the delight of most Panamanians, the canal was returned to Panama on 31 December 1999.

Panama City

Day 3

Head west to the highland town of Boquete.
 

Board a bus for the journey across western Panama, along the Pan-American Highway (approx. 7 hours) to the city of David where you switch to an old American school bus, known fondly as a ‘chicken bus’, for the last stretch. The ascent to Boquete is the most scenic section of the trip as the road winds up through the mist and into the cloud forest. In the foothills of the Barú volcano the town of Boquete, with its cool, clean air, comes as a pleasant respite from the heat and frenzy of Panama City. This settlement in the heart of Panama's coffee- growing country is your base for explorations into the surrounding area.

Day 4

Travel to Colón Island.
 
In the afternoon a bus heading north takes you across the continental divide to the Caribbean coast. This beautiful road winds its way through forested mountain scenery and descends to Almirante, a railhead for the export of bananas grown in the humid lowlands. From here, board a ferry across the Caribbean to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, 24 km offshore (30mins in calm weather).

The islands of Bocas del Toro remain isolated from mainstream tourism, but it won't be long before this densely wooded region of secluded bays, coral reefs and Guaymi Indian settlements is firmly on the map. There are 6 large islands and countless smaller ones. Water taxis ferry local people and tourists between the small communities that dot the archipelago. Only the largest island, Isla Colón, has any roads and there is one major settlement here, Bocas: spend 3 nights here.

Bocas is an unkempt but charming little seaside town. Even though there is no beach the burgeoning number of lodgings, simple seafood restaurants and little bars, make Bocas a great place to relax. Evenings are balmy and generally low key, with activity restricted to the huddle of welcoming little watering holes along the shore. The archipelago also supports very traditional communities of Guaymi Indian fishermen who live in wooden houses suspended above the water on stilts. They travel solely by canoe, relying on paddle-power to get around.

Days 5-6

Bocas del Toro
 

Explore the islands and revel in the laid-back Caribbean atmosphere. One optional day trip is to the Bastimentos National Marine Park. Spend the day on the beautiful white sand beaches and delve into the jungle, rich with wildlife, which covers Bastimentos Island. Maybe take the plunge and snorkel around one of the spellbinding coral atolls. (Snorkels can be hired in Bocas.) Alternatively, adopt your own tropical island for the day. Take a short boat trip out to a deserted islet, pursued by playful dolphins, and lounge beneath the palms, or cruise among dense mangroves, spotting marine life beneath the clear surface of the Caribbean.

For 2017 we will just have 2 nights in Bocas del Toro. An extra night will instead be had on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Bocas del Toro

Day 7

Cross into Costa Rica and continue to the capital, San José.
 
Back on the mainland, a short, scenic road journey through wooded countryside brings you to the Costa Rican border. An anomaly in Central America, Costa Rica has long been a haven of stability; there's a democratic government, and they feel no need for a national army.

The journey to San José may involve a change of bus along the way; such is the unpredictability of Central American transport. Along the dirt road from Sixaola to Bribri vast tropical plantations stretch on either side as far as the eye can see. After an hour the road returns to the Caribbean coast, and the journey continues for another couple of hours along the picturesque, palm-lined highway to Limón.

Costa Rica's Creole Caribbean coastline is culturally a world apart from the rest of the mostly Hispanic republic. From Limón, you head inland toward the capital and the road begins a spectacular, 3 hour ascent into the highlands of the Meseta Central. This is one of the most beautiful routes in the country. The last hour of the journey, daylight permitting, has extensive views over the cloud forests of the Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Day 8

Explore the city independently or go white-water rafting.
 
At leisure in San José to relax and explore. It's a busy, lively city, and there's plenty to keep you occupied, including visits to the excellent gold and jade museums.

Consider an optional excursion to Poás National Park, and make the steep, dusty ascent to the sulphurous, bubbling crater of the eponymous volcano, with a diameter of 1.5 km. Low cloud and wispy smoke from the crater make it a breathless, mystical experience. Alternatively, enjoy the extraordinary natural beauty of Braulio Carrillo, a national park of virgin rainforest and foaming waterfalls, alive with the sounds of the jungle's fauna. There’s also the option of white water rafting on the Reventazón or Pacuare Rivers (both grade 3/4 rapids) Aboard an inflatable raft you power down the rapids of rivers which forge their way through jungle-clad canyons. Rainforest-capped, vertiginous rock walls rise up beside you as you negotiate the current (no previous experience is necessary, but you do need to be able to swim).

Days 9-10

Visit the Monteverde cloud forest.
 

Board a private bus for the 4 hour journey to Santa Elena on the edge of the Monteverde National Park. This is a magical sanctuary of verdant, dripping cloud forest high up in the Costa Rican mountains. Monteverde is home to the elusive Resplendent quetzal, an exotic bird with an emerald green body and rust-red breast which is an iconic symbol of Central America. You have a day here to explore this exquisite region. There is a guided tour of the Cloud Forest or Cuircancha Reserve depending on where the wildlife is best at the time. There are optional excursions to a nearby butterfly farm or, for those in search of a bit of action, there is an optional canopy tour over the cloud forest.

Jungle

Day 11

Cross into Nicaragua.
 
You continue towards Nicaragua, the journey starting with a steep but spectacular descent to the coastal plains, and, weather permitting, you may catch a glimpse of the imposing Arenal volcano. Be prepared for a dramatic rise in temperature. The bus passes through Liberia, a tranquil provincial capital in northern Costa Rica. After two hours you arrive at the border with Nicaragua.

Tourism is still in its infancy and the infrastructure is not yet well organised enough to handle many tourists. The difference between the two countries is striking. The stability, tranquility and relative affluence of Costa Rica is in marked contrast to the position Nicaragua finds itself in: it has long been plagued by economic and political uncertainty. The people are some of the poorest in Latin America and have suffered much in the past fifty years (through dictatorship, revolution, civil war, hurricanes, and earthquakes). Nowadays however there is a democratic government and development of the tourist sector is proceeding apace. Many visitors find Nicaragua - its welcoming people and unspoilt scenery - a pleasant surprise.

The journey continues to San Jorge on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. From San Jorge you catch the next available boat across the lake to the twin volcanoes of Ometepe Island.

Day 12

Ometepe Island.
 
Ometepe is a serene and as yet totally undeveloped island. Even in comparison with the rest of Nicaragua, the infrastructure is basic with only rough roads and simple accommodation. Much of the island is still covered in primary rainforest and home to many different species of monkeys and parrots. It is also famous for its pre-Columbian stone statues and petroglyphs, carved by the Chorotega indians centuries ago.

There are opportunities for scenic and challenging walks on the slopes of the island's imposing volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas) which dwarf the surrounding landscapes. You can visit one of many coffee cooperatives on the island. Horse-riding and fishing are also options here. Due to heavy rainfall in recent years there is little beach on the island, however, there are many spots to sit back and enjoy the views across the lake and possibly take a dip in its warm waters.

Ometepe

Day 13

By boat and road to colonial Granada.
 

Head back to the mainland and on to the evocative Spanish colonial town of Granada. This charming city was once one of the wealthiest in Latin America, a staging post for the shipment of looted gold. The architecture reflects this one-time prosperity: huge wooden doors open on to shady patios in once-aristocratic houses. Efforts are now being made to restore the city's faded splendour and newly promoted tourism has been a trigger for the establishment of many new bars and restaurants. You will get a feel for this is fascinating city, on an informal walking tour with your tour leader.

Granada

Day 14

Visit Masaya National Park
 

Enjoy a trip to Masaya National Park, visiting volcanic crater lakes, the old hilltop fort of Coyotepe, the impressive and still active Masaya volcano and the town of Masaya itself. The handicraft market in Masaya is well known for its intricate handmade hammocks.

Day 15

Travel to the former political hothouse of León.
 

You continue northwards across dusty volcanic plains, passing the Momotombo volcano, to León, another of Nicaragua's restored colonial cities. Here time is best spent wandering through the cobbled streets and around the shady plazas and ornate churches composing the town centre. Even during colonial times León had a strong liberal tradition (as opposed to the conservatism that characterised Granada), and it has remained the country's radical and intellectual centre, with a thriving university population. The Sandinista heritage is still visible today with a few large murals and revolutionary graffiti plastered over some of the town's white adobe walls.

Days 16-17

Bus through Honduras and into El Salvador to historic Suchitoto.
 
An early morning bus takes you to the border with Honduras, where cutting across the hot coastal plain of Choluteca, you soon cross another border and enter El Salvador. El Salvador is Central America’s least visited country and another with a turbulent past, where throughout the 1980s a chaotic civil war was fought in the mountains and fields that dominate the landscape. El Salvador is once again finding its feet, and you’re soon whizzing through the country to the untouched colonial city of Suchitoto.

The atmospheric town of Suchitoto is located just 47km north of the dynamic capital San Salvador, but it is a complete contrast in all other senses. Virtually untouched by tourists it is easily navigated on foot, as you pass low level colonial buildings along cobblestoned streets, where craftsmen display their goods. From the centre, where a beautiful white washed church dominates the plaza, the town spreads down to the shores of Lake Suchitlán, where restaurants offer wonderful views of the lake and the nearby forest reserves. The surrounding area is a renowned bird migration zone, and you can spend a day walking along the trails of the forests that surround the town or take a leisurely boat trip out onto the lake. Alternatively just spend your time recharging your batteries.

Days 18-19

Visit the Mayan ruins of Copán.
 
Rural Honduras beckons. It’s a 6-7 hour journey to Copán, which, along with Tikal, is the most impressive of the Mayan ruined complexes. This region of western Honduras is a remote province of velvety green hills and rushing rivers, dotted with whitewashed colonial villages where the horse is still the main form of transport. Its genial atmosphere comes in part from its relative prosperity gained through trade in coffee and tobacco, and through the tourism generated by the Mayan ruins.

Spend the night at Copán Ruinas, an attractive, cobbled village close to the site. There is time for a short hill walk, a visit to some nearby hot springs, but the main attractions, of course, are the archaeological site and the superb new museum, both of which you visit the following day.

Copán is unique, not so much for its impressive temples, but for the exquisite stelae and their artwork: huge, intricately carved statues depict the complicated history of the area and its great rulers. One of the highlights is the imperious hieroglyphic stairway; each of its 63 steps is sculpted with hundreds of different glyphs that describe important events in Copán's rise to prominence among the elite city states of the Mayan world. Copán flourished between 250 and 900 AD, at which point its prosperity mysteriously declined. Within about 100 years, this once-sophisticated city had been reclaimed by the jungle, only to be discovered by the Spanish conquistadors in the late 16th century, and subsequently excavated 300 years later.

Copan

Days 20-21

Cross into Guatemala and continue to colonial Antigua.
 
The Guatemalan border is a 10 minute drive from Copán. From here you continue to Antigua. There is a marked change in temperature as you climb into the highlands. 'Land of eternal spring' is an accolade adopted by Guatemalans to describe the climate of this western highland region, where the heat is benign and nights are pleasantly cool.

Guatemala is unique in Central America; a mysterious, timeless country in which half of the population is Mayan indian. Many, especially women in the highlands, still dress in their traditional hand-woven clothing, similar to that which was worn over a thousand years ago. Antigua is a colonial city of cobbled streets, overhanging tiled roofs and a beautiful, leafy central plaza. There is an abundance of huge, ruined churches, convents and monasteries, testament to a time when Antigua was the country's capital and its main religious centre. It seems that every doorway opens onto a leafy tiled courtyard.

A dramatic backdrop of smouldering volcanoes reminds you how the city was destroyed by an eruption in 1773. Antigua is a welcoming place to relax and unwind, do some shopping and enjoy some excellent food, or just to wander around the ruined convents and enjoy the flowers in their beautifully tended gardens.

Antigua

Day 22

Depart for international flight or extension.
 

UK clients arrive home the following day, Sunday
 

Essential information

Transport

10 road journeys (longest 8 hours) most with stops.

Accommodation

On our Discovery Journeys the standard of accommodation varies. We aim to keep the price competitive while ensuring the basic comforts. Hotels / guesthouses are comfortable and attractive in most places but elsewhere are purely functional. All properties are well maintained and all will have a private bathroom with hot water. (If you prefer greater comfort see the Classic Journeys or Private Journeys on their respective pages on our website).

Examples of hotels include:

• Panama City: Hampton Inn
• Boquete: Casa de la Abuela
• Bocas del Toro: Bocas Inn
• San Jose: Hotel Vesuvius
• Monteverde: Monteverde Lodge
• Ometepe Island: Villa Paraiso
• Granada: Hotel Con Corazon
• León: Hotel Austria
• Suchitoto: Posada Suchitlan
• Copán Ruinas: Casa de la Cafe
• Antigua: Casa de las Fuentes

These hotels are subject to change and are dependent on availability. Address and contact details will be sent out with your final documents.

Meals

Breakfast daily.

Included Excursions

• Panama City: tour of old town and the Panama Canal
• Monteverde: guided tour of one of the nature reserves
• Granada: Masaya Volcano National Park and market
• Granada: walking tour of Granada
• Copán: guided tour of the ruins
• Antigua: guided tour

Summary of nights

2016 - 22 days, 21 nights: Panama City 2; Boquete 1; Bocas del Toro 3, San José 2; Monteverde 2; Ometepe 2; Granada 2; León 1; Suchitoto 2; Copán 2; Antigua 2.

2017 - 22 days, 21 nights: Panama City 2; Boquete 1; Bocas del Toro 2, San José 2; Monteverde 2; Ometepe 3; Granada 2; León 1; Suchitoto 2; Copán 2; Antigua 2.

Included in the journey price

• Services of Journey Latin America tour leader
• All land transport
• Accommodation as specified
• Meals as specified
• Excursions as specified

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and insurance
• Meals other than specified
• Optional excursions
• Border entrance and exit fees

Optional Excursions

There is a range of optional excursions available throughout this holiday which can be booked locally through your tour leader once you are in Latin America. Not all excursions available will suit everybody, whilst others only operate within certain seasons, with minimum numbers or may not be included due to time constraints.

A budget of around $280USD should cover participation in some of the following options, but prices can fluctuate depending on the size of the party and so cannot be provided accurately until travel commences. The list below is only a guideline, so please enquire with your tour leader for any further areas of interest:

• Boquete: tour of a coffee plantation, walk to the Bajo Mano waterfall
• Bocas del Toro: boat trips out to islands to snorkel, dolphin spot or swim off the white sand beaches
• San Jose: city tour
• San José: rafting on River Pacuare
• San José: Irazú volcano and Cartago Cathedral
• San José: excursion to Poás volcano
• Monteverde: zip lining, canopy walking or horseriding
• Monteverde: night tour of the cloud forest
• Ometepe Island: volcano climbing
• Ometepe Island: island tour or explore by bicycle, horse, quad bike or motorcycle
• Granada: sunset boat ride out among the Isletas
• Granada: tour the ceramics museum
• León: visit the Museo de la Revolución, Museum of legends and traditions and Museo de Arte Ortiz Gurdian
• Suchitoto: sunset boat rides on Lake Sucitlán
• Suchitoto: cultural village tour or birdwatching by kayak
• Antigua: climb Pacaya volcano
• Antigua: visit surrounding indigenous villages

Travelling alone

There is no extra cost for single travellers who are willing to share a room. You will be accommodated with a same-sex member of the group who is usually also travelling solo. For single travellers who wish to be sure of having their own room there are a limited number of single rooms available, which carry a surcharge.

Currency

The unit of currency in Panama is the US dollar (locals refer to it as the Balboa). In Costa Rica it is the colón, in Nicaragua the córdoba, in El Salvador the US dollar, in Honduras the lempira and in Guatemala the quetzal. US dollars are widely accepted in all countries where it is the not the currency, but should not be relied upon.

Budget

A budget of around $45USD per day should cover the cost of meals, drinks and the odd souvenir, although prices do vary greatly from country to country.

How to take it

Cash machines are available in all major cities and towns, and so taking a debit or credit card with a PIN is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in most shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds.

We recommend that you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency. These bills should be in good condition as soiled or torn bills may be refused and smaller denominations will be easier to change. Travellers’ cheques are increasingly less favoured by visitors who find them awkward to change as well as offering a poor rate of exchange. If you do decide to carry some with you they should be US dollar cheques only (American Express are by far the most accepted brand).

Tipping

Tips are normally welcomed and expected. Local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. We recommend approximately $3USD (or local equivalent) per person per day for each of guides and drivers, depending on the size of the group.

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

If you would like to show your appreciation to your Journey Latin America tour leader, who you may feel has exceeded your expectations, a discretionary gratuity would be gratefully received. As a guideline we recommend an amount of between $4 and $6USD per person, per day. You are obviously free to tip more or less as you see fit, depending on your perception of service quality.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page. 

Airport taxes

International departure tax is included on the ticket but a small airport security tax (approx. $3USD) is payable locally either in local currency or US dollars. Border entrance and exit fees come to approximately $30USD and must be paid locally.

Journey Grade

There are some very early mornings and long days of travel (all of which have comfort or place-of-interest stops). All walks are optional, and you can discuss with your tour leader which are suitable for you. The ascent of the Poás and Maderas Volcanoes is steep and at high altitude, while other hikes are gentler. White water rafting and horse riding options require no previous experience, although for the former you do need to be able to swim.

Climate

The trip covers six countries with climates ranging from tropical lowland to more temperate zones in the highlands. Travellers on May to October journeys should encounter high temperatures (around 30°C) and high humidity in the lowlands. There may be rainfall in most countries, as the 'official' rainy season is May to October. December to April departures will still encounter high temperatures in the lowlands, but cool evenings in Boquete, San José, Monteverde and the Guatemalan highlands, with temperatures falling to around 10°C. Rainfall and humidity will be lower at this time.

Clothing and special equipment

Bring plenty of light cotton clothing and good, comfortable walking shoes. Some warm items and good waterproof jackets are also necessary for all departures. We suggest that you plan to 'layer' your clothing. It is easier and more efficient to put on a couple of light layers than one thick jumper. Sandals are a good informal option for evenings. Protection against the sun (sun protection cream, hat) and mosquito repellent are essential and you should bring swimwear. A backpack or soft holdall is the most sensible and comfortable way to carry your belongings. Light sleepers should pack ear plugs. Owing to the number of road journeys on this trip, we recommend passengers pack as lightly as possible. There are plenty of opportunities to do laundry on the trip, and your tour leader will be able to advise about the best places to do this.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. Good equipment is very important and hard to come by in Central America.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following: typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. You should consult your GP for specific requirements, including advice on malaria tablets. It is essential (for crossing borders) that you bring an official yellow fever vaccination certificate, which you should carry with the rest of your travel documents. Please take precautions against biting mosquitoes as cases of dengue fever have recently been reported in several areas of Guatemala. 

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Cases of Zika virus have been reported in parts of Latin America. If you’re pregnant, or planning to be, you should follow the advice of the  National Travel Health Network and Centre

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports should be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. Other nationalities should enquire  or check with the relevant consulate.

ESTA - if flying to the US, or via the US you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online.

This costs $14USD per person. This must be done by you personally.

Passports must also be machine-readable (MRP). Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

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