CITY GUIDE: San Ignacio, Belize

When I first announced my plans to head to Belize after several months in Guatemala, one of the first questions I got was whether I’d be able to have any “real” experiences in a county that elicits images of swaying palm trees, immaculate beaches and touristic experiences.

But although Belize — conveniently the only country in Central America whose official language is English — has a long coastline, one of the world’s best barrier reefs and vast supplies of clear, cerulean waters, it’s identity stretches far beyond the dispatches most often received.

My first glimpse of that reality came in San Ignacio — a little river town on the Western border that will live on as one of my favorite locales in my Central American travels thus far. Here, you’re only about 70 miles from the coast as the crow flies, but you’ll feel much farther away, surrounded by dirt roads, Mayan ruins — even within city limits — and a variety of cultural experiences. Walk down the main street and it will be immediately obvious that you’ve left Guatemala, even though you’re just over the border. Expect to smell curry, spice; you stop seeing much corn; that carbohydrate sustenance replaced plentifully by rice and beans. In addition to the expected Mayan and Hispanic influences, you’ll find a big population of Chinese, Asian Indians, Mennonite Germans and of course many of Creole backgrounds that lend great flavor and distinction to the food. You can hardly soak it up in a week, but I tried.

CITY GUIDE: 8 places to go in Guatemala City

At the moment, Guatemala City isn’t oft spoken of as a tourist destination — almost entirely due to its reputation of widespread, violent crime.

But as it boasts the country’s largest airport and is positioned as the hub of travel from the U.S., you just might find yourself there anyway, if you’re looking to explore the other bounty Guatemala has to offer.

If that’s the case, don’t panic: there are areas within the city that can be accessed without great risk if you exercise basic precautions and don’t wander off the beaten path. And what you find there — cobblestone streets, vine-draped facades and hip bars in the super trendy Zona 4 and vibrant markets and parks in the culture-filled Zona 1 core — just might inspire you to stay a day or two longer. It did, me.

CITY GUIDE: Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua: if you’re not well-versed in Central America, perhaps the name instantly takes you to the Caribbean rather than the Guatemalan highlands town where here crumbling ruins, 360-degree mountain views and new-wave coffee shops meet.

But while Antigua Guatemala — meaning “old Guatemala” — might not be on many bucket lists, the beautifully preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, labyrinth of stunning courtyards and wine bars and bounty of hilltop treasures have a way of making one wonder why it isn’t.

The area, in great part, is famous for its access to the surrounding volcanoes, and overnight hikes are available for reasonable fees. Choose to stay in the city, however, and travelers will be treated to vibrant markets, a diverse food and drinking scene and compelling art in a town adorned by its picturesque signature arch, elaborate churches and knobby cobblestone streets. 

What to see, eat and do when you go:

Falling in love with Lago de Atitlán in Panajachel

A handful of tins held still-fresh flowers against the little makeshift houses. Some of the colorful, stacked mausoleums boasted new, glossy coats of paint. But now, as the sun dipped lower, the graveyard was empty except for swallows passing overhead, called by the approaching evening to the watery grasses beyond.

I walked past the dusty memorials, an above-ground maze set against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountain range, and down the sloping path that bordered it. 

Then there she was: the tremendous Lake Atitlán, always there but ever in a different state — often peaceful, often vengeful and sometimes, at sunset, impassioned.

I was on the edges of Panajachel, one of the many towns lucky enough to perch along Lago de Atitlán, a translucent crater lake surrounded by hills and volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands. 

The shores of the town, now a center for tourist trade, offer rows of lakeside restaurants, built predominantly for white faces and heavier wallets, jutting out over the cerulean water. A short boat ride away, magnificent castle-like resorts built into the cliffs are stocked with every luxury.

But the real beauty of Pana, as its called locally, is that the best its star attraction is free to anyone craving it — the wealthy tourist, the poorer local, even the dead, who are graciously permitted to continue in the afterlife atop the dirt, in sight of perhaps one of the world’s most enchanting views.

Early morning explosions, culture, diversity in San Cristobal de Las Casas

The first blast rattled the contents of my bedside table, jolting me from sleep.

I pushed aside the covers and sat straight up. 

Then there was another — BOOM.

The sound reverberated throughout the valley that snuggled San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque Mexican mountain town near the Guatemala border, echoing off the dark hills. 

Fireworks? I looked at my phone. It was 4 a.m. No way. 

The blasts kept coming, doing their best impression of bombs dropped from the sky. Were we under attack? (By… someone? I wasn’t aware we were in threat of war, here.)

CITY GUIDE: Huatulco’s secret beaches, fresh fish

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Enrique came upstairs to where I was drinking coffee, his eyes dancing.

“Venga conmigo,” he said, come with me. “I have something to show you.”

Downstairs, on the back patio of my Airbnb host’s cocina, was a white styrofoam cooler, overflowing with bright pink fish, their sleek tails and scales gleaming in the morning sun.

CITY GUIDE: Oaxaca’s vibrant markets

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Travel around Mexico long enough and you’ll find that big, vibrant markets are one of the country’s calling cards. 

Markets, here, are part of daily life, operating as shopping destinations, social hangouts and community support systems. Walk through a given market and you’re likely to see families eating, watching sports on TV, playing cards, caring for their children, cooking and sewing.

But in Oaxaca de Juárez, especially, this wealth is elevated to another level, thanks to its enormous bounty of wares. 

The city, a quaint, walkable town with just 300,000 residents, is known for its craftsmanship — wood and leather goods, pottery and textiles among them — and its art. It is the Mecca of mezcal. And the food that originates here, from sweet black mole to tlayudas to fried grasshoppers, is unique, varied and flavorful.

As a result, sprawling markets seemingly wait around every corner, particularly in the south end of town. And all of them are just a little bit different. 

Here are 7 markets to know before you go: