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Central America on a shoestring

Old running shoes are not ideal footwear for hiking an active volcano. I learned this the hard way a few years ago when I climbed Pacaya, one of three volcanoes surrounding the colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala. There was no mistaking the smell of burning rubber as the soles of my trainers melted almost clean away from the rest of my shoes, before I’d even reached one of the golden-orange rivers of lava.

I was on a six-week journey across Central America, travelling from Costa Rica to Mexico. My trip was inspired by a photograph of one of the Mayan temples at Tikal, which I’d seen in a newspaper while commuting to work one morning. I soon learned that in addition to its ancient Mayan ruins, Central America is blessed with stunning Pacific and Caribbean beaches, tropical jungles and forests, lakes surrounded by majestic volcanoes, cool coffee plantations and pretty colonial towns painted in pastel hues.

Antigua, Guatemala

Because I was on a limited budget, I travelled during low season when international flights were cheaper and tours more affordable. Another benefit was there were relatively few tourists to share the sights with; at Tikal, we saw more monkeys than humans.  Since the city was abandoned by the Maya civilization over 1,000 years ago, it has become overgrown by jungle and as we wandered virtually alone, ‘discovering’ temples and clambering atop the 72 metre-tall Temple IV to survey the view across the jungle’s canopy, we felt like true explorers.

But my desire to stick to a careful budget had a downside. I was unwilling to buy a new pair of shoes for my volcano climb, even though the soles of my trainers had begun to peel away a week earlier, as I’d hiked a dormant volcano in Nicaragua. I’d thought about buying one of the cheap pairs of trainers on sale at the local market, until we reached a larger town where I could get something longer-lasting. But I was on a shoestring budget, and the idea of spending $25 for something temporary seemed a waste. I had a better idea: a couple of safety pins, holding the soles to each shoe at the toe, would do the trick.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

As we climbed towards the summit of Pacaya, the volcanic black sand that we walked on turned to an almost lunar landscape of spiky, black rock. The ground beneath our feet became noticeably hotter; we could hear the crackle of the flowing fire and there was a whiff of sulphur in the air. Approaching the lava, I smelt burning rubber and knew immediately that the last of the adhesive that was holding soles to shoes had met its match. Cautiously I lifted one foot, then the other. Both soles flapped pathetically.

I had no choice but to stand still and let everyone else pass me. When my partner returned from photographing the lava he found me frozen, unsure what to do. Reaching into his rucksack, he pulled out a spare pair of shoes which he had brought with him "just in case". I leaned on him as I carefully pulled each running shoe off and gratefully slipped a replacement on. His shoes were enormous - four sizes too big for me - and I felt like a clown as I shuffled back down the volcano to the waiting minibus.

The very next day, I succumbed to common sense and went to the vast, colourful markets in nearby Chichicastenango to get a replacement for my melted shoes. And with my budget ripped up, I also treated myself to a beautiful hand-woven handbag.

Book by 30 November and you can save 15% off the ‘without flights’ price of selected trips in South & Central America, including the Best of Guatemala and Mexico, which visits Antigua, Tikal, Tulum and more. Just remember to pack sturdy shoes if you want to climb a volcano!

Travelling as a family? The new Caribbean Coast Family Adventure journeys from Antigua to Playa del Carmen and explores the incredible Mayan ruins and beautiful beaches of Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

 

From £1,110pp exc flights
Trip type: 
Family - Cultural
Adventure level: 
3. Moderate
Max group size: 
16
Minimum age: 
5

Caribbean Coast Family Adventure

Guatemala, Mexico | 11 days
Trip code: 
QVFX
Families only
Caribbean Sea
A perfect blend of Mayan adventure and relaxation on South America's Caribbean shores

Departs in:

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From £648pp exc flights
4
(average rating, based on 1 review)
Trip type: 
Wildlife
Adventure level: 
3. Moderate
Max group size: 
12

Best of Guatemala & Mexico

Guatemala, Mexico | 14 days
Trip code: 
QVSB
Tikal pyramids - Guatemala
Discover the vibrancy and diversity of Central America

Departs in:

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From £830pp exc flights
Trip type: 
Wildlife
Adventure level: 
2. Gentle
Max group size: 
12

Classic Costa Rica

Americas, Costa Rica | 16 days
Trip code: 
QVSR
Prolific birdlife
Discover amazing wildlife, rainforest, volcanoes and tropical beaches

Departs in:

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From £675pp exc flights
Trip type: 
Food
Adventure level: 
2. Gentle
Max group size: 
12

Real Food Adventure - Mexico

Americas, Mexico | 11 days
Trip code: 
QVZA
Fried Grasshopper
A culinary journey through Mexico sampling Oaxaca, Puebla and Mexico City

Departs in:

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