We LOVE Latin America. The people and its culture, each country so distinct and unique, yet still maintaining a sense of unity throughout the region. When the Spanish sought to capture the region for its abundance of resources, beautiful lands, and strong, innovative people, I’m not sure they realized how much more powerfully they’d flourish.
Having rebuilt a sense of identity and established impactful cultures of their own, each country and island in Latin America provides an undeniable fusion of native roots and colonial rule. The diversity of its people, foods, spices, music, dance, lingo, and languages are all threaded together by a Spanish inquisition, leaving much to be learned and explored on your 2020 Bucket List.
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Historical and Cultural Fusion
Spanning across Latin America are various indigenous populations. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador all stem from Mayan roots–an advanced civilization that specialized in agriculture, pottery, writing, astronomy, mathematics, and architecture. Various Mayan languages are still spoken today among almost 5 million Mexicans, most of whom are bilingual Spanish. Great Mayan stone cities and monuments are still standing today fascinating explorers and scholars alike. Some of their most astonishing works were temples dedicated to their most cherished deities. Most were built in a step-pyramid shape and elaborately decorated. The World Wonder of them is named Chichen Itza, found in the southern Yucatan region of Mexico. The Tikal National Park in Guatemala also houses a massive temple only found after exploring through the rainforest, and the ancient Mayan Ruins of Copan, can be found on your adventures through Honduras.
The famous Inca Empire could be found further South in the bordering parts of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. At the peak of its existence, The Inca Empire would be the largest nation on Earth, having colonized smaller independent states in the region. They were known for their advanced agricultural techniques, complex, interconnected roads, and an unwritten language. Today, the Quechua language is still recognized as an official language, and preserved stone cities can be discovered throughout. One site many visitors struggle to comprehend is Moray–found a short distance from the Inca’s epicenter, Cusco, Peru. Moray is made up of several circular depressions, thought to be used experimentally by the Incas. Each tier is a different temperature which would have helped them to farm a variety of foods. Not much further you’ll find one of the Seven World Wonders–Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel situated on a mountain ridge.
By 2010, an estimated 45 million indigenous people lived in Latin America–over 8% of the entire population. But the indigenous Mayan and Inca people only make up a fraction of that number. Many other lesser-known tribes still thrive in these countries today. For example, the Bri Bri people of Costa Rica are still found in the rural mountains, maintaining their indigenous traditions, customs, and language. Some others include the Miskito people, Mapuche people, and the Koalla people, just to name a very few.
Latin America encompasses a very vast and diverse area of the planet. From the Andean mountainous region to the Amazon rainforests, up to the forests and volcanoes of Central America, and the tropical lifestyles of the Caribbean, there’s a landscape and climate for everyone.
The Andes mountains stretch from the north of Chile into Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Southern Colombia. The highest peak reaches over 6,000 feet above sea-level, and it’s normal to find snow-capped mountains. Its altitude and cold, dry, climate make it difficult to survive, though many indigenous peoples have been living in this specific region for hundreds of years in very humble circumstances. They are supported by the farming of llamas and guinea pigs, and maintain their strength by cultivating hearty crops such as quinoa, potatoes, and peanuts.
The Amazon covers much of the center of South America, and is the world’s biggest, and most significant rainforest in the world, acting much like the lungs of our planet. As expected, the climate remains hot and humid making it an ideal home for lush forests and a variety of exotic wildlife.
Central America and Mexico tend to have much warmer climates, except in the mountainous regions where the cooler temperatures are normal. Existing on a rainy and dry season, the countries in this area house a significant amount of rainforests, including the rarer cloud forests found in Panama and Costa Rica. Here you can find thriving and diverse wildlife and a number of active and dormant volcanoes.
The Caribbean region is composed of the Eastern side of Central America, and the independent, Spanish speaking islands. This paradise draws large groups of tourists to the sandy beaches and beautiful corals. The weather is hot and sunny year-round.
Adventures and Exploration
With such rich histories, cultures, and land diversity, you can be sure to find some exciting adventures in 2020. Here are a few to help you on your travels in the new year:
Tikal National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is always a bucket list must. Tikal National Park houses a great Mayan pyramid in the midst of the dense rainforest of Northern Guatemala. It’s the tallest pre-Colombian structure in the Americas, and unlike Chichen Itza, this pyramid can be climbed by visitors.
Pacaya is one of Guatemala’s youngest volcanoes and it remains active to this day. But don’t let the activity scare you. Many hikers summit the volcano and even stop to make delicious s’mores on the way up. Through the cracks, you can witness the lava below and its heat is strong enough to melt your marshmallow. After the rough trek, you’ll want some time to unwind, so head to the natural hot springs to soak.
The capital city is the one that keeps the beat of the country’s heart. It’s one of the most populous cities in Central America and provides great insight into the daily life of students and professionals in Guatemala. You can learn about the history and culture of the country in the many museums and art galleries, the booming restaurant scene, and the Parque Central. You won’t be able to experience the true essence of Guatemala anywhere else.
After a steep hike through more untouched, Guatemalan jungle in Semuc Champey, you will come across a natural water park of limestone formed pools. The stepped formation was created by the Cahabòn River, which flows under and over the limestone, creating dreamy blue-green pools and waterfalls.
Hailed as the deepest lake in Central America, Lake Atitlan is also the most beautiful. It sits below towering volcanoes, and creates unity among the many villages it supports. It’s a wonderful natural escape, and allows you the opportunity to explore experience Mayan culture in a unique setting.
Accounting for only .03% of the Earth’s surface, Costa Rica maintains almost 6% of its wildlife making it one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. It’s no surprise many tourists find themselves living among Howler monkeys and the White-headed Capuchin during their stay. Costa Rica is also home to a hummingbird garden, butterfly garden, jaguar reserve, and sloth sanctuary. There’s no limit to the amount of wildlife you’ll be exposed to here.
Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park is filled with diverse wildlife, so nature lovers should take note. It is the only location in the country where you can witness all four of the native monkeys – the squirrel monkey, the spider monkey, the white-faced capuchin, and the howler monkeys. You’ll also come across the well-known sloths and sea turtles. Big cats like jaguars and pumas also call this rainforest home, though you’re less likely to encounter these nocturnal creatures.
Manuel Antonio National Park
A Maximo Nivel favorite sits just a 10-minute bus ride from our campus at Manuel Antonio. This rainforest isn’t as rugged as Corcovado National Park making it the perfect adventure for young children and older adults who can’t easily maneuver on unsteady terrain. The paths are paved and the walk is pretty flat. You’ll encounter the squirrel monkeys and white-faced capuchins. Hundreds of species of birds call this rainforest home and coatis roam about freely. You’ll end up at the private beaches away from the crowds in the public areas.
Natural Hot Springs
Thanks to the abundance of volcanoes, you can find natural hot springs where you can relax after a day of hiking and zip lining. However, some of these hot springs can be an adventure on their own, equipped with water slides and deep pools for diving into.
Like their neighbors Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is situated between both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts–one of the reasons it maintains such a large diversity of plant and animal species. However, in addition to the wildlife, you will also find very distinct cultures within its diversity of people, food, and music giving you lots to explore in one small country. But regardless of the coast, you’ll find pristine beaches perfect for swimmers, surfers, and beach bums.
Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is an island of its own located on the Caribbean side of the country. Unlike the other parks which are best explored from within, this park is meant to be marveled from the water. A boat tour will give you access to the biodiversity brought about when freshwater meets the sea via canals, lagoons, and wetlands. Three types of sea turtles come to nest on the sands of Tortuguero National Park from March to November.
The World Wonder
Machu Picchu will always be on the bucket list! The largest citadel of the Incan Empire holds mysteries left to be uncovered. First discovered in 1911, the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and later voted a World Wonder in 2007.
Lake Titicaca is best known for the Uros Islands or floating islands. As the story goes, the Uros people created these floating islands to escape an Incan invasion using a natural reed which grows vastly along the river. In addition to the islands, they use the reed to build boats, homes, and furniture. The maintenance of these islands is constant, so the people continue to add new reeds to prevent the islands from sinking.
Huacachina is a real-life desert oasis. You won’t have to hallucinate on these sand dunes because the luxury hotels, swimming holes, and palm trees are all real. It was originally built to attract wealthy Peruvians in the 1940’s, but has since grown to become one of the most popular attractions for international visitors from around the world. Ride buggies up and down the dunes, try your hand at sandboarding or sit atop one of the highest peaks to enjoy one of the most beautiful sunsets you can set your sights on.
The Nazca Lines
Another mystery found in Peru are the Nazca Lines. The lines are formed by shallow trenches in the Nazca desert. Many of the lines were “drawn” in images of animals such as birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, monkeys, and sometimes human figures. These shapes can only be seen by flying over, but the reason for their existence is still unknown. One theory holds that the lines were created as markers to distinguish where the sun and other celestial bodies rose.
Las Maras Salt Mines holds thousands of salt pools. Strategically dug into the mountainside, the shallow pools filled with salt water eventually evaporates, leaving crystallized salt in its place. It is believed that the salt pans were originally constructed by a Pre-Inca civilization, but the Inca saw the economic potential of harvesting the salt, and expanded the pans further up the mountainside.
Whether it’s jungle trekking you’re after, exploring ancient ruins, camping on the beach, hiking an active volcano, zip-lining 600 feet above the rainforest, kayaking mangroves, ATVing, scuba diving to an underwater museum, getting lost in a hummingbird garden, snorkeling over colorful coral reefs, cave diving, waterfall rappelling, volcano surfing, mountain biking, or anything else you can dream of, Latin America has it. You’ll be sure to live your greatest year in one of the most fascinating parts of the world in 2020