central america

Central America Trip Update #1: Hola from Guatemala!

The past two and a half weeks have been a blur of airplanes, refried beans, cobblestone streets, beautiful cathedrals…

…ancient Mayan pyramids, broken Spanish, sick kids, sweaty nights, tropical birdsong, swinging hammocks, freshly made tortillas, a lost (and now broken) baby bed, bumpy boat rides…

*Look ma, no seatbelts*

…volcano vistas, eight people crammed in a taxi, and rooster wake-up calls.

As I began writing this post, sitting in a little cafe in a lakeside town called Panajachel, an old sappy song came on that threw me back 13 years. Ryan and I sang it as a duet in our adopted Japanese church, our way of saying goodbye to beloved friends we’d made while living there our first year of marriage.

It’s been quite the journey for us, from that first year in Japan, where we struggled with culture shock, homesickness and newlywed struggles, while simultaneously falling in love with the people, the culture, and with travel itself.

Somehow these years have seen us through eight moves, multiple career changes, starting four businesses, having five children, and visiting over 40 countries together as a family, all the way to sitting here today in Guatemala.

*The island town of Flores, seen from the lake it sits in*

I’m tempted to say it feels like coming full circle, except it really just feels like we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and there’s no turning back.

Our life is so vastly different than I ever dreamed it would be, and that’s good news.

I used to want to travel a safer road, avoid risk, play it safe. We’ve done anything but that, and I’m surprised at how good it’s been.

Speaking of good, that’s how today felt.

I woke early to get the kids ready, so I could walk them to the Spanish school they’re attending for two and a half weeks while we slow down and stay in one place.

After dropping them off, I indulged in a few moments down by Lago de Atitlan, watching it wake up under the watchful eyes of the towering volcanoes on either side.

Then I spent the morning working on my laptop at a favorite restaurant and coffee shop, before picking up the kids and hearing colorful tales about their day.

On our way home, we ducked into a small tienda to purchase glue, pencil sharpeners and cups, before buying tomatoes, cilantro and a big stack of freshly made tortillas for lunch (all told, we spent about $3.75). In the afternoon, Ryan and I sat outside discussing business details while the kids played in the yard of our rental house.  #happysigh

*The house we ultimately rented, after stressing out over it for several days.* 

But not every day feels like this.

Only two days before, I was a bit of an emotional wreck, trying desperately to find a rental house for our family, before we ran out of time in our temporary digs.

We’d had sick kids for a week, including a baby who brought chicken pox all the way from Canada (we discovered it four days into our trip). We’d barely had a decent night’s sleep in over a week and were feeling sick ourselves.

*Creatively (read: desperately) trying to dry out still-wet laundry in a tiny hotel room before we had to pack up to leave town.*

All our laundry was dirty (read: puked on) and the machine at our rental was broken, the kids were being whiny, our rental house was too small, and I’d gotten freaked out by a turbulent boat ride the night before.

As I said earlier on Instagram the other week, travel is a package deal.

Good and bad, easy and hard, magical and maddening. We have to accept it all.

But as Ryan was encouraging the kids on one of our very bad, no good, terrible days when we all had cruddy attitudes… we were made to do hard things. All of us (yes, you too).

*Having fun at the ruins… sort of. We’re all pretty exhausted in this picture (case in point: note the heavy bags under my eyes, LOL!), but trying hard to have a good attitude and see what we came to see.*

Our kids are tougher than they think. They can adjust their attitudes in hard situations, choose to care for one another, and work together as a team.

Ryan and I can pull it together and find strength we didn’t know we possessed, even on our hardest days. We can lean into one another, instead of withdrawing or blaming, and we can choose joy and contentment even in those times when we’re wondering why we left home in the first place.

And God is here with us, in all of these moments, sustaining us and growing us into (hopefully) better and more grace-filled people than we were before we left.

That’s the beauty, both of travel, and of choosing to live a life where we’re not afraid to push off from the safe harbor and embrace the risk that comes when we unfurl our sails.

*Tuk-tuks fly past us on the main street in Panajachel*

A quick overview of what we’ve done so far:

  • Spent a couple days exploring the charmingly crumbling colonial city of Antigua.
  • Flew up to the northern reaches of Guatemala, to Peten department, where we explored the isolated ruins of Uaxactun and the more popular but stunning ruins of Tikal, as well as spending a day on the petite island town of Flores.
  • Flew back to Guatemala City so we could catch a ride up to Lago de Atitlan, where we’ve been ever since. We’ve plunked ourselves down in the town of Panajachel where we’re spending a couple weeks doing our version of slow travel… trying to live a little more like the locals, studying the language, shopping at the markets, working and running our businesses, and just doing regular life with a different view. We’ve put the kids into a Spanish school 5 hours a day, and Ryan and I are both studying with a tutor an hour per day. On some afternoons and on the weekends, we’re doing our best to get out and see as much of the surrounding area and sites as we can.

*Incredible temples and ruins at the Mayan city of Tikal, in Northern Guatemala*

Where to next?

On April 1st, we head back to Guatemala City for the night, just in time to catch a flight early the next morning to Merida, Mexico. We’ll be attending the worldschooler’s summit there from April 3-8, and then take another week to do work, school and take day trips around the Yucatan peninsula.

From there we cross over into Belize on April 15th, then onward to Costa Rica and Nicaragua after that.

If you’d like to follow along with our travels, you can find me sharing regularly on Instagram.

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Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying flights)

I realized this weekend that we’re down to just over 6 weeks until we fly to Guatemala!! (Cue mild panic.)

This is a busy time right now, trying to do everything that needs to be done further in advance and giving myself enough of a window to not have any last minute panic.

Reality check: There will still be last minute panic. But I’d like to avoid it as much as is humanely possible.

Right now, some of the things that are on my list include:

  • Renewing passports for our two youngest boys. They’re technically still valid for our entire trip, but I’m feeling like it might be worth renewing them before we go since some countries prefer you to have a full 6 months left on your passport and they’ll only have about 3 months left.
  • Ordering the gear we still need. I’ve been shopping around online for about a month, comparing brands and prices, as well as checking out local thrift and consignment stores to see if I could save any money on pricey items before buying them new. I’ve also dug through all the bins in our storage room and through the kid’s current clothes and shoes so I know exactly what we have and need. But at this point, I’m feeling like it’s time to start placing orders for everything I haven’t found yet to allow for shipping (and potentially, return shipping) and just to know that we’ve got all our gear (bags, clothes, medicine supplies, etc.) at least a couple weeks in advance. We’re lucky in that we already own a good deal of what we need because of our previous travels, which is why I can leave this as long as I’ve left it. Back when I planned our first big trip, I started this gear shopping more like 3-4 months in advance.
  • Booking our first accomodations. We don’t book many of our accomodations before we leave. In fact, I book a whole lot of them at the last minute, a couple days before we show up somewhere. But for that first week or two on the road, I love having details tied up with a bow so there are less decisions to make while we’re adjusting to jet lag and life on the road.

What’s not on my list anymore? Buying flights.

Because we purchased them about two weeks ago. And that’s when it gets real, people. We’re really going!!!

It was a little later than usual for us. I prefer to buy more like 10-14 weeks in advance, and this time we were just around 8 weeks out of our first flight. Such is life.

In update #1, I walked through how I begin planning and developing an over-arching vision of what our trip will include. So let me catch you up on what we’ve done since that last update:

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

How we bought our flights

Since flights are probably your single biggest line in your travel budget (as they are in ours), let’s park here for a while.

We knew the most costly flights would be going down from Canada to get to Central America, and then the flight back home at the end. In between, we’ve got a few short hops between countries to cut down on travel time or to cover areas that might be particularly tiring or even unsafe to travel by land.

Our order of flights/countries is a bit odd this time around, because we had two very specific places we had to be at the beginning and then the end of April, right smack in the middle of our travels.

As a result, instead of doing a more logical loop or traveling in a linear fashion, we ended up deciding on this:

  1. Fly from Ottawa to Guatemala City
  2. Fly from Guatemala City to Merida, Mexico
  3. Travel overland to Belize
  4. Fly from Belize City to San Jose, Costa Rica
  5. Travel overland through Costa Rica and up into Nicaragua
  6. Fly home out of Managua, Nicaragua

 

We looked at all sorts of variations on this plan, going in and out of different countries or cities, comparing flying or going overland, etc. In the end, this was the plan that a) made the most sense for our goals and what we wanted to do in each country, and b) saved us the most money.

Some of the possibilities we considered that we didn’t choose in the end:

  1. Booking a return (rather than a one-way) between Ottawa and Guatemala City. This would have required us to travel overland from Nicaragua through El Salvador, to get back to Guatemala to fly home at the very end. It would have saved us about $100-$150 per person, BUT we would have spent some money on bus tickets (cheaper, but still) and it would have possibly been an exhausting way to finish up our time there. Ultimately, it didn’t feel worth the small savings.
  2. I spent a lot of time looking into the possibility of renting vehicles to do the driving ourselves but it’s complicated to bring a vehicle across international borders and most rental companies won’t allow for that, not to mention that many Central American roads are truly not safe to travel on as a non-local and not safe for anybody to travel on at night. It was just too complex, so we flushed that idea down the toilet.
  3. We considered more overland travel by bus between countries to avoid one or two of these flights, but the comfort, cleanliness and safety of the bus options seemed potentially sketchy and some of the distances would have been quite long. Not to mention it would eat up valuable days we’d rather spend enjoying a country, not trying to pass the time on a smelly bus with bored, restless kids (been there, done that). That said, we did keep two overland portions in our trip, when the distances were significantly shorter.
  4. We explored other possible cities to go in and out of – Cancun instead of Merida, Dangriga instead of Belize City, Liberia instead of San Jose. Ultimately, sticking with the main airport hubs in this region saved us a lot of money and since local transportation is cheap (buses or shuttle vans), it made sense to fly in or out of the larger airports. This isn’t always the case in every region, but in these countries, it seemed to be true pretty consistently.

How did I research flights? These are my favorite tools for comparing options and prices:

Google Flights

I’m quite partial to how they display all the prices for every possible date. You can clearly see which days are cheaper and more expensive, and if you’ve got flexibility in your dates, this makes it easy to maximize your flight money.

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Kayak

Although they don’t show the incredible date/price spread that Google Flights offers, Kayak does still offer a better look at flexible dates and prices than most other sites. They also show a lot of “hacker fares” and sometimes include flights that other websites don’t include in their database.

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Airtreks

Out of all these options, Airtreks is the only one that isn’t DIY. They actually provide a service for travelers like us, piecing together one-way, budget, international flights. More on this below.

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Expedia

Though it’s not my favorite, I still usually run a comparison search on Expedia because every once in a while, it finds a flight that I didn’t see anywhere else. Out of all the bigger travel sites, this is the one I like best (though I couldn’t give you a particularly substantial reason why).

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

It may seem strange to use multiple tools that seem similar, because sometimes the prices and flights are nearly identical.

But other times, I’ll find vastly different options and then I’m always glad I took the time to compare.

Ultimately, we bought our flights through Airtreks…

BUT I’m still glad I spent so much time previously researching it, pricing it out, comparing the options.

Because I was so well informed about which dates, airports, airlines, etc. were cheaper and better for us, by the time I presented the itinerary to Airtreks and had them run it through their system, I could make some really educated suggestions and have them use their more high-powered tools to search for exactly what I wanted.

In the end, their prices were pretty comparable to the prices I had found in my searches, but they do all of the actual booking work for me (which gets tedious for 7 people!), they include a great travel insurance package (which ultimately saves us money from having to buy insurance separately), and if anything changes with one of our flights or we run into any troubles, they’ve got our back and will help us sort out the issue.

In my next trip planning update…

I’ll share the gear, clothing and footwear I’ve been purchasing and why I chose it. I’ll talk more about securing those early accomodations.

I’ll also share an update on all the other things we’re working hard to take care of before leaving – what to do with our current house, what we’ll bring with us for work and homeschool, how we’re preparing to stay healthy on the road, and more.

Any questions for me? How do you like to source out your flights when you travel?

Miss our first trip planning update? Read it here.

Central American Trip Planning Update # 1 (or how I plan extended family travel): In this series, I share the details of how I researched & prepared for our family's 3 month trip to Central America. This is the first of several updates as I walk you through the full process from idea to getting on that plane!

Central America Trip Planning Update #1 (Or how I plan extended family travel)

Of all the questions I get about travel, one of the most common is “Where do I even begin? How do you plan a Big Trip?”

Well, fear not, friends. This is the start of a series where I’ll pull back the virtual curtain on my planning process, in all its messy and anticipatory glory.

Confession time: I am a research geek by nature. I cannot tell a lie. This stuff makes me giddy and keeps me up at night in a (mostly) good way. I truly find trip planning almost as exciting as the trip itself. And I understand that for others, the process may be more akin to poking a fork in your eye. I’m here to help.

Let me begin by saying that if you’re either:

a) somewhere in the planning stages of your own Big Trip

OR

b) considering one in the future, but freaked out about what the preparation entails

…then I’ve created something just for you…

Central American Trip Planning Update # 1 (or how I plan extended family travel): In this series, I share the details of how I researched & prepared for our family's 3 month trip to Central America. This is the first of several updates as I walk you through the full process from idea to getting on that plane! It’s called Planning Your Big Trip: A printable checklist & timeline for your next adventure.

It’s a free PDF that I’ll send you when you join our weekly newsletter list. (I promise… I am not a frequent emailer. No fear of being spammed.)

Basically, it walks you through the entire process of getting ready for a big trip. The stuff you do when you first make the decision. The important details in the middle. The last minute things you don’t want to forget. All put together in a timeline/checklist fashion to help make the process a bit more linear and sensible.

But I digress… on to how I’m actually planning this Big Trip of ours!

For those who are wondering “What trip?” The answer is: Our family is leaving on March 6th for 3 months in Central America. Guatemala, Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula), Belize, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. To say we are pumped would be an understatement.

As we prepare to head into the land of the Mayans, of coffee plantations, and towering volcanoes, and coral reef snorkeling, and nesting turtles, and cloud forests, and polishing up our rusty Spanish, here’s how we’re getting ready to go.

Central American Trip Planning Update # 1 (or how I plan extended family travel): In this series, I share the details of how I researched & prepared for our family's 3 month trip to Central America. This is the first of several updates as I walk you through the full process from idea to getting on that plane!

Step 1 – Learn all the things.

A slight exaggeration, I’ll admit. But as a researcher at heart, I feel like I can’t actually plan anything until I have a lay of the land.

By this I mean, yes, a literal lay of the land. I want to know the geography of the region and the countries. How far the major cities are from one another by plane and by land. Which areas are more remote and which are firmly entrenched on the tourist trail. Where the major sites we want to see are located, what type of topography we’ll find in different locations, and what types of weather we might encounter there.

But I also want to have a deeper understanding of the cultures we’re about to encounter. How do they function day to day. What other travelers have enjoyed doing there. What is the approximate cost of living and travel. Which areas are more or less safe. Which spots are overwhelmingly touristy or filled with party-loving, 20-something backpackers of questionable cleanliness.

How do I do it? Well, mostly I read. A lot.

The first stage of preparing for any trip for me begins with information gathering. I spend a lot of evenings googling things like “Best things to do in Nicaragua” or “best places to snorkel in Central America” or “Which Mayan ruins are worth visiting”.

This helps me start figuring out some of the well-known sites, and also hear a bit about the lesser known places where people left a piece of their heart. It also gives me an at-a-glance idea of what might be possible or interesting somewhere.

While I’m doing this, I’ll keep a running list of links to articles that were helpful (I categorize them by country) so I can return to them later. I’ll also jot down notes like Guatemala – Mayan ruins at Tikal. Belize – amazing snorkeling on the reef. That reminds me of things that looked good in a particular place when I get down to the nitty-gritty planning details.

I read travel blogs. I check out indie travel sites like Bootsnall. I will usually buy at least one guidebook of the area or countries we’ll be visiting. I go back to travel memoirs I’ve read before, to remind myself of where they went and what they did in a particular region.

Central_America_on_a_Shoestring_travel_guide_-_9th_edition_Large When it comes to guidebooks, I initially start with ones that cover a broad region, then as I narrow it down I’ll buy books for individual countries where we’ll stay the longest, or smaller guides for certain cities or regions. For this particular trip, I’ve only purchased the fat Central America on a Shoestring guide from Lonely Planet so far. I opt for Kindle version so I can bring them with me without the extra weight.

Now that we know for sure that we’ll spend our longest periods of time in Guatemala and Nicaragua, I may buy individual guidebooks just for those countries, but the more general book should be fine for everywhere else

Reading these guides helps to further cement in my mind what we might encounter, the vibe of different cities or regions, what transportation options will be available to us, etc.

Though I may not make any truly specific plans at this point, the information-gathering stage allows me to make informed decisions the rest of the way through planning, and for me personally, it’s crucial to feeling confident once we begin to firm things up (buy flights, book rentals, etc.).

creepy green snake

Step 2 – We decide what matters to us as a family.

Although family life does sometimes have to function as a benevolent dictatorship (“Because we said so, and when you’re an adult, you can bring as many stuffed animals as you like when you travel…”), we try as much as possible to approach our trips as a democratic republic. Sure, sometimes a autocratic ruling still slips through, but overall? We like to make our decisions together.

As we make preparations for an upcoming trip, we have a whole lot of conversations. About where we’re going, and what it’s like, and what we might do there. We involve our kids and ask what sounds intriguing to them and try to make a plan to hit up at least some of their must-dos.

I show them maps, books and photos of where we’ll be going. We search things on Google and look through the images to get a feel for the things we could see and do. Sometimes the kids surprise me with caring a whole lot more about something that I anticipated they would.

Central American Trip Planning Update # 1 (or how I plan extended family travel): In this series, I share the details of how I researched & prepared for our family's 3 month trip to Central America. This is the first of several updates as I walk you through the full process from idea to getting on that plane!

*On our first Big Trip four years ago, Abbie and I snorkeling in Australia*

For example, I remembered how magical it was to snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but we’ve never been much of a beach family, and I didn’t think our kids would really care about doing a lot of beach stuff on this trip. Yet when I asked them about it and casually mentioned snorkeling at a reef as a possible option, their eyes all lit up like Christmas trees and they got super excited, and so we’ve planned some snorkel and beach time in three of the five countries we’ll be visiting.

As a couple, we spend a lot of time talking about the details, like how long we want to stay put in any one place. We make a wishlist of potential places to go, which ones are non-negotiable and which are up for discussion.

We talk about the speed of our travel, how much we want to actually sight see vs. simply living in a different place. We discuss our goals and values going into this trip and what activities would best match up with those. We discuss the needs of our kids, of us as a couple, and of each of us individually and try to take it all into account.

In other words, we hash through a lot of important conversations.

The more you can do this on the front-end, the less frustrated you’ll be in the midst of your trip when you suddenly realize how different your expectations are and you have to reconcile them once you’re already tired and jet-lagged and culture shocked (ask us how we know).

Central American Trip Planning Update # 1 (or how I plan extended family travel): In this series, I share the details of how I researched & prepared for our family's 3 month trip to Central America. This is the first of several updates as I walk you through the full process from idea to getting on that plane!

Step 3 –  I craft potential itineraries.

It starts to get fun (and real!) when you begin putting down dates and places on a piece of paper. (Cue planning geekiness coming out in full force.)

As I plan out itineraries, I play around by changing things like:

  • the order of countries
  • traveling overland vs. by plane
  • dates
  • including an extra place (or skipping something else)

I love using Google Maps to do this, but I also just write it out in my Notes app on my computer. Sometimes I sketch it out with paper and pen. Usually a combination of all of the above.

I compare the prices of one way flights with return flights, and I definitely look at different dates to see where the deals are to be found. I talk over the itinerary with Ryan as many times as he’ll allow me before his eyes begin to glaze over.

These are a few key things that really determine our itinerary decisions:

  • How long we can/want to travel for – this time 3 months felt just right.
  • The approximate dates/months/season we’d like to be gone for – we decided to leave in early March, just after a major project ends in late February and we didn’t want to be gone much more than 3 months, so we’ll come home the first week of June.
  • Which business events and deadlines will occur during that time – for us, we might look at which bundles we’ll be running and plan to be somewhere stationary during those times.
  • If there are any fixed-date events we’ll be attending on the road – this time we’re attending a worldschooling summit April 3-8 and then meeting up with friends from April 24-May 5, so those dates were cornerstones as we planned our itinerary.
  • We look at maps to see what might make sense as far as proximity, ease of travel, etc.

In my next update, I’ll share more about how I plan the dates and order of our trip as it pertains to flights and costs, and how I find the best deals for plane tickets. We try to hold as much flexibility as we can to allow for choosing the options that are cheapest.

Central American Trip Planning Update # 1 (or how I plan extended family travel): In this series, I share the details of how I researched & prepared for our family's 3 month trip to Central America. This is the first of several updates as I walk you through the full process from idea to getting on that plane!

Moving into decision-making mode

Based on all of the above, we got to a place in December where we felt ready to start making firm decisions – buying plane tickets, getting our gear, lining up just a couple initial accomodations, etc. Which means that Operation Gather-All-the-Information was a success!

Here’s what we knew for sure as we moved forward into our next step of trip planning:

When: Depart first week of March (whichever day was cheapest) and come home around the beginning of June (again, looking for the cheapest flight around that time).

How long: A total of 3 months, give or take.

Where: Guatemala (including Flores/Tikal, Antigua, and Lake Atitlan, and other places to be decided later), Mexico (Merida for worldschooling summit, then a few days snorkeling on the coast maybe near Majahual), Belize (a week on Caye Caulker), Costa Rica (fly into San Jose, 2 weeks with friends in Guanacaste, then 4-7 days traveling by land from Manuel Antonio up to the Nicaragua border, sight seeing along the way), and finally Nicaragua (San Juan del Sur, Isla Ometeppe, Granada, Leon, etc.).

What: We highly value staying put, renting a home in just one place, rather than always being on the go. So we’ve agreed to include three longer stays during our travels:

  1. 3 weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
  2. 2 weeks in a house with friends in Guanacaste, Costa Rica
  3. 3 weeks in a to-be-determined town or city in Nicaragua (got suggestions for me?).

The rest of the time will still include a lot of 4-7 day stays in one place, with just a little bit of faster travel in between.

Activities we know we’d like to do: Spanish lessons in Guatemala and possibly Nicaragua, snorkeling, visit at least two Mayan ruin sites, several volcano day hikes, explore the rainforest and cloud forest, go to a famous market in the Guatemalan highlands, look for at least one volunteering opportunity, connect with other worldschooling families. And also? Run our businesses and homeschool our kids. That’s critical for us. This isn’t vacation. It’s “regular” life in a new and interesting place.

Phew! I apparently have a lot to say about how I plan extended family travel! Next time I’ll share what early decision-making mode looked like, what we settled on, how I researched it, etc.

Photo credits: Lake Atitlan, creepy green snake, rainforest bridge, Chitzen Itza ruins.