9 Excellent Stops Along the Pan American Highway
After our fourth child was born, my husband and I got this crazy notion to move to Costa Rica. We had talked about living abroad sometime in our life, and though my husband had lived in Peru for two years before we were married, I had never traveled outside of the United States (except to Tijuana, but does that count?).
We did the necessary research online, made all the arrangements, got passports for the kids and myself, and began selling all of our possessions.
I remember the first time the idea entered our heads about driving to Costa Rica (we were living in Utah at the time). We talked about selling our car, and buying a new one once we arrived, but vehicles cost 50-70% more in Costa Rica, (because of import taxes) and besides, how would we take all the personal stuff we wanted to in our limited luggage space?
That’s when the idea hit us, and it seemed like such an absurdity. There was no way we could drive there! It would be too dangerous, too far, we would all go insane (our oldest was four and the youngest a newborn), was it even possible?
But we turned to the internet again (the source for everything), and the more we researched it, the more it became a real possibility for us. Granted, we couldn’t find anyone who had done it with children, but it had been done, which for us meant we could do it too.
So we packed up the car, loaded up the kids (and four car seats), and let the good times roll! These are our top 9 favorite stops along our route from Salt Lake City Utah to San Jose, Costa Rica
El Rancho Resort – Mazatlan, Mexico
Mazatlan offers an average beach with grainy sand and opaque water. The beach is large, and the nightlife is hoppin’ (so I’ve heard). We stayed at the far end of town, on the beach in a tropical Garden of Eden. I don’t intend to promote individual hotels or resorts, but our stay at El Rancho was (and still is), the favorite hotel/resort we’ve ever stayed at.
Simple, yet charming individual two-story bungalow style units, are situated around a pool and hot tub area, and an on-sight restaurant that overlooks the beach cooks up meals on demand. Quiet, intimate and peaceful, the most alluring thing is it’s unbelievable gardens. The entrance is lined with an entourage of palms, bright red hibiscus, and other tropical plants with variegated red, green, yellow and burgundy leaves. Climbing vines meander the adobe walls, and birds-of-paradise, red ginger and heliconias abound in every corner and crevice.
After a stroll on the beach, you ascend the steps to El Rancho and enter through the private entrance to your very own Secret Garden. Feeling as though you’ve found heaven, you’re surrounded by beauty as you relax in the hot tub or lounge by the deep blue pool, wondering if you could every leave.
San Blas, Mexico
As cliché as it may sound, I can only think of one word to describe the town of San Blas, Mexico – nostalgic. As dusk is approaching, we sit down to eat at El Cocodrilo, a restaurant situated directly across from the main town square. While enjoying the best meal we’ve had in Mexico so far, people watch the residents of this quiet little town as they gather to socialize and visit beneath the soft, amber glow of the picturesque lamp posts and lofty, stone cathedral, as a romantic melody drifts on the night breeze.
Old men sit on the wrought iron park benches, mother’s push their babies in strollers, little children jump and play, while older women gather and gossip, and lovers ride past sharing a single bicycle.
After dinner, we saunter over to the square. Our kids quickly make friends, and I content myself in quiet observation of another culture, disparate, yet analogous, and I can picture myself living here.
The next morning we visit the local attraction, the cathedral of San Blas, famous for the poem penned by Longfellow, The Bells of San Blas. She stands grand and erect, with her crumbling walls and missing roof, like an alluring rejected lover, refusing to capitulate to the changing tide. We wander her abandoned passageways, and the rocks whisper stories of ages gone by when she was loved and revered.
The chapel that once looked down
On the little seaport town
Has crumbled into the dust;
And on oaken beams below
The bells swing to and fro,
And are green with mould and rust.
O Bells of San Blas in vain
Ye call back the Past again;
The Past is deaf to your prayer!
>>read more about Mayan Ruins
La Tovara Jungle River Tour- Matachan, Mexico
Located in the little town of Matachan is the La Tovara River, which offers a Jungle River Tour and trip to a Crocodile Refugee. The boats lay docked in the murky, deep-green water, surrounded by mangrove trees with their roots jutting out of the river like bony fingers reaching for help out of a watery grave.
We climb aboard our own private tour (due to the fact that the European tourists weren’t interested in doing an excursion with our four small children- fine by us)
Lazily drifting through the maze and tunnels of brown and green mangroves, we keep an eye out for birds, tortoises… and crocodiles! Through the scrawny roots we spot snowy white egrets, with their long, dainty legs and elegant, curvy necks; funny looking blue and tan birds with blue bills, and other foreign fowl flaunting their colorful feathers.
A brilliant blue iguana scrambles through the branches of a tree; raccoon looking coatis with their long, striped tails climb and clamber; and two serving platter sized tortoises slip into the water from their sun-bathing rock as our boat glides by.
Our guide stops and puts it in reverse. He points to the undergrowth to our right. Our eyes strain to see what is lurking beneath the water. We see a ten-foot log lying on the bottom of the riverbed, but then notice the log has two beady little eyes and menacing snout barely visible above the surface of the water. My two little boys are so excited to see a real wild crocodile five feet from our boat!
We reach a deep blue lagoon and our guide docks the boat. We exit and explore the Crocodile Refuge, a place where they breed and then release crocodiles, and watch as the enormous, toothy mouths gobble up fish through a hole in a chain-link fence, next to a large sign warning Cuidado con los Animales (Careful with the Animals).
In another pen, dozens of scrambling, squirming baby crocodiles feed on raw ground beef. My husband asks if he can hold one and the attendant climbs into to catch one. We snap photos of daddy and his four-year-old daughter as they hold their first baby crocodile.
>>read about Mexico Tours
Playa Chacala, Mexico
An unplanned stop (about 60 miles north/100 kilometers of Puerto Vallarta), Playa Chacala is a pequeno little town with about 300 residents situated on a delightful beach. We climbed out of the car to enjoy the sand and sun and liked it so much we decided to stay (despite the piles of garbage, which we learned was a result of Holy Week the week before, and not a normal condition).
With not many options for accommodations, we select the burnt orange hacienda nestled at the far end of the beach next to the cliff. The Mar de Jade is a zen/buddhist resort that was beginning a silent retreat the following day (not something we were likely to participate in with four little ones!) Since we only wanted to stay one night, they gave us a room.
After unpacking, we relaxed in the sapphire blue pool, then went in search of some food. The Mar de Jade offers a community dinner option, but it was a little upscale for our rambunctious bunch, so we headed out across the field where locals were playing futbol to Chico’s Restaurant.
Passing by the caged roosters (dinner?), we’re led to our table on the beach (actually in the sand). Kicking off our flip flops, we wriggle our toes in the sand and order up some fresh fish and shrimp. While we wait, the kids play tag with daddy on the beach, we chat with the locals, and then enjoy a fabulous meal while watching the sun sink into the ocean across the bay.
>>read about Best Beaches in Mexico
‘Sister’ cities located about 145 miles (240 km) north/west of Acapulco, Zihuatenejo (meaning ‘the place of women’ because it was a matriarchal society) offers an average beach in a ‘dated’ tourist district, and although a ‘nothing spectacular’ spot, Zihuatenejo/Ixtapa became a favorite because of it’s local feel. Our stay at the Tesoro all-inclusive resort was complete with pools, beach volleyball and all-you-can-eat buffets. Unlike most other resorts of its type along our journey, this one was filled with vacationing Mexicans, rather than vacationing tourists.
The highlight was karaoke night in the hotel lobby – Mexican style. A crowd gathered to sing and laugh at their favorite songs- tunes I had never even heard of, but as well known (and loved) by them as Hotel California or Billy Jean to an American karaoke crowd.
Brilliant blue and refreshing from the hot Mexican sun, we spent most of our three days in the multi-level pools. My four year old made a friend that taught her to swim, my husband joined a game of beach volleyball, and sipping (virgin) pina coladas (included) while sitting on the underwater stools at the poolside bar wasn’t too bad either.
>>read more about the 3 Mexican Road Trips for the Intrepid Traveler
Puerto Escondido, Mexico
South of Acapulco is the sleepy little, laid back town of Puerto Escondido. Originally an isolated fishing village, Puerto Escondido (meaning literally “Hidden Port”) was not accessible by road until the 1950s. It has a relaxed atmosphere befit hippies and vagabonds, and it’s become a mecca for backpackers and championship surfers, who gather there annually. You can expect to find beachside hotels beneath the shade of mango and almond trees on the beautiful and expansive Playa Zicatela, and handmade hammocks offered for sale by local women who balance the colorful stacks atop their heads.
We slept with the windows open in our room at the Hotel Arco Iris, which resulted in being eaten alive by mosquitos, but no one seemed to mind as we meandered onto the beach early the next morning. We ordered a ‘from scratch’ meal at an in-the-sand ‘soda’ (little thatched roofed restaurant) that was serving up breakfast on the beach, and lounged in our choice of hammocks that were available in an array of brilliant colors. If we had been so inclined, we could have paid obeisance to the centrally situated Virgin Mary shrine, instead I snapped a photo while we enjoyed our fresh (hand) squeezed orange juice, eggs and rice and bean breakfast in the early morning sun of Puerto Escondido.
>>read about Enchiladas – the hot pockets of Mexican cuisine
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Crossing the border between Mexico/Guatemala at about 6:00 pm, my husband and I became a little nervous. Border towns are always a little questionable, and after four weeks in Mexico, it was clear we were now in a new country with a new culture. We weren’t sure what to expect.
We decided our best option would be to drive to Guatemala City (you’ll always have a better chance of finding safe and sufficient lodgings in larger cities), although that would put us in danger of driving at night.
As the sun set, we were on the edge of our seats, searching for pedestrians, potholes and the possible pig, cow or horse (all likely to be in the road), not to mention heedless drivers with no lights on their vehicles.
After an eternity, we arrived in the capital city. It was late, and the streets were surprisingly quiet. We had no idea where we were, or where we were going, but we drove around, asked a few directions, and miraculously found The Conquistador, an elegant, upscale hotel in the heart of Guatemala City.
In the morning, we awoke with a view from our eighth floor balcony to the colorful, cultural capital city of Guatemala. Bright red buses rush past brilliantly painted buildings in bright greens, reds, blues and yellows, with Pacaya volcano protruding it’s fiery snout out of the earth in the background (one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala).
Guatemala City offers a mixture of modern and ancient- office buildings adorned with Mayan hieroglyphs, handcarts being pushed next to vehicles in the busy city streets, and women washing their clothes beneath vast modern bridges.
Although a slight detour of the official Pan American Highway, Copán is a trip worth taking, especially if you have an interest in ruins. The ruins lay dispersed among a large, well-groomed lawn with massive jungle trees surrounding the perimeter.
Intricately carved stelae are scattered throughout the court, portraits of the greatest Mayan rulers of the time, and towering temples with titanic stairs rise toward the sky. The main attraction of Copán, the Hieroglyphic Stairway, is of particular significance. It has the longest know Mayan text from ancient Mesoamerica. It dates from the eighth century, and tells the history of Copáns rulers.
Covered by a gigantic blue tarp to protect it from the weather, an eerie blue shadows the Staircase which is carved with intricate hieroglyphs from base to brow, telling their tales from ages gone by.
We climbed the Mayan pyramids, watched the capybaras that crawled through the jungle floor, and then played with the giant macaws that were residents at the park entrance, creating a great new memory from a place of ancient history.
San Jose, Costa Rica
The final recommendation is a place we lived and loved for a year. San Jose offers a magnificent mixture of culture, history, diversity and diversion, as well as tropical beauty, abundant flora and fauna and the perfect year round temperature.
The Teatro Nacional (National Theater) is enchanting and ornate, with gold-laid carvings and colorful, cultural paintings on ceilings and walls, offering orchestras, plays and concerts on regular occasions.
Sabana Park is a place to relax on a Sunday afternoon. At the far end, gymnastics, boxing and other classes are offered. There is volleyball or basketball games to join in on, or horseback riding and paddle boats to enjoy, not to mention miles of walking paths and playgrounds and soccer fields.
Our most favorite part of San Jose was the diversity of culture and comida (food). A large number of expatriates from around the world make San Jose home, and bring with them their customs and cuisine. Authentic food in nearly every culinary style can be found, Thai, Indian, Peruvian, Chinese, Italian- as well as a popular trend- fusion- a combining of tastes to create entirely new delicious dishes.
The daily mercado was full of sights and sounds with a vast array of fruits, vegetables and fresh seafood available for sale unbelievable prices- like 100 oranges for US$2.00 or four pineapples for US$.50. A delight for the taste buds and wallet, and a favorite past time for our family.
While there are innumerable places and experiences that we enjoyed along our intrepid road trip, I’ve tried to provide a few of the highlights. For us, we participated in a once-in-a-lifetime event that won’t easily be forgotten, and we’ll hold forever in our memories the peoples and cultures of the Pan American Highway.
>>find flights to Costa Rica and read our Costa Rica Travel Guide
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Read about author Rachel Denning and check out her other BootsnAll articles.
All photos by Rachel Denning