+441728 861133

Dragoman's latest travel blog: the Pan-American Overland

Dragoman crew Julie and Alex have just set off on our massive 109-day North & Central American Overland tour from Panama City to Anchorage. Travelling in Betsy the Overland School Bus, they'll take in some of the best sights in Central & North America, including national parks such as Yellowstone and Banff, glitzy Las Vegas, the cloud forests of Monteverde Forest Reserve, and the "Big Apple" of the north, Anchorage. Julie and Alex are keeping us updated from the road - scroll down for the latest updates! 

The Latest... Part Twelve


Utah was next on our itinerary and for good reason: the state is not only filled with world class national parks, it is also incredibly scenic to drive through! The first park on the list, Zion, was an absolute highlight for everyone with its gorgeous mix of rock formations, steep cliffs, high mountains and abundant flora.


After two nights in Zion we drove to Bryce Canyon, another breathtaking park. Technically not a canyon, the park boasts several amphitheatres filled with hoodoos, unique rock formations carved by frost and erosion. We spent loads of time there, watching both sunrise and sunset over the park, walking along the rim and even down to enjoy some of the trails amongst the hoodoos.

Leaving Bryce Canyon we took a short detour to visit Kodachrome Basin State Park and hike for an hour or so on its quiet and tourist-free trails. Canyons, cliffs and most of all the red/orange rock of the place explain its name: after a National Geographic team of photographers explored it in the 1960s, they named the area after the Kodak film they had used. Although the government changed the name when they made it a State Park, Kodak accepted to lend its name to it a few years later.


We then drove south to Page and camped by a beautiful lake in the hot but dry summer of northern Arizona (yes, back in Arizona!). Next to that small town can be found one of the most picturesque and photographed natural rock formations of the United States. The Horseshoe Bend, carved by the Colorado River, was quite a sight for sunset!


Part Thirteen

Waking up in Page, northern Arizona, we paid a visit to Antelope Canyon, another highlight! We walked in the thin and tortuous canyon for an hour, enjoying a nice blue sky and bright sun shining down its walls. The colours of the rock layers and the softness of their curves were simply unforgettable.


We continued across the north of Arizona to reach the legendary Monument Valley and its famous rock formations (buttes) featured in many westerns as a backdrop for John Wayne’s adventures. We hopped on safari-style jeeps for a couple hours and visited a big part of the area, which lies in Navajo territory. This Native American group is the largest of all Native American peoples in the U.S.A. We also had the chance to eat a local dinner in the park and spend a night in their traditional hogans, big dome-shaped habitations made of mud and branches with a stove in the middle.


After enjoying sunrise over the majestic rocks of Monument Valley we re-entered Utah and reached Moab, a small town located in between two National Parks: Arches and Canyonlands. Not the most well-known park in the country, Arches was one of Alex’s favourites in all of the United States. We drove dozens of kilometres amongst its otherworldly rock formations and spent a few hours hiking some of its trails, visiting famous arches and great landscapes. The rest of the day was then spent in Canyonlands, where we went to take in the vastness of the canyons and hike along one. A day filled with bliss and great memories!


From the beginning... Part One

We started our epic journey from Panama by paying a visit to the also very epic Panama Canal, which was the most expensive construction project in US history at the time.

Did you know that its construction (and the Americans) played a big role in Panama's independence from Colombia in 1903?


We then headed a bit north to spend the night in a remote local community attainable by boat and had the chance to walk on the Camino Real.


This cobblestone path was built in the 1500s, allowing the Spanish mules to carry South American gold and silver from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic in only four days!


Our journey across Panama also brought us to Boquete, a small town located in highlands surrounded by coffee plantations and Panama's highest point: Baru Volcano, standing at 3474m. Jay the legend climbed it during the night to watch the sunrise from the top!


Part Two

Our journey continued as we crossed into the second country visited in this trip, Costa Rica! Our first stop in this beautiful country is Manuel Antonio National Park, which is considered one of the most biodiverse parks in the world with a population of 109 types of mammals and 184 types of birds. There was plenty of wild life to be spotted and flora to learn about in this idyllic park and everybody enjoyed a free afternoon at the beach!


Next we made our way up to one of the country’s major ecotourism destinations, Monteverde Cloud Reserve Forest. Resting at 1400m above sea level, this forest is one of the places in Costa Rica where there are good chances to see the majestic Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird. And we saw many of them, among other species of birds, butterflies, snakes and mammals! Then the group had free time to enjoy all of the different activities offered in Monteverde: ziplining, bungee jumping, suspension bridges, butterfly park, coffee and chocolate tours, night walks and more!


Our last stop in Costa Rica is La Fortuna, home to the Arenal volcano National Park. We get to there by boat crossing on Lake Arenal, which rests at the base of Arenal Volcano and supplies 12% of the country’s hydroelectric energy. There is a sloth park in La Fortuna where some of us had the chance to witness quite a rare event: seeing a sloth make is way down a tree to... poop! This only happens once a week! In La Fortuna whilst some of the group went on a rafting trip, jumping off waterfalls, mountain biking and bird watching trips, some others enjoyed the hammocks and pool at the hostel.


Follow our journey as we spend the next week discovering Nicaragua, starting with a couple of days on Ometepe Island!


Part Three

After visiting La Fortuna we crossed into Nicaragua! One of the poorest countries of the Western hemisphere, second only to Haiti, Nicaragua is also one of our driver Alex’s favourites! Did you know that the country’s elected president since 2006 was also elected in the 1980s after the fall of a dictatorship that had lasted nearly 45 years? Ortega helped lead the Sandinista Revolution of the 70s and ruled democratically for a decade, but he is now criticized for moving towards a more opaque presidency.


We first left our beloved Betsy parked in the small harbour to take a ferry to Ometepe Island, standing out in the biggest lake of Central America. The island itself is rather impressive, consisting of two adjacent volcanoes towering in the middle of the waters. Two nights there allowed each one of us to choose several activities like climbing the highest volcano (at 1,610m above sea level, Concepcion Volcano is the only active of the two), cycling around Ometepe’s rural sceneries, having a look at ancient petroglyphs (up to 3000 years old!), visiting a beautiful lagoon and a butterfly museum and enjoying a beer on the shore at sunset, a must on this island.


Back on the mainland, we had a short drive to reach Granada, a picturesque colonial town with a lot of history. A guided city tour helped us understand the significance of the city. Our free day there allowed everyone to roam around its cobblestone streets and take in the charm of the colourful houses and buildings. Most of us also took a short trip up the nearby and active Masaya Volcano to see its lava bubbling in the night.


Our next stop was León, a major city in the north of Nicaragua that also boasts a very rich recent history. We once again had a guided city tour to understand its landmarks and witness its gorgeous colonial heritage. The following day many of us had a short walk up a volcano and came down... on a toboggan! Others paid a visit to the Sandinista Revolution museum, to the renowned Arts museum, climbed on the roof of León’s Cathedral or simply walked around with camera in hand.


Part Four

After Leon, we drove north all morning until we were only a few kilometers off the border with Honduras, stopping for a night in a local family guesthouse. During the afternoon we split in two groups to visit the beautiful and untouched Somoto Canyon the way each one preferred: some took a walk around and then a short boat trip, while others went down the canyon to swim and float along the river running at the bottom. A few courageous ones even took the opportunity to do some cliff jumping in this amazing scenery where there was absolutely no one else!


After Nicaragua we travelled to San Pedro Sula, the second biggest city in Honduras, to catch our flight to Roatan the next day. Spending three nights on this Honduran island located in the Caribbean was absolutely fantastic, especially for the world class snorkelling and diving literally minutes away from our hotel. Some of us also took a full day tour of the island, a glass-bottom boat trip, went kayaking or simply took it easy in the very laid back atmosphere of the island.


Countrywide protests against education and healthcare systems privatizations added a twist to our journey through Honduras and although we experienced firsthand the social movement, we managed to make it to Copan as planned. We spent two nights there to visit the Mayan ruins and then explore the town a bit more or even enjoy a spa and massages!


Part Five


Saying goodbye to Honduras after breakfast, we drove into Guatemala for lunch and reached El Salvador in late afternoon. That day we had three meals in three different countries! In El Salvador we decided to book a whole hostel in an incredible location: on the inner slopes of a crater lake. The immense lake Coatepeque is a great place to paddleboard, jump in from the hostel’s elevated balcony and have a beer right above the water. It’s also 30km away from Santa Ana volcano, which most of us climbed on our free day!



We re-entered Guatemala – for good this time – and drove to Antigua for an extended stay in the beautiful colonial city. Boasting a rich history and surrounded by volcanoes, everyone found something to do. Some immersed themselves in the local culture by visiting a local high school, a carpenter (coffin makers), a local bus refurbishing shop or attending an iron workshop.




Others attempted the ascension of various volcanoes, including the active Pacaya Volcano, where you can walk on its solid lava field and roast marshmallows above its cracks. The Acatenango, standing at nearly 4000m, was climbed in time for sunrise after a night camping on its slopes. This demanding trek allowed the bravest of us to approach the Fuego Volcano just before sunset, witnessing its constant eruptions standing barely 900m away. A once-in-a-lifetime experience!






Our second stop in Guatemala was Panajachel, a town established on the shore of the iconic lake Atitlán. Two nights there gave us time to walk around its streets and markets and hire a boat to visit four of the main villages settled around the lake, quite remote and unique.


Part Six

On Guatemala’s Mothers’ Day, we paid a visit to what has been for us an unexpected highlight: Manos Amigas. Literally meaning “Friendly Hands”, it is a shelter for poor women victims of abuse and domestic violence and their kids that started in 1992 after the Italian Sister Marcella visited Guatemala. Running solely on donations, mostly from Italian donors, the project grew from five basic houses to over 40 and today accommodates as many mothers and nearly 150 children in need.



They received us for a day and a night to show us around, explain how the centre works and give the kids and us an opportunity to meet (and play!). So much energy, so much love! We even had the chance to meet with the brain and heart behind the project as Sister Marcella joined us for dinner. Her haven for the unfortunate is truly remarkable: a school to educate all the centre’s children and over a hundred more from the outside, big gardens and dozens of animals to provide all the food needed (except for some fruits), free workshops to teach the mothers skills and trades, a permanent nurse and a doctor coming every week to screen women for cancer, regular distribution of used clothes for all and quarterly donations of staple food to each family… and more!

An exceptional inspiration, Sister Marcella has made sure the main focus of Manos Amigas stays on the education of the children living there, making the kids’ attendance at school necessary for mothers in order to receive the food aid. A success story where Dragoman is the only visitor, except for some of the Italian “godfathers” that come to meet the children they sponsor.


Playing with the kids put a smile on all of our faces as they insisted to visit our bus Betsy, carry all of our bags inside and hold our hands as much as possible. Their energy and smiles spread like an electric shock as they climbed on our shoulders and laughed like only children do. Without a worry in the world, they welcomed us into their unique reality.


For an afternoon, we were all laughing children.


Part Seven


We continued our journey through Guatemala with a couple of nights in Rio Dulce, a famous and strategic river connecting the country’s largest lake to the Caribbean Sea, and used to protect the area from pirates when it was an important shipping point. We relaxed in our stilt houses or by the pool as some went for a sunrise kayak excursion with the howler monkeys. Our free day was spent on a boat trip that brought us to Livingston, a colonial town established where the river meets the sea and that was once Guatemala’s main port on the Atlantic Ocean.


A short drive North brought us to Poptun, a small town where we stayed on a beautiful eco farm surrounded by lush jungle and steep hills. We had our first camping meal and a few adventurous went to explore a cave network only with the light from their head torches and candles placed in strategic corners by the guide. Swimming nearly half the time inside the cave’s tunnels, we even had the chance to jump off a 5m waterfall near the end!


Our last stop in Guatemala was Tikal, the renowned Mayan ruins archaeological site. Camping next to it in the national park allowed us to beat the crowds for our guided visit and roam through the spectacular pre-Columbian temples before it got too hot. As a bonus, we were lucky enough to hear howler monkeys during the night and see a dozen toucans eat fruits from the tree right next to our breakfast setup!


Part Eight

We exited Guatemala from the East, entering Belize, a tiny and quite peculiar country on the Caribbean coast. With its British heritage, its currency pinned on the US dollar, its relatively small size and even smaller population, it definitely stands out from the rest of Central American countries! Did you know that since 1821, and up to this day, Guatemala has claimed the whole or part of Belize? Through a nationwide referendum, Belizeans voted a couple of weeks ago to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice, hoping to end its neighbour’s ambitions stemming mostly from an old treaty going back to colonial times.

We first spent time in San Ignacio, a town well known for its cave-related activities, especially the enormous ATM Cave where ancient Mayas would hold ceremonies and perform sacrifices. Swimming in the tunnels, sliding through tight spaces and seeing the bones and skeletons preserved in the water’s sediments make it an unforgettable experience! Unfortunately cameras are forbidden when visiting the ATM Cave so we have no photos!


A few hours’ drive away from San Ignacio is… the Atlantic Ocean! From the capital Belize City we took a taxi boat to reach the tiny tropical island of Caye Caulker. Three nights there allowed us to truly enjoy the place: laying in the sun, taking a one hour flight over the legendary Blue Hole, snorkelling over corals with fish, rays and even sharks… Indeed, next to Caye Caulker is one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, second only to the Australian one!


Back on the mainland, we crossed into the homeland of spicy cuisine, sombreros and tequila: Mexico! Our first stop was Tulum, a town by the east coast where we visited the ruins it is most known for. It is also located in the region of cenotes, impressive natural holes in the ground reaching all the way to underground rivers, a phenomenon that made it possible for Mayans to settle in the area thousands of years ago. All different from each other, some have freshwater all the way up to the surface while some others require climbing down tens of meters in a cave. In most of them, pristine and cool water make it into a fantastic swimming or snorkelling option.


Part Nine

We saw one of the seven wonders of the modern world! Chichen Itza is an astonishing archaeological site with plenty of restored and non-restored buildings from the Mayan civilisation. We spent half a day visiting the place and learning about its impressive temples, its gigantic Mayan ball court and the surprising knowledge the indigenous population had to build such a city.


We spent a few hours swimming in beautiful cenote Ik Kil, next to the Chichen Itza ruins.


After spending a night in Merida, a big city of the state of Yucatan, we drove to Palenque where we camped not far from another important site of Mayan ruins. We spent a day there to visit them and enjoy the pool of the campsite, and left the following morning to reach Frontera Corozal. A small town by the river that flows between Guatemala and Mexico, it also boasts an ancient Mayan city with temples hidden in a part of the jungle only accessible by boat. The ride on the river even allowed us to witness Central American migrants gathering on the Guatemalan shore in the hope of crossing (illegally) the river and reaching Mexico in hope of a better future.

From the very hot and humid jungle of southern Mexico we drove north and west into unexpectedly cool and green mountains. We reach San Cristobal de las Casas, a city that no-one on board knew much about but that turned into a highlight for all of us. Three nights there allowed us to take a boat ride along a majestic canyon – 1000 meters deep at some point! – and go on a guided visit of two local villages.


Why visit other neighbouring towns? Because they are indigenous! Living by very different rules and with their own languages, these were absolutely fascinating to see and learn about. Some of these towns have their own police force, made of a mandatory one year service for men, and the Mexican government doesn’t intervene much in the communities’ affairs. They have their own judicial system and criminal codes, prison cells in the public place and their own faith, a mix of ancient mythology and Catholicism. We had never seen a church without a priest or benches, with its floor covered in fresh pine needles, where people simply sit where they please and light candles on the floor to pray! The shamans sacrificing live chicken and the local music accompanying a ceremony honouring a saint also added to the uniqueness…


Part Ten

Our journey through the Mexican mountains continued as we stayed for a couple nights in Oaxaca, a busier city than our previous stops. Near it, on the very top of a mountain, is located an ancient pre-Columbian settlement. Built by the Zapotec (contemporaries of the Mayans), it certainly is one of the most impressive ruins sites we have seen. To use the top of the mountain, the indigenous people proceeded to flatten it – without the use of metal tools or the wheel – and created a phenomenal complex of temples and religious buildings around an enormous plaza.


We then drove to Mexico City where the second leg of our trip ended, and the third started. Located above 2000m, the Mexican capital is like the rest of the country: breaking stereotypes of a dry and hot place mostly associated with cacti, desert and burning sun. We found instead a comfortable, busy and vibrant city with plenty to do! Visiting the ruins of Teotihuacan, an archaeological site boasting mysterious and immense pyramids only paralleled in movies and fantasy novels, was certainly a highlight.


Angahuan, our next stop, is known for the Paricutin volcano. Although we had never heard of it, it is one of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders! The main reason is that it is the only known volcano that was born in modern times. Imagine farming your land when cracks and smoke start to appear all over your land… That is what happened to a local farmer in 1943, before the volcano eventually buried the whole neighbouring town. Some of us decided to hike its summit in a fairly demanding climb while some others went to walk on the lava field surrounding it, solidified lava that completely buried the village except for the church’s tower. Quite a sight!


Part Eleven




Leaving the mountainous and cool part of Mexico for good, we headed towards the Pacific coast with a stop in the well known town of Tequila! We visited a tequileria to learn more about the process behind the famous Mexican alcohol (and also to taste multiple varieties of Tequila!). We then spent a couple nights in the lovely touristy town of Sayulita, enjoying fabulous food and a nice beach in a relaxing atmosphere. Everyone loves a bit of rest and slow-paced holiday! We then started our journey towards the United States, stopping en route for a night in Mazatlan, one in San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas and one next to Patagonia Lake in Arizona as we crossed into the United States of America.


From there we reached Arizona’s biggest city, Phoenix, and then headed to the second Natural Wonder of the World visited on this trip: the almighty Grand Canyon! We spent a full day walking along the canyon’s endless rim, some of us exploring further by hiking part of the way down. We stayed until the sunset, filling our heads and cameras with unforgettable sights. An absolute highlight!


We then left Arizona and drove part of the “Mother Road”, Route 66, with a lunch stop in a truly American diner serving decadent milkshakes, hotdogs topped with mac’n’cheese and all sorts of hamburgers. Our experience of the American culture was only beginning though, as we soon realized at the sight of Las Vegas’ neon signs, gigantic billboards and multiple casinos. Two nights in the Luxor gave everyone the chance to get acquainted with the city of sins, its plethora of shows, decadent food and 24-hour vibrant city life.


Learn more about Dragoman’s North & Central American Overland tour.