Any TV programme about travelling half way across the world without flying or the use of a smartphone and with only limited cash is bound to get our attention. And that's what BBC's Race Across the World did last year when it hit our screens, following five pairs of intrepid travellers on a mammoth journey from London to Singapore in the hope of bagging themselves the £20,000 prize.
Returning this week for its second series, the competition heads to Central and South America where the contestants must embark on an epic 25,000km journey through some of the world's most challenging countries. Starting in Mexico City, episode 1 saw the couples muddle their way through Guatemala and Belize before hitting the first checkpoint in Honduras. If you're inspired to follow in their footsteps, keep reading.
Starting point – Castillo de Chapultepec
The castle is situated in Mexico City's Bosque de Chapultepec (meaning 'Hill of Crickets' in Nahuatl), a former Aztec imperial resort and hunting ground. This park is particularly popular on Sundays, when families arrive to partake in picnics, stroll around, visit the numerous free museums, or otherwise enjoy the shade of the thousands of trees.
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Commissioned in 1785, the castle was built as a replacement for another fortress which was destroyed in an accidental gunpowder explosion. The present structure took several decades to complete and remained empty until 1841 when it found purpose as a military academy.
It was here that the famous niños heroes (the brave child cadets immortalised in a white marble monument at the base of the hill) staved off an attack by US marines in 1847. Rather than surrender to the gringoes, the last survivors committed suicide by jumping to their deaths. In 1864, Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Empress Carlotta, converted the castle into their personal residence, sculpting the park to their tastes and importing all matter of sumptuous furnishings.
A vast, swarming, unrepentant chaos of humanity, Mexico City is the fabled captial of the nation. Few cities are so behemoth in spirit and scope – or so thrilling.
Periodically destroyed and reborn through conquest, revolution, earthquakes and war, Mexico City's historical incarnations are many: the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the administrative heart of colonial New Spain, and later, federal capital of an independent, post-revolutionary Mexico. Today, as a teeming 21st-century metropolis, it is home to an intricate mosaic of some 22 million lives.
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Unsurprisingly, it has harboured generations of world-class writers and artists, from William Burroughs to Frida Kahlo. Among its attractions are a wealth of architectural wonders, outstanding museums, cultural centres, art galleries, nightclubs and restaurants. This is a city of insatiable energy, and like all great imperial capitals, Mexico City possesses style and intrigue in abundance.
Enveloped in thick canopies of foliage, the ruined metropolis of Palenque is one of Mexico's most striking and enigmatic archeaological sites. It's this lush rainforest setting as much as its cultural and artistic achievements that conspire to make it one of Mexico's most vivid destinations.
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Built at the height of the Classic period on a series of artificial terraces surrounded by jungle, Palenque was constructed for stategic purposes, with evidence of defensive apertures in some of the remaining walls. In the centre of the site is the Palace, a massive warren of buildings with an asymmetrical tower rising above them, and fine views to the north. The tower was probably used as an astronomical observatory and a watchtower. The outer buildings of the palace have an unusual series of galleries, offering shade from the jungle heat of the site.
Bright, bold, breezy and bohemian Oaxaca City is the forward-looking capital of Oaxaca State. It was, at its foundation in 1522, the region's seat of colonial and evanglical power, a hub of trade and transport, and later, as its lofty assembly of churches and convents explanded, a singularly aesthetic monument to the unashamedly florid Churrigueresque style of architecture.
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Today, thanks to its universities and tireless creative spirit, it is also a youthful destination renowned for its thriving arts scene. From priceless canvases by Mexican masters to hand-woven silk tapestries that fetch thousands of dollars on the international market, scores of galleries, community co-operatives and graphic arts institutes display the finest popular and contemporary work in the country.
Hierve el Agua
The phenomenon of pale white stones cascading down the mountainside – the so-called petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua – was formed over thousands of years by seeping groundwater saturated with calcium carbonate (limestone). The site features sublime cliff-top pools where you can bathe in cool, refreshing, mineral-rich spring water and breathe in expansive highland vistas.
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Before visiting, check with the Oaxaca City tourist board that the site is open, as it often closes in the wet season (and sometimes the early dry season). There are changing rooms, cabins and a place to eat at the pools.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
Nestled on the floor of a high green valley is the cool, bright, mysterious mountain enclave of San Cristóbal de las Casas, sometimes known by its Tzotzil name, 'Jovel'. It is the largest urban settlement in the Chiapas highlands and a vital hub of trade for Mayan communities dispersed in the surrounding hills and pine forests.
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Despite serving as the capital of Chiapas until its relocation to Tuxtla in 1892, it has always been an insular place, characterised by its many poor indigenous barrios, and during the colonial era, its devout monastic insitutions and its somewhat over-privileged Spanish elite.
Mérida, the cultural and intellectual capital of the Yucatán Peninsula, is a bustling, tightly packed city. There is continual activity in the centre, with a huge influx of tourists, during the high season mingling with busy Meridanos going about their daily business. Although the city has been developed over many years for tourism, there is plenty of local flavour, including the pungent and warren-like city market, a throng of commotion, noise and colour.
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Whether sipping coffee in a leafy colonial courtyard or admiring the mansions on the regal Paseo de Montejo, much of the pleasure in Mérida comes from exploring its architecture, a rich blend of European styles that spans the centuries. It is perhaps no surprise that many inhabitants of Mexico City are now relocating to the infinitely more civilised and urbane destination of Mérida.
Perched high on a sea cliff overlooking the eastern horizon, Tulum was originally named Zama, meaning 'City of the Dawn' in Yucatec Maya. Rising to prominence during the late post-Classic era (1200-1450 AD), it was an important trade hub where itinerant merchants exchanged precious commodities such as obsidian, jade and copper. Home to approximately 1500 inhabitants, the settlement was accessed by sea canoe through a gap in the offshore reef.
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The word 'Tulum' means wall or fence in Maya and the entire city was surrounded by walls, partially standing today. The grandest building is El Castillo, a fortress-like structure built in several phases on the edge of a cliff. It contains shrines and vaulted rooms, but you are not permitted to climb its steps. Bring a swimsuit if you want to scramble down from the ruins to one of the beaches for a swim.
On Caye Caulker, a thin line of white sandy beach falls to a sea of blue and green, while the reef can be seen a mile and a half from the shore. By day on this tranquil island, it's diving and snorkelling, sea and sand; at dusk everyone heads up to the Split (a small channel) to watch the sunset.
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By night it's eating, drinking and dancing. A quiet, lobster-fishing island until fairly recently, its relaxed atmosphere, gentle climate, postcard-perfect views and the myriad of small restaurants and bars have drawn increasing number of tourists.
As capital of Belize, Belmopan has been the seat of government since 1970. It is 50 miles inland to the west of Belize City, near the junction of the Western Highway and the and the Hummingbird Highway to Dangriga.
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Following the devastation caused in Belize City by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, plans were drawn up for a town that could be a centre for government, business and study away from the coast: Belmopan is the result.
Antigua is rightly one of Guatemala's most popular destinations. It overflows with colonial architecture and fine churches on streets that are linked by squat houses, painted in ochre shades and topped with terracotta tiles, basking in the fractured light of the setting sun.
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If the city was not treasure enough, the setting is truly memorable. Volcán Agua (3766 m) is due south and the market is to the west, behind which hang the imposing peaks of Volcán Acatenango (3976 m) and Volcán Fuego (3763 m), which still emits the occasional column of ash as a warning of the latent power within.
Checkpoint 1 – Copán Ruinas
A charming town set in the hills just to the east of the border with Guatemala – Copán Ruinas thrives and survives on visitors passing through to visit the nearby ruins. Nevertheless, it is arguably the best-preserved and one of the most pleasant towns in Honduras.
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In addition to the enigmatic ruins of Copán, the town offers good hotels and restaurants, coffee plantation tours, hiking, caving, hot springs, horse riding, langauge schools and volunteer opportunities.