What to expect from the hotels in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, based on 38 years travel and residence in these countries.
Hotel brochures and ads: a hotel which is alongside an open sewer, next to a swamp, and all that in the middle of a city, lists itself as the ".....Hotel Tikal," yet this hotel is nowhere near the Tikal National Park. How is an unsuspecting visitor from Europe or Asia supposed to know in advance that this hotel is not in the picturesque jungle but in the most unpleasant location imagineable?
Cheating on location is a standard feature of many hotel brochures. "just minutes from Tikal..." when the hotel is, in reality, about 60 minutes from the site. Or "near the famous ruins of Tikal..." when the hotel is miles from the nearest rain forest.
Hotels which advertise bungalows generally do not alert you to the fact these structures are duplexes or even have as many as four habitations in the same "bungalow." Admittedly a bungalow of any size is better than a 20-story concrete block, but if you are sharing a wall and/or floor with countless other unknown people it is rather hard to be romantic much less sunbathe topless.
Most bungalows should be translated as "cabins." These are often the kind of spartan cabin found in summer camps for children. One of the few hotels with really nice bungalows is Chan Chich, Belize or Bayman's Bay Club, Utilla Island, Bay Islands (Honduras).
"lush gardens" = a few tropical plants scattered around. An exception would be Villa de los Castellanos, near Poptun, Peten, which actually has a botanical garden backing the hotel.
jungle tour = a few plam trees and vines, generally surrounded by wasteland, cattle ranches, urban sprawl, or other human deprecation of the natural world. If you live in New Jersey or Chicago you would probably accept anything as a jungle, but if you have lived in an actual rain forest with howler monkeys and jaguars, 75% of the hotels what advertise a jungle tour or jungle atmosphere offer a best a Disneyland parody of a rain forest. Concrete, asphalt, roads, parking lots, construction, agriculture, and clearcutting for cattle have obliterated virtually all the jungle outside the national parks. And inside the national parks the tourist facilities have naturally required eliminating the jungle as well.
The only place you get a real jungle tour would be at El Sombrero (Yaxha), any hotel physically within the Tikal National Park, Posada Caribe (near Sayaxche), or Chan Chich (Belize). The hotels at Tikal are situated in an urbanized strip but the jungle is literally actually just five minute walk away and the ruins are only a 10 minute walk to the first Twin Pyramid Complex. I have seen troops of spider monkeys cavort in the trees over my room at the Posada de la Selva (Jungle Lodge, Tikal) and wild turkeys stroll around in front of the Jaguar Inn at Tikal as well. But outside these few hotels, beware of ads that picture jaguars, toucans, and tropical flowers. These pictures are purchased from clip-art and stock-photo agencies, indeed most of the hotels in the country use the same jaguar. There are two jaguars (both in zoos) which are pictured in over half the hotel brochures of one of the Central American countries.
it is not always the fault of a hotel that it is directly adjacent to a gas station (Hotel Santo Tomas, Chichicastenango). In the case of the Santo Tomas, it is paradise once you are inside their property. The rooms are so nice that you quickly forget the situation outside. But if you are picky about the immediate environment, double-check this factor in advance.
Most mattresses are too soft and you sag uncomfortably. Economy hotels and especially out in the country, may even have sponge instead of an actual mattress. Pillows are even worse. Most pillows are far too thick--great for propping you up while reading in bed but a disaster for sleeping.
towels tend to be tattered at the edges and may have stains (especially rust stains). Even when freshly washed various remnants may be noticeable.
80% of the restaurants that I have eatten in in Mexico and probably 50% in other neighboring countries have burn holes in the table cloths. Even in expensive restaurants, if you check every table cloth in the restaurant, you will almost certainly find one or more with burn holes. Just accept this as part of local atmosphere. Fortunately few people actually smoke, far less than in Europe, so cancerous smoke is not usually an issue.
chipped paint, peeling paint, water stains, especially in the ceiling, are common even in 4-start hotels.
the majority of hotel swimming pools in Latin America have water of milky color, with considerable floating detrius. At least half the hotel swimming pools were not clean enough to be inviting. Exceptions were 5-star hotels, such as Villa Maya (Peten) or Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (Antigua), where the pools were clean to international standards.
few hotels clean up the garbage that litters Central American beaches. Even hotels that rake their sand daily will ignore garbage out in the water. On many beaches the low tide will expose mud flats that smell badly, but at least this is a natural odor. Beaches on the Atlantic side of Mexico are not pristine; beaches on the Caribbean side of Mexico can be lovely and truly as beautiful as a picture postcard. Beaches on Guatemala's Pacific Coast are black volcanic sand with towering waves (producing dangerous undertow). Beaches on many of the attractive cayes of Belize are fronted by mud flats since the barrier reef keeps waves from lapping anywhere near the shore. The beach itself is sand (actually largely pulverized seashell), but you cannot wade out from the beach into the water (due to deep and oderiferous mud). From the pier, by boat, however, you can be taken to nice areas to snorkle.
any hotel in the Peten or adjacent tropical areas will tend to have mildew and general odor of mold, especially in blankets and beadspreads. If the hotel has rugs they will be even worse. This is not entirely a result of sloppy cleaning, it is the reality of the humid tropics. Thick towels simply never dry out properly, so they smell of mold no matter how recently they were washed.
Most toilet seats have chipped paint and/or are missing parts of the attachment fastenings, or the fastenings are loose.
The majority of four-star hotels have clean bathrooms, but 3-star hotels and below tend to have dirty washbasins and dirty faucets (along with chipped wash basins, etc). I have, though, never contracted foot fungus even in 2-star hotels.
Brown stains are common in toilets. This ring-around-the-toilet can be found even in hotels charging up to US $200 a night. Obviously in such a case you can request a new room (or at least a cleaner toilet). In some cases, however, the stain is from minerals in the water, and hence not fecal material or urine stain. So be forgiving if in a geological area of high mineral content.
Even five star hotels generally have the cheapest bathroom fixtures (and doorknobs) and absolutely the cheapest showerheads.
either if the hotel itself is remodeling, adding a new wing, or is adjacent to new construction, can ruin a vacation. Be sure to get confirmation, in writing (that is, nowadays, in an e-mail) that there is no construction, or at least get a discount. We noticed considerable construction in Belize, especially on the cayes.
the majority of hotels throughout Latin America offer a symphony of urban noise, especially vehicles, and often humo negro diesel fumes as well. The quietest hotel we found so far was the El Sombrero (Yaxha, Peten), the Villa Maya (between Santa Elena and Tikal), and the inside sections of the Hotel Santo Domingo (Antigua).
noise generated from within your own room can ruin a night's sleep. Air-conditioners run with a jet engine, or servi-bars that turn on and off in the middle of the night are the usual cause. What I consider the fanciest 5-star hotel in Merida was flawed by a needlessly loud air-conditioner. Buzzing of mosquitos is another nocturnal sound that can cause vacation stress but that is another whole aspect of reality of the tropics.
I have spent more of my vacations in Latin America than in any other part of the world. I have organized and led tours throughout the Maya and Andean areas. I still enjoy these countries and look forward to returning again and again. The hotel staffs in Central America tend to be friendly, a genuine friendliness that you do not always get out in many Caribbean Islands where tourists are treated like unwelcome guests. Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Honduras are renowned for their honest hospitality. Visitors are welcome and often treated like family.
Nonetheless, in the push to make a profit, most hotels cut corners and pad their ads and brochures. I have found that tourists will often understand and even accept a defect if they are honestly informed of the problem beforehand. Thus I hope this brief section on Reality Check will help both the hotel owners and managers understand what can ruin a vacation, and will assist the tourist from recognizing that life in tropical Central America is not the antisceptic culture of Switzerland. But then again, if you want the monotony of Swiss life you should live in Switzerland (I did and I much prefer to vacation in Latin America).
problems such as construction noise, urban noise, air-conditioner noise, are all to be expected in hotels throughout the world, even in the USA. Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala have so many interesting cultural, ecological, and archaeological aspects of interest that all these countries are well worth visiting despite the reality of hotel conditions, especially since not every defect is present in every hotel. For example, I found the Radisson Fort George (Belize) absolutely delightful, the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (Antigua) was heavenly, the Villa Maya (Peten) peaceful and idylic, and the Chan Chich (Belize) is one of my top favorites.