If I had a tenner for every time someone asked me about my holiday to South America when I was actually about to go or had just come back from Central America, I’d have a tidy pot towards my next trip.
Somehow the strip of land that links North and South America seems to be often overlooked, despite it consisting of seven countries that have a huge amount to offer. Lakes, volcanoes, Mayan ruins deep in the jungle, stunning beaches, colonial towns, cloud forests and very cheap Spanish schools are just some of the reasons to visit. Then there’s the fact that being closer to the UK, the flights are pretty reasonable compared to those to South America.
I’ve started to capture some of my visits to the region and have a fair number still to add, but I thought I’d take a few minutes to share 10 Central America experiences that were highlights for me. In no particular order they are…
1. Swimming with the starfish – Isla Colón is the biggest island of the Bocas del Toro archipelago and about half an hour by boat from the coast of Panama. Colourful Bocas town is the main hub with lots of places to stay, eat and drink but doesn’t actually have much in the way of a beach.
Better to take a bus or taxi to Boca del Drago, also known as starfish beach. From where you get dropped off it’s a bit of walk around to get to the beach (though there are also boats), but keep going because it’s worth it and you’ll know you’ve arrived when the starfish start to appear as its one beach that definitely lives up to its name.
2. Smokin’ Masaya – you’ll see a lot of volcanoes in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua, but Volcán Masaya is one that is still active and being in a National Park its craters are also accessible. Close to Granada it can easily be visited on a day trip from there and given it’s a long walk up to the craters once you get to the entrance of the park, it’s easiest to book a tour from Granada or take a taxi. The driver will know that it’s required to park facing away from the crater in case there’s an eruption and a quick getaway is needed!
A smoking volcano is really something close up and after you feel it catching in your throat a couple of times you’ll be inclined to quickly turn away when you see a misty cloud coming your way. And once you’ve had your fill of steam and smoke the local village of Masaya is worth dropping into as has a pretty fab market where I couldn’t resist buying a very cheap hammock – if only I had the weather to make use of it in England!
3. Pizza on the farm – definitely the best pizza I had in Central America was at El Zopilote, an ecological farm near to Balgüe on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island. It’s a bit of a walk up the hillside and probably best done while still light so you have an idea of what you’ll be doing when you come down in the dark after a few beers with only a torch to show the way, though there is accommodation available at the farm too.
The brick and clay pizza oven is only fired up on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and you need to book by 4pm so there are enough pizza bases produced. It’s a very laid back place with a definite hippy vibe and friendly folk – all conducive to a great night that’s about a far from Pizza Express as you could imagine. Ometepe is a good place for a little bit of R&R or volcano climbing. The island was formed by twin volcanoes and where their lava flow joined them in the middle is Santo Domingo which has a pretty decent beach considering its made from volcanic sand.
4. Chasing Quetzals in the cloud forest – I was pretty dubious for the first 10 minutes of hurtling around after a guide in the misty cloud forest at 7 in the morning, but it was alarming how quickly I became a dedicated twitcher.
Monteverde in Costa Rica is known as the place to see the Quetzal, one of Central America’s most famous birds. It lived up to the promise for me and my advice would be to not even attempt a cloud forest walk without a guide. It’s pretty much impossible to see the birds so high up, but somehow these amazing guides hear and see the slightest movement – and they have mighty big telescopes that you can view the birds through and take amazing photos. The stunning Quetzal is below and there are more photos and info in my post A twitcher for a day in Costa Rica.
5. Chugging along with the chickens – I’ve heard people complain about the packed chicken buses and maybe if you did every journey that way it would wear a bit thin. But for me the journey from David to Boquete in Panama was an unmissable part of the trip.
People of all shapes and sizes, some dressed in suits, some in t-shirts and shorts plus babies, children, dogs and chickens all packed together on a bus that had a painting of the Taj Mahal on the front, chugging its way up to the mountain town. What’s not to love about that?! You can find out more about our chicken bus destination in my post A breath of fresh air in Boquete.
6. The Maya’s Paris – I’ve been to a fair number of Mayan sites now and Copan in Honduras wasn’t particularly on my radar, but when I visited I could see why it was known as the Paris of the Maya world. Although it doesn’t have the most impressive structures, it was culturally way ahead with fantastic sculptures and hieroglyphics.
It’s only a short walk from Copan Ruinas town so an early morning trip doesn’t mean getting up at the crack of dawn and is worth it to enjoy the site while it’s still quiet and not baking hot. And if you fancy a splurge later book into the beautiful Hacienda San Lucas just outside of the town for a culinary five course feast.
7. The Lake Como of Central America – if you’ve been to the Italian lakes and loved them, then Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala is an essential stop on your Central America itinerary. It was Aldous Huxley who said it was as beautiful as Lake Como but with the added bonus of being surrounded by volcanoes and in my opinion he was absolutely right.
Although possibly not the nicest of the towns on the lake shore, Panajachel does offer stunning views and a boat trip around the lake to visit the other villages dotted around it make for a perfect day out. Read more about Lake Atitlan in my post Room with a Fabulous View.
8. Cheeky monkeys – if I’m honest I’m not a huge fan of monkeys but they’re not to be missed on a boat ride around Las Isletas, a group of around 350 tiny islands on Lake Nicaragua, just outside Granada. They live, not surprisingly, on Monkey Island and have a tendency to jump on the boats that pass nearby.
Other than the monkeys a trip around scenic Las Isletas is a great way to spend an afternoon. The islands were formed by an erupting volcano and as well as attracting plenty of birdlife many have fabulous looking homes on them – an interesting contrast to many of the other homes you’ll see in Nicaragua.
9. The towering temples of Tikal – I’ve written a post all about the Towering temples of Tikal which is a truly awesome Mayan site and well worth the trek to the north of Guatemala. Deep in the jungle pyramids abound and just when you think you’ve seen it all a trail leads to another part of the site that is just as fabulous.
10. Signs of the revolution – it would be easy to miss out Leon in Nicaragua and just visit its more famous colonial sister Granada, but the former capital is worth a stop and you might just stay longer than you plan to. I certainly felt like it was somewhere I could spend some time and the great selection of low cost accommodation and Spanish schools could make it an excellent choice for study.
But if you’re just there for a short stay as I was then don’t miss the murals. The stunning paintings adorn walls across the city and are a stark reminder than the town was a major player in the revolution which took place as recently as the late 1970s. Read more about the city in my post Leon is for living.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery.