A Traveller's Guide to Central America
Seemingly endless jungles full of unique wildlife. Peaceful stretches of coastline with beaches in all shades of white, yellow, brown and black. Towering volcanoes, many of them still active, always visible on the horizon. Chaotic cities and quaint towns full of colour and charisma. Friendly people who continue to adapt to the modern world, while keeping centuries-old traditions alive.
The isthmus of Central America, the bridge of land that connects South and North America, is so full of wonder it is impossible to narrow it down to one sentence. Small enough to travel through in a month or two, but vast in the experiences you will encounter, this idyllic paradise full of history is composed of seven individual nations, similar in culture, but each with its own allure. Discover any one of these nations on its own, or travel like I did through all seven to get the full picture of what Central America is all about...
The southernmost country in Central America, and the most affluent, Panama is an easy, low-culture shock transition into Latin America. Panama City, the country’s capital, combines a beautiful historic centre full of colonial architecture and cobbled streets with a modern glass and steel skyscraper-filled skyline – best admired at night from one of the many rooftop patios in the old town. Be sure to visit the famous Panama Canal to learn about this architectural feat, and stop by the seafood market for fresh ceviche. In the north of the country, the islands of Bocas del Toro are a Caribbean paradise with beautiful beaches, lush landscapes, and a relaxed atmosphere great for a quiet holiday.
One of the most visited countries in Central America, and my personal favourite, Costa Rica is recognized as the greenest country in the world in terms of environmental sustainability. On the west coast, Manuel Antonio National Park is a beautiful nature haven with stunning beaches and the best wildlife-spotting opportunities in the country. Up north, you can explore magical forests and breathe in fresh mountain air in the cloud forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena or go and explore Arenal, the country’s highest volcano. The capital San Jose has various museums, dining and nightlife options; visit the ‘Museo de Arte Costarricense’ to admire art by local artists, and eat a typical, inexpensive lunch at one of the ‘sodas’ (local diners) in the central market. While you’re in the country, make sure to adopt Costa Rica’s famous ‘pura vida', a local saying and way of life which encourages you to relax and enjoy every aspect of life, every day!
Facing a two-decade dictatorship followed by a bloody revolution until the late 1980s, Nicaragua is now becoming a hotspot travel destination, and a country that must definitely should be on your bucket list. The heart of the revolution that liberated the country, the city of León in the north is famous for its many beautiful churches and is home to the rundown but interesting revolution museum, where you will get a history lesson from a surviving revolutionary himself. Down south, the city of Granada is often regarded as León’s prettier (although not-as-cool) sister. It's a lovely town with cobbled streets and brightly-painted homes, on the edge of Lake Nicaragua – my favourite spot in the country. For something more adventurous, visit Ometepe, a twin-volcano island in the middle of the lake, which will show you a more rustic side of Nicaragua.
The smallest nation in Central America, El Salvador is only now starting to develop a tourism identity. San Salvador, the capital, has its charm but is not for the faint hearted; get used to the litter on the ground (the city stopped installing rubbish bins as thieves continuously stole them) and the rifle-carrying guards at every corner. See past that, and you’ll discover the pretty architecture of the historic centre, including the cathedral, the national palace, and the national theatre. Much like San Salvador itself, the ‘El Rosario Church’ is a wonderful surprise: a curved concrete eyesore on the outside, the inside reveals a rainbow of stained glass spanning its entire ceiling. To escape the city, head to the trails of Boqueron, the iconic volcano that towers over San Salvador, or if you have time for a road trip, explore the scenic, 22-mile Route of Flowers. Wherever you find yourself, make sure to indulge in the national dish: ‘pupusas’. This thick corn tortilla, filled with anything from beans, to cheese, to meat or vegetables, is almost enough reason on its own to visit El Salvador.
Political instability and an increase in crime in the nation's capital have taken a toll on tourism, but Honduras is slowly making a comeback. Stay away from the capital and focus instead on the outlying towns and you’ll understand why Honduras is worth visiting. Copan is the archaeological site of one of the most important ancient Mayan settlements; explore Copan’s history, gaze at the well-preserved stone carvings, and marvel at the height of the Pyramids on the site. Copan Ruinas, the small charming town built at the entrance to the archaeological site, is full of wonderful little restaurants and has hands-down the friendliest locals I came across while in Central America. If you are a beach lover, head over to Roatan or Utila in the Bay Islands, where you will find lovely white sand beaches and great snorkelling opportunities in the southern end of the second-largest reef in the world.
Another country that should be on everyone’s bucket list is Guatemala. Antigua, a stunning colonial city surrounded by fuming volcanoes, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Here, you can enjoy the views from a rooftop patio and eat delicious food at one of the many cosmopolitan restaurants. For something more active, take a 9.9-mile hike up the nearby Pacaya volcano and enjoy the unique ashy landscapes of an active volcano. In the middle of the country, the quaint village Lanquin is the gateway to Semuc Champey, a natural monument which is best known for a series of natural terrace pools with cascading turquoise waters flowing through them; here, check out an exciting caving expedition and relax while tubing down the beautiful calm river. In the north of the country, visit the island town of Flores on Peten Itza Lake, and make sure to explore the nearby ruins of Tikal, the country’s most famous – and most impressive – Mayan archaeological site. You'll recognise it from Star Wars: A New Hope.
As a British Commonwealth nation, Belize is different from any of its neighbours in everything from language, to food, to customs. Heaps of visitors that go to this small nation on the Caribbean Sea mostly do so for its pretty cayes, a series of small islands built on reefs, with a laid-back atmosphere reminiscent of Jamaica or St Lucia. Caye Caulker is often regarded as the prettiest of its kind, with a tiny town painted in pastel colours, full with nice eateries and seaside hotels, but no beaches in sight. San Pedro is famous for being the inspiration behind Madonna’s La Isla Bonita, and substantially more built-up and cosmopolitan. While the lack of beaches in the cayes disappointed me, the food I ate in Belize made up for it – cheap, fresh lobster, spicy curries and jerk chicken were abundant, not to mention oh-so yummy!