With summer around the bend I can’t help but reminisce on the time when I went backpacking in Central America. Before having the experience, I couldn’t have imagined how amazing and life-changing the trip was going to be. The people and the cultures are as diverse as the landscape, and the food – oh the food – is magnificent (farm-to-table).
I did my travels smoothly thanks to the help of Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring travel guide and with approximately $1000 to $1200 USD. The guidebook has an excellent coverage of the history and current conditions of each Central American nation and was incredibly helpful with wonderful tips on where are the best places to eat, stay and explore. It basically was great to experience the best of Central America in two months!
Here are the top 10 spots that you shouldn’t miss when you travel in Central America.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
The Guatemalan highlands are beautiful but when you get to el Lago de Atitlan, you are blown away by the scenery. The majestic volcanoes that surround the massive lake have a way to make you appreciate nature in a way you may have never before – I remember staring at the panorama and saying: “Guatemala isn’t poor”. The lake is surrounded by 12 small villages each bearing the names of Jesus’ 12 disciples. San Pedro de la Laguna is my favorite as accommodations are cheap and there are several great places to eat and drink. But I must admit that my favourite meal when I was there was from a lady who would set-up her chicken barbecue stall every evening. Activities to do nearby include volcano trekking, swimming, sailing, and hiking on nature trails.
San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur was a destination that I ran into by accident. Leaving Granada, I had planned to go directly to Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica but after hearing stories from fellow travellers of how amazing the beaches were, I followed my gut and took a detour. At first, I was a bit scared since getting there involved a rocky and desolate road to nowhere but as my taxi took a sharp turn to enter San Juan del Sur, to my relief there was small picturesque town settled next to a horseshoe cove beach. The food, the culture, and the nightlife were truly spectacular and the wide variety of activities such as fishing, sailing and the best surfing completed my trip. This location was also a perfect the place to relax and replenish my strengths after weeks of traveling.
Visiting the ancient Maya city of Tikal is a grand experience which no one backpacking Central America should dare miss. Aside from seeing the majestic Mayan ruins that lay deep in the Guatemalan jungle, the national park is teeming with wildlife. You can easily spot ocellated turkeys, coatis, monkeys, insects and numerous birds. The highlight of my tour included learning about the fascinating Maya culture and seeing the sunrise from one of the highest temples (temple IV). Taking a day trip to Tikal from the nearby town of Flores, Peten is the best option.
Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
A quick escape from the capital city of Managua, Ometepe Island is worth visiting when you are in Nicaragua. The island has two stunning volcanoes that adorn the beautiful lake of Nicaragua. What attracted me to this location was my love for hiking volcanoes but I quickly found out that there was so much more to this gorgeous locale. During a hot day, visiting Ojo de Agua swimming hole is a treat – it is a natural spring with waters from volcanic origins. Unfortunately, I hear that Ojo de Agua is now too crowded at times. The highlight of Isla Ometepe remains to be the scenery and relaxing by the lake.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Monteverde is a place of mist, cloud forests, coffee plantations and abundant wildlife – the tree hugger in me fell in love with this part of Costa Rica. I can remember wonderful morning hikes and how being surrounded by nature evoked simple gratification as I breathed heaps of oxygen-rich air. The best activities include a creatures of the night tour, a canopy tour on suspension bridges (Sky Walk), and visiting a local coffee farm. Although a bit expensive, zip lining through the cloud forest is also a sure way to have fun!
Panama City, Panama
It’s all about Casco Viejo, this historical neighbourhood is definitely the highlight of the most developed city in Central America. “Casco”, as locals call it, has breathtaking Spanish and French Colonial architecture dating back to the 16th and 17th century. I really enjoyed seeing the intriguing mix of falling down relics and interesting renovations. Things to do in Casco Viejo include a guided tour of the old city, visiting the local markets and the Teatro National. Another one of my favourite activities was hanging around the several plazas where it was great for people watching.
Caye Caulker, Belize
Belize has the world’s second largest Barrier Reef and that means that the snorkeling and diving is unparallel. Located a few miles away from the reef is Caye Caulker, a little island that is notorious for its chill vibe and Caribbean charm. Since I am from Belize, I cannot give you an outsider’s experience but I promise you that this island is the best option for your backpacking trip.
Caye Caulker is only five miles long and the island’s motto is “Go Slow”. This is something you’ll quickly adapt to as the primary mode of transportation is either by golf cart or bicycle. Cheap food can be found everywhere and it’s the freshest you’ll ever taste – the morning catch is your afternoon dinner.
Suchitoto, El Salvador
I rushed to Suchitoto from San Salvador since I didn’t feel too safe there (big surprise, most Central American capital cities are dodgy). Arriving at the colonial town of Suchitoto, I immediately noticed that it was perfect for anyone looking to relax and enjoy a quiet town. I got a great deal at a hotel with views of Lake Suchitlan and immediately sought out Salvadorian food at the many local stalls. I recommend you try Pupusas or Casamiento y Pollo asado – Mmmm, delicious. The best activities include taking a boat tour of the lake, exploring Los Tercios waterfall and Cinquera Forest.
Described as another Caribbean paradise in Central America, Utila is very laid back and not as commercialized as neighbouring Roatan. Their relationship reminds me of Belize’s Caye Caulker versus Ambergris Caye (both great islands but serving two different purposes). For anyone seeking modern comforts in a different country, Roatan is the place for you. But if you are seeking cheap dives and a relaxing atmosphere where you can just relax and hang out with locals, Utila is the perfect place for you. The best activities to do in Utila include eating comida tipica, relaxing on the beach, swimming and diving.
The charming old city of Antigua receives more than fifty percent of all tourists who visit Guatemala and this isn’t without merit. Apart from the beautiful scenery (surrounding volcanoes) and amazing Spanish colonial-era architecture, the nightlife is banging – especially the salsa clubs. If you want to escape crowds you may want to avoid this city but since I am a sucker for old churches, I couldn’t avoid visiting. The best activities I had in Antigua were hiking the active Pacaya Volcano, walking around the historic landmarks, and learning all about chocolate at the ChocoMuseo.
I hope you are now ready to explore the best of Central America. If you still have questions, don’t hesitate to email me.