A beginner’s guide to Central America
The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America. Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America. The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do. This guide is designed to get you started.
For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA. Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta. Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300. Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.
If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid. Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala. Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena. Shop around. You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.
Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus. Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region. if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing. Book well in advance to secure the best deals.
As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character. The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound. I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality. At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.
Check out point to point transfers too. For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.
One thing to note is safety. In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs. Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes. Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.
What to see
There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.
A week in Panama
Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town. Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.
The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital. You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city. I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.
Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru. Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life. She knows her stuff – she married a villager! Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.
Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.
A week in Costa Rica
With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down. If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two. Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay. I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks. The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.
Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal. There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano. The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano. Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.
Costa Rica links:
A week in Nicaragua
My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada. It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral. Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.
From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed. Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest. Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur. It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater. Check conditions locally before you go.
Laguna del Apoyo is another option. This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating. Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.
Volcan Masaya activity:
A week in Honduras
Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas. The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.
It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing. Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.
If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan. Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists. The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle. If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended. He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.
Finca el Cisne:
A week in El Salvador
Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout. Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores. This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for. From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.
Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week. Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services. Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.
El Salvador links:
A week in Guatemala
The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua. There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure. The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.
If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal. Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.
Tourist shuttle service:
A week in Belize
Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language. I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries. That’s not to write it off though. Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular. The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.
It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit. I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat. There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by. There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.
If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.
Ambergris Caye information:
You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region. For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!