Travel Guide: Central America
The lush jungles and soaring volcanic peaks connecting the Americas are contained only by the warm shores of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Central America is waking up to the sounds of howler monkeys and toucans. It's fresh fruit juice dripping down your face, it's becoming tangled in forest roots and unwinding in a secluded villa on the beach. Soak in thermal springs and let the mineral water wash away the physical pain and stress of the life you left behind when you decided to leave home. Embrace the humidity. Ignore the scary big spiders and questionable public bathrooms. Let the wild, untamed nature of this developing world flood your senses.
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Guatemala: Land of Eternal Spring
If you want to see the natural wonders hidden deep in Guatemala it is essential to have a car. Chicken buses are popular here but they are time consuming and uncomfortable. Choose a rental with reasonably high clearance due to the rough road conditions in some areas. Poor quality of the roads coupled with impatient, inexperienced drivers makes for a difficult driving atmosphere at times so be prepared with a capable driver. The roads weren’t as bad as their reputation but expect pot holes and speed bumps on highways without any warning. There are sections of roads that locals will tell you is unsafe for one reason or another. Always ask local people what they think of the route you are taking and heed their advice.
Eat: San Martin Restaurant in Guatemala City was some of the best food we had in the country.
To Semuc Champey:
Coban is a 4 hour drive out of Guatemala City. Semuc Champey is around a 2 hour and 45 minute drive from Coban. Depending on when you arrived into Guatemala City you can stay at a hotel in Coban or continue another 2 hours to Lanquin (45 minutes of dirt road after the right turn off the highway). Coban is not an interesting town so there is no reason to stay there otherwise. The best place to stay in Lanquin is a hostel called El Retiro. This hostel is situated next to the Cahabon river with picturesque hammocks lining the rooms. The hostel offers tours daily. The locals will tell you that your car will not be capable of making the drive to Semuc Champey yourself because they want you to pay for the tour. However, it was possible in a Toyota RAV4 after a rainy morning.
Once you get to Semuc Champey pay a small fee and begin hiking either down to the river directly or up the mountain to the panoramic view point. The main swimming pools are only a 10 minute walk or less from the parking lot. The entrance fee in 50 Quetzals each ($7 USD).
The main trail is about a 1.5 mile loop up and back down to the river. We arrived around 4 pm and had the whole area to ourselves. After hiking down from the view point the trail emerges at the beginning of the limestone bridge. If you hop over the warning ropes to the left you can look over the edge into the cave/tunnel that the majority of the raging river flows beneath. Seeing this section of Semuc Champey will create a much better understanding of how the limestone forms a literal bridge. Almost the entire river is flowing beneath your feet and out of sight. The portion of above ground river carved large, cascading turquoise pools of crystal clear waters. Look downstream to take in the surreal views of infinity pools cradled by canyon walls.
When to go: visit in the late afternoon to have Semuc Champey all to yourself.
Continuing north from Lanquin is not advised especially at night due to security problems (robbery). To avoid any trouble drive back to Coban to continue to the next destination. Sometimes taking the longer route is worth it to avoid any potential challenges in the middle of nowhere. Actively use common sense to avoid any difficulties or dangerous situations. Always ask locals that speak English for advice about your plans because their opinions are so valuable.
After exploring Semuc Champey head from Coban past Chisec for 1.5 hours to the Candelaria Caves. This cave system is one of the largest in Central America and is located only a short walk off the road, it was worth visiting. A guide is recommended because the trail is confusing. The huge limestone cavern has two main entrances. The smaller rooms have large stalagmites and stalactites. The caves are a quick and beautiful stop on the way to Las Conchas National Park.
Las Conchas National Park
Las Conchas translates to “the snails” referring to the shells lining the shores of the river. Locals cook and eat the snails leaving behind their shells. Some refer to the park as a larger, not turquoise version of Semuc Champey. Beautiful wooden decks, walkways and an observation tower were constructed around the waterfalls. The park is more developed than Semuc Champey with picnic tables and some facilities. Wander around the park and expect to be followed by an unnecessary “guide”. There are many cascades leading to open pools but the water was too strong to swim in March. This was one of our favorite spots in Guatemala.
Rio Dulce: Gateway to Belize
After visiting Las Conchas, the city of Rio Dulce is the best option to find accommodation. The options are slightly limited but the “Backpackers Hotel” is reasonably priced and sits on the water of the largest lake/inlet in Guatemala. When driving through Rio Dulce cross the large bridge and immediately turn left underneath the bridge to find the hotel. $17 USD for the dorm or $25 USD for a private room. The dinner, breakfast and wifi at the hotel were good and we had a few harmless rats in our room to keep us company. This is a beautiful location to watch the sunrise.
Finca El Pariso (Cascadas Caliente)
This was my favorite part of the country. From Rio Dulce drive to El Estor and 12 km before you reach the town turn off the road to the right. You’ll see a small restaurant, continue to drive down a small dirt road along a creek to find a parking lot most likely harboring a tour bus or two. Once again, aim to visit the hot spring in the late afternoon to have the place to yourself. Walk only 5 minutes to find a staircase down to the river.
You can feel the heat of the waterfall from across the river. Practice your backflips into the refreshing water and relax on the rocks. Tiny fish will nibble on your toes if you let them. Make sure to explore the underwater cave hidden beneath the waterfall. You can also hike upstream from the waterfall to find the source of the hot spring.
El Salvador: Volcanic Country
Traveling in El Salvador was very pleasant and I recommend it to anyone wanting to experience a more genuine part of Central America. There are a range of hotel and hostel prices in San Salvador, the country’s capital. The city is not entirely unique to other cities but there are many natural wonders in the surrounding area making it a safe, central place to stay while taking day trips. We had a once in a lifetime experience with a friendly local guide who showed us a unique side of El Salvador we didn't expect but truly enjoyed.
Take a tour of the Cerro Verde National Park, one of El Salvador's most stunning landscapes. There is a trio of volcanic peaks encircled by lush jungle and a network of hiking trails. The 2,381-meter summit of Santa Ana is the highest and most active volcano in the country. Summit the Santa Ana volcano for an otherworldly look at the bubbling green lake at the bottom of the crater. Enjoy the stunning views of Lake Coatepeque on the hike up the volcano as well as other volcanic peaks. Ask to bring a few beers to share at the top if you prefer.
This pro surfing spot on the pacific coast of El Salvador is a hidden gem of Central America. Spend a few days enjoying the culture and waves at any of the hotels or hostels in the area, this destination will surely not disappoint you! Hammocks and beach bums line the soft black sand shoreline. This place had a young, vibrant energy with fresh food, good people and yoga classes available. Experience the best sunsets of your lifetime as the colors radiate over the over the glossy reflective sand. This location provided incredible photographic opportunities. El Tunco is a short 45 minute drive from the city center of San Salvador.
Eat: Visit the restaurant inside the Real Intercontinental in San Salvador for the best handmade pizza you’ll find outside of Italy.
Nicaragua: Ometepe Island
Situated on the largest lake in Central America lies an island with two towering volcanoes. This location is the most interesting place geographically so if you are only in Nicaragua for a short time I recommend visiting the island to get the most unique experience.
Once arriving at the airport in Managua, find out ahead of time how much the taxi will cost before you talk to the taxi drivers. They will try to hustle you in the airport so walk across the street to other drivers (always check taxi licenses before getting in someone’s car) to save yourself money.
A taxi ride to Rivas (San Jorge) should cost no more than $45 USD which is very reasonable for a 2.5 hour drive. Depending on your budget and time constraints I recommend taking a taxi ride instead of a 5 hour indirect bus ride for only $3. This is an example of whether to save money or be more efficient and convenient. In Rivas, stay at the Hotel Hamacas because of the convenient location down the street from the port. Hamacas also has a nice swimming pool and a good breakfast included. Check the timetable for the ferry to Moyogalpa (the port on the island), they leave throughout the day. During the week ferries leave every 30 minutes from San Jorge. The ferry takes around 1 hour to get to the island.
Rent a motor bike to explore the island, driving is easy there because there aren't many cars and its a genuinely fun part of the experience. Renting a moped for 48 hours should cost around $50 USD. At night giant cane toads cover the roads so be careful while dodging them as much as possible!
Ojo De Agua
This beautiful volcanic natural spring holds the softest water you'll will ever swim in. The mineral rich water leaves your skin feeling angelic. The entrance fee is $3 USD and a coconut full of rum is only $2 USD. These reflective blue waters are mesmerizing. Not cold nor hot water makes this the perfect swimming hole to relax for an afternoon. This was my favorite place on Ometepe Island.
San Ramon Waterfall
If you're driving a scooter the road to the waterfall is very difficult to navigate, some people will potentially give up before they get there. After a very bumpy ride its a 3 km hike to the waterfall. That 3 km felt a lot longer, the hike was not easy as it leads up the side of the mountain.
Advice: Use the green ATMs to convert money to Cordobas because the red ATMs will charge 10% fees.
Costa Rica: Pura Vida
If you rent a car anywhere in Central America it should be in Costa Rica. There is so much to see and in order to do it at your own pace you should get a rental to have the time of your life. In comparison to rural Guatemala the road conditions in Costa Rica aren't as bad but there are pot holes and dirt roads so a car with higher clearance is recommended.
Day 1: Monteverde Cloud Forest
The drive to Monteverde from San Jose is around 2.5 hours. The hostel Cabinas Vista Al Golfo was a perfect place to stay with epic views overlooking the forest. Private rooms have large windows to see the panoramic views. There are a few options but the Salvatura Cloud Forest Park was a perfect place to experience the hanging bridges. Mystical bridges carry you into the canopy of a rain forest as clouds speed by above head. There are 11 hanging bridges and the ticket costs around $25 USD each. If you visit late in the day you can have all the bridges to yourself! The green, rustic bridges range in size and height giving a sense of variety.
Looking down into the canopy of the jungle is a surreal experience. The air is so fresh and the fast moving clouds live up to their reputation. Huge, puffy clouds barrel overhead as you run and swing around on the bridges like children playing freely in nature. There is an ominous hum of insects and chimes of birds and frogs as the sun sets behind the mountains. The intense green colors of the forest stayed ingrained in my mind long after the sun went down, this place was something special.
Explore the small town of Monteverde, there is a tree house bar with a gigantic tree growing through the floor and a few great restaurants, stores and cafes worth visiting.
Day 2: La Fortuna
La Fortuna is one of the most touristy areas in Costa Rica for good reason, it's genuinely magical. The majestic Arenal Volcano watches over the hot springs, forests and waterfalls creating the feeling that everyone is searching for when they visit Central America: tropical paradise found.
There are many hot springs resorts which are expensive but if you're looking for a relaxing, gorgeous and comfortable experience go to The Springs Resort and Spa. The perfect view of Arenal volcano greets you as you wade through perfect hot spring pools. There is also a wildlife refuge within the resort filled with exotic animals. If you're lucky glow bugs will appear in the trees at dusk. For a memorable experience with toucans, monkeys and cats its worth it to go here. Tabacon Hot Springs Resort is the most expensive resort in the area but if you want to save some money and get a more authentic local experience; go downstream from the resort to soak in the undeveloped section of the hot spring river. This hot spring is creatively named Free Hot Spring.
La Fortuna Waterfall
This iconic waterfall below the Arenal Volcano is worth a visit if you enjoy waterfalls but expect the masses to be there also. After paying a small fee you walk down very well paved steps all the way down to the falls. This hike is very accessible to those with limited abilities, around 471 steps down.
Day 3: Rio Celeste
This is one of my favorite waterfalls in the world. There is a $12 USD entrance fee and a fairly easy hike to a staircase that leads down to the waterfall. The bright blue water is the most beautiful I've ever seen, you can't believe it is real until you lay your own eyes on it. The incredible color is an optical illusion created by the mixing of two mineral rich rivers. If you continue hiking on the trail past the waterfall you can see where the waters of the rivers combine to create a swirl of stunning natural reactions.
After Rio Celeste, head to Llanos de Cortez waterfall. There is an epic shortcut from Rio Celeste that doesn’t appear on Google Maps where if you continue down the road instead of heading back the way you came you’ll cut off around an hour of time; don't worry the road connects straight to the highway!
The Cortez waterfall was the farthest north we travelled in Costa Rica. The water was warm, set up a hammock on the shore and enjoy the view. Swim up to the waterfall and explore the caves behind the falling water.
This small city was a great place to relax for a few days while exploring the surrounding area. Stay at the Buddah Boutique Hostel. Enjoy a unique boat ride through the beautiful mangroves to get the chance to interact with adorable monkeys with Adventure Tours Costa Rica or a similar company. Check out perfect waterfalls on a day trip from Jaco to Nauyaca Waterfalls (around 1.5 hour drive).
Eat: The best sushi you'll ever have in your life is waiting at Tsunami Sushi ($$$).
Panama: The green cufflinks connecting the Americas
Panama City: The cosmopolitan capital of Panama and home to the Panama Canal. The city links North America to South America, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Needless to say the significance of the city is great and its cultural diversity is captivating. The Central American energy is diffused with a sense of futuristic innovation unlike the other countries in Central. It's duality prevails as both the vibrant metropolis and gateway to tropical islands and inland destinations. Pick any island or region and you won't be disappointed.
"Many worlds coexist here. Welcoming both east and west, Panama is a regional hub of trade and immigration. The resulting cultural cocktail forges a refreshing 'anything goes' attitude, more dynamic and fluid than its neighbors.
Unflinchingly urban, the capital rides the rails of chaos, with traffic jams, wayward taxis and casinos stacked between chic clubs and construction sites. A center of international banking and trade, the sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers is reminiscent of Miami. In contrast, the peninsula of Casco Viejo has become a thriving colonial neighborhood where cobblestones link boutique hotels with underground bars and crumbled ruins with pirate lore.
Escape is never far. Day-trip to sandy beaches (Pacific or Caribbean), admire the canal, or explore lush rainforests of howler monkeys, toucans and sloths." - Lonely Planet
Truth Behind the Cheap
Things to consider before choosing Central America for your holiday:
Central America is one of the most affordable travel destinations in the entire world. Low costs of transportation, accommodation and most importantly drinks out at the bar makes this area very appealing for young people or those just looking for a good time without spending a fortune. Regardless of what is written here you will have a great time visiting Central America. My intention is not to deter you from this destination but to make you more aware than I was about the conditions necessary to create such an affordable environment. There is always a catch; nothing is ever free whether it costs you time, money, comfort or your health.
Being honest to my personal experience in Central America, I have never eaten worse food in my life. By the end of the trip I could feel my body being starved of the nutrients I had grown accustomed to. The more rural you are, the less access there is to fresh fruits and vegetables. Some places in Central America are relatively impoverished which greatly affects consumption of the people living there. Sacrificing healthy food needs to be something you are willing to do in order to enjoy your time in Central America.
Rice and beans were the main staple of our diet. We tried not to eat meat too often, but without other options chicken was always the best choice; especially if you have to eat somewhere questionable. Even coffee rarely came from anywhere but a jar of powder which surprised us because so many designer coffee vendors in the US advertise “Grown in Guatemala” etc… Apparently the coffee they grow skips their shelves and is exported before they get the chance to brew it themselves.
Try to be aware of where your food is coming from, nothing will ruin a trip faster than food poisoning but chances are you'll have to take some risks. We quickly became dependent on processed foods from gas stations or stands off to the side of roads.
On average it must take nearly twice as long to travel by bus than it does by your own vehicle or flying. If time is of no concern to you (have all the time in the world) or you are happy staying in one place then taking buses is the way to go. If you don't want to spend the majority of your trip on a bus you either need to limit the number of destinations you visit or pay more for more efficient transportation. If you are on a tight budget it is still worth traveling by bus but if possible it is worth while to avoid.
Personally, I want to make the most of the time I have when I'm traveling. I don't go to new countries to simply lay on the beach or hang out in a city for the whole trip. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I simply prefer to have diverse experiences and see everything I possibly can in the time I have. It is more affordable to stay in one place rather than move around. Its cheaper to take a bus than renting a car or taking a flight. If you don't have the budget to see everything you want to, prioritize and make something happen. Only seeing a small part of a country is much better than not going at all.
The exception to most of this information is Costa Rica due to its long history of developing tourism making the country much wealthier and able to accommodate to the wants and needs of tourists. This section does not apply to Panama City.