I spent 9 months wandering between Guatemala and Panama, on my way from Canada to South America, and will share my highlights with ya. Keep in mind that I didn’t go everywhere. I won’t attempt to cover that which I didn’t do myself.
Known to the locals as Xela (pronounced /ˈʃela/), this mid size city is a gritty bustling example of Guatemala. The few tourists in town are mostly there to climb the large volcano Santa Maria and take Spanish lessons.
A beautiful crater lake set between two dormant volcanoes. San Pedro la Laguna is the touristy town, and is it ever touristy, making it easy to find a place to stay. I never visited San Marcos, on the other side of the lake, but it’s supposed to be a smaller, more tranquillo hippy town.
The old capital, now a small tourist town done right. With a large market area open every day, a perimeter of large active and dormant volcanoes, and a plethora of nearby outdoor activities, this is one of my favourite places. Hike the dormant volcano Acatenango on schedule to peer down into the active maw of Fuego, though you can sometimes see the action even from the town at night. Do the coffee farm tour at the Centro Cultura la Azotea, within cheap taxi distance.
Set in the rain forest. Check the weather, though the warm rains of Central America don’t bother me. Nearest large town is Cobán, nearest small town is Lanquín, nearest small village is… well I can’t remember, but the Q’eqchi’ kids from there gave me terrible directions on purpose, those runts! Stay at the Utopia Eco Hostel. Go caving with a small group, wading through an underground stream by candlelight. Hike the park trails, including a high viewpoint of the turquoise pools above the underground river Cahabón. Take a dip in them, too — the water is usually very clear.
If you’ve been to Guatemala or done more than a few hikes in your travels, don’t bother with the “Ruta de las Flores”, a hyped tour along cute towns in northern Salvador. Suchitoto was alright, but, really, there’s better things to see. The beaches however, are second to none.
Sunzal and El Tunco
Surf, or at least try to, at these gorgeous beaches. The gentle point breaks give everything from perfect half meter swells for beginners to small barrels. These gringo surf villages are within walking distance of each other, north of La Libertad. Hang out and relax.
Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the two largest cities, are supposed to be some of the most dangerous in the world, and I’m not one to argue with statistics (I will argue vehemently on conclusions drawn from them, however). Try to book your beds and arrange transport ahead of time and arrive in daylight. They are gritty, confusing, and interesting enough for a half-day wander, but no more. (I stayed for about a week in each for other reasons, and that was too long.)
The main highlight is the Mayan ruins, the most important one south of Tikal. The tourist town, though, is itself a highlight. I stayed for 3 weeks waiting for a package and was seldom bored, wandering every day with my camera. Have the best beer within 2000 km at Sol de Copán, a tiny german brewery.
There are four draws to this swampy lake: the local wildlife, the sunsets from the east side of the lake, the Pulhapanzak waterfalls, and the small brewery and hostel D&D Brewery. You’ll figure it out. Worth two or three days.
Cute little town, but not worth more than overnight. I was there a week and did ‘the grid’ of the town more times than I want to remember.
Cañon de Somoto
Hike, wade, jump, and swim down the stream, exploring the deep valley faces. Stay at Hacienda Somoto, an out-of-town animal farm and bed & breakfast.
A popular tourist town. Walk around, take a boat tour of the small islands (Las Isletas), and party. Then get out, ’cause you’ve got better places to be! You can visit the crowded Apoyo Lagoon as a day trip or overnight, nearby art town of Catarina, and peer through the sulfur clouds into the Masaya volcano (it’s not that impressive, see photo).
San Juan del Sur
The biggest surf town I’ve ever been to, with all the amenities. Albeit chilly but bearable water with decent waves, great hot beaches, some free, some not, and a relaxing pace set the tone during the day. Parties, babes, drugs, and a fun crowd set the tone at night. Get your own quiet room at Casa de Olas or live it up in a dorm at neighboring Naked Tiger, both just outside of town with the best view around. Get away from most of it by staying on Maderas beach, a few kilometers away. Have a good time!
This country is known among travelers as an expensive one. My budget didn’t change from Nicaragua, one of the cheapest. Expensive and tempting options are available where they usually are not in other countries, yes, but you don’t have to spend your money. You don’t have to do that zip lining, hire the private van, stay in expensive places. Cheap to free options are always available.
A hippy town that sometimes gets some surfing swells. Visit the waterfalls. Jump into the top two! Love the local monkeys, especially when the howlers wake you up at 5:30 in the morning.
A cloud forest park. Yep, there’s clouds, trees, ferns, and the occasional weird bird. I didn’t get to take part as I had a motorcycle, but one can travel to nearby La Fortuna by taking a shortcut in a 4×4 to the lake, a boat across, then another 4×4 to town. There isn’t much of a road, this way, hence the 4×4’s.
At the base of a volcano and near a big lake, this place is more hype than value, but you can still have a good time for little. You’re not allowed to approach the volcano but you can hike some set trails in the national park, going through the not-so-old enormous lava flow paths. There are many costly waterfalls, swimming holes, and thermal pools nearby, and just a few free ones.
Tranquillo to the point of being a bit boring, fill the day by exploring the small free park and laying on its beach. Really, there’s better, and it’s next. I never went to Puerto Viejo, just 15 km down the road, but, from what I know of it, Cahuita would be a welcome respite for a day.
The best place in Costa Rica. I had planned on staying for 2 days, ended up staying for 32. Sleep at the Flutterby House. Rent a surfboard for the next day, get some groceries in the nearby village (there isn’t much, where you’re staying), make some dinner, and get to bed as you’ve got a big day ahead. Get up early and surf by yourself as the sun rises on the easy beach breaks. Make yourself a big breakfast because you’ve earned it. Nap in the morning heat, on the beach in one of the many hammocks. Head off to Cascada Verde when you get too hot. It’s a bit over an hour walk, so taxi or borrow a bicycle. You can slide down the main falls like a waterslide. Try not to think about it too much. Get some lunch on your way back to the beach, as it’s time to try the waves again. You have the surfboard all day, anyway. You’re exhausted, so paddle out past the foamy surf one last time and just chill; watch the sun set as you bob in the ocean. Get back to the hostel, make dinner in the bustling communal kitchen, and remember that you can’t cook in a group without a few drinks. If there is little moon, have another few drinks then gather a few adverturesomes to dip in the sea, as it is often spectacularly bioluminescent. Try not to sleep in your salty wet bathing suit. Repeat.
Parque Nacional Corcovado
“The most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity” — National Geographic
Stay outside of the closest town, Puerto Jimenez, at Bello Horizonte Jungle Hostel. Book and pay for your stay in the park the day before, I recommend 3 days, more if you can carry in (and out!) enough food and are up to the challenge. Here’s an edited transcript of a story I was telling someone.
There’s this wilderness park in Costa Rica, dubbed the “most biodense place on the planet”. The jungle grows thick. Real jungle, not the pansy rain forest most people call jungle; dense vegetation, not even stopping at the beach. Palms litter the water, ferns pattern the sand, like the forest grows outwards, constantly pushing them into the sea. There are no roads. You can’t even walk along the beach most of the time and only at low tide at that. No camping spots. Bugs, everywhere.
Millions of leaf-cutter ants march during every daylight hour along super highways 6 inches wide that split in to freeways 2 inches wide that split into local arterial roads less than an inch wide, but still flow with more than 100 ants per second, in both directions. Unladen streams pour towards the unfortunate destinations, criss-crossing the jungle floor, over logs, up the 50 ft tree, onto the dieing branch where they nibble away little bits for their business. Then all the way back. It must take hours to make a single lap. Millions of ant-hours, every colony, every day.
Mosquitos so thick you can see clouds of them obscure your view several meters away, giving you just enough time to start running. The rain took away your repellant hours ago, hopefully it took enough of your body heat that the skeeters will have trouble locking in on you. This area is the way it is partly because of the rain: there’s a bunch of it.
After a three hour ride from the 2-bit nearest town along a mud trail, crossing two streams the hard way, you get to hike 8-9 hours, 20 km — it’s slow going, even when there is a trail — to the first ranger station. It’s a gorgeous site, that station.
There is a point, hopefully, to all of this. Jungle animals! That weird mini elephant-pig thing, and those pointy-nose raccoon-things, loads of Scarlet Macaws, 4 types of monkeys, and whatever else is supposed to be there. Did I mention mosquitos?
So you get to the ranger station, pray to your God, and inspect your bloody feet. Because you’re a huge wimp, your blisters have worn down the the bone and you just wanna cut them off at the ankle and be done with it. But you can’t. You have to walk out the same way you limped in. And you can’t look like a pansy in front of the 70-year old couple and the prissy class of teenage girls already at the ranger station.
The next day is supposed to be full of exploring, and you do your best. Luckily you’re alone so you can complain all you want. Hey look, a family of prairie chickens! Didn’t even know they lived in the jungle. More sproingy springy mini pigs. Cool.
Play time is over. Your camp spot at the ranger station was for one night only, unfortunately, and there’s a long way to go. It’ll be even longer, as now the rain is sustained and your ankles are pulped. Plus, everyone was talking about all those crocodiles in the rivers you waded across on the way here, none of which you saw. Best to cross in daylight, you think.
You start cursing at the Scarlet Macaws. They have the ugliest call in the jungle, a true banshee screech, like a Janis Joplin death curdle. You laugh at the hermit crabs eating each other in great piles on the edge of the beach. Trudge, trudge, rain, kick hermit crab, trudge trudge. Another hour. Another.
As you wade across the final stream — no, it’s a proper river now, after two days of downpour — a surge of water rushes through. You barely make it to the other side, both banks falling in and washing to the open sea. You don’t really care. Trudge, rain, trudge… gravel? Nature doesn’t normally make gravel. So you’ve made it. You sit on a wooden bench.
A mountain town surrounded by old retirees in huge houses. Climb volcano Baru.
Bocas del Toro
Diving is pretty cheap and pretty cool, here. The best beach is Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos island. Party in the main town or chill on any of the various islands.
A cute crap town (yeah, both) with great surf and diving. A travel friend went diving around Coiba island for the day while I went surfing. The surf was good, a rocky point break. Apparently the diving was better.
Cool town, in a period of growth. The tourist area is fun.
San Blas Islands
Perfect Caribbean islands. Perfect. Take a multiple day trip on a sailboat to these islands. I recommend Blue Sailing. Many leave from Portobelo. Travel to Colombia this way.