Central America is one of the most diverse and beautiful strips of countries in the world but yet it’s often overlooked. Our guest blogger Phoebe Simmonds from Passport Please tells us about her favourite places. You would be hard-pressed to find a better region to backpack in than Central America. This small strip of land encompassing Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, beautiful Costa Rica, and Panama is home to some of the best beaches, UNESCO world heritage sites, colonial towns, and wildlife in the world, yet it’s a region that hasn’t really made it on the travel radar yet. Over the years Central America has got a bit of a bad reputation for being dangerous. However, as long as you exercise a little caution, you’ll find that the region is one of the easiest, cheapest and most fascinating parts of the world to backpack in. Each of the seven countries in Central America is unique and wonderful in its own right. If you’re looking for a little travelling inspiration, here are 10 places in Central America that you must add on to the itinerary, especially if you love to backpack…
1. Caye Caulker, Belize
Caye Caulker is a tiny and breathtakingly beautiful island located off of Belize’s mainland. The island is just five kilometres long, with no roads and limited wifi so it’s the ideal place to get away from it all. In fact, the Caye Caulker’s motto, go slow, means that relaxing is virtually obligatory. Despite the fact that Belize is nestled in between Guatemala and Mexico, the country feels undeniably Caribbean at heart. Caye Caulker boasts turquoise water, reggaeton music and colourful wooden houses built on stilts. What’s more is Caye Caulker lacks the resorts and high prices on a lot of the better known Caribbean islands, meaning that it feels like a much more authentic place to visit as a backpacker. When it comes to activities, the main attraction is the Split, the point in which the two halves of the island meet. Here you can bathe on the sand, cool off in the vibrant coloured water and then see the day off with a rum punch at the Lazy Lizard Bar.
2. Monteverde, Costa Rica
Monteverde in Costa Rica is the ultimate destination for nature and wildlife lovers as well as backpackers. This small town attracts outdoorsy types due to it’s proximity to the stunning cloud rainforest: an area where low hanging clouds meet the jungle canopy below. One of the rarest habitats on earth, the forest offers breathtaking hikes and the chance to spot the many animals and plants native to Costa Rica. Take a stroll through the canopy over the long hanging bridges or if you’re feeling adventurous, try a guided night walk and experience the rainforest come alive at night. Monteverde also boasts the longest zip line in Central America so you can quite literally fly over the forest below – easily one of the most amazing places to backpack in Central America!
3. Suchitoto, El Salvador
If there’s a country in the world that doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it should, it’s El Salvador. This beautiful country is often overlooked, even by those travelling in Central America however it offers so many treasures for those who visit it. One of the most picturesque towns in El Salvador is Suchitoto. This sleepy colonial town is packed full of colourful buildings and bustling restaurants. Because El Salvador is less popular than other Central America, it’s a very interesting country to visit as a traveller and the locals are some of the friendliest people around. Suchitoto is fairly small and while you don’t need more than a couple of days there, it’s one place that everyone should add to their Central America itinerary. Be sure to take a visit to the 90-something-year-old cigar lady: she has been hand rolling cigars in the town for her whole life.
4. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
There’s no better a place to experience the Pura Vida, or the good life, than in the beachside town of Santa Theresa. This small surf town harbours an eclectic mix of bohemian cafes, surf schools, and chilled bars. The star of the show is the breathtakingly beautiful beach where golden sand meets the forest and stretches out for as far as the eye can see. Santa Theresa is the place that vacation dreams are made of so it’s not surprising that it’s one of the more popular places to visit in Costa Rica. With its great surf, countless restaurants, yoga schools and nearby waterfalls to explore, It’s impossible not to fall in love with the lifestyle there.
5. San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala
San Pedro is a gorgeous sleepy town, climbing up the mountain that faces Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan. Over the years, San Pedro has developed into a bit of a sanctuary for backpackers in Guatemala. It still feels untouched and authentic however the town has its fair few language schools, holistic style cafes and restaurants. When you’re not busy contemplating quitting your job and staying in San Pedro to learn Spanish, there’s plenty to do in this town for you to keep occupied. It would be a crime to visit the town and not get out on to the water. One of the best ways to do this is by renting a kayak and spending a few hours paddling around on the lake. There are also plenty of hikes to do nearby including climbing up the San Pedro Volcano itself. Don’t forget your camera: San Pedro is a labyrinth of little cobblestone streets and narrow alleys and the town boasts some of the best street art in Guatemala if you know where to look. For an incredible one-off experience, you might want to consider doing a homestay with a family, either in the town itself or in the nearby villages such as San Juan.
6. El Tunco, El Salvador
El Tunco: It’s not the biggest beachside town, nor the craziest, It’s not even the most beautiful but there’s just something about this little coastal oasis that makes it such an appealing place to visit. El Tunco consists of just two main roads and a small line of palm trees is that separates the town from the beach. The few people that you’ll meet there are locals or die-hard surfers so El Tunco maintains a sense of exclusivity – a hidden secret for the lucky few that have found it. One thing you have to try is Pupusas: an El Salvadoran speciality. These handmade stuffed flatbreads are filled with a variety of fillings such as pork, black beans, cheese or prawn. These are then are baked on a hot grill and served with a salsa and cabbage slaw. You can order these from local Pupuserias for just $1 each. Be warned, it’s virtually not to go back for fourths.
7. Antigua, Guatemala
There are so many reasons that the town of Antigua in Guatemala should be on your travel bucket list. Colonial buildings, bustling streets, vibrant Guatemalan markets, and little cafes tucked away in courtyards to name a few. All of this eclipsed with the volcanoes in the backdrop: Antigua really is the place of travel fantasies. As a backpacker, there is so much going on in Antigua that you’ll want to give yourself at least a week there. Be sure to stop by the Arco de Santa Catalina, one of the most famous and picturesque streets in the town and then head to the Mercado del Carmen to pick up some locally made textiles. For foodies, Antigua is a dream destination. With everything from chocolate making workshops, coffee plantation tours, macadamia nut farms and peanut butter making to choose from.
8. Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal is one of the most impressive Mayan sites in the world and a must visit for backpackers in Central America. This huge ancient city is located in the Guatemalan jungle and the scale of it is breathtaking. As you wander through the vast forest, at first only the tops of the ancient temples are visible amongst the trees. Then as you approach each of the temples, the size and detail of these ancient Mayan temples will entrance and transport you back in time. Unlike a lot of protected sites, you can actually climb up the steep face of most of the temples. The spectacular views from up the top are well worth the climb in the heat.
9. Granada, Nicaragua
Granada in Nicaragua is easily one of the most photogenic towns in the world. The city is famous for its colonial architecture in which beautiful churches and colourful buildings seem frozen in time. The town sees it fair few tourists and expats however Nicaragua in general still hasn’t really made it on to the tourist track. When you’re not busy wandering around with your camera, there are countless cafes, restaurants, bars, museums and galleries to keep you occupied. Be sure to stop by the churches: Catedral Granada, Cathedral Iglesias Guadalupe and the Iglesia La Merced, some of the most impressive pieces of colonial architecture in the world. Outside of the city, there’s plenty to occupy adventure seeking travellers. You can hike a dormant volcano, take a coffee plantation tour or take a boat across the beautiful Lake Nicaragua.
10. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica
Puerto Viejo is a really chilled coastal town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side and a must visit for backpackers. The town itself is fairly small but it manages to pack in its fair share of restaurants, bars, and cafes either way. Because it’s located in Costa Rica’ Caribbean side, Puerto Viejo offers backpackers a chance to experience a different side of Costa Rica’s culture. Puerto Viejo boasts wooden houses and reggaeton bars, equal to those that you’d expect to find in the Caribbean. All of this is met with the best of Costa Rica’s diverse wildlife and some of the country’s most stunning beaches. The best way to get around the town is by bicycle. You can then ride along the quiet coastal road, stopping off at whichever beach takes your fancy. Be sure to keep an eye out overhead, sloths are often found hanging in the trees that line the beaches. These are just a few of the many fascinating places to visit as a backpacker in Central America. If it’s a region that you’ve not considered backpacking in before then it’s time to add it to the bucket list. Central America is not afraid to be loud, colourful, unique and chaotic but it’s one of those places that once you visit, you’ll want to go back time and time again.
Thanks to its small size, backpacking around the region independently is fairly straightforward. Alternatively, there are plenty of tours run by companies such as G Adventures and Intrepid in the region too.
Written by our guest blogger and Central America fan Phoebe Simmonds from Passport Please.