This post was written by Adam Tiffany, an intrepid traveler from Norwich now living in Australia. It is probably one of the most in depth and beautifully descriptive guides you will find on this site, and an incredible insight into backpacking in Latin America. Enjoy!
If you haven’t considered Central America as a future travel destination then I urge you to continue reading. Despite offering nine breathtakingly beautiful countries to discover and explore, each being identifiable with its very own culture and dynamic way of life, for some reason, this fascinating portion of the world is still, for some unknown reason, overlooked by many.
Latin America is an adventurer’s playground compared to the current, more popular, alternative that is the tourist guided pathway of the banana-pancake trail of Southeast Asia. So why choose Latin America? Firstly, it’s not saturated in backpackers, it’s cheaper, you won’t think you’re on holiday in Magaluf, it’s still relatively untouched and most importantly, the dreaded guitar playing, dreadlocked trustafarian from surrey has parents that, thankfully, still think Asia is a safer destination to send their offspring (which by the way is total bollocks).
Out of my time here, these 10 places, in no particular order, were my favourite. Words do not do them justice.
10. Panama’s San Blas Islands
The San Blas islands are probably, no actually there’s no probably about it, they are the most beautiful group of islands you will ever find, over 300 of them in fact.
Set in the Caribbean sea, sailing past these islands has become a common stop off for travellers on the six-day voyage between Panama and Colombia. The inhabitants of the San Blas are known as the “Kuna”, dressed in colourful tribal outfits with leg-length coloured beads to match, and are regarded as the world’s 5th most indigenous tribe.
Most of the sailing captains who take travellers on this famous A to B route are often well known amongst the tribe, allowing for you to be dropped off on one of the islands amongst them for the day. An experience that probably elapsed your imagination whilst in the middle of checking your passport details for the 3rd time when booking your flight out here.
It’s only once you arrive safely off that boat (the same moment our captain switched his attention from the boat back to the Colombian prostitute he’d brought along for the journey) that the euphoria of being finally back on dry land with your jittery sea legs has at long last worn off, that you now begin to acknowledge that nobody has spoken for five minutes and that the eye contact and smiles between you all describes what you are feeling far better then any word could.
This semi-professional surfing village on the pacific side of Costa Rica was one of the few places I actually felt content doing nothing with my days, even procrastinating seemed hard work by the end of it.
The main attraction here aside from its beach and surf, are its sunsets. So spectacular as they were, it soon became obvious why the sun’s daily demise was used as the daily congregational point by everyone to deliberate on what to do for the rest of the evening. Why my group of friends discussed it each night looking back now seems pointless, because the outcome was always the same. Cheap Caribbean rum and beer have a merciless toll on your willpower.
The algebraic equation for this place is simple; chill out, do nothing, surf all day, then find a party going on in the surrounding hills afterwards, repeat.
Or if you don’t like math, just get a couple of quad bikes and drive off into the jungle to the nearby village of Montezuma to jump off triple-tiered huge waterfalls with enough rum to sink a pirate ship, like I did.
8. Utila, Honduras
Situated on the Caribbean side of Central America, amongst “the bay of islands”, is a small island called Utila. Made up of expats, Jamaican twanged local accents and folks who have somehow houdini’d themselves out of the straight jacket that once contained them.
Included amongst the human circus residing here are people from all over the world, arriving on the promise of Utila being one of the cheapest, and best places, in the world to learn to dive and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. For me, it’s the best spot I’ve ever dived. To compliment its Mecca diving status, Utilas nightlife is electric, with bars like Rehab and Skid Row doing their utmost to make sure you go home in a wheelbarrow.
It’s as welcoming to people wanting to dive as it is to your stomach to see the back of the inevitable daily intake of gallo pinto and plantain you’ve had to endure along the way (if you don’t know what gallo pinto and plantain are at the start of your trip, you’ll have the same fondness of it as the first bottle of spirits that ever made you throw up by the end of it). Thankfully Utilas variety of eating options are simply fantastic alongside a particular eatery serving the best pork chops and award winning chilli known to man, well this man, namely me.
Utila may have all the assets of island life that I’d seen a hundred times before, but it was its inconceivable lack of reality that none of the expats living here ever wanted to embrace, entwined with the island’s small army of extroverts and larger than life personalities, that made this island not only a fantastic place to dive and retreat to for a week, but a truly blessed place for the collection of nationalities that live here to call home.
7. Semuc Champey , Guatemala
Described by many as the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of, its name romanticises itself being set somewhere in the South of France rather than in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. And by cupids arrow (being represented at this point by alcohol and the relief of not having to administer our will we’d written up on the nine-hour mini bus trip from hell to get there) me and my mate did fall in love with the place.
So what is it? “Semuc Champey is a collection of tiered pools atop a natural limestone bridge in the jungles of Guatemala”, that’s Google’s derogative description anyway. However, the brains of Silicon Valley have forgotten to mention a few other highlights of staying here.
Staying in Semuc Champey, the highlight is obviously spending the day in it’s famous emerald-coloured waters, but it also offers the opportunity to go grade four white-water rafting, tubing through the jungle and caving by candlelight, plunging blind into pools below in total darkness.
And then there’s where you sleep. The whole time we were here we stayed in one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The showers are situated on the side of a cliff so that your daily shower overlooks the rising haze of mist that engulfs the rainforest each evening, everybody eats communally for dinner, the atmosphere rivals, if not betters, most other “party hostels” I’ve stayed in, and with the personal orchestra of the tropics to awake to each morning to remind you that you’re a million miles from anywhere, it is probably one of my favourite spots in the world.
6. San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
A regular t-shirt slogan is spotted throughout most Central American hostels that is adorned by its wearers as a badge of honour. You remember the slogan and the conversations deriving from it because of other travellers who often enough won’t shut up about it. Then you arrive in San Juan Del Sur, just before the Sunday as is drilled into you to do so as gospel, then as Sunday arrives, you finally grasp what all the excitement behind “Sunday Funday” is about.
Sunday Funday was created by the main four hostels in San Juan to create the ultimate party, with 300-400 people usually attending. It starts at midday and you get ferried across the local area in a convoy of gringo sardine cans (locals carrying crammed white people in the back of their trucks) to the three separate pool parties, one after the other, that are scattered amongst the surrounding hills looking out over the pacific, before ending up in a nightclub until the sun rises on Monday morning, which you probably won’t see because your liver has probably rolled over and died already.
As far as parties go, this is only just beaten in regards of the scale of drinking and level of partying by the island of Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party in the Gulf of Thailand. However, San Juan Del Sur has the fortunate privilege of not being over run by droves of English who’ve migrated from Magaluf, so in that sense, it comes out on top.
Sunday Funday is (prepare to be startled) every Sunday (with rumours of a man doing 26 in a row!) but during the week the hostels offer free taxis down to the beach for surfing or you can go grab some motorbikes and go discover Jesus! By that I mean go visit the 2nd tallest statue of Jesus in the world that over shadows the bay, obviously.
If you do decide to come here (it’s almost inevitable you will) then bring your dancing shoes and perhaps a suitable liver donor along the way, chances are you’ll need them.
5. Tikal, Guatemala
The ancient Mayan temples of Tikal were remarkably only discovered in 1853 and were later declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. The city of Tikal itself is from around 4 BC and is archaeologically astounding.
Beginning our trek into the heart of Guatemala’s former Mayan empire, a sudden array of bellowing dog-like chants switched our attention to remind us Tikal is also home to howler monkeys. Big, loud faeces throwing ones. Despite the manners of our primitive cousins, the atmosphere when laying first eye on Tikal’s jungle super-structures is mesmerising.
The next obvious question to answer is can you climb them? YES! You can climb to the very top of ‘temple six’ that pierces the jungle’s ceiling by some margin, overlooking Guatemala’s dense rainforest for as far as the eye can see.
Tourist trap? Surprisingly, no. In fact it was more a case of occasionally bumping into other tourists, then the dreaded plague of stampeding smartphones found elsewhere. We only stayed for five hours due to pre-arranged travel commitments, but due to the sheer scale of the site, you could spend the whole day here.
Just to put things into perspective for you so you can understand how massive these former places of worship really are, you should be able to just see all five-foot-ten inches of me at the bottom of the picture below.
4. Caye Caulker, Belize
After arriving at Belize’s border control, which, no word of a lie, was a beach hut on the sand incorporating a less than rigorous open and shut passport routine, we ventured on via speedboat to the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker feels like it should be on the cover of a Horace Andy album cover as an ambassador to Jamaican roots and culture with its multi-coloured painted houses, reggae playing bars, white sand roads, and golf-car driving, bright-orange Nike Air Max adorning policeman. As you arrive on the dock, you are greeted with the warm welcome of Caribbean accents (it sounded warm to us, the Swedes with us personally found it a bit of a nightmare to understand them) with a man named Brian, donning Lennon sunglasses and a gold necklace, leading us and a handful of other backpackers astray like the Pied Piper upon the promise of free daily rum punch being included in our stay. He wasn’t lying.
The island’s motto is to “go slow” and is repeated as often by the locals as it is reminded by brightly-painted murals on many of the island’s buildings. Besides a spot of kayaking, swimming and reenacting James bond scenes while spearfishing, “go slow” (aided and abetted by the island’s fantastic use of jerk seasoning and quality stout) encompassed our days.
The island, in terms of paradise, is only second to that of the San Blas islands as previously mentioned. Except here you get the added luxury of fresh fish, jerk seasoning, rastafarian hospitality and stout…lots and lots of stout.
3. Antigua…kinda, Guatemala
Antigua is the typical Latin American town you have pictured in your head, with Spanish baroque influenced colonial architecture and vibrant colour, illuminating the town with a passionate sense of everything Latino. As well as the added title of being a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s well worth the visit.
But it wasn’t Antigua itself that I wanted to talk about. In fact its a hostel named Earth Lodge, way up in the distant hills overlooking the town, that steals the show.
After enduring a ten-hour bus ride sat on the floor of a recovery bus after a breakdown, with no toilet or stops to accommodate the necessity, we’d developed Schwarzenegger-like sphincter muscles and were quite frankly ready to collapse anywhere that didn’t involve sitting on a freezing, filthy, hard floor amongst geriatric yoda look alikes. Upon arriving at Earth Lodge, we were told there were no rooms available except for the “bridal suite”, which we were upgraded to for free. Within this luxury room was a double bed to each self, actual HOT showers and a window view staring straight out to the volcano – we’d landed ourselves in the hostel version of the Ritz Carlton. There are dorms as well but I highly recommend staying in these rooms, there’s also a treehouse suite too.
The lodge itself overlooks the town of Antigua with a view rivalled by few, if any. Situated on an avocado farm they incorporate avocados into their menu as an alternative to pretty much everything. The avocado chocolate mousse being a particular eye-brow raising highlight. Earth Lodge is basically Willy Wonkas chocolate factory for avocado fans. With a homemade sauna, mountain-top volleyball area, communal eating in the evenings and views of ‘Volcan De Agua’ spewing lava into the night sky, made this probably the best place I stayed in Central America.
In the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the world’s 17th largest lake, lies Ometepe, formed by two opposing volcanoes, named Concepcion and Maderas, that creates an hourglass formation of land.
Still feeling fresh from Sunday Funday and bearing the yellow skin pigmentation associated with liver failure, we embarked on the Che Guevara ferry bound for Ometepe.
The island plays host to large groups of white-faced capuchin, howler and spider monkeys as well as the not so well known, Ometepe pink chicken. Later to be discovered as a local way to confuse potential predators via a quick dip in a tin of pink dye, naturally.
Days were spent discovering the island on motorbikes, attempted paddle boarding and patting the hostels pet pigs before we considered embracing the eight-hour round trip up Ometepe’s Maderas volcano. After hours of our unlucky guide dragging our flagging group behind him, navigating through thick uphill rainforest whilst dodging characters from a David Attenborough narrative and dealing with humidity levels exceeding the humour levels of the group, we had made it at long last and reached the top.
There were two reasons we chose to climb Maderas instead of Concepcion; firstly, the once prevalent fiery internal crater of the volcano has now been replaced with a lake. Meaning in theory, you can, and we did, swim inside a volcano. And secondly, we would be gifted with this view on our way back down.
1. Monteverde, Costa Rica
Set atop the spine of Costa Rica’s continental divide, Monteverde is a world above the coastal towns that dot the country’s shoreline. Set some four-and-a-half thousand feet above sea level, Monteverde is probably the only time a backpackers uniform of boardshorts and a vest, gets replaced with jeans and a jumper in Central America.
If adventure is what you’re after, then Monteverde delivers enough adrenaline to get the whole cast of Trainspotting back on their feet. A day in the cloud forest comprises of 20 huge ziplines reaching as far as a kilometre long, criss-crossing the tree canopy, a terrifying 80-metre rope swing, a 100-metre vertical rope rappel and a bungee jump from a suspended platform.
That’s day one covered, day two? Go canyoning! We spent a whole day making our way along river clambering over rocks, jumping off waterfalls and abseiling 50 metres down the ones deemed too high to jump, which at times made me consider whether a change of underwear would seem appropriate.
On the tamer side, the cloud forest also plays host to night walks via flashlight into Monteverdes wildlife-rich rainforests. Once in the reserve, you are left alone with Costa Rica’s answer to Steve Irwin whose sense for tracing animals was quite frankly remarkable. We came across slough, viper tree snakes, tarantula, and red-eyed leaf frogs to name but a few, well, to name the ones I can spell properly.
Monteverde holds true to its country’s famous “pura vida” and will satisfy the most stringent of adrenaline seekers needs, or just leave you being the brunt of all jokes for the following week if you chicken out of the bungee jump, like I did.