Four Months in Central America–The Lowdown

Overview-

Approximate bus time– Roughly 135 hours spent riding buses, but this is the low end.
Number of beds- This is tough, lets just say a lot–I averaged a new hostel every 2 to 3 nights. I was moving around a lot. On the long end, I stayed 2 weeks in Utila, and 2 weeks in Xela…
Longest bus ride- Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rice- 16hours
Average lodging costs-$10-15 High end for Costa Rica and Belize, Average $6-7, lowest was $4 in Guatemala
Average Meal costs– $2-4, splurge meals $7-$8

San Blas sailing crew

San Blas sailing crew

PANAMA

September 11-12– arrived via sailboat from Colombia in Panama after spending 2 days in San Blas perfection. Spent one night and two full days exploring the lovely Panama City–all the sights in the Old City and the Panama Canal– before taking a night bus to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Sept 13 -Oct 8– Took a travel break in the US, met my niece, visited friends and family. Rested.

Highlights
I didnt spend a fair amount of time in Panama. Though I don´t know how you can beat the postcard perfect San Blas Islands.

Soaking in a volcanic spring with some Germans

Soaking in a volcanic spring near Liberia, Costa Rica with some Germans

COSTA RICA

October 9-15 – flew back into Costa Rica and after a night and day in San Jose, visiting museums and wandering around the city, I headed for the Caribbean coast and spent 4 nights in Puerto Viejo, then 2 nights in El Libertad. Hiked & Explored a volcanic national park.

Highlights
Rented a bike and rode for Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo, beach-hopped and stopped at an animal sanctuary along the way.

The Bad Part
-Costa Rica was the most expensive country I encountered in Central America–as far as the average cost per night, cost of street food, and groceries, and the cost for extra activities. Belize was a similar price range, though easier to find yummy cheap food.
-It was a putzy country to get around using the public transport–often having to return to San Jose to get to another part of the country.

Lovely sunset on Little Corn, Nicaragua

Lovely sunset on Little Corn, Nicaragua

NICARAGUA
October 15-November 19
Arrived in San Juan del Sur, met fantastic people, celebrated my birthday on the beach, learned to surf, went fishing, had a generally great time. Spent some time in Granada, before swinging by the intensely relaxing and beautiful Laguna de Apoyo. A week on the magical Ometepe Island follows–biking, swimming drinking beer with a bunch of vacationing Norwegians. Back to San Juan del Sur for another fun beer and beach soaked weekend. Next was a week on the Corn Islands–Caribbean paradise: snorkeling, eating seafood and serious beach time. A week in Leon and the surrounding area for intensive Spanish lessons. Finished with a few days in the northern highlands.

Highlights
Pretty much my entire time in Nicaragua was a highlight–Learning to surf, meeting some exceptional people, swimming in the perfect Lago de Apoyo, spectacular San Juan sunsets, skinny dipping in lake Ometepe, visiting the Corn Islands, touring a cigar factory, one-on-one Spanish classes. Beautiful weather, and the best swimming stops. I love this country.

Hiking Parque Imposible

Hiking Parque Imposible

EL SALVADOR
November 20-December 6
Arrived in San Salvador for a night then headed to the beach Playa Tunco. Made my way through the Ruta de Flores for some amazing eats, then to Santa Ana for a volcano climb, down to Parque Impossible for some intense hiking, a coffee factory tour, and a visit to some natural springs; next to the more secluded Northern coast, and finally to a colonial city in the west with a great group of fellow solo travelers.

Highlights
Eating my best meal in Central America at Juayua’s impressive weekend food festival, climbing volcano Santa Ana, hiking with an ex gorilla through a former battlefield, meeting a great crew to travel with. All and all El Salvador was a surprise and a great learning experience.

Paddling on Lago de Yojoa

Paddling on Lago de Yojoa

HONDURAS
December 6-December 30
Originally intended to skip this country, but made a fairly last minute decision to check it out. Wasn’t disappointed by my decision. First stop–Gracias, lovely old village in the highlands, then to the beautiful Lago de Yojoa, for a stay in a microbrewery in the jungle–complete with hiking, paddling and drinking above average beer; next the griddy coastal city of La Cieba, where Im “stuck” for a week, helping on a sailboat–living in a shipyard, hanging out with German Captains; ending with 2 week stint on the lovely Bay Islands for the end of the world and Christmas. Last stop Copan.

Highlights
Lago de Yojoa–paddling on the lake, hiking through the archeological park, good beer at the microbrewery. Utila–getting Open Water dive certified, meeting a great crew, and meeting up with a friend met in El Salvador.

The Bad Part
Had a rough patch when I arrived in Utila–tore up my toe pretty bad on a broken chain link fence. This made swimming painful for a few days.

Temple climbing, tomb raiding, in Tikal

Temple climbing, tomb raiding, in Tikal

GUATEMALA
December 30-January 28

Arrived in Antigua just in time for New Years celebrations–stayed in a party hostel, celebrated in the streets with fireworks and dancing. Off to the mystically beautiful Lake Atitlan–hiking and soaking in the fascinating Mayan culture. Quetzaltenango, or “Xela” is next, where I live with a local family and take private Spanish lessons. From there I make a 2 day journey solo through the highlands, past spectacular scenery, truly off the “gringo trail,” to Coban and then to Semuc Champey–where I slept in a hammock in a secluded ecolodge overlooking a vibrant green river–explored dark cave rivers by candlelight, swam in the famous green river. Final stop in the touristy little island of Flores, my jumping off point for exploring the uber impressive ancient Mayan city of Tikal.

Highlights
Semuc Champey–the cave-candle tour was a nice little adventure. Flores and Tikal turned out to be great fun.

The Bad Part
–I had trouble meeting the types of other travelers I was accustomed to meeting. Maybe it was bad luck or the fact I didn’t stick as closely to the normal tourist path, but I struggled to meet other travelers I connected with, save for a few great exceptions. Many people had different priorities and budgets than I and Most people I met were heading in the opposite direction. I spent a great deal of time traveling alone through Guatemala. This was in part due to my stubborn and cheap nature–refusing to take any of the wildly popular tourist shuttles, and only taking local “chicken” buses. It was a lonely and enlightening (and bumpy) path.

– I got miserably, painfully sick in Xela.

Cooling off in Belize

Cooling off in Belize

BELIZE
January 28-February 2
A visit that is short but sweet. Arrived in San Ignacio, instantly met some great people in my hostel. Spent an entire day exploring nearby Mayan ruins; spent another visiting an Iguana sanctuary, butterfly farm and cooling off in a brisk river. Headed to the coast and stayed in a teeny-tiny Garifuna village by the Carribean sea. In my short time in Belize, I was impressed by the lush green jungles, stunning coast and exceptionally friendly/helpful locals. Belize, more Caribbean than Latin, was a Perfect little “break” from typical Central America. And I never even made it to their claim to fame–the cayes.

The Bad Part
-Belize is quite a bit more expensive then the rest of Central America (on par with Costa Rica prices). And at the point in my trip where I’m running out of money, unfortunately. I would’ve loved to spend more time exploring this lovely little country. It seems like the perfect spot to spend a short vacation.

Getting attacked by baby iguanas in San Ignacio

Getting attacked by baby iguanas in San Ignacio

Frustrations- The weary traveler in me, coming out…

Hippies- I´ve run into so many bloody hippies the last four months. I´m not saying all hippies are bad. I´ve just run into some of the worst–many of whom were fresh from the Rainbow Festival on their way to other hippies festivals in Central America. What this means–these are the types that get their kicks smoking way too much dope and consuming too many psychedelics, listening to bad music, having the same far-out conversations over and over again. Most of them look exactly the same–they have gross dreadlocks, or bad hair, mismatched clothes, and smell strongly of sour body odor. Sometimes I´m entertained by talking with them, most of the time I´m just irritated.

Hostels-I think as the fourth month in Central America ended, I realized I was finaly growing tired of hostels and dormitories. Tired of sharing a room with snoring, farting, loud or inconsiderate strangers. Tired of gross shared bathrooms, cramped showers and having to dig through my bag to find things. Tired of being social when I don´t want to be. I´m amazed it took me 9 months to get to this point.

Laundry- My things seem to be getting grosser faster, and Im tired of taking them to a launderer (and paying) everytime I need them clean. Tired of cleaning my underwear in the sink and having to hang them to dry…

Weather- I´m not so much bothered by the weather as I am regretting not packing my warmer jacket. Cold weather sucks when you arent dressed appropriately for it, and all the buildings are designed to be open air, with poor insolation. Also traveling when it rains–walking with all my things, through pouring rain, dodging massive puddles.

Awards-

Best Central American Capital City– Hands down Panama City

Best Beaches
Nicaragua’s Corn Islands-especially a little hidden beach we discovered on Big Corn–clean white sand, warm, calm turquoise water. No people but a few entertaining local children.

San Blas Islands–perfect little private islands with nothing but Palms.

Best Local Food
Massive grilled prawns in Las Penitas, Nicaragua. Pupusas of El Salvador. Baleadas of Honduras. Tostadas of Guatemala. Weekend food festival in Juayua, El Salvador. Iced cacao and seafood of Nicaragua.

Best Street Food
El Salvador-pretty much obsessed with pupusas. Sunday nights in Xela, Guatemala–tostadas, tacos, pupusas, donut thingys, hot fruit punch or milky corn drink.

Biggest Adventure–
Candle-cave tour in Guatemala. And– 3 days in chicken bus transit completely off the beaten path (no English spoken, no white folks, alone), through the mountainous Guatemalan highlands. Working on a sailboat in Honduras, Making it to the Corn Islands. Sailing through San Blas.

Best Value
Hostels of Guatemala, food in El Salvador, activities and equipment rental in Nicaragua. $250 open water scuba certification & accommodation.

Best Traveler Crowd
Much of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Belize; Flores, Guatemala.

Best Volcano Climb
Santa Ana in El Salvador; Santa Maria in Guatemala

Places with the most hippies
Ometepe Island, Nicaragua: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hopkins, Belize

Best Snorkeling and Scuba-
Corn Islands, San Blas and Utila

Best Off the Beaten Path
The road from Huehuetenango to Coban in Guatemala. The Corn Islands. Lago de Yojoa in Honduras

Best Swimming Spot–away from the sea
Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua.

Biggest surprise
Belize–nearly skipped it. Found it to be such a lovely place. El Salvador–had no expectations, but fell in love with the country.

Best nights out
Nights out in San Juan del Sur, and in Ometepe; night out dancing at a Rancho Bar in Esteli. After Nicaragua, did not go out much, except for a great New Years Eve in Antigua, Guatemala.

Most overrated
So many people talked up San Pedro La Laguna, I had high hopes–which were shattered when I arrived. Not so special, I feel there must be better places on the lake. Antigua is a Disney version of a Guatemalan city. I wasn’t overly impressed or excited by it. So many backpackers love Playa Tunco–I thought it was filled with Canadian “bros” partying every night. Maybe I would’ve felt differently had I surfed there.

Favorite Country
Nicaragua will always hold a special place in my heart. El Salvador was all in all a super positive experience as well.

Biggest Surprise
Belize exceded my expectations. Lovely country with lovely people.

Least Favorite Country
Costa Rica, Guatemala

Low Points
Nasty toe injury in Utila; Sick, cold and alone in Guatemala. Weird, lonely Thanksgiving in Playa Tunco

Places Ill be recommending 
All of Nicaragua: El Salvador, especially the Ruta de Flores and Suchitoto: Belize, because it seems like the ultimate vacation place

Lessons Learned
-Building on my first lesson–“it’s not where you are, but who you’re with,” after much time I realized, consistent alone time is downright depressing. Without quality relationships to build and nurture over time, and with no family or friends in close proximity, one becomes increasingly bitter and negative. Pretty much Everything is better when shared with others… We neeeed each other. Its cheesy but true.

-Dont always believe what others tell you, including other travelers and the general media. I ended up loving El Salvador and Honduras. Neither of these countries has a great reputation in the media. Maybe Honduras, which is home to a few of the most statistically dangerous cities in the word–Ive been to 3 of the top ten on this trip from this list— has rightfully earned that reputation. However, what must be understood about the situation in these countries is segregated to certain specific places and parts of cities, to certain gangs or people in the drug business. And with gangs–they fight other gangs. With the drug business of Latin America–you have to go digging around in the wrong parts of town, messing with wrong people, to put yourself in any real danger. The violence rarely, if ever, touches tourists.

So many people I met along the way skipped much or all of these countries, or only visited very small backpacker bubble towns, generally missing out on 99 percent of the country. You must use common sense, as is important wherever you roam.

Its a shame really, many of these places are incredible, and could use the tourism money.

Whats Next?
That massive country between the US and Central America…MEXICO!

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10 Comments »

  1. Loved reading this post. Based on your experiences we are looking at Honduras &. El Salvador for a vacation . Stay safe & travel on!

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  2. Hi! Loved reading your travel adventures and the beautiful pictures! Currently planning to travel to Guatemala… did you bring your own hammock hiking? Want to hike Xela to Coban or Atitlan but have a toddler I might take… So can’t go with the major tourist operatives…-any advice?

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    • Thanks for reading! I did not have a hammock, however I definitely wished I did as there are plenty of places to hang one in Guatemala and in Central America!

      I’d imagine it’d be very easy to hire a private guide. Tell one of the reputable tour companies about your situation and ask if they can recommend a private, child-friendly guide. If that gets you nowhere, you could try some forums (lonely planet thorn tree or couch-surfing) and ask around for other people who have hired independent guides. It’s better that way anyhow as you’re giving your money directly to the guide rather than the company that hires them–they’ll get the bigger cut they deserve.

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