Six Months in Central America – Where Should I Go?

41 comments

Post image for Six Months in Central America – Where Should I Go?

In just nine days I’ll be catching a flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras for the next leg of my trip. One of my closest friends is joining me for the first three weeks and we plan on hitting the interior first, then wandering over to the coast and the islands. After that…

We’ll head first for the Mayan ruins at Copan, where I’m looking forward to giving my camera a good workout, then visit a few mountain towns such as Gracias to ramble through cobblestone streets, visit colonial churches and soak in some hot springs. The nearby Parque Nacional Montaña de Celaque looks like a great place to hike through cloud forest, ogle waterfalls and fulfill my lifetime dream of riding a wild jaguar (monkey-wrestling is optional).

Eventually, we’ll make our way to the coast and head to the island of Utila to seek out the rumored $5 lobster dinners, $3 conch soup and possibly sign up for a diving class (I’ve heard of 4-day PADI classes for as cheap as $250). At some point I suspect we’ll stumble across some rum punch and Honduran cigars. In fact, I’d say the odds are pretty good indeed.

The more-developed island of Roatan is next with nicer beaches, fancier accommodations, better snorkeling and diving, and a higher concentration of fellow gringos. It is, of course, more expensive but I hope we can find fairly cheap accommodation and manage to stay within budget.

After my buddy heads home, I have no firm plans — the rough itinerary is to head into Guatemala next then back up into Mexico. I’m planning on staying in Central America for six months but know myself well enough to admit that it’ll probably end up being closer to nine by the time I head for South America.

I’ve never been big on planning –I tend to wander– so I thought it’d be fun to ask you, dear reader, for suggestions. Do you have a favorite spot down south that you’d recommend? Or perhaps there’s a place you’ve always wanted to visit but have yet to explore — leave a comment and I’ll send you a postcard if I pass through.

If you had a few months to wander around south of the border, where would you go?

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Hope September 29, 2011 at 2:32 am

Wes, I’ve spent 4 months in Central America in the past year, so feel free to hit me up any time you want and I can give you some amazing places (some pretty off the path) to check out. For Honduras, here are a few things. First of, don’t be fooled, Utila is totally gringo filled as well, it is just more of a backpacker feel while Roatan is a bit more resortish. But yea, I think there are like 5 businesses on the entire island of Utila that are Honduran owned (this is a complete exaggeration but you get my point). Copan is a very quite peaceful town and the ruins are nice to see. Once you get to Guatemala though, you are INSANE if you skip Tikal. Once you see Tikal every other ruin in Central America will be “not quite as good as Tikal…”

I didn’t do much else in Honduras, and I know I missed a ton, but feel free to ask for info on Guatemala, Belize (which you should at least briefly check out), El Salvador (DON’T SKIP IT!!), and Nicaragua. Costa Rica and Panama I’m as clueless as the next guy…

Reply

Adam Pervez September 29, 2011 at 3:08 am

Wes,

I’ll be volunteering in Copan in mid-October. It’s a cooperative of local indigenous female artisans and I’ll be setting up their website and some solar panels they bought. Shoot me an email if you’d like to meet up. I’d love to meet a fellow nomad!

Reply

Dyanne@TravelnLass September 29, 2011 at 4:13 am

Oh my, where to begin? Having spent 20+ YEARS as a tour operator (now retired, and soon off to Vietnam as an expat) in that part of the world (mainly Belize and Costa Rica – waaay back when few had even HEARD of Belize) – soooo many lovely corners of CA to explore.

I can ditto Matt’s Tikal as a “can’t miss” (it’s verily the NYC of the Maya, after all) and likewise dear sweet Utila (which I’m despondent to hear is now “…totally gringo filled…”) ;( Then again such is all relative, so no doubt better Utila than Roatan…

Ah but yes, do drop into Belize – definitely Caye Caulker over Ambergris (which… was already far too touristy for my tastes even back in the 80′s). Better yet, head down to Placencia – the only spot in Belize where you have easy access to both the blue Caribbean AND pristine jungles (incl. the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve). Speaking of which – I simply MUST interrupt myself here to say…

“…fulfill my lifetime dream of riding a wild jaguar…” !!!!!! PLEASE tell me you’re just KIDDING, yes???? Enough said.

Other seriously can’t miss CA spots: verily ALL of Costa Rica, period. But if you must choose – Tortuguero on the northwest coast (no roads, you either fly in or boat in – they don’t call it the “Costa Rican Amazon” for nothing); the cloud forest at Monteverde (serene Quaker village; hike the continental divide; seek a glimpse of the Resplendent Quetzal w/ it’s yard-long tail), and truly among the not-to-be-missed if you happen to be there Jan – March – venturing out at midnight on a moonlit beach to witness the giant Leatherback sea turtles – we’re talking 6 ft. long/1 ton – nest at Playa Grande on the Nicoya Peninsula.

O.k. I’ll shut up now, but for one last (imho) can’t-miss: the idyllic San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama.

Reply

Tran September 29, 2011 at 5:13 am

Panama is the Central American country I visited most recently. Have tons of advice. You can check them out here: http://www.backpackforever.com/knowledge/central-america/panama/. Favorite places there include: Boca del Drago on Isla Colon, the Ngobe community in Rio Oeste Arriba near Almirante, Volcan on the other side of Volcan Baru from Boquete, and Isla Tigre in Kuna Yala (San Blas). Have an incredible time, Wes!

Reply

Michele Peterson September 29, 2011 at 5:55 am

Gracias and la Campa are Lenca village well worth visiting in the highlands of Honduras. If you hit it right, you can be part of Central America’s largest pilgrimage around Feb. 22nd I worked on a tourism project there and you can read our community blog (http://visitlacampa.blogspot.com/) with details on the hikes and horseback riding excursions.

I live part-time in Guatemala so feel free to contact me for suggestions about any of the areas. I agree about Tikal and other major spots but smaller lesser known ones are also great. I just did a post on the mountain springs at Pasa Bien – it’s easy to get to and not at all touristy. http://www.michelepeterson.blogspot.com/

Have fun
Michele

Reply

Joe Comfort September 29, 2011 at 6:05 am

Don’t stop in Costa Rica, I’ve heard there are a couple jerks running around down there.

Reply

Joe Comfort September 29, 2011 at 6:07 am

Who,btw,will not be in CR for Xmas.

Reply

Morgan Ives September 29, 2011 at 6:26 am

I just spent 3 months down there. I took a SCUBA class in Utila at the Bay Islands College of Diving. It included 5 nights in their lodging (the best lodging we had in all of Central America – hot water, cable TV, a kitchen…) and the full class including 8 dives. WORTH IT! Plus there are the $5 lobster dinners that make it way worth it. GO TO THE TREEHOUSE bar. Lonely Planet listed it as one of the top 10 coolest bars in the world and it is amazing – you feel like you are in Alice in Wonderland.

Nicaragua was our favorite country. We took the boat down the Rio San Juan to El Castillo – a quaint city that was friendly and nice. The boat was small and cramped, but definitely a good memory. Took the 10 hour boat across Lake Nicaragua to Omatepe and while it doesn’t sound fun – it was incredibly beautiful to be on the lake at night.

Costa Rica was a bit too touristy, but surfing and Samara and doing the Superman zip line were incredible. Get the zip line with the Superman, that was by far the best and it wouldn’t have been as good without that at the end.

Tikal is a must, and I’ve heard Semuc Champay is incredible. San Pedra La Laguna in Guatemala was one of my favorite low key towns. And I wish more than anything we had had more time in Granada, Nica. Have a blast!!!

Reply

Bret Willhoit September 29, 2011 at 8:13 am

You definitely have to go to Semuc Champey in Guatemala. It is an amazingly wonderful natural theme park. Stay at Las Marias in the village of Semuc Champey, and not at the usual stopover of Lanquin. They only have electricity for a couple of hours a day. It’s great if you want to unplug from everything for a couple of days. And they are all proud to be GuateMayan. While you are at Lake Atitlan, San Pedro is the best village to hang out in; very relaxed and chill.

Reply

megan September 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Amapala island in southern Honduras. They have cheap lobster too and beautiful empty beaches.

Reply

megan September 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Also in Amapala you would probably be the only gringo on the island. Check out my pics and info about my visit http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/megankp/1/1218036840/tpod.html

Reply

Gerard ~ GQ trippin September 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Belize has some of the best scuba diving from what I heard. They even have great shark excursions if you feel like swimming with sharks in the wild. =)

Reply

Nomadic Matt September 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm

So many places but a few:

Placencia or Dangriga, Belize
Monteverde and Corcavado, Costa Rica
Tikal
Boqueta, Panama
Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Reply

Audrey September 29, 2011 at 5:13 pm

We ended up spending most of our time in Central America in Guatemala – our favorite country in the region. If you need a place to chill out and relax, Xela in Guatemala is a good place. Also a great place to brush up on Spanish as there are an endless number of Spanish schools. Quetzal Trekkers is a fantastic organization operating out of Xela – 100% of profits go to a street kids school they run and all the volunteers are super. Antigua is touristy, but there are still some great areas.

In Nicaragua, we really enjoyed Leon. It’s not as polished as Granada, but more low key and friendlier. Isla de Ometepe is also great for getting offline and doing some trekking/reading/relaxing.

Have fun!

Reply

Jaime September 29, 2011 at 6:44 pm

I spent about 3 months there at the start of my RTW trip. I can write out so many amazing things, but Ill just post 2 post of mine that may help you.

Guatemala Highlights & Tips
http://breakawaybackpacker.com/2011/05/guatemala-highlights-tips/
Don’t Skip El Salvador
http://breakawaybackpacker.com/2011/05/dont-skip-el-salvador/

For sure please spend time in Nicaragua it is my favorite country in Central America & still my fav of the whole trip so far. Be sure to go Volcano Boarding in Leon, visit and stay the night at Volcano Masaya near Granada & be sure to actually make your way around the entire island of Isla Ometepe. The people in Nica are os nice, the food is amazing and the colors of the country are awesome. Oh & if baseball season is in go to a baseball game in Nicaragua they love baseball. Im not a fan but to be there with the wild crowds was awesome. Let me know if you need any tips or suggestion I can give ya tons.

Reply

Maria September 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Hit Nicaragua for me – volcanoes, culture and beaches!

Reply

Dana September 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I can only speak to Guatemala and Belize (went in July). For Guatemala, Tikal and the Lake Atitlan area are a must IMO and I also really liked Rio Dulce (do take a boat ride to Livingstone). Antigua is worth a visit too for its gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture. Didn’t see as much of Belize as I would have liked, but hands down Caye Caulker was the highlight. There are tourists there, but it is not touristy. No cars on the island, so you walk or ride a bike (some locals have golf carts). No hotel or restaurant chains of any kind! It has a nice raggae vibe for sure. Pics from both countries can be found at flickr.com/missbidnall.

Reply

Stephanie - The Travel Chica September 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Checkout El Salvador if you can. I loved Juayua and the small mountain towns around it on La Ruta de Las Flores.

Reply

Matthew Karsten September 30, 2011 at 12:25 am

The ruins of Calakmul in Mexico.

I was one of the crazy ones who skipped Tikal because I didn’t think anything could top Calakmul. The tallest Mayan pyramid in the world (that’s not still buried), you can climb on everything, it’s surrounded by miles and miles of jungle, and there was no one there.

Some of the statues still had original coloring on them, and if you’re lucky you could spot a jaguar on the road in.

Highly recommended.

Reply

Henry Williams September 30, 2011 at 12:32 am

you should enjoy yourself make sure and stop by belize

Reply

Globetrottergirls September 30, 2011 at 2:06 am

So many places pop into my head… where to start!!

Mexico – We loved Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast near Cancun (don’t be fooled by the proximity to Cancun though, it’s world’s apart!!) – the most pristine beaches and a distinct Caribbean feeling.
Costa Rica – we second Samara Beach, but cheap accommodation is hard to come by. There’s only one hostel (dorms $16 *gulp* but breakfast buffet included), finally we found a cheap hotel on the beach with double rooms for $30. The cheapest beach town in Costa Rica is Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side, not far from the border to Panama. Very relaxed but lots of gringos.
Honduras was the place where we didn’t see any gringos (except for Copan) – we liked Gracias and Santa Rosa Copan and Lake Yojoa if you enjoy total solitude.
Guatemala – go to Lake Atitlan for sure!! So beautiful. I second Dana with the suggestion to take the boat from Rio Dulce to Livingston. Fantastic scenery. Antigua is too touristy for most people but we had a great time there.
Nicaragua- don’t skip Leon, and the volcano boarding that Jaime mentioned is fun, if you don’t mind carrying a wooden ‘board’ up the volcano in 95F heat (http://bit.ly/hbhGOd). We also really liked San Juan del Sur, a little beach town on the Pacific Coast, but lots of backpackers there. Stayed with an awesome lady, Mama Sara, who spoils her gringo guests ;-)
Let us know if we can recommend anything specific – accommodation, wi-fi, etc.. Enjoy Central America!

Reply

Renee September 30, 2011 at 3:45 am

Some great areas in southern Mexico–Merida for its colonial beauty, Chichen Itza & Uxmal then up to Palenque all are incredible archaeological sites and over to San Cristobal de las Casas (colonial with the Mayan Indian influence) and finally Oaxaca with the craft villages surrounding and its own archaeological sites. All of it amazing, different and worth the trip. Have a great trip.

Reply

Alex September 30, 2011 at 8:01 am

I’ve done three trips to CA to spend time in Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica. Loved all three! Belize was the best snorkeling of my life (wasn’t yet the avid diver I am today). Costa Rica I was studying abroad in, friendliest people in the world, perhaps.

In Honduras I strongly approve of your plans to check out both Utila and Roatan-both so worth it. In Utila you must must take a boat ride out to the Cays (you can even stay there-there is one hotel!) and in Roatan I recommend hiring a scooter and checking out the island. There is so much variety there. And go whitewater rafting on the Rio Conrejal! So fun and a free room in the jungle for the night is included. I blogged all about my Honduras trip, check it out for more info. You are going to have such an adventure and I can’t wait to read about it!

Reply

Maddie September 30, 2011 at 11:32 am

You must explore Nicaragua- it is fantastic. San Juan del Sur is a laid back surf town that is very touristy, but fun, and nearby are some completely amazing and deserted beaches. Granada has a lot of colonial charm and history. The City of Leon is more rugged, but interesting and cannot be missed. Ometempe island is a unique experience being a largish volcanic island in the middle of a huge lake! Also the Corn Islands off the coast are a completely different world- Little Corn Island has no cars or roads, just stunning beaches and walking paths and lots of hotel/food options (although more expensive than mainland Nicaragua).

Reply

Jarmo September 30, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Spent some over two months in Mexico and Guatemala earlier this year. Those places are definitely worth the visit. From Mexico my favorite was Puerto Escondido, excellent surfing and chilling on the beach, got stuck there for a while.

From Guatemala few people have already mentioned Lanquin and Chemuc Champey, which have been definitely one of the highlights of my trip this year http://www.arcticnomad.com/2011/02/27/full-moon-white-water-rafting-at-lanquin/ . And I wouldn’t miss Tikal, which way better than Chitzen Itza that is one of the New 7 world wonders, don’t know why.

Reply

DKR September 30, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica (I would move there in a heartbeat), as well as well as some wicked zip lining at Arenal!

Reply

dkr's better half October 4, 2011 at 1:28 am

once there, don’t miss the chicken lady. she serves lunch under a tent on the beach between the shops and the entrance to the park. HUGE plates of beans, rice, plantains, and the best seasoned fish for about $4. great sauce, too. we tried to smuggle some home and had some ‘splainin’ to do to TSA.

Reply

Alex October 1, 2011 at 12:57 am

Ive never been in this part of the world so I can’t help. But i’m very happy to see that you are back on the road, im looking forward to read about your adventures and watch your photos to live vicariously your travels over there :)

Reply

Dana October 1, 2011 at 10:46 pm

I would definitely recommend Coconut Tree Divers in Roatan. They have $5/night dorm accommodations if you dive with them, the instructors are wonderful and everyone hangs out on the deck and drinks a few beers together at the end of the day. I had a great experience getting my Scuba Certification with them.

Little Corn Island in Nica is amazing! Tiny, no cars, everything is transported by wheelbarrow. It is truly magical!

In Costa Rica I would recommend Tortuguero (only accessible by boat), Puerto Viejo, Manuel Antonio (people might say it is too touristy, but I thought it was just beautiful, stay at Costa Linda, great place, great location, cheap, $3 huge breakfast). Monteverde is incredibly expensive so you have to decide if it is really worth it for you to see the Cloud Forest and do the ziplining. You might want to check out Dominical too, a cute little surfer town south of Manuel Antonio. Can’t wait to read where you decide to go!

Reply

Dana October 1, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Oh yeah, you have to go whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. It is so beautiful and the water is warm. Check out the Pacuare River, I had a great experience rafting there.

Reply

Cam October 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Definitely don’t miss Tikal in Guatemala. Here’s some pics we took a couple months ago:
http://travelingcanucks.com/2011/05/pictures-mayan-temples-tikal-national-park-guatemala/

Also – Caye Caulker and Placencia in Belize

Reply

Rob October 2, 2011 at 10:32 am

ran across your comment page. Im from SF CA and thinking about either Guatemala, or panama. i want to do a month and want to spend as least as possible. I have a fund that pays me $1000/month so whats the strategy being you’ve been there

Reply

Dalene October 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I was going to suggest Coconut Tree Divers as well on Roatan – with their $5/night accommodations with diving. I think there are a couple of others in the West End that do the same thing so you can look around.

Be sure to eat at the Thai restaurant in West End – best Pad Thai I’ve ever had (short of going to Thailand, of course).

Reply

Theodora October 9, 2011 at 1:28 am

I’ve always wanted to ride the deep submarine in Roatan. It’s a bathyscape. Goes down thousands of metres. You get to see super-deep sea life, incredible life forms, so I’d really try and do that if I were you.

Other than that? Antigua, Guatemala, is a beautiful town, framed by live volcanoes. If you haven’t climbed a live volcano, I’d recommend you do Pacaya — it’s an easyish walk and you get to chuck water on hot rocks and watch it boil. Lake Atitlan is also absolutely beautiful, and the ruins of Tikal are, I think, the best Mayan ruins out there — though I haven’t done Copan.

In Mexico? Sooo much stuff, so little time. Bet it’ll take you a year to get back up there anywise…

Reply

Kate October 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

Did anyone mention Oaxaca City in Mexico? Southern-ish city in the mountains. Known for mole and other great food. A picturesque zocalo (town square) and otherwise easy and fun to visit. Also know for its ruins nearby.
First on my itinerary is the train through copper canyon–four times bigger than the Grand Canyon and home to the indigenous Tarahumara.
Also Guanajuato in north-central Mexico. Colonial silver mining town and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Reply

Mark Segador October 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

would love to see mexico. with its mixture of aztec past and spanish colonial influence and consider their culture today, it’s a sight to behold for sure. so many places to see in so little time. good luck and enjoy!

Reply

carlo October 14, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Awesome thread! We are doing our 6month Central and South America trip in January. But one place we’ve been in Costa Rica is Lapas Rios Rainforest Ecolodge. It is next to Corcovado National Park. Great place to unwind and get away. Nosara is nice too. A bit touristy but great beaches.

Reply

Ryan October 15, 2011 at 6:52 am

If you make it to Costa Rica, I strongly recommend a visit to Parque Nacional Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula. National Geographic has called it “the most biologically intense place on Earth”. A truly magical place and far too easy to access than it should be. You can take a local colectivo bus out of Puerto Jiminez that will drop you off on the beach at the Pacific Ocean. Hike about a mile along the beach and there are a couple of places to stay on the beach at the park boarder. One has pretty nice tent cabins and is a bit pricey called La Leno Lodge, but the people that run it are long time locals and extremely nice. Next door is another place that has camping which is probably the way to go, if you want to save money. No roads and all supplies are taken in by horse on the beach. From there you can hike about 6 miles through the rainforest to a ranger station where you can make reservations to stay in advance. It’s important to do a little research about conditions and such, but if you can catch a dry time, it’s a much easier time than the guide books make it out to be. If you go for the ranger station, reservations are a must. I’m sure you can get information about it by email the folks at La Leona Lodge, if you can’t find it online. A very special place and I hope you are lucky enough to make it there. Our mutual friends Mike and Gail turned me onto your blog and I’ve really been following it for quite some time now, but this is my first time leaving a comment. Great, great stuff. Your writing got me hooked, but the level of photography you have started to achieve is what has impressed me the most. You are great at what you do Wes. More please! Lastly, I agree with many of the others that Tikal is not to be missed, if you are into Mayan ruins.

Reply

Doug October 22, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Dude, check out the surf. Also want to see the ruins.

Reply

stc October 29, 2011 at 2:38 am

Great post. This is almost better than a guidebook!

Reply

Jody Johnson October 31, 2011 at 4:16 am

So while your in Rotan check out Paya Bay. Way off the beaten path…but beautiful!!!

Reply

Cancel reply

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge