TOP 5 CENTRAL AMERICAN ADVENTURES: BRIEF CITY SPOT LIGHTS
It is trite to say that Central America is unlike anywhere else in the world. While it does not possess the same well-trodden tourist path one might find in Southeast Asia, or the same name recognition as a trip to Western Europe might entail, Central America has everything these destinations have and more. Beaches, ruins, history, nice weather, and generous people await anybody adventurous enough to give this part of the world a try.
I spent a total of two months zig-zagging my way from Playa Del Carmen in the Mayan Riveria, Mexico, to San Jose, Costa Rica. Along the way, I stopped in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, spending at least a few days in each. It was a trip, and a part of the world, that I will never forget and that I endeavor to go back to. The architecture was amazing, the scenery was breathtaking, and the range of activities was incredible. Of everything I did during my time there, these five moments stick out, and would be must-sees for anybody travelling to Central America.
Night Walk in the Jungles of Monteverde
The most memorable part of my time in Costa Rica was spent exploring the jungles in and around the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve at night, and feeling the jungle canopy come alive around me as I did so. It may seem common knowledge to most, but I was unaware of the effect that dusk has on the jungle canopy. The animals come out, they make noise, and everything from the trees to the floor seems to come alive with movement. The jungle literally vibrates with action, and on a single night-time stroll I was able to see sloths (mother and baby), tarantulas, ants, a toucan, and a seemingly infinite number of snakes, frogs, and other nameless reptiles and bugs.
All of the above was in stark contrast to my day hike through the same area. While the jungle was still beautiful, and daylight affords you a means by which to observe and understand where the Cloud Forest gets its name from, it is almost entirely devoid of readily viewable wildlife. For four hours of hiking during the day all I got was a prime view of the clouds moving on top of and amongst the trees, and a single fat coati in the parking lot (Central America’s version of a raccoon).
On a complete side note, I do not mean undersell daytime in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. If you get a chance, go for a morning walk and see it, if only to get somewhere high and see the clouds move atop the trees and engulf the jungle. It gives your daytime walk a very surreal and dreamlike tenor that adds to the sheer majesty of the experience.
The night, however, is something different entirely, and can only be truly appreciated with the assistance and in the company of a knowledgeable guide. The hostel I stayed in was able to connect me with such a guide, who are plentiful in Monteverde, and for a reasonable sum I spent a couple of hours trekking through the jungle with a local who ensured I got the most wildlife for my buck. The guide, who was connected by radio to other guides in the area (so as to be constantly apprised of any wildlife sightings), brought a sense of knowledge and enthusiasm to the job that I would not have thought possible for someone who lived their entire life in the area. For every tarantula he teased out of the jungle, and every anthill he helped us narrowly avoid, came with it a shout and an “oh my god guys” that I can still hear five years later.
Highlights from the walk include seeing a sloth and baby sloth swaying in the treetops, having a tarantula posture and dive to an arm's length of our toes, and seeing an owl hunt a hapless toucan. I was tempted to go a second night and had it not been for the seemingly endless array of activities in and around Monteverde, and my limited time there, I would have.
Exploring the Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal is to Guatemala what the Coliseum is to Rome. It is a throwback to a bygone era. A symbol of a lost empire. Most importantly, it is an opportunity for someone to go back in time and immerse him or herself in the history of a once great nation.
For those who are unaware, as I was when I first went to Guatemala, Tikal is one of the greatest Mayan archeological sites in Central America. Comparable only to Chichen Itza in Mexico and Copan in Honduras in its size and popularity, Tikal is a must-see for anybody making their way through Guatemala. The archaeological site, which took the better part of a day to explore, is rife with enough temples, monuments and palaces to fulfill any persons Indiana Jones fantasy. An added bonus is, for the most part, you get to climb on and explore many of the ruins and temples. The catch is that many of said temples are only accessible via ascending the ricketiest ladders in existence, complete with splintered wood and enough wind to make the possibility of your inevitable fall to death seem not only certain but inevitable.
I chose to put Tikal on this list over the aforementioned Chichen Itza and Copan for one main reason. That being that when I went to Tikal it was largely unoccupied in terms of tourists. This might have had something to do with our departing for Tikal at the break of dawn, but I think it is also related to the fact that Guatemala as a whole receives far fewer tourists than Mexico. When I did go to Chichen Itza it was amazing, there is no deny thing that. However, some of its luster was lost to the mass of tourists huddling around every single stone in the park. Tikal, on the other hand, being so barren of people, was able to retain a certain sense of luster and intrigue, which would have otherwise been lost with packs of people.
Kayaking Lake Nicaragua around Island Ometepe
Thus far, this list has been dominated by outdoor activities, and for good reason. A lot of the intrigue and excitement in going to Central America is the ability get outside and immerse yourself in the environment. This is most definitely true of Island Ometepe in Nicaragua, and to a greater extent, Lake Nicaragua itself.
If you are interested in taking a trip a little off the beaten path (although, those doing so are growing in numbers every year) and losing yourself in a jungle cabana for a few days, all the while relaxing within a stones throw of two imposing volcanoes, then Island Ometepe should not be missed. With an ever-growing tourism industry, and enough pristine wilderness to explore and get lost in for days, Island Ometepe can be a short pit stop meant for recharging, or something quite a bit more. With enough creature comforts and activities to sustain a much longer trip, Island Ometepe can be a destination that takes up a large chunk of your itinerary.
I spent Christmas day of 2010 on Island Ometepe in Nicaragua. As part of my four days stay there, I also spent an afternoon with a guided kayaking on the outskirts of Lake Nicaragua, as well as in the tributaries and rivers that feed into it. As part of this excursion, which took the better part of a few hours, I kayaked amongst trees literally teeming with monkeys, got up close and personal with a couple of cayman, saw countless birds and other wildlife, all the while looking up at the precipice of Concepcion and Maderas, the twin volcanoes whose shadow I explored within. It was an amazing experience and a unique way to explore Island Ometepe and Lake Nicaragua in a peaceful and tranquil environment.
Boating around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Guatemala makes a second appearance on the list in the form of Central America’s deepest, and possible most picturesque lake. Lake Atitlan, which is only traversable through a nausea-inducing ride through the Guatemalan Highlands, makes the list not only for its sheer beauty, complete with an exquisite color, awe inducing volcanic background, and Jurassic Park-esque jungle shoreline, but also for the villages that surround it.
Accessible only by boat, the communities that dot the shores of Lake Atitlan offer an authentic Guatemalan experience that can be lacking on the more well trodden tourist paths. Given their remote and difficult to reach locations, these communities allow travellers to immerse themselves into Guatemalan culture free of large groups of tourists. The effect of this allows outsiders us to get a glimpse at how the locals lived their lives, the added bonus of which is the fact that the area was replete with individuals of Mayan ancestry who, by all accounts, still live a very traditional lifestyle.
The areas I visited ranged in their level of infrastructure and services from restaurants and pubs with dirt floors, connected only by hiking paths through the jungle, to accommodations that included boutique hotels and hostels drawn together by narrow paved roads. That being said, each settlement along the lake seemed to have something for everyone. Desiring a bit of a more rustic adventure complete with hostels constructed of bamboo and a yoga studio seemingly carved out of the jungle? Lake Atitlan is home to such a place! Need something a little more stable to sleep on than a hammock, with all the fun and excitement that come with running water and electricity? Such a settlement exists on the shores of Lake Atitlan!
All in all Lake Atitlan is a gem of a location whose settlements provide travellers with a hint of something that an otherwise complete Guatemalan trip might be missing. That being an authentic Guatemalan experience all wrapped up in a few sleepy lakeside communities and encased in a wild jungle backdrop.
Snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef
To this day, I count the hours I spent snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef as some of the best of my life. The combination of wildlife, the crew I snorkeled with, the rum punch that they served, and the sheer beauty of the landscape makes this an easy choice for my top pick for unforgettable Central America activities.
By way of background, the Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest coral reef system in the world (next to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) and holds a diverse array of sea life, including sharks, rays, turtles, and innumerable other species of fish and coral. It is also home to such sights as the Great Blue Hole, is classified as a World Heritage Site, and is easily accessible from many of the surrounding islands.
My snorkeling adventure in the Belize Barrier Reef happened during my time on Caye Caulker in Belize. Accessible only by high-speed water taxi, Caye Caulker is a small island in the Carribean Sea dotted with small hotels and catering almost exclusively to tourists. It is a prime spot for access to all of the Belize Barrier Reef’s top snorkeling and scuba-diving spots, and there are several companies on the island that tailor to this activity.
The company I went snorkeling with is based out of Caye Caulker and is called Ragamuffin Tours. At the time, the cost for a full day of snorkeling, including equipment rental, lunch, and transportation to and from the dive sites was roughly 50 Canadian dollars. The itinerary included a boat ride to two dive spots, including the aptly named Stingray and Shark Ally, and took nearly the entire day to complete.
During my time snorkeling in the Belize Barrier Reef I was able to swim alongside sea turtles, moray eels, puffer fish, lobsters, as well as actually pet a stingray and touch a nurse shark. Not only was the sea absolutely full of life, but the array of coral was both beautiful and mesmerizing, consisting of a wide array of species and so many colors it was an absolute shock to my senses. It also didn’t hurt that it was a stunning day that I was able to go snorkeling on, and the spots we were taken to were so teeming with life it would have been worth a second, or even third visit. To top the trip all off, on the way back, just as the sun was setting, we were joined by a pod of dolphins swimming in the wake created by our boat. Absolutely amazing.
For those who have never been snorkeling, or are concerned about dipping themselves in a pool filled with carnivorous sea life, I will admit I shared the same concerns. I do not consider myself the most agile swimmer, nor do I fancy wrestling with a shark or doing battle with a ray Aquaman style. That being said, I found snorkeling fairly easy to master in the limited time I was able to do so, and save for accidentally consuming far too much ocean water, I left the experience free of injury. Additionally, the guides I snorkeled with were competent, prepared for an emergency, and gave a good enough demonstration to satisfy even the most wary of swimmers.
Photos taken with a water proof disposable camera, not bad quality!
- Hiking Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala.
- Basking in the colonial architecture of Antigua, Guatemala.
- Zip-lining through the mountains of Monteverde.
- Eating and drinking our way through Fifth Avenue in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.
- Horseback riding in the Guatemalan jungle.
Full photo album of displayed photos:
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