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Why You Should Visit Central America

Places full of nature and culture. Check it out our highlights of one of the unique regions of the world!


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Alex

I am a 23 year old American traveler and writer. I am in love with the world - traveling has taug...

Feb 18, 2018

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Sometimes people imagine Central America as an unsafe place. While minor issues certainly exist (in areas of cities you probably would never go to anyway), the reality is that Central America is a beautiful and safe land with a vast array of geographic features, thriving indigenous cultures, and countless places to visit.

And thankfully for all budget backpackers of this earth, it's very cheap.

In the summer of 2016 my two friends and I backpacked from Belize down to Costa Rica. I absolutely loved it, so much so that I will soon begin a 27-month position in the Peace Corps in the Western Highlands of Guatemala in February. Below I've organized into different categories the parts of Central America that I find most fascinating.

Nature

Central America is an underrated haven for nature lovers. From the beautiful reefs off the coasts of Belize and Honduras to the cloud forests of Nicaragua and Costa Rica to the massive volcanoes of Guatemala, there is something for everybody.

One highlight was when my friends and I hiked up Volcán Acatenango, the third largest volcano in Central America. Not far from Antigua, Guatemala, hiking the volcano leads you from fertile farms to cloud forests to alpine forests in a single day of hiking. It is a tough hike but absolutely beautiful, and there’s a good chance that you’ll be greeted with Volcán Fuego erupting when you hike up to Acatenango’s summit for sunrise.

The list continues. Lake Nicaragua is one of the most shallow lakes in the world -- it is possible to walk out a hundred feet in certain areas and only be knee deep. In places such as Ometepe, the waters of Lake Nicaragua reflect the nearby volcanoes.

Semuc Champey offers beautiful turquoise pools atop a limestone bridge under which flows a river. If you’re bored swimming in the pools of Semuc Champey, you could explore a nearby cave in a guided tour that will have you traversing sketchy rocks and offering the chance to cliff jump in the dark cave. You could swim with sharks in Belize, surf in El Salvador, volcano board in Nicaragua. Costa Rica is nearly as biologically diverse as the Amazon Rainforest.

I could keep going, but I think I’ve got my point across that Central America offers countless options for nature lovers and adventure seekers.

Culture

One highlight of traveling Central America are the various cultures seen from country to country.

Belize is unlike any other country in the world with a unique mix of Mayan, Garifuna, Mestizo, and Creole people. While its Mayan origination is never hard to trace, Belize often more closely resembles Caribbean countries such as Jamaica culturally, linguistically, and in terms of cuisine. But then all of a sudden you might pass through a German Mennonite community where the people live traditional lifestyles without modern technology. Belize is truly an anomaly culturally, which for me was as pleasing as its white sand beaches and perfect weather.

Cross the border into Guatemala and nearly forty percent of its population are of pure Mayan descent with another forty percent being of mixed Mayan and Spanish descent. While its cities have largely adapted to the world market and globalized culture, the Mayan culture of the countryside and highlands of Guatemala are remarkably intact. Men and women still wear traditional Mayan dress, serve Mayan food, speak in Mayan dialects, and practice a mix of Mayan and Christian religion.

While Mayan people of Guatemala and across Central America have been oppressed for hundreds of years, their passion for their heritage, community, and vigorous protection of their culture is truly a beautiful thing to see as well as a great example to learn from. Mayan pyramids of the past are also intact and visible in places such as Tikal.

Countries below Guatemala share a similar if less purely Mayan culture to Guatemala. Rural areas hold onto their cultural heritage far more strongly than cities, and it is in these villages and dirt roads where I had the greatest moments of my Central American travels.

Places to go

The list of places worth visiting throughout Central America could go on forever, so I’m going to instead choose three that I highly recommend.

Lanquin is a small and absolutely beautiful town in central Guatemala with a majority Q’eqchi’ Mayan population that is also the nearest city to the popular Semuc Champey. Lanquin is a destination in its own right though - its traditional Mayan people, nearby caves, turquoise river, waterfalls, and cheap delicious comedors will offer at least a few very good days. Incredible views could be found all over the low hills in and around Lanquin.

San Pedro la Laguna, a gorgeous town on the shore of Lake Atitlan, is a mix of a backpacker city and the Tz’utujil Maya people who have occupied the land for centuries. Some of my best moments in my travels across sixteen countries have been around Lake Atitlan and San Pedro, with green mountains and volcanoes overhead. Sometimes it takes a while to understand the beauty of a place, but it takes about a second of being near Lake Atitlan to realize that you are in a very special place.
Ometepe is a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua that I hold very close to my heart. I spent over a week staying at the hostel and farm Finca Magdalena in Balgüe, a village on the north end of Volcán Maderas. It is a bit more third world and off grid than most places I traveled in Central America, but nowhere did we observe traditional village life better than Balgüe. Between talking to plantain farmers living on massive plots of land, swimming in Lake Nicaragua, and being surrounded by two massive volcanoes that you could also hike up, Ometepe is one of the most well rounded destinations in terms of culture, nature, and ease of travel.

Cost

Central America is thankfully extremely cheap. If you use chicken buses, stay in hostels, eat in comedors, do your own laundry, and limit your drinking, you could easily live on less than fifteen dollars a day. My friends and I definitely spent more, but we took liberties with eating at good restaurants, drinking plenty of alcohol, renting mopeds, etc.

Still, we weren’t spending more than thirty dollars a day on average. Central America is at about the same spending level as South and Southeast Asia, and for North and South Americans the reduced flight cost makes the overall travel far cheaper than other regions of the world.

We flew into Belize City and out of Costa Rica for less than $400 total.

Central America is a trip of a lifetime!

Central America is a hidden and underrated gem. It is one of the best examples of indigenous cultures meshing with modern life. Of course, indigenous people have been oppressed and treated horribly for decades in Central America, but they seem to have found a way to survive in a system that they don’t understand.

Between observing these brave and resilient people, hiking volcanoes, surfing beaches, exploring cloud forests, and eating local foods, Central America is a destination that could keep you busy and fulfilled for months and even years.

Work or volunteer in Central America

From social projects to hostels, check out all opportunities to travel to Central America exchanging work for accommodation:

- Costa Rica
- Nicaragua
- Guatemala
- Panama
- Dominican Republic
- Honduras
- El Salvador
- Jamaica
- Puerto Rico
- Belize
- Haiti
- Cuba

Alex Shur
Follow my adventures at eyesoftheworldtravels.com


Edef96fd5810160658f501000fe7adb2

Alex

I am a 23 year old American traveler and writer. I am in love with the world - traveling has taug...

Feb 18, 2018


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