Wild Central America
Central America is located in the middle of the American Continent. It is composed of 7 countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Mexico is not, officially, part of Central America, but it has been included and sold as part of Central America, in several pre-planned trips offered by big travel companies like G Adventures and Intrepid. This is because of how similar Central American culture is to the Big Mexican Culture. We all share things in common, somewhat... spanish language for starters is spoken officially in all of these countries except for Belize, where English is the official Language. Food is also very similar, beans are eaten usually in 2 of the 3 daily meals. Religion, the landscape, the agricultural products of each country are also very similar. The Volcanoes, the great Coffee, the sugarcane, the sweetest pinnaple, avocados, the white salty cheese and the Roman Catholic Religion are also a characterisitic of all these region. Also the poverty, the social inequality, corruption and inefficient government offices and slow service are also common in the whole area.
Travelling through Central America is not as rough as it used to be. English is widely understood and sometimes spoken (american english, if you have a strong australian accent prepare to be quiet for the next weeks or learn some american accent because australian accent is very exotic for us as well as Irish accent or strong British accent). Now you can find easy to book hostels, bilingual tourguides and activities, restaurants with vegetarian options, gluten free, vegan, lactose intolerant and with waiters that speak almost perfect english. All of these are available in almost every touristic location.
Central America is being transformed into a touristic route where backpackers can visit all the above countries in one same trip, instead of booking different countries in separate holidays, travellers preffer to do a one-big-tour of Central America. There are two main ways to run these tours, either north to south or south to north. The route is becoming more clear every day, the big travel companies have focused on the easyness and reliability of this route. The route, as I mentioned, is clear: The starting points are either Antigua, Guatemala or San Jose, Costa Rica- for the short trip (aprox 18 days); or Playa del Carmen, Mexico and Panama City, Panama-for the longer trip (aprox 35 days). All of these tours, no matter how different they look, are very similar, almost all of them visit the following locations, starting from the north: Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Tulum, Cake Caulker, San Ignacio, Antigua Guatemala, Tikal, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan, Copan, Suchitoto, El Tunco, Leon, Granada, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe, Monteverde, La Fortuna, San Jose, Boquete, Bocas del Toro and finally Panama City. All of these locations have evolved into Touristic spots for travellers, some of them more toursity than others and some have become Must-sees if you visit Central America. I think there are positive aspects and of course many negative aspects too. Personally, I like to visit authentic local places, but not everybody in your travel group will agree to eat black beans every night. There is something I have learned about tourism: In every tourgroup of 10 people there are 3 that want to eat fully local and at low prices, then you have 3 people that are allergic to cilantro, are gluten free, or are vegetarians but eat fish (WTF?), and then you have the remaining 4 people that are flexible but still expect good food, good service, clean bathrooms and good prices. So as a tourleader, you dont take risks in your choices. As a tourleader, you find the place that has ¨local food¨, vegetarian options, and whose price is not super high, but definitely you usually dont take your group to eat where the locals eat because not everybody in your group will be happy with that. So as a tourleader, you take the safe options, the safe choices; usually foreigners in Central America like to eat the following (great info for restaurant owners): 1) Quesadillas, this can be chicken, beef or vegetarian and the wheat tortillas can be swapped for corn tortillas. When a foreigner orders a Quesadilla or Nachos in Latin America he or she is trying to tell the following: "I want to eat local, but not too local", usually quesadillas and nachos are also the most affordable prices for a main dish. 2) Pizzas, Sandwiches and Burgers, this is a statement that clearly expresses "I dont care about your local food, I just want to eat something familiar at a reasonable price..." I need to clarify, this is not a critique to the travellers, even I get tired of eating rice and beans for 30 days...
Panama City, Santa Catalina, Coiba Island, Boquete and Bocas del Toro
Panama is a very different country from the rest of Central America. Panama was not even a country until 1903, when it became independent from Colombia. The US intervention was direct, with the clear plan of getting control of the Panama Canal area. The US sent a fleet to defend Panama in case Colombia wanted to regain the territory. Since then, the area of the Canal belonged to the US, until 1999, when Panama regained control of the area. Currently, Panama´s social reality is a challenge, many different ethnical native groups still live in the country and then live and have to adapt to a globalized western culture. The way I see Panama is: the best of Panama is not being enyojed by Panamanians, because they cannot afford it. There are many US retired people living in high-end houses in Boquete area. But I would say majority of Panamanians eat with less than $2 a day. The money that comes to the country from the Canal is big, but personally I havent seen the local people´s standards of living to be better than the rest of Central America.
Panama City looks beautiful from a distance, the high buildings, the casinos, the old quarter...these all look amazing when you are riding in the Coastal Strip. The Highlights here are the Canal and the Old Quarter. You can visit the Canal during the morning, the old quarter in the afternoon and then have a few drinks at one of the rooftop bars with the amazing view of the City. Literally, one day and night is enough to see the city, the quarter and the night life. The temperature in the city is...hot, very hot and humid. Safety is generally not an issue in the City but you still have to be careful, there is a couple of streets when you are walking to the Old Quarter where you have to be extra careful. This walk to the Old Quarter is not recommended for people that cannot walk fast, because there is no pedestrian sidewalk. You have to literally walk in between the cars and run in some dangerous street crossings. Take a taxi if you dont want to risk it. The Canal is right outside the city, it takes 20 minutes to get to the Miraflores Locks if you are staying in downtown area. Panama City has also dangerous areas where you shouldnt walk alone, but I think the area of the Old Quarter and the bike lanes built by Ave Balboa are a safe area to walk as there is lots of people around the whole time. People come to ride bikes, jog or skate in this area. The loud fishmarket is also here and you can find inexpensive seafood if you can stand the noise. The Following is the Guide´s Itinerary for Panama City.
I stay in Hotel Centroamericano in the city, it has a great location but the facilities are a little outdated. Depart at 9am to the Miraflores Locks, 15min ride from downtown. The boats pass in the morning 9-11 and in the afternoon 2-4. The entrance is $15 p/p and includes a 4-story museum with 4 viewpoints to the Locks. My favorite viewpoint is from the bar in the 2nd floor, you can get one $5 beer and stay here for a couple of hours, you can sit down enjoy the view, the breeze, the beer with no crowds of people around. The 4th floor viewpoint probably has the best view, but also receives all the heat from the sun, besides you have to be fighting for your space. After you are bored of seeing how the boats go up in the Locks, you can visit the museum and watch the 15min movie. I think this is a must if you are in Panama. The Canal is nice to look, but the science and the labor behind it is AMAZING! People from all over the world came to Panama and left their lives and bodies in the Canal Area. I recommend no more than 2 hours in the Canal. Then we go for lunch, I recommend a place called Bulevard Balboa, its a diner-style place that serves great Panamanian food at great prices.
Then I like to start at the Balboa statue in the Bulevard Balboa, explain his role in Panama´s history. He was the first european to see the Pacific Ocean, the currency and the best panamanian beer are named after him.Then I walk down to the sign of PANAMA, great place for group pictures. Then we keep walking in direction to the fishmarket, walk by and then keep walking to get to the Old Quarter or Casco Viejo in spanish. This was the city built after Henry Morgan´s attack to the old Panama, the original city was burnt and the new one was built with European-style architecture, at first it had a big wall surrounding it. Now the Old Quarter is a great place to walk around and get lost in its multiple bars, stores, museums, restaurants, churches and spectacular viewpoints. I start in the Presidential House area, the Heron´s Palace, then we walk down to the statue of Bolivar and explain his importance in Latin America history. There is a nice church in front of Plaza Bolivar, then we walk to the Plaza Francia, there are some souvenirs here and a great place to watch the sunset. Then we move to the Main Plaza and we finish here. You could spend the whole afternoon wandering around.
For dinner, my favorite place is called Tantalo. Its a hotel-restaurant with a very cool rooftop bar. The food here is incredible, the prices are high. I need to tell everybody, the Old Quarter in Panama City is probably the most expensive area in the whole Central America. Finding a beer that costs less than $4 is almost impossible, and the food is considerably expensive. I noticed in the Old Quarter Restaurants they add around 20% extra of local tax just for being in the Old Quarter. In Panama City, and for airport shuttles I use and highly recommend Don Pacifico, he works with the majority of tourguides in Panama City. He can get a vehicle of any type for you. Contact: Don Pacifico +507-6671-1256 , he is on whats app. ProTip: checkout the Hill of the Flag when returning from the Canal, its a 30 minute walk up to the top and you can see 3 different viewpoints with the 3 highlights of the city: the Canal, the Old Quarter and the Skyscrapers...also the biggest flag in Panama and maybe wildlife, very nice temperature here!
santa catalina-isla coiba
Santa Catalina-Coiba Island. Probably the best snorkeling in Central America. I have snorkeled millions of times in the Belizean and Hondurean Islands in the Caribbean and my experience in Coiba surpassed any of my previous snorkel trips. Coiba is a strictly protected National Park, its an archipielago composed of 38 islands or keys. Coiba is called the "Galapagos of Panama"... if you are coming to Coiba, forget about snorkeling in Bocas del Toro...its a loss of time. Coiba has an impressive ecosystem where you can spot several blowfish, rayfish, white-tip-sharks, sargeant majors, parrot fish, seaturtles, barracudas, eels, morrays, and Whale Sharks if you are lucky. The Coral reef is small in comparasion to the ones in the Caribbean, but the amount of fish is just impressive. I stayed in Santa Catalina town, its a surf town 2 hours away from Coiba, by boat. Santa Catalina is literally a street with restaurants, dive and snorkel shops... a couple of hotels and surfcamps and thats it...Its now my favorite spot in the whole Panama, because of how quiet it is, its also very peaceful and underdeveloped... but you can still find things to do like going to the beach, surfing but the highlight is definitely the Coiba snorkel trip.
Tourguide Itinerary, arrive to the snorkel shop at 8am. I use Expedicion Coiba, Maria +507 6663-0001 and Fredy +507 6958-0356 are the friendly managers of this small shop. I highly recommend them because of their professionalism and excelent service. The Snorkel Trip is $80, it includes a $20 fee that foreigners pay to enter Coiba. It also included a big sandwich that you can get veggie or ham. I think the best season to come here is from Dec to Feb. The boat stops in the middle to spot wild dolphins jumping around, there is no dolphin harrasement at all. The trip included 3 snorkel spots, Granito de Oro was my favorite spot. At night, I recommend 2 great restaurants for dinner: Chillinguitos and the Jammin Pizzeria. Chilinguitos has amazing seafood pasta and a great vibe. Amparo +507 6687-2992 is the owner and she is a great host. The Pizzeria is awesome, get the pizza, you can taste the smokiness of the wood oven in its crust. I stay in Cabinas Sherlley, she is an awesome host, the rooms have their own kitchen. ProTip: there are no ATMs in Sta Catalina.
Boquete is an area close to the Volcan Baru, Bajo Boquete is the touristy town where you can find information about activities and restaurants, atms, coffee shops and stores. The Boquete area is important for all the water it collects from the nearby mountains. Boquete is located at high elevation, its a cold and windy place...and it rains a lot. Its also a beautiful area with infinite number of creeks. Water and trees are everywhere in Boquete, coffee is also very important here. Panamanians consider the best coffee in the country comes from Boquete. The area is also known for its great hiking trails: the Pipeline, the Quetzal and the Waterfall Trails are the most famous. The Volcan Baru is also hikeable, and the pickups are in the Boquete area. There are also panoramic view tours where the tourguide takes you on 4x4 Jeeps to go around the town...driving up to Volcan Baru is also possible on a tour that starts at 4am in your hotel, the purpose is to arrive to the summit of Volcan Baru in time for sunrise.
Tourguide Itinerary: take a public transportation van from the Boquete Market area and tell him you want to visit the Bajo Mono road. Thats the road that takes you to any of the 3 hiking trails mentioned before. The price is $2-$3 per person, each way. The easiest of the hikes is the Pipeline or Lost Waterfall trail, you can do it on your own, I think a guide is unnecesary unless you want to know details of Nature. The cost is $3 for doing the Pipeline trail and you pay that at the main road going into the trail. You will see the signs there. The pipeline trail takes one hour to get to the end of the trail and one hour to come back. There is a big Ficus tree which some people believe has more than 1000 years...there used to be a waterfall at the end but it was collapsed last time I did it (dec2017). The trail is mostly flat and there is an area where it is said you can spot Quetzals mating around March. After you are done with the hike, you turn back by waiting for the next public van in the same spot where you were dropped off. On the way back I asked the driver to please stop at Los Ladrillos, its a natural rock formation that local adventurers now use as a rock-climbing wall. In Boquete, I can recommend you with Boquete Safari, they provide all the activities I mentioned...I did the rafting with them and it was amazing, we went to Paso Canoas River, close to Costa Rica. ProTip: In Bajo Boquete, be prepared for rain at any time.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is an archipielago located in the caribbean side of Panama, very close to Sixaola, the border with Costa Rica. The main island is called Colon, in honor of Cristopher Colombus, who came here in his last voyage to America. Bocas del Toro is a mix of Party life, local Culture, History and Nature. Its a very lively town, its people are very happy people, but also very hungry...the prices for food in Bocas del Toro are also expensive and oriented to foreigners. All the activities here have to do with water, nature and the beaches around. There is some surf as well, you have to be careful with Bluff Beach, its rips are strong and its waves break very close to shore. I have visited Playa Estrella, it is considered the nicest beach in Colon Island, it is nice but I have to say you will see much more stars if you do the boat tour. There is a spot they call Hollywood because of the inmense quantity of starfish. Another highlight is Sloth Island, where its almost guaranteed that you will see a sloth.
Tourguide Itinerary: I stay in Swans Cay Hotel, very good location and facilities. I recommend doing the tour which includes the dolphins, the snorkel, zapatilla island, the sloth island and Hollywood. The price is $40 per person, I recommend using Hello Panama as they provide a reliable service, hundreds of boat owners offer these tour but watch out as they are less reliable...the tour stops at an island with a restaurant for lunch. Zapatilla is a beautiful cay with turqoise calm water around. For dinner I recommend Octo, its a place with a small menu but great food, Capitan Caribe serves good burgers at good prices, Selinas is a great place for drinks. ProTip: There is an equivalent to San Juan del Sur´s "Sunday Funday" and its called "Filthy Friday", its a bar-hop activity recommended for young adults...
Costa Rica is the most developed country in Central America, its standards of living, its education and healthcare levels are beyond any of the other centralamerican countries. Costarican people call their country the "Switzerland of Central America", because of how advanced it is and probably because how expensive it is... Costa Rica is in general a very expensive country to visit, the standards and proffesionalism of their service is also beyond any of the other countries, thats because Costa Rica has been investing in Tourism for the last 40 years...Costa Rica is light-years ahead in the tourism industry. Costa Rica is now a 100% renewable energy country, Costaricans have a big sense of pride of their country and they protect their tourism by protecting their natural environment and by treating the tourist in a very professional and reliable way.
San Jose is the Capital of Costa Rica, is a small city where half of the population lives or works. Its a busy city, doesnt have the tall buildings that Panama City has. San Jose is more a transition place between he East and West side of the country. People come here through the Juan Santamaria International Airport and usually stay one night to catch a bus the next day. San Jose has a great Bus Station system. You can easily catch public buses to all of the must-see places in the country. You can find almost all the information online, schedules, prices, travel times, there are different Bus Stations for different destinations so you have to confirm your station very well with your hotel staff and taxi driver. Crime is not a big issue in San Jose, but I have heard of robberies in lonely streets at night. I would say its safe to walk around as long as you are not walking by yourself in a lonely area...I recommend visiting the Avenida Central, which is basically downtown...you can experience the life of San Jose beating in the air.
Manuel Antonio is a National Park located 3 hours south of San Jose. Its the smallest national park in Costa Rica but its almost guaranteed you will spot 3 different species of monkeys: The Squirrel, the Howler and the White-faced monkey. Manuel Antonio Park is next to the Public Espadilla Beach, there is also a beautiful private beach inside the Park, its called Espadilla Sur and its probably the nicest beach in the area. The National Park has many different trails and its a must if you come to this area of the country. The entrance to the National Park is $16 p/p and hiring a private guide is optional, there are lots of guides offering their services at the entrance of the park. Manuel Antonio is located right next to the beach, there is public transportation that brings you here, there are also supermarkets, souvenir stores, hotels and restaurants around. Manuel Antonio is located 8 kilometers away from Quepos, its a medium size town with Banks, Hotels, Restaurants, Tour Operators, Football Court and a Marina with fancy restaurants.
Tourguide Itinerary: Buy the tickets for the park at 8am, its going to be crowded but it always is. You can easily spend more than 3 hours inside the trails or laying down at the beach. Request a map at the entrance that is really going to help you. For the afternoon I highly recommend doing the Catamaran trip, its not cheap but its probably the best activity there. Dolphins are spotted almost always, the snorkeling is descent, the drinks are good and the view is amazing. I have used Iguanas and Ocean King for this activity...100% satisfaction. At night, I recommend Cafe Milagro for dinner, El Avion is also a very popular option and a great spot for the sunset. At the moment Selinas seems to have the best night life in the area. I have stayed in Costa Rica Backpackers, Hotel Mimos, Hotel California and Hotel El Faro; Costa Rica Backpackers was inexpensive and decent quality for a hostel, Hotel Mimos has beautiful facilities, Hotel California has the best facilities but not the best location...Hotel El Faro has an amazing location but not the nicest facilities.
La Fortuna de San Carlos has become a must-visit in all the planned tours to Costa Rica. La Fortuna became famous because of the constant eruptions of the Arenal Volcano. These constant eruptions stopped around 8 years ago, the volcano is still active and is NOT RECOMMENDED TO HIKE IT, its actually against the law to do so...there are local guides that offer you the Arenal Volcano Hike to the Crater, but its not safe to hike it, the Volcano is still very active with toxic gases coming out of the crater, the terrain to ascend is also too dangerous to walk, its too loose. Recently a group of 4 tourists was rescued by the emergency groups because there was a rockslide that hit the group. Two of the group were severely injured and a Rescue Team had to be sent to bring them back to safety.
La Fortuna de San Carlos is now famous for its hotsprings and for the numerous activities you can do around the Volcan Arenal. Its a very good spot for birdwatching, also a great spot for doing the Canyoning or the Rafting. The view in the whole area is stunning, when the volcano is clear. It rains a lot in La Fortuna, the dry season is non-existent...a local from La Fortuna will tell you it gets dry around February...but honestly it always rains...regardless, its beautiful and stunning. The amount of wildlife is incredible.
There is plenty of activities in La Fortuna area...my favorite ones are Canyoning (or canyoneering, river tracing, waterfall rappeling), Rafting in Balsa River and the Hotsprings...there is like a hundred hotsprings in La Fortuna...my favorite is Baldi Hotsprings, because of its crazy extreme waterslides; seriously, there is one waterslide where you have 50% chance of getting injured. I will give you a hint, its the one that says youre going at 70km per hour (aprox 40 miles per hour). My other favorite waterslide is the "secret" free spot that locals call "El Chollin", this is a warm river next to Tabacon Hotsprings. "El Chollin" (pronounced El Sho-jean) has to different faces, the daytime and the nightime; daytime is for families to enjoy, nightime is for adults to enjoy...there are different smells and sights at night...locals take candles to have some light, there are no electrical lights nor bathrooms here.Tourguide Itinerary: I would do the mambo combo with Desafio Adventure company, it includes the canyoning in the morning, then a typical breakfast and then you go rafting at Balsa River. Class 2-3 Rafting, very decent and very good sights of the River Balsa and the wildlife around. In Costa Rica, the activities always include some wildlife. In the Balsa Rafting, I have seen Howlers, Sloths, Toucans, Falcons, Herons, Egrets, Iguanas...lots of wildlife and that included with the activity. The Rafting finishes around 2pm and then Desafio includes a typical lunch of Casado. You should be back at your hotel before 4pm...I would plan going to the "El Chollin" free hotsprings around 5pm, take some drinks and enjoy the free warm river and the amazing current on your back.
Monteverde is a jewel up in the windy mountains of Costa Rica, you will hear a lot the term "Continental Divide", its the area where winds of the Pacific meet the winds of the Atlantic, Monteverde is in the middle of this. Coffee, Zipline, Hanging Bridges and Cloudforest walks are the highlights here. The Cloud Forest is everywhere, the wind and humididty is also everywhere. There are several reserves you can visit to do a proper Cloud Forest Hike. I recommend the Reserva Santa Elena or the Reserva Monteverde.