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Discover Central America: Where To Go And What To See

Date added: Tuesday 24th March 2015

Skip the North and cross the border Ė it might be the best thing you have ever done. Latin America is a colourful continent, fiery and chaotic, beautiful and diverse. Itís a place of contrast consisting of stunning nature, wildlife and cities in which you find old colonial architecture, lively music and people who seem to have an unstoppable love of life. However, itís also an area with immense poverty that has suffered from more dictators and military coups than most. Lucky enough, Latin America is today far more peaceful and no traveller should overlook it Ė especially not the bit called Central America.

Image Courtesy of Frontier's Central America Trail

A great thing about visiting Central America is the fact that you can see a lot of countries in a short amount of time. So whether you are considering a one month trip, three months or maybe a whole year, there are plenty of places to explore. Most backpackers who go to this part of the world fly to one end of the region and fly home from another and the rest you travel by bus. Central America is well known for their chicken buses. They are basically old American school busses decorated with lots of colours and drawings with loud Latin Music playing out of the speakers as you make your way through the countries. Whatís not to like? Here is a selection of some of the best destinations in the area.


Guatemala

Image Courtesy of Frontier's Projects in Guatemala


Guatemala is a country in Central America bordering Mexico, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras, so once you are done exploring this fascinating Maya country you have quite a few options as to where to go next.

Best city to visit: Antigua is a great old colonial city to visit and unlike the capital Guatemala City, itís quite safe. However, for those exact same reasons you will find a lot of tourists there and more pricy accommodation Ė but you still need to go. Another interesting town is Livingston, a coastal town with a Caribbean vibe that can only be accessed by boat!

Best wildlife and nature: Guatemala is a country of natural beauty. Parque Nacional Laguna de LachuŠ is a must if you want to see a beautiful lake surrounded by nature. El Petťn region is home to lots of rainforest and fascinating Maya ruins, so thatís also worth your time.

Something a little different: Since Guatemala has a big Maya Indigenous population the country is full of old ruins, temples and heritage. Donít miss out on seeing Yaxha as well as Tikal. Take classes from small Mayan villages and learn from their culture.

Important facts: Like many other countries in Central America, Guatemala has suffered from conflicts and war. Since a US backed military coup installed a military regime in 1954 Guatemala has had their fair share of dictators. From 1960 till 1996 the Guatemalan government led a war against leftist rebel groups supported by the Mayan indigenous population and peasant. This resulted in genocide and many Mayan people were murdered simply because of their indigenous roots. Today, however, things are much better and you can visit the country without entering a war zone although caution is always vital.


Belize

Image Courtesy of Frontier's Projects in Belize

Belize is paradise for those who love a relaxed lifestyle by the beach surrounded by people who love life at a slow pace. Itís a country of immense beauty with plenty of marine sites to explore.

Best city to visit: While Belize City is the only bigger place; itís not a particular interesting spot for visitors. The rest of the country is much more beautiful, so go for smaller towns such as the beach town of Placencia or the Mayan influenced town of Corozal.

Best wildlife and nature: For marine lovers this would be Caye Caulker. Itís heaven for divers, a small island with magnificent barrier reefs Ė also make sure you visit the blue hole. The Toledo district is the place to be for wildlife lover who wish to wander through pristine rainforest and itís home to the nice town of Punta Gorda.

Something a little different: Meet the Garifuna people of Belize and learn more about their culture. Many towns offer Garifuna drumming lessons, how cool is that? In 2001 the Garifuna language, music and dance was even proclaimed a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

Important facts: Letís hear about something less depressing Ė no dictators for now. Where to start? Well, first of all itís worth mentioning that Belize, unlike all the other countries in the region, has English as their official language but you will still hear Spanish and indigenous languages spoken.

Belizeans care a lot for their nature and wildlife, maybe due to a folklore myth saying that a dwarf called El Duende kills any child that harms an animal. Oh yea, and the best fact: Belize has no McDonalds or Burger King. Beat that!


Nicaragua

Image Courtesy of Frontier's Projects in Nicaragua

Nicaragua is a country full of volcanos, friendly people and interesting towns and cities. Travelling through the landscapes in their famous chicken busses can only be described as fun.

Best city to visit: While the colonial city of Granada seems to top the list amongst tourists one must not forget Lťon. This city does not only have a lot of history, itís also one of the oldest cities in the country with plenty of culture on offer.

Best wildlife and nature: If you want to visit a volcanic island you should go to Ometepe. This places does not only offer nice scenery, itís also home to friendly communities and wherever you walk the locals will often offer you a lift Ė which means you jump up on the truck bed surrounded by farm stuff and chickens. Nice indeed.

Something a little different: Go volcano boarding just outside Leon Ö If you are not afraid of coming back with bruised legs and bloody arms that is.

Important facts: Forget about Che Guevarra, Nicaraguans have their own revolutionary hero. His name is Augusto Sandino, a man known for fighting a guerrilla war against U.S. military invaders between 1927 and 1933 until he was killed in 1934. Despite his death, Sandinoís name and memory lives on and he is believed to have inspired the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Nicaraguan's guerrilla army, who fought against the Somoza familyís dictatorship for years until he was finally overthrown in 1979.


Costa Rica

Image Courtesy of Frontier's Projects in Costa Rica

Best city to visit: Okay, it might not qualify as a city, but itís certainly a town. Puerto Viejo is the name of a charming beach city with a blend of a Latin, Afro-Caribbean and indigenous lifestyle. Donít miss out on that one.

Best wildlife and nature: Costa Rica is buzzing with biodiversity, jungles and tropical creatures. Turtuguero is known as Costa Ricaís own little Amazon and is definitely worth a visit. Montezuma is also a great area for wildlife lovers.

Something a little different: If you want to see wildlife from a different angle, why not join a canopy tour in the jungle? This is a fast-flying tour where you ride on a zip-line which allows you to experience nature from above. Who knows, maybe monkeys will fly by?

Important facts: Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that has no army. This was decided in 1949 and perhaps for this reason it is home to the headquarters for the Inter-American Court of human rights. Go Costa Rica.


Panama

Image Courtesy of Jaime Zarate

Best city to visit: Panama City: Unlike many other Central American countries, Panamaís capital isnít bad at all. Visit the old area of the city with impressive architecture, see fancy tall buildings, visit the canal and go to the nearby national parks. However, if you like small towns Bocas Del Toro and the surrounding islands are nice places to relax.

Best wildlife and nature: Isla Coiba National Park is the place to be. Often referred to as the Galapagos of Panama this group of 38 islands is worth a visit due to its varied wildlife, marine sights, and stunning views.

Something a little different: If you want to go a bit off the beaten track, visit The Darien province, known as the forgotten province and home to a large and wild natural park. La Palma is the biggest town and worth a visit in the area. However, be careful and make sure you are fully aware of the current situation in the area before going exploring the area.

Important facts: Another dictator fact? Out of Panamaís many dictators Noriega is perhaps the most well-known. Throughout the 1980s he was in the international spotlight for dealing with Mexican drug cartels and oppressing his people. The US imposed economic sanctions until Noriega declared war against the US. This culminated as a US marine was killed and, before Noriega had time for second thoughts Panama City was surrounded by US military. Many people were killed and in the end, after hiding in the Vatican embassy, Noriega was forced to hand himself over.

Are you hungry for Central America? Join one of Frontierís many volunteer projects in the area or take part in an Adventure Trail. If you are one of the marine lovers, our Belize Marine Conservation Project might just be for you. Or you can care for animals in Guatemala.

Caroline Edwards is an Online Media Intern for Frontier, a non-profit conservation NGO that helps people plan their gap year with over 300 opportunities to volunteer abroad and take part in adventure travel across the globe. Read more about Frontier on their blog, Into the Wild, or on Facebook or Twitter.