Forming a beautiful necklace bridging North and South America, Central America offers an amazing collection of countries, cultures and sights. Widely considered a sub-continent unto itself, the region extends from Mexico to the northern tip of Colombia in the South and has a slew of incredible natural wonders that simply must be seen.
Friends told me of these 5 hotspots in a whisper, as if to keep them secret, and my wanderlust soon took me to this relatively thin strip of land, so “fat” with stunning sights. That it is one of the Earth’s increasingly threatened biodiversity hotspots inspired me not only to explore places, but also animals and plants that might soon be gone from the planet altogether.
Semuc Champey, Guatemala
It’s appropriate that this place once came up in a conversation about places to see that are worth the rough ride. You get to it via a road through central Guatemala that is paved yet still one of the most teeth-clacking speed bump-laden I’ve ever travelled. The reward for survival is an additional eight-hour, endlessly twisting mountain road that climbs just 315km to the lovely Mayan town of Lanquin, with views of the valley below that will take your breath away.
After journeying a paltry 11km the next day in a 4-wheel drive SUV, on a rugged, absolutely unpaved road, we finally reached Semuc Champey. What a gem of a place it is. Un-crowded, unspoiled and full of wondrous river fun in bright turquoise waters. Be sure to wear good shoes for climbing, or at least good-grip trekking sandals (waterproof are best), as there are sharp rocks everywhere.
Being a keen spelunker (some might say a ‘cave freak’), I was thrilled that our guide – either ominously or blessedly named Jesus – took us through one of the area’s amazing caves. Inside, you’ll find waterfalls to clamber up, pools to jump into and (not for the faint of heart) dark waters to swim through with only a candle to light the way.
Once outside, we hiked 30 minutes up to the splendid viewpoint of the pools below, like a bejewelled bracelet. A shorter hike down took us to the pools. Here, you’ll need a waterproof camera to record your slip-slide from cascading pool to pool, until you eventually reach a waterfall you cannot go over (and live). It’s a short walk to the park’s entrance, but you’ll need a longer trek to finish waxing lyrical about this stunning place.
Lake Coatepeque, El Salvador
Though El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American countries, this makes it easier to travel around. Numerous volcanoes dot the country, and the breathtaking Lake Coatepeque – named as one of the 10 loveliest lakes in the world – is a must-see.
The lake is reached from several nearby towns, including Santa Ana. If you decide to go there the local way, tell the “El Congo” bus driver to stop at Lake Coatepeque, and you’ll take another bus (for 45 cents) to an intersection, where you must head left. Eventually, you’ll end up at the fun Rancho Alegre Restaurant, where you can rent jet skis and powerboats, so this is clearly not a silent area. It is, however, calming and utterly lovely.
The lake is bordered by steep cliffs plunging into its hypnotic volcanic crater, all embraced by dense forests of lusciously fragrant pine trees and other hardwoods. As soon as I found this place, I felt as if I’d been transported into the film, ‘Avatar’. The dream-like feeling seemed only fitting having passed through centuries-old colonial villages perched on mountainsides to get there.
I was stunned by the delicate punch of neo-classically designed churches and rich Latin artwork seen everywhere in the countryside. This includes the picturesque church of San Pedro in downtown Coatepeque. The beautiful house of worship soothed my soul and prepared me for the serene scene of the lake. It is not entirely free of people – far from it, with water skiing, rock climbing and scuba diving just a few of the activities available – but nothing can detract from the natural spectacle.
Great Blue Hole, Belize
Okay, you knew this one was coming, and I had always wanted to go there. What trained scuba diver doesn’t want to dip into this amazing sinkhole in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean? Why? Well, the clarity of the deep blue water is stunning, especially after diving the surrounding green hued coral reefs surrounding it.
Descending into the hole itself literally gave me the feeling of plunging towards the Earth’s core. The massive stalactites and stalagmites we passed as we sank slowly down begged for closer inspection and I delighted in the visual effect as the air bubbles gathered in the pockets of arched limestone karsts above. At over 300 metres (984 ft) across, and 124 metres (407 feet) deep, this centre of the Lighthouse Reef atoll is as impressive from the air as it is up close and personal.
Quite a few folk pass the 30-metre dive limit set for less-experienced divers at the Great Blue Hole. That’s because a bit deeper is where the best features can be seen. Part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, it is a World Heritage Site and has drawn divers since it was popularised by none other than diving legend Jaques Cousteau.
Most divers include a trip to Half Moon Wall and sites east of Long Caye into their Blue Hole dive experience. When we sighted a few bull sharks and hammerheads, along with Midnight Parrotfish and smaller fish of numerous types, we almost decided to stay. You just might too.
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
As part of the Arenal National Park, a thirty thousand-acre area, this eponymous volcano is one of the most active in Costa Rica. You can actually see the sky glow from lava flowing out of the craters at night…if you’re lucky…although the volcano is in a more dormant stage now than it was a couple decades ago. The mountain is daunting and quite a sight to see at 1,657 meters (5,437 feet) high. The surrounding region has much more to offer, including white water rafting, guided tours through the rainforest, and a number of placid lakes around the park for fishing.
Horseback riding around the mountainside was my favourite part of this trip, and the mysterious quiet reminded me of hiking deep into the Grand Canyon in the United States. Hiking is equally entrancing, as trails course the jungle and sometimes offer the treat of river-crossing bridges with stunning untroubled views of pristine nature.
After a long hike or ride, it’s definitely worth submerging yourself in one of the geo-thermally heated hot springs in the Arenal area. Although all are now commercially run – some expensive, others very affordable. Los Perdidos and Eco Termales Hot Springs are both a photographer’s dream, especially at night with their lighting effects. Baldi is more affordable and has three swim-up bars, and I felt challenged to try them all before hitting the water slide. A massage at the onsite spa was the perfect soothing reward for the day’s adventures.
Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
When I look back, it seems I was climbing to the heavens on this trip – maybe to forget less lofty events, who knows? Perhaps that’s why the twin peaks of Isla de Ometepe drew me in. Rising out of Lago de Nicaragua, they were also powerful forces attracting the Aztecs, so why not you and me too?
Santo Domingo Beach is the only sand beach one can reach on the eastern side of the island, so that’s where I headed. Views of the giant peaks of the mountains are unavoidable and impressive from everywhere. Inland, be sure to get to the San Ramon Waterfall, but also know that it’s a three-hour hike. Mind you, it’s through jaw-dropping and just amazingly picturesque scenery, so I don’t think you’ll mind the walk.
For a bit of seclusion that also offers plenty of wildlife photo ops, visit the Reserva Charco Verde, down south on the island. My time kayaking was some of the best I’ve ever had, coursing shorelines of lakes that only host small fishing boats and swimmers. You might prefer a biking trip around one of the volcanoes, which is a challenge if you only have a day.
Eating at ‘Natural’ restaurant, in Playa Santo Domingo, was a delight, since their stir-fries and curries make succulent drab. I appreciated the food even more with views of the Maderas volcano, kissed by passing clouds that day. To enjoy this mountain in all its splendour, I was told you can hike up to a beautiful waterfall gracing its southern face, or rent a motorbike and, ahem, carefully ride the somewhat bumpy trails.
Trip Tips for fun and safety in Central America – one of the world’s natural playgrounds:
- When hiking, avoid straying off of trails; you might be walking in a local farmer’s fields or, worse, get lost. Guides are suggested for most trips, but ask a lot of questions to determine safer areas where you can wander alone without worry.
- When renting a motorbike, always do a thorough vehicle inspection before taking off, and expect to leave a damage deposit. Also ask to ride around the block to test brakes, lights, etc. first, to avoid finding out what’s wrong later. And make sure you buy up-to-date insurance.
- Riding the local ferries to islands in any of the above places can be a bit wet if the waters are high. If you’re at a window seat, be aware that splashes can douse you completely when the windows are open, and occasionally, even if they’re closed.
- Divers should always use professionally approved and accredited dive companies so do your due diligence to ensure the one you choose is reputable, and never forget your safety checks, buddy system and common sense.
- Buses are more prolific than taxis in remote areas so you might end up flagging a local bus down on a country road. If you do ride like a local, expect chickens in boxes and having to ‘scrunch’ up into a seat that accommodates more passengers than it was built for. It’s all part of the experience.