By Vanya Akraboff
Central America has long been an adventure travel mecca in-waiting for independent travelers seeking rainforests, mountains, and beaches to hike, bike, surf, and kayak. Aside from Costa Rica and Belize, however, civil unrest and unstable governments have kept all but the most intrepid (or foolhardy) adventure seekers at bay. In the past few years, several of these countries have re-emerged as adventure and eco-tourist paradises, with rapidly developing tourist infrastructures and governments eager to put violent histories behind them in the eyes of the world. For the independent backpacker who wants to beat the tourist rush, Nicaragua, Panama, or Guatemala could be your dream Central American destination.
Nicaragua: With 7% of the world’s biodiversity and with 17% of the country designated as nature reserves, this land of lakes and volcanoes is almost tailor-made for adventure travel. Unfortunately, however, when most people think of Nicaragua, they think of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution and the following decade or so of civil war, or the Iran/ Contra scandal. As a result, Nicaragua has been notably absent from the tourist map, but the recently stabilized political environment as well as the government’s efforts to increase tourism have led some to dub Nicaragua “the new Costa Rica.” The country still lacks an extensive tourist infrastructure, but since most of the operating adventure outfitters are pioneers eager to preserve their country for generations to come, there is an overwhelming focus on eco-tourism. For the community-minded traveler, many different organizations offer service and volunteer trips that both help promote responsible tourism while allowing the volunteer to partake in the many adventure travel activities the country has to offer. A listing of these programs can be found here.
For those ready to experience the country first-hand and be among the first generation of tourists, Nicaragua has countless opportunities for climbing and biking volcanoes, diving, surfing, and even zip-lining through canopy rainforests. Here are some of the country’s best adventure travel hubs.
- Granada: This city in the northwest is the center of the recent traveler influx, offering Pacific beaches, the Masaya national park, and the Mombacho nature reserve. Embrace your inner howler monkey by taking a zip-line rainforest canopy tour in the Mombacho.
- San Juan del Sur: This spot has long been known to professional surfers, and is therefore touristier than much of the country. However, you won’t be facing much competition for waves, and there are many spots accessible by roads (although many of the best are accessible only by boat).
- Lake Nicaragua: The largest lake in the region is home to Ometepe, a mythical promised land island formed by twin volcanoes. The verdant and mist-shrouded island is a big tourist draw, but the lagoon topped Maderas volcano climb is worth it.
- Corn Islands: Lovers of marine life head to the Corn Islands for unbeatable diving and snorkeling. There have been reports of violence directed towards tourists on these islands, and you should check the current conditions when planning a trip to this area.
One of the best ways to see Nicaragua is to pick an interesting area (a mountain to bike, an active volcano to climb) and then hire an independent local guide to take you there. Many of the country’s adventure destinations are still un-advertised and lack organized tours (a big plus for many independent travelers), although a listing of eco-tour operators can be found here. The government’s effusive and enthusiastic tourist website has good information and erases any doubts as to whether the country is ready to welcome tourists.
Panama: Panama is affordable, safe, and largely comprised of untouched coastline and rainforests. The country boasts the best conserved marine environment in the Northwest Atlantic, and 25% of the country is designated as nature reserves or parks. Along with incredible bio-diversity and wildlife, Panama offers pristine Caribbean and Pacific beaches as well as one of the world’s most famous waterways. Now is the time to visit Panama, where concentrated development of the eco-tourism industry will hopefully curb any detrimental effects of the quickly approaching tourist flow (featured on Survivor, Panama won’t be a secret much longer).
Fitting for a country with a world famous canal, most of Panama’s adventure activities revolve around water. Diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and white-water rafting are some of the best ways to experience this beautiful region of Central America. Like Nicaragua, many recommend finding and hiring local guides, although a list of adventure outfitters can be found here. The explorepanama website and the visitpanama website also offer good tourist information and links. Wondering where to go? Look no further.
- Panama Canal: No trip to Panama would be complete without seeing the Panama Canal. Aside from mammoth transport ships and mini-city ocean liners, the area also features one of the world’s most complete ecosystems.
- La Amistad International Park: This park, sometimes referred to as the world’s only Bi-National Park (with part in Costa Rica and part in Panama), offers mountain and rainforest trekking, caving, and the country’s best bird-watching. A large number of jaguars also call the park home, although it’s a lucky visitor indeed who manages to catch a glimpse of one of these elusive big cats.
- San Blas: This archipelago off the Northeastern coast features one of Central America’s most beautiful coral reefs, uninhabited mini island paradises, and traditional Kuna villages.
- Bocas del Toro: The hippie atmosphere of this town makes it a perfect base for lazy days of kayaking, snorkeling, and diving the surrounding bays and open ocean. The town’s slightly more developed tourist infrastructure and available amenities make this a good area for travelers looking to design their own trips and strike out on their own for the uninhabited coastline. The small town of Portobello is also a good spot for snorkeling and diving.
- Darien Province: By contrast, the Darien is one of the few areas in Panama where an experienced guide is an absolute must. Although many view this “gap” between Panama and Columbia as a lawless no-man’s land (and with good reason), much of the area is comprised of jungle rainforests. For the fearless adventurer, the diversity of wildlife and lack of development in this area make treks especially rewarding, as long as you head stay far far away from the smugglers and drug traffickers (established tour operators are the safest bet for venturing into the Darien).
Guatemala: Still recovering from a 36 year conflict that ended in 1996 with a peace accord, Guatemala lacks both a tourist infrastructure and the nature preserves of Nicaragua or Panama. Adventure tourists willing to be pioneers will find a countryside that ranges from sea-level jungles to snow-capped mountains, incredibly diverse flora and fauna, and a rich Mayan history. By getting in early, adventurers are both helping a growing country and hopefully setting a responsible and eco-centered tourism precedent. There are still areas with high rates of violent crime, and tourists are urged to stay away from organized protests. Check the state department website regularly when planning your trip.
Guatemala is a mountain biker’s paradise, and also offers kayaking, hiking, and surfing opportunities. For those looking to get up close and personal with the elemental forces that shaped – and are still shaping – Central America, try climbing one of Guatemala’s volcanoes (most are non-technical climbs). The nexus of Guatemala’s new adventure scene runs along the coastline from El Paredon to Monterrio and then spreads inland to encompass the highlands and volcanoes around Antigua. The Guatemalan Adventure Company is one of the only well-established outfitters in the country, and their website offers information about their tours as well as general tourist information.
- Antigua: Most backpackers flock to this colorful, old colonial capital town instead of the teeming and overwhelming Guatemala City. Volcon de Agua is a good volcano to check out in the area.
- Tikal national park: Guatemala’s most popular tourist attraction is the ruins of an ancient Mayan city within the park borders. With structures dating back to the 5th century B.C., the city was the heart of the Mayan world. It is still unclear why the city was abandoned by its 90,000 residents centuries ago.
- Pacific Coast: For die-hard surfers in search of Latin America’s final surf frontier, Guatemala’s black sand Pacific coast beaches are quietly gaining popularity. The area doesn’t have many developed tourist towns – one place to surf is the bare-bones El Paredon Surf Camp.