Central America summary:
– Caye caulker: go diving the blue hole (the other 2 diving are also A* quality), only hostel is Yuma’s house $12/night. Also do the snorkelling trip – I saw a manatee mating pair!
– Belize zoo: well-worth the little diversion, US$15
– Cockscomb reserve: a great little hike in the rainforest. Stay with the Chun brothers in Tutzil Nah Cottages, lovely people and the guides/rides are worth the extra money (trust me, I’m stingy!!)
– San Ignacio: if you only do one activity, make sure it’s the ATM cave (Actun Tuchnil Muknhal). Pricier of the excursions but by far the best.
– Tikal: do the morning trip (the park only opens at 6.30) and if you do it without a guide you have the extra advantage of being able to rush to the main sights before any other tour groups gets there
– Antigua: Nice, great vibe, but not very big city. The most common excursion, to the volcano, isn’t worth it as there’s no lava there (as a result of a recent eruption)
– Atitlan (lago de): panajachel is not as bad as the travel guides make out, the market in Sololá is worth a look on Fridays. If you want to relax DEFINITELY go to La Iguana perdida in Santa Cruz. The beds ‘outside’ are only US$2 per night, the downside is there’s no communal kitchen. San Pedro has some nice other views of the lake, and has plenty of places to party. Stay at Zoola’s – it beats any of the other places in food & accommodation quality.
– Quetzaltenango (Xela): I really liked this second-biggest city, with a more greek-influenced architecture and less-pompous atmosphere than Antigua. Some GREAT excursions to the surrounding mountains & volcanoes – if you have time consider the 6-day trek with Quetzaltrekkers
– If you’re looking for a fun and unique volunteering experience that is not as used to foreigners as some are, and not as ridiculously expensive as most are, I’d highly recommend ASIVESCA. I did a blog post on their activities a while back, and if you’re interested, at any time (even years after this post) feel free to contact me.
– Copan: a nice little place to visit, though doesn’t take much time. Copan Ruinas is still charming.
– Utila (Bay islands): very young crowd, all about diving (very few people don’t). Most do their certifications because it’s cheap, and also good for a party. There may be better diving to be found in Belize or further south in Nicaragua.
– Lago de yojoa: HIGHLY recommended, often overlooked for its more popular cousin in Guatemala or Nicaragua. Stay at the D&D microbrewery, and from there you can organise tours with Malcolm to go birdwatching in the early hours on the lake – very knowledgeable guide & tranquil scenery. Also impressive waterfalls close by.
– Somoto canyon: this is a must-see, and it’s not even in the rough guides! A canyon tucked away, and not often visited, you can do fun trips swimming, climbing and jumping through the canyon. 4 hour trip is US$12, look for Henry at the entrance to the canyon by the main road. To get here on the way to/from Honduras, make sure that you go via El Espino and NOT the more common Los Manos.
– Leon: nice city with some worthy architecture. The volcano boarding wasn’t too impressing (so I heard). Hostel lazybones is worth the little extra for luxury (US$8 dorm) but there was a lack of fans. Hostel Sonati is a little cheaper, but may take a hit in cleanliness.
– Corn Islands: did the trek overland, not for the weak-hearted (especially the boat journey). You save a lot of money if you do it return compared to flying, but if you may think the boat journey is too rough, just fly return – overland there and flight back is almost equally expensive. The cabin accommodation on little corn is best on the ‘breezy side’ (the opposite side from where you come in) but it may not be the most luxurious and beware of ants – we stayed at Elsas. No ATMs on the island, and everything is more expensive (water at least 2x the price). The diving there is just as good as Utila, with a chance of spotting hammerheads (& dolphins). Try to organise a trip to blowing rock – far but amazing. Both dive operators seemed equally good, the guys at dolphin dive very friendly.
– Granada: a beautiful city with lots of charm that could allow you to kick back for a while. Stay at the bearded monkey. Eat at the Italian (mona lissa) on the main restaurant street that runs from the square to the lake. The Irish place also has good food. If you haven’t seen volcanoes yet go to mombacho, a lovely hike in rainforest that is growing on the volcano. Laguna de apoyo is also a nice place to forget your woes and relax for a day.
– San Juan del Sur: great for surfing, but not great for just lounging. The vibe is very western, which may be a nice break after a lot of immersed travel. Lots of parties going on. Stay at Casa Oro (free breakfast!).
– Liberia: pretty little city, not much to do
– Monteverde: LOTS to do here – stay at pension Santa Elena. The guys are extremely knowledgeable and will help you plan so you can do all your desired activities. Ziplining – we did the one over primary rainforest, beautiful scenery but not with most ‘thrill’. Make sure you try the casado local dish.
– Puerto Viejo: very surfing-orientated, but again not the most beautiful beaches. Stay at rockin J’s, it’s an experience in itself.
– San Jose: this city can be very beautiful during the day. If you have some time to spare before flying take 2 hours or so to walk past some of the big sites. Stay at Hostel Pangea. Don’t pay more than US$3-5 for a taxi.
– Bocas del toro: beautiful beaches! Stay on bastimentos and you can walk to beaches like wizard and red frog beach (free entry, wizard is less developed but more beautiful). Hostal bastimentos good place to stay.
And with that it’s adieu, adios, sayonara and farewell from me, and my past 3 years that have led me to experience a journey of fun. It’s been wonderful.
I can only advise everyone out there with an urge to travel – follow any small desire until you have lived it to the fullest.
P.S. – I am going on to do a masters in Biological Photography and Imaging at the University of Nottingham this September. Who knows, maybe i’ll be able to make it as a photographer? Keep your eyes & ears open!