Exceptional Central America

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

Latin LAT
Seven countries make up Central America. Mexico is not one of them. They are Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama. With the exception of Belize where the official language is English, natives speak Spanish. Though many countries have fabulous Mayan ruins, jungles and beautiful beaches, each is unique.

It used to be that dogs had to be removed from Ambergris Caye’s runway to land the planes. Today, the island is a popular tourist destination. It borders the world’s second largest barrier reef where crystal clear waters, colorful corals, undulating sea fans, and scads of fish dwell. Divers love the Great Blue Hole.
The mainland also has its charms. Placencia to the south is the gateway to Monkey River, a conservation area teeming with fish, birds, monkeys and manatees. Visit at least one Mayan ruin to appreciate this incredible civilization. Xunantunich is probably the most accessible but Carocol in western Belize is the largest.

Costa Rica
If you spend any time in San José, the capital, visit the Gold Museum. Its extensive collection of Pre-Columbian glitter is remarkable.
But opt for the outdoors. Zipline at Manuel Antonio Park beach. Then take a hike and discover three-toed sloths and holler monkeys.
Intrepid trekkers (with a guide) prefer La Amistad International Park, a primordial jungle at the south end of the country. Wild and secluded, cats like pumas and jaguars, plus 600 species of birds live amid its dense plants and trees.
Bright blue butterflies populate the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Guanacaste, another destination for bird watchers and nature lovers. On Guanacaste’s Pacific shoreline, half-moon-shaped bays and powder sand beaches have replaced once sleepy, fishing villages. From the Gulf of Papagayo southward sit luxury villas and hotels like Hyatt and Four Seasons. After dark, the town of Tamarindo comes alive with nightlife.

El Salvador
Bordering Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador boasts stunning countryside. Think charming fishing villages, Montecristo Cloud Forest, lakes, mountains and active volcanoes. Its Pacific coastline lends itself to excellent surfing. At the country’s loveliest beach, Playa El Esteron, there’s waterskiing, tubing parasailing and jet skiing.
Unique Joya De Cerén is considered the “Pompeii of the Americas.” An eruption of the Loma Caldera about 600 A.D. preserved a prehistoric farming village. Ten structures - a community building, two houses, three storehouses, a kitchen and a sweat bath have been partly or totally renovated.

Guatemala has a behemoth Mayan ruin -Tikal. Once a powerful Mayan kingdom, huge temples, some nearly 2,000 years old, erupt out of the surrounding rain forest. Stone steps and wooden ladders aid those summiting the 212-foot high Temple IV, Tikal’s highest pyramid. A stunning treetop panorama of countless structures and jungle unfold below it.   
Mayan villages ring the natural beauty of Lake Atitlán atop Tolimán Volcano in the Western Highlands near Mexico. This peaceful area is a favorite hiker and backpack destination.   
Located in the Central Highlands, Antigua (a UNESCO Heritage Site) is one of the best preserved towns in the Spanish Colonies. Most visitors prefer it to the capital, Guatemala City. Guate, as locals call it, has many museums and art galleries. It is high energy and crowded.

Copan, one of the most significant Mayan ruins is one of the main attractions. Between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., Copan was a vibrant civilization where astronomy and art flourished. Once considered “The Athens of the New World,” it is equaled only by Tikal and Palenque. There is so much to see. For example, the Forest of Tree-Stones were fashioned after gods that ruler “18-Rabbit” envisioned during his drug-induced trances. One stela resembles the multi-armed, Hindu god, Vishnu, while another, an ancient bearded Chinese man. These stelae are amazing considering the distance between Copan and Asia.
The Bay Islands is the place to relax, dive or snorkel. Roatan is where pine forests border talcum sand beaches. A cheaper option is Utila. Like Belize, it is bordered by the world’s second largest barrier reef. Coral formations are awash with swarms of colorful, tropical fish.

Some of Nicaragua’s beautiful scenery includes the two volcanoes that sit smack in the middle of Lake Cocibolca. There’s also the sulphur and steam-spewing volcanoes in Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. The Spanish, in 1529, tagged it the “mouth of hell.” They erected a giant cross which still stands.
Lucky visitors in the colonial town of Granada can tour with Gioconda Cabrera. Dressed as a 19th century señorita, she leads horse and carriage tours. In a graveyard alongside the tombstone of the first president of Nicaragua, she sings a haunting aria. It probably spooks passersby.
Tourists and X-pats prefer San Juan Del Sur. Like Rio de Janeiro, this popular surfing, fishing and beach destination has a huge Christ statue overlooking the town from atop a mountain.
At Morgan’s Rock’s Ecolodge, hike where holler monkeys scamper across the trees or kayak amid lily ponds in the lagoon. They offer “Breakfast at the Farm” where visitors make tortillas and milk cows. Sunsets are amazing.

Panama City has reinvented itself. Central America’s most cosmopolitan municipality now has skyscrapers erupting from its financial center. One even looks like a giant green screw. Restaurants, nightclubs, shops and trendy hotels are springing up in Casco Viejo (the Old City). But, the big attraction is the canal. The 43-mile journey through the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatún locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa takes eight to 10 hours.
Escape the city’s bustle at nearby Chagres National Park. The day trip includes a canoe trip and hike. The indigenous, Embera Panama Puru Tribe will feed you lunch and entertain with dancing to pipes and drums.
Each Central American country has its own individuality. You can’t go wrong with any of them.

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