Weekly Edition: Vol. VIII, No. 84 - San José, Costa Rica, September 19 - September 25, 2003

Guatemala's volcano Pacaya.
Tico Times/gaëlle Sévenier

Tracing a Path through the Isthmus
By Gaëlle Sévenier
Special to The Tico Times

Central America has a route taken by more and more young backpackers. Thousands of people in their 20s come from all over the world to explore the area.

Backpackers are, by nature, on a strict budget. The average price for a hotel in Central America is around $3. While cheap, this adds up very fast, and the feeling that the less money we spend, the longer we can travel can be stressful.

The traveler soon gets used to taking cold showers, drinking unpurified water and eating tortillas or gallo pinto (rice and beans) at every meal to save money. One can be a little annoyed by having to throw toilet paper in the trash, or by sharing a two-person seat with an entire family in a chicken bus, but the backpacker rapidly gets used to it.

The first step: Guatemala
Although Belize offers its own treasures, and spectacular diving, most travelers begin or end here.

Arriving in Guatemala, many backpackers decide to stay in either Antigua or Xela (Quetzaltenango) to study Spanish in one of the numerous schools. Going back to school is good preparation for future experiences with Latino culture and language.

The student may live with a family, study up to five hours a day with a private Spanish teacher, take a few salsa classes and go on excursions organized by the school on weekends. These trips usually include climbing the volcanoes, and going to the Tikal ruins, Chichicastenango market, or Monterico beach. Very often, travelers meet people in their Spanish schools they will travel with in the future. After a couple of weeks of intense courses and intense parties, our future backpacker needs to rest.

Lake Atitlán offers the perfect setting for a little vacation inside a vacation. Everyone is able to find a village fitting their personality around the lake. Those who want to party and meet people go to Santa Cruz on the weekend, to taste the BBQ and flavored vodka offered at Iguana Perdida. As there is no electricity, candles and guitars create a special atmosphere.

Those who prefer to relax go to San Marcos. They stay in a little wooden lodge, take a yoga class or maybe even experience a moment of silence in a seminary where students are not allowed to speak for an entire week. San Pedro is probably the most popular and charming village - very hippie-oriented. Santiago de Atitlán and Santa Catarina are two villages travelers generally only pass through for a short visit.

Finally, Panajachel has its famous market, where many travelers buy the typical red pants, with a colorful line on the side.

Depending on the length of the traveler's trip, the waterfalls of Semuc Champey and the Garifuna village of Livingston are also destinations in Guatemala.

Diving through Honduras
From Guatemala, most travelers take a shuttle to Copán, a charming Honduran village close to the famous Maya ruins. Those who have a little more time can experience the life of the Garifuna communities in the villages surrounding Tela. The Garifunas are descendents of Africans slaves mixed with indigenous groups, and have settled all along the Caribbean coast of Central America.

Roatan and Utila in the Key Islands are favorite Honduran destinations.

These two islands are world renowned for being the most inexpensive spots to become a certified diver. The small island of Utila is the least expensive of the two, and is surrounded by minuscule islands, where travelers spend the day trying to find a way to open the coconuts. Roatan, on the other hand, is much bigger, and offers many white-sand beaches surrounded by palm trees. It's a perfect setting for a short-term romance!

The Treasures of Nicaragua
Nicaragua is often crossed over very quickly by backpackers, but deserves more attention. The population is proud of who they are and are incredibly hospitable. San Juan del Sur on the Pacific side, a lovely little village surrounded by deserted beaches, is a perfect spot for backpackers.

Another favorite place is the Island of Ometepe on the Nicaragua Lake formed by two volcanoes: Concepcion (1610m), the higher of the two cones, and volcano Madera (1394m), linked by a sealed narrow isthmus. (Weekend, July 4).

The backpackers who have more time to dedicate to this amazing country will take a plane to the Corn Island (going there by bus can be an experience, but requires lots of time and patience).

The "point break" of Costa Rica
Backpackers tend to be surprised by the level of development in Costa Rica. The first reaction is often excitement: finally a supermarket where all sorts of products are available, the country is clean and feels safe, and the environment is astonishing. The second reaction can be rejection. Unlike the other countries in Central America, Costa Rica is a popular destination for rich Gringos coming just for a few weeks. Some backpackers dislike this form of tourism, which can create a gap between the different approaches to traveling.

The traveler may try surfing in the gorgeous spots of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean or Pavones, Mal País, or Tamarindo on the Pacific, and will either love surfing or hate it. Volunteering in a natural reserve is also very common in Costa Rica. However, the traveler may realize that, in some cases, volunteering in Central America has become a business to make money on those willing to donate their time - it pays to do research.

San José and Mexico City are the only two capitals where backpackers dare to spend a few days. This is because they will often take flights to and from these cities, but also because both cities offer interesting cultural opportunities, museums and night life.

The Contrast of Panama
There is much more to see in Panama than its famous canal. The name Panamá is an Indigenous word for "abundance of fish." The country offers in fact some of the finest birding, snorkelling and deep-sea fishing on the isthmus.

Backpackers will still feel the North American influence, due to the U.S. military forces that left in 1999 after occupying bases there for 85 years. English is widely spoken in Panama, while the indigenous cultures are surprisingly higly respected.

For example, the Kunas, ex-warriors, are one of the only indigenous people in Central America who have fought against the army of Panama to protect their traditions and culture, and who managed to find external help to remain an autonomous territory.

Although many budget travelers start at the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro, which offers cheap lodging, diving and dolphin watching, from David to the Darien (giant, wild gap non-traversable by car) , Panama offers the traveler every experience the world can offer. Complex, invigorating and exciting, Panama is a country not to be missed.

Many backpackers feel the attraction of Colombia. Everyone "traveling up" who stayed in Colombia has fallen in love with the country and its people, even if the discourses are sometimes interspersed with a few scary stories. Dangerous place or heaven on earth? It's time to check it out!

Return To Top Of Page

Daily NewsHome | Top Story | Business News | Central American News
  Editorial Cartoon | Weekend | Exchange Rates | Fishing | Culture | Classified Ads

Display Ads | Subscribe! | Travel Guide | Archives | Links | About Us | Newsstand Locations
Contact Us