• Claudia Elena

Top 7 Destinations to Re-visit in Latin America


Infographic on top Latin America destinations

It’s strange how this pandemic is warping time.  As I set out to do this post about my list of top places to re-visit in Central and South America, travel feels like such a distant memory.  It feels so far away from my current reality. Just one month ago, I was visiting a friend in Arizona and it feels like ages ago.


Now, I sit in my room with the laptop on my lap.  I’m writing this while toggling between work and planning activities to do with my kids while they are off from school. The school I work in has been shut down as of a few days ago, and it could stay that way for quite awhile.  I am waiting to get word on what is expected of me in this time as a guidance counselor working from home. These times are truly unprecedented...and scary...and bizarre.


Although time feels warped by lifestyle changes imposed by the need to slow this virus, many of the adventures I write about here, were in fact ages ago.  Some happened in the past few years and some over 10 years ago. I hope to capture the essence of some of my favorite places as I dream of a return there someday. I hope to give you a sense of what some of these countries have to offer as you consider where your next adventure may unfold! 

I am hopeful this will all pass soon so that life can return to some sense of normalcy. For now, let's take this time to slow down, grow closer as families, reflect on life, and start plotting to one day see the world again.


The countries I write about in this post are countries I have loved and want to see again. There are many other countries I have yet to visit in Latin America that are also on my bucket list. Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador top my list. If a country is not mentioned here, it's not because it doesn't have incredible things to offer. I just haven't been there yet myself to speak on it.


I am going to order my favorite places by the amount of time I have spent there. Costa Rica is first on the list because I have spent the longest time there. Because I visited some of these destinations many years ago, I do not go into a lot of detail about specific recommendations. I want to give you an overall feel for a place to inform you choice about next destination. I recommend Nomadic Matt as a place to get a lot of detailed information.


I also have posts that provide more detail about a couple of the locations: Colombia and Nicaragua.


Manuel Antonio National Park

Costa Rica:

Time Spent There:

Costa Rica feels like a home away from home for me.  In 2000, I spent 6 months living with a host family and studying abroad there while in college.  I studied at La Universidad de Costa Rica in San José.


Several years later, in my 20s, I returned for one week as a tourist with my boyfriend at the time. 


In 2010, I spent a month there co-leading a community service trip for high school students through Putney Student Travel.


In 2019, I returned for another week long trip with my current boyfriend


I have traveled throughout the country, lived in San Jose, lived in Cuajiniquil on the western coast close to the Nicaragua border, and I have traveled around as a tourist. I have seen the country evolve through the decades. Although I have been fortunate to see so much, because I know the country very well, I also know how much more there is to see! 


I just can’t get enough of Costa Rica and want to keep seeing it with new eyes. My next goal is to bring my kids and show them the splendor of this amazing country.


The Culture:

While I have seen Costa Rica change and modernize over time, and I have seen tourists blend more into the normal fiber of their everyday society, the commonality I see every time I visit, is the abundant friendliness of the people.  The intrigue the local people find in me has dwindled; perhaps because tourists are such old news at this point. Yet I find the people to generally be so welcoming and open. I'm sure my ability to speak some Spanish helps with this as well.


Let me give you a couple of examples to highlight this because I can't resist!  My friend Jackie and I were dropped off by a taxi driver at the wrong bus station in San José (sometimes the machismo makes it difficult for men to admit they might not know something). We had given ourselves just enough time to catch the bus to Tamarindo. We quickly realized we were in the wrong place and needed to get to the right one, FAST. 


I immediately started asking people how to get there, clearly in a rush. The first guy pointed out where to go but directions are complicated there so I had to keep asking for help. As we were running with giant packs on our backs, I ask another guy.  He starts running next to us, giving directions as we go. Then another guy. He is running next to us giving us directions, and so on, until we arrive just in the nick of time. Such a magical moment of camaraderie! People genuinely wanted to help and were willing to run beside us to make sure we got where we needed.


Last winter, my boyfriend and I got off the public bus in Dominical.  The bus just drops you off on the side of the road with no clear marker of where to go. We weren’t sure how to find our hostel so we go up two men working at a fruit truck along the side of the road.   We asked directions. They couldn't help us much but I asked how much for a banana. One of the men says “gratis, bienvenidos a Costa Rica!” That means, “free, welcome to Costa Rica.” He could have probably charged us $5 for a banana at that point and we would have paid, but he didn’t.  Just two illustrations that capture the essence of the people. Friendly, playful, jovial, and fun.


It's also interesting that while Costa Rica is dominantly mestizo, there is a very different Afro-Caribbean culture on the eastern coast. There's different food, different music, and Creole is spoken there.



What I Love about Costa Rica:

I love the people.


I love the natural beauty and their commitment to protecting it that surpasses most of the world.


I love the wildlife : I’ve seen sloths, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, a scarlet macaw, toucans, raccoons, caimans, iguanas, and more.  There was even a sloth living on campus at my college in San José!

I love the beaches.  There are so many amazing beaches.  Some are dotted with resorts. Some are home to quaint little bohemian surf towns.  Many are completely deserted. A few have larger party scenes, like Tamarindo. Each beach has its own vibe. The western coast has more of a surfer-vibe.  There are white-sand beaches, black-sand beaches, and beaches all of shells (El Flamingo). 


The public bus system is extensive and can bring you to most places, but renting a car and just driving the coast allows you so much freedom to stop and explore completely off the beaten path.


I love the mountains and volcanoes. The mountainous areas of Costa Rica are so beautiful.  There are active volcanoes, hot springs, coffee farms, and quaint towns sprinkled throughout.  In the mountains you get a little reprieve from the heat and mosquitos.


There is so much adventure to be had in Costa Rica, from hiking to zip-lining, from 4-wheeling to horse-back riding, from white-water rafting to wind-surfing, and more.


What Makes it Different: 

Costa Rica does not have standing military.  It ranks number one in the world on the Happy Planet Index All beaches are public.  Nobody owns the beach! It has one of the largest percentages of its land devoted to national forest. Almost 100% of the energy used is renewable.


Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • Monteverde cloud forest and zip-lining

  • Arenal Lake and volcano.  Watch the volcano puff smoke while you kayak or wind surf on the lake.  Catch the lava flowing down at night from Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa.

  • Hot springs

  • Volcanoes and hiking

  • Horseback riding to waterfalls or on the beach

  • Rent a car and drive along the Pacific coast. This is for the adventurous type as maps don't capture all the dirt roads and you’ll need to ask for directions frequently. There is no Pacific Coast Highway, so to speak. It's rugged terrain at times; best not traveled in the rainy season.

  • Visit beautiful beaches by bus in any part of the country.  You really can’t go wrong!

  • Surf the Pacific coast. Sámara is one beach I would recommend for learning, but there are many more.

  • Visit Manuel Antonio National Park to see some of the most beautiful beaches and the abundance of monkeys and other wildlife.  Don’t bring food to the beaches there or the animals will run off with it!

  • White-water rafting

  • Salsa dancing and nightlife in San Jose

  • Sea turtle conservation

  • Explore coffee farms

  • Deep sea fishing

  • Sunset catamaran cruise (Tamarindo)

  • Rent 4-wheelers and explore remote beaches

  • Hike to waterfalls (Nauyaca near Dominical and Montezuma waterfall are two I highly recommend)

Minor annoyances: 

Crazy driving, piropos (cat-calls), corrupt police who pull you over to extort money out of you (if you are renting a car), people trying to rip you off by over-charging you (I probably would too if I were in their position). Definitely keep watch of your possessions and watch for pick-pocketers in crowded areas.  Roads can be impassable at times in the rainy season.


I would say these issues come with the territory when traveling in any developing country, and sometimes our own. I’ve experienced these inconveniences more in Costa Rica than elsewhere but I think that’s due to the amount of time I have spent there.


Language and Climate:

Spanish is spoken throughout Costa Rica. Although many speak English in tourist areas, I wouldn’t count on English being spoken throughout.  Backpackers should be prepared with some basic Spanish for getting around.


The climate varies depending on altitude, location, and time of year.  Due to its proximity to the equator, it does not have a winter or summer, but it does have a rainy and dry season.  The rainy season runs from May to November and let me tell you, the rain is no joke! When it rains, it rains hard for long periods of time, but not usually all day. In the dry season, it rarely rains, unless you are in the Caribbean where it rains all year. Guanacaste on the Pacific coast is the driest.


The temperature on the coasts is very hot all year with highs in the 80s and 90s and lows in the 70s.   In the mountains, depending on elevation, it can be much cooler. San José experiences highs in the mid to upper 70s all year and lows in the 50s-60s all year.


The best time to go is December-April during the dry season. This is also their “high season” when everything is a little more expensive.  The ocean is always warm. Costa Rica is usually not hit with hurricanes.


Salvador, Brazil

Brazil:

Time Spent There: 

My mom is Brazilian and her whole family is there.  I am a citizen and spent my first birthday there. I spent a month there when I was 9 years old. I spent a month there when I was 15.  I returned for 2 weeks in my mid-20s with my mom and a friend of mine. I returned again for 2 weeks when I was 29.


The Culture:

Let me caveat this by saying this country is absolutely massive.  The extent of my travel there has been limited. It’s about the equivalent of saying I’ve spent a lot of time in New York and Boston, plus went to Florida, if we are comparing my experience to the U.S. .  Brazil is even larger than the continental United States, so it’s very hard to generalize culture based on what I’ve seen. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like amongst indigenous peoples of the Amazon.


My travels in Brazil have consisted of large cities in the South:  Sao Paulo, Curitiba, and Barretos. This is where my family is from and where I’ve spent the bulk of my time.  My experiences have largely been within Brazilian homes and not much exploring of the cities. As a tourist, I have traveled to Bahia, a large state on the Atlantic Ocean with deep roots in slave trade and sugar cane production.


What I have felt has been an incredibly strong sense of family.  The warmth I feel from my family in Brazil, who I almost never see, is just not matched by anything I’ve ever seen in the United States.  I remember as a child being showered with hugs and kisses (on both cheeks) from people who seemed strangers to me. I always felt loved and included and they drop everything to show me a good time Family comes together in large gatherings for day-long barbecues. Older kids naturally take on the roll of helping out and entertaining the younger ones.


When I have traveled up north to Bahia, the people are incredibly warm and open.  They want to talk to you even if you have no Portuguese skills whatsoever, and they have no English skills.  They are inviting, lively, jovial, playful, and fun. I remember as a 15 year old, sitting on the beach by myself trying to write a postcard. A small group of people swarmed around me just to say hello and see what I was all about.  They would laugh and joke and showed a genuine interest.


Everywhere you go, you see soccer being played on the beach, and locals randomly stopping to dance. No matter how poor some of the people are, their happiness and carefree nature is contagious.




Morro de Sao Paulo, Brazil


What I Love About Brazil: 

Once again, I love the people.  While I love visiting family in Sao Paulo and Curitiba, I am not in love with these cities.  Sao Paulo is massive and dangerous. While there are plenty of bloggers who could give you tips on where to go in either of these cities, I’m going to focus on the beach.


I absolutely love Bahia for the culture and beauty. I visited Porto Seguro as a teenager so I’m not sure how it has changed.  More recently I visited Salvador and Morro de Sao Paulo. The beaches in this area are spectacular. The cliffs of “healing” clay can be found throughout.  People are carefree and laws are loose here (for better or worse). Teenage boys sell booze on the beach. Zip-lines plummeting into the ocean don’t need a waiver, and they don’t even ask if you can swim until you hit the water.  People walk up and down the beaches selling goods, as they stop and dance along the way.


The historic center of Salvador is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A Michael Jackson music video was filmed there and the locals are sure to brag about that.  The colorful buildings, colonial churches and cobblestone streets are breathtaking. I definitely want to visit again along with other World Heritage sites in Brazil.


If I return to Brazil, I would most definitely make the trek to Morro de Sao Paulo, a short distance away from Salvador.  Morro is an island with a collection of beaches, each with its own separate vibe. We spent time enjoying the charming town, walking miles of beaches, playing in tide pools, going on boat tours, plummeting down the zip line, watching locals do Capoeira and play sepak takraw on the beach (volleyball soccer combo), buying cocktails from 14 year olds at kiosks in the sand, and relaxing in our little pousada (bed and breakfast).  It was amazing.


I would love to explore northern Brazil and play in the sand dunes. Fernando de Neronha looks absolutely unreal. Rio of course is on my bucket list. I would use the world heritage sites as a guide for some other possibilities as well.


As a child, I went to Iguacú Falls. I loved it but don’t feel the need to go back. I’ve been to beaches in Florianopolis which I highly recommend but don’t feel the need to go back to.   For some reason, the Amazon is not really on my list, but maybe someday it will be.




What Makes Brazil Different:

Brazil is massive. It has the Amazon, an infinite number of beaches, rich history, and some of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere. The income inequality is one of the largest in the world creating a marked divide between rich and poor. It is more expensive to explore than it’s neighbors due to general cost of things and distances to navigate. 


Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese.  Their culture is very diverse ranging from European, to a large population with African descent, to indigenous populations, to the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan.  The thought of visiting again is both daunting and exciting.


Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • Cultural sites and museums

  • Food, BBQ and Caiparinhas

  • Nightlife

  • Carnival

  • Soccer games

  • Sand dunes

  • Beaches

  • Amazon rainforest

  • Rio and Sugarloaf mountain

  • Iguacú Falls

  • Boating

  • Soccer and Sepak Takraw

  • Capoeira dancing--learn or watch (it’s everywhere in Bahia)

  • Dune buggies

Minor Annoyances: 

Distances, expensive, income disparity causing high crime rate in urban areas, large numbers of homeless


Language and Climate:

Portuguese is the primary language spoken in Brazil. Most people do not speak English and it is essential to be able to communicate basic Portuguese there.  I got by on a little Portuguese and my limited Spanish. Many can understand Spanish and don't seem offended if you try to communicate in Spanish (like they are in Portugal), but don’t expect them to speak Spanish to you in return.


Because Brazil is so huge, the climate really varies.  Most of the country is hot all year. The rainy season is generally their summer, from December to May.  The Amazon rainforest gets rain throughout the year, and other areas see rain come and go.  Southern Brazil has a more moderate climate and it can get chilly in the winter, sometimes dipping down into the 40s and 50s.  There are some areas in the mountains of southern Brazil that can get snow. Floods and landslides are the most common natural disaster.  Hurricanes and earthquakes are much less common in this part of the world.


Caye Caulker, Belize

Belize

Time Spent There:

I spent 4 months there in 2007 working for the University of Vermont as a counselor for students on a semester study abroad program.  We were based out of San Ignacio in the interior of the country close to Guatemala. I was able to explore much of this tiny country in that timeframe.


The Culture:

The Belizean culture is largely Afro-Caribbean and Mestizo (mix of Spanish and Native Americans).  There is also a large Mennonite population, and mix of other cultures. They are generally laid back and friendly.


What I Love About Belize: 

I love the culture, size, biodiversity and variety of things to do in this small country.  Belize is home the tallest waterfall in Central America and there are many swimming holes and waterfalls to explore, especially in the San Ignacio area.


Belize is rich in Mayan history and has many ruins to explore.  Xunantunich and Cahal Pech are two very close to San Ignacio. Caracol is another big one that I did not get to experience.  San Ignacio is a fun backpacker town worth a visit. It’s a jump off point to ruins, river tubing, waterfalls, and the famous ATM cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal).


The snorkeling and diving is some of the best in the world along the Belize Barrier Reef.  There are so many islands and atolls to visit with luxury to rustic accommodations. South Water Caye was remote and spectacular.  Caye Caulker has such a fun and laid back, slow-paced vibe. There are no cars on this island; only golf carts. You can access it by boat from Belize City.  Placencia has a nice sandy beach, and from here you can see whale sharks certain times of year, and manatees in the mangroves.


What Makes it Different: 

It is small and easy to navigate.   Everything is small-scale here, meaning big industry has not come in and taken over like in other parts of the region.  This gives the country a more authentic and rustic appeal. The currency is directly linked 2:1 to the U.S. dollar.



Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave) should be on the top of your list. You swim in, crawl in and out of small and large caverns, and see Mayan pottery and skeletons perfectly preserved.

  • Cave tubing

  • Belize Zoo

  • San Ignacio

  • Mayan ruins

  • Rent a car and explore swimming holes and waterfalls in San Ignacio area

  • Snorkeling and diving

  • Kayaking, boating, fishing

  • Island camping, island hopping

  • Whale sharks, manatee, and other sea life

Minor annoyances: 

Roads can be very bad to commonly traveled destinations.


Language and Climate: 

The official language of Belize is English.  Belizean Creole and Spanish are also spoken by most.

Belize is hot. 


There is not much variability in the weather.  There is a rainy season from June to November. Average temperatures range from highs in the 80s and 90s to lows in the 60s and 70s throughout the year.  It is tropical and humid. Belize is in the hurricane zone.


Girls eating ice cream in Cuzco, Peru

Peru

Time Spent There:

2 ½ weeks.  My husband and I visited South America as part of a “pre-baby moon,” and we actually conceived our son in there!  He had a shirt as a baby that said “Made in Peru.” We covered a lot of ground in this beautiful country and I would love to go back and explore again with my kids.


The Culture:  Although we were not there long, I found the Andean people of Peru to have a more stoic essence about them.  They generally were more quiet and reserved. It’s not that they weren’t friendly; just more private. Obviously, this is a broad generalization, and not true for all.


What I Love About Peru:

The landscape and rich Inca history in this country is awe-inspiring.  The Andes mountains are some of the biggest in the world and absolutely take your breath away.  I loved the hiking, ruins, artisan handicrafts, and bustle of the cities we visited.


We were only in Lima for a night or two, but it struck me as having a very young and hip vibe with a lot to do.


Cuzco is a must-visit.  It’s a city steeped in history where you can see Incan architecture all over the place.  There are nice restaurants, really cool neighborhoods to explore, and impressive markets where you could shop all day for beautiful alpaca sweaters, hats, and handicrafts.  This city is situated at about 12,000 feet so you have to acclimate to the elevation. Coca tea is widely served to help with this.


From Cuzco, we joined a tour group to do a 4-day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  This was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life and I would do it again, maybe when my kids are much bigger.  It’s basically the most beautiful hike you will ever do in your life, with glamping along the way, and the prize of Machu Picchu to see in all its splendor at the end.


After this amazing experience, we went off to the city of Arequipa, beautiful in and of itself.  From there we explored Colca Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world. There we hiked into the bottom of the canyon where there is a town and hot springs.  This was a challenging hike. Along the way, we stopped to observe the majestic Andean condor.


After this we visited Lake Titicaca where we got to know some indigenous communities.  One indigenous group lives on a set of around a hundred floating islands made of reeds. Their houses are made of reeds, their boats are made of reeds, everything is made of reeds.  Our tour took us to Tequile Island further out in the lake where we met another community self-sustaining on the island. We explored, listened to their music, and danced with some of the local people.  It was amazing.


On my next trip, I want to take more time in Cuzco and Lima, perhaps explore Paracas National Reserve, return to Lake Titicaca, and visit towns I haven’t seen before.  The Peru Hop bus passes look like a good deal, and an easy way to visit other towns that might be harder to reach by public bus.


What Makes it Different: 

The mountains. The high elevations.  The Inca people. The llamas and alpacas.  The Inca ruins. The artisan crafts. The cuy (guinea pig as a meal)




Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • Inca Trail (4 day hike to Machu Picchu) or train ride to Machu Picchu

  • Amazing hikes throughout the Andes

  • Rainbow mountain

  • Colca Canyon hike/ Andean condors

  • Lima

  • Amazon rainforest

  • Beaches, warmer ones are up north

  • Exploring islands on Lake Titicaca

  • Ruins and historic buildings and museums

  • Nine day festival of Inti Raymi

  • White-water rafting

  • Santa Catalina convent in Arequipa.

  • Paracas National Reserves (The "Galápagos of Peru)

  • Shopping in local markets.  Bring an extra suitcase for all the gorgeous stuff you’re going to find!

Minor Annoyances:

Distances.  Litter on the Inca Trail



Language and Climate: 

They speak Spanish in Peru.  Quechua and other indigenous languages are also spoken.


The climate is extremely diverse depending on elevation, location, and time of year.  We were there in the dry season/winter. We had a torrential downpour. I suggest you review a map for this country because it’s complicated!  They have the beach, the mountains, the rainforest, the rainy season, the dry season, winter, and summer.


We went in our summer/their winter. It was mainly warm in the day when the sun was beating down and very chilly at night to the extent of wearing a winter hat, gloves, and a jacket.


Salento, Colombia

Colombia

Time Spent There:  I was in Colombia for 2 weeks in 2017.  I traveled with 2 friends, one who later became my boyfriend, and one a friend from the Netherlands I met while traveling in Nicaragua.


The Culture:

I found the culture to be very different in the mountains versus the Caribbean coast.  In the mountains, people were friendly but more reserved. On the Caribbean, they seemed less friendly but much more expressive.  On the Caribbean, everyone seemed to have a hustle and I felt it was harder to trust people. They seemed to always be looking for an angle and a way to take advantage of us.  In the mountains, I never once felt that way. People seemed more honest and genuine, and I didn’t feel I was treated differently as a tourist.


What I Love About Colombia:

I loved the freedom and adventure. Everywhere we went was unpredictable and exciting, unencumbered by rules.  If you want to go river tubing, just find the guy on the side of the road with a sign and hop on his motorbike.  If you want a lift to spare some walking, just hail a guy on a motorcycle and hop on. They usually carry an extra helmet!  You want to go hiking? Just meet the Willie Jeep in the town square and hop on. Heck, hang off the back if there’s no more room!


I loved how different one place can be from another.  Bógota has a completely different vibe from Medellín, which is so different from the quaint villages in the mountains.  The Caribbean is so different yet, from the weather, to the culture, to the accent. I had so many different experiences in one short trip, and I just want to go back and do more! For a more detailed account of my trip to Colombia, check it out here.


What Makes it Different: 

Colombia has mountains and beaches, a vibrant music scene, modern cities and remote forests.  It has the world’s highest coastal mountain range (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta), and a coastline on the Caribbean and Pacific. Although tourism has grown rapidly in recent years, it still felt very "wild" and untouched to me.



Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • Bógota Bike tour

  • Play Téjo

  • Museums in Bógota and Medellín

  • Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellín

  • Cable cars in Medellín and Bógota

  • Funicular up the Monserrate in Bógota

  • Hiking and swimming in Tayrona National Park

  • The Lost City

  • Coffee farms in the mountains

  • Salento and hiking in Cócora Valley

  • Minca

  • Tubing in Palomino

  • Guatapé and El Peñol rock

  • La Guajira Peninsula

  • Cáli

  • Mompox

  • Cartagena and nearby islands

  • Providencia Island

Minor Annoyances: 

Swindlers in Cartagena and not being able to trust the information they give you regarding tours, bus rides, etc.  Distances are vast and require flights or really long bus rides.


Language and Climate: 

The primary language in Colombia is Spanish and very few people speak any English.


The climate is variable mainly based on altitude.  Bógota was cool in the day and cold at night (down in the 40s).  Medellín has spring-like temperatures all year. Pants and a t-shirt in the sun is comfortable, with a sweater for when it cools down at night.  The Caribbean is hot, hot, hot all year. They consider their winter to be April/May-November, which is really their rainy season.


Double rainbow in San Juan del Sur

Nicaragua

Time Spent There:

10 days with a travel partner I met through Reddit, back in 2016.


TheCulture: 

In the more highly traveled tourist areas I was exploring in Nicaragua, I found the people to be very friendly, and the younger generation to be very Americanized.  Many people spoke English and liked to communicate in English. They dressed similarly to someone from the U.S. and listened to a lot of U.S. music.


What I Love About Nicaragua

I love how easy it is to get from one destination to the next.  The most popular areas lie along one strip on the Western coast of Nicaragua, not divided by huge mountain ranges like some of the neighboring countries.


I loved that within a few hours time, I felt like I was entering different worlds; one location was so different from the last.  For more detail about places I visited, check out Nicaragua: A Cheap, Easy, and Epic 10-day Itinerary. I loved the beaches, the nightlife and vibe in San Juan del Sur, I loved the colonial architecture in León and Granada, the natural beauty on Ometepe island with volcanoes, swimming, horse-back riding, hiking, and biking.  I loved the vibrancy of León, along with its proximity to beaches and volcano boarding.


What Makes it Different

There are so many tourist and backpacker destinations within close proximity to one another.  It offers Pacific coast surfing and Caribbean islands (those are much further away), along with colonial cities and lots of nature to explore.  It’s so easy to get around on public bus.



Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • León for nightlife and the León Cathedral

  • From León, go volcano boarding and to the beach

  • Granada to wander the colonial streets and visit the Islets of Granada

  • Laguna de Apoyo for fresh water relaxation and water sports

  • Ometepe Island for volcano hiking, kayaking, biking, horse-back riding, nature, and swimming in Ojo de Agua

  • San Juan del Sur and surrounding beaches for surfing, nightlife, Sunday Funday, and a hike up to Christ of the Mercy for a view of the area

Minor Annoyances:  It's difficult, but not impossible to get around on Ometepe.


Language and Climate

They speak Spanish in Nicaragua but English was spoken commonly in the areas I traveled, at least on a basic level.


Nicaragua has a tropical climate and is hot all year.  Highs range in the 80s and 90s and lows in the 70s. In the mountains it can be cooler depending on elevation. November-January run a little cooler than the average while March-May are hotter than average.  When I was there in December, the days were hot and the nights were comfortable. There is rainy and dry season, with rainy season running approximately May through October.


Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Guatemala

Time Spent There:

One week during Semana Santa (Easter week) back in 2007.


The Culture:  I was amazed at the Mayan culture that still thrives in Guatemala.  Mayan people, speaking their traditional language, wearing their traditional dress, living within modern day society, abound throughout Guatemala and it’s really neat to see.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. I wasn’t in Guatemala long, but the culture is a blend of Mestizo and Mayan, and I found the people to be reserved.


What I Love About Guatemala:

My goodness; I feel like Guatemala has it all!  Given how little time I spent there, I want to return to each location I visited, and see much more.  I was fortunate enough to go to Guatemala during Semana Santa where they have Easter processions throughout the country.  In Antigua, they are most impressive and go on for a whole week, day and night. The floats and processions are elaborate.  The music was chilling. The “rugs” or intricate artwork created on the streets made of sand and grasses were unbelievable to see lining the streets, and then to watch get trampled by the processions.  If this experience is not on your bucket list, it should be!


That being said, I would love to visit again at another time of year, when the crowds are smaller.  Antigua is one of the most beautiful colonial cities I’ve seen, with colorful buildings, beautiful churches, cobblestone streets, a ton of restaurants and shops to explore, cemeteries you could spend hours in, with a backdrop of volcanoes dominating the landscape.  Absolutely stunning. I want to spend more time there.


From Antigua, you can hike active volcanoes.  We hiked Pacaya Volcano. Although we were ill-prepared for this hike, this was an incredible experience.  When you get to the top, you literally are walking on rocks where lava is flowing under your feet. You can roast marshmallows on the lava, and you can see the lava flowing down the volcano.  We also had rain and a backdrop of lightning as it grew dark, so that made things interesting.


We had no idea how wet and cold it would be on the top, and this was closest I've come to being hypothermic in my life. Upon our return to Antigua, we were sprinting through the streets to hurry back to our hostel to take off our wet clothes. Make sure you bring warm clothes and lots of rain gear!


Lake Atitlan is a must.  It’s a lake completely surrounded by volcanoes dotted with towns that each have their own little vibe. It was so fun to stay in a Mayan village right on the lake and explore other towns by boat.  Truly a majestic location!


Tikal, further up north and close to Belize, is also worth a visit.  Massive pyramids that you can climb shoot up from the rainforest floor.  You can stay in the town of Flores, an island in the middle of a lake, as a jump off point to get to Tikal.  I was sick when I visited so I’d like to go back to actually be able to climb the pyramids and see the views next time around.


What Makes it DifferentA rich Mayan culture very prevalent throughout the country, unbelievable woven handicrafts, beautiful colonial cities, incredible markets, active volcanoes, one of the biggest Semana Santa festivals in the world, Mayan ruins, and beaches.




Top Attractions and Things to Do:

  • Hike volcanoes. You can read about three of the top volcanoes here, including Acatenango.

  • Pacaya Volcano

  • Lake Atitlan

  • Shopping the markets of handicrafts and textiles (Chichicastenango has one of the biggest markets in the country).

  • Antigua

  • Mayan ruins of Tikal, and town of Flores

  • Quetzaltenango as a base for hiking, hot springs, and other excursions

  • Pacific beaches and  Monterrico Nature Reserve

  • Semuc Champey and Langquín Caves


Minor Annoyances:

Bus rides can be very long from place to place.  Crime can be a major issue in certain areas and hikes.  Make sure you research before you go and use trusted guides for hiking and exploring off-the-beaten path areas.


Language and Climate:

Spanish is primarily spoken, along with many native languages.


Rainy season in Guatemala runs from May to October, similar to its neighbors.  Temperature is really dependent on elevation, with coastal areas being hot year round (from 70s to 90s).  In the mountains, nighttime temperatures can fall below freezing depending on how high you are. In Guatemala City and Antigua, this is considered temperate zone.  Temperatures don’t fall below freezing but can get chilly at night and up into the 80s in the day.


Which country appeals to you the most? If you've been, I would love to hear your favorite aspects of visiting any of these countries.


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