The person that you will spend the most time with in your life is yourself, so you better try and make yourself as interesting as possible. - Author Unknown
While there is an extensive list of must-visit locations throughout Central America, through my own personal travel experiences I’ve narrowed down a short list of some of my favorite places I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent time in, which has been anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Several of these places are well known, but hopefully there are a few hidden gems for those that are seeking adventure or incredible destinations that are not on the typical radar for most tourists or travelers.
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EL TUNCO, EL SALVADOR – What can I say? Great surf, black volcanic beaches, and again wonderful locals, which causes me to wonder exactly how bad of a reputation this country has that even many backpackers avoided. Still developing and lacking a horde of tourism, this is why I enjoy backpacking, because often, we are the international group willing to break through and experience places before Hilton or Marriot decides that it’s an appropriate location to develop typically dramatically the beauty of the place to begin with. Unfortunately, this was one area that I had the least amount of time spent, because unlike the other countries in the C-4 Agreement–Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua that could careless about abiding by the 90-day tourist visa for visiting any of these countries–El Salvador actually does follow this agreement strictly and after an hour stuck at customs I was harshly told that I had less than a week to exit the country as well as pass through both Honduras and Nicaragua to be clear of the other countries in the C-4. However, this is not true as I obtained 90-day tourist visas for every other country, but I didn’t want to press my luck after this hour-long lecture in Spanglish.
SAN JUAN DEL SUR, NICARAGUA – There are so many things to say about this incredible piece of paradise that is situated directly on the Pacific Coastline just 20km north of the Costa Rican border. Since this was a place I called home for close to 10-months, I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with a variety of great wonderful people–everyone from the local guys at the restaurants, the woman at the Mercado that became so familiar with my morning visits that all it took was walking through the entrance and making eye contact and as I picked out some fresh fruit for our hostel’s free morning breakfast as I was leaving she had my brekkie all wrapped up in a container to take with me, and of course all of the incredible foreigners, the various hostel owners, volunteer staff, and of course the backpackers.
ARENAL, COSTA RICA – A great spot to unwind and relax or to experience a wide variety of outdoor activities, whether that’s hiking around and taking in the incredible views of Arenal Volcano, or when seasonal temps allow, enjoying water activities on Lake Arenal. While some backpackers tend to quickly avoid Costa Rica since it is the most expensive country in Central America, there are still plenty of great areas, such as Arenal, to explore while passing through.
Where to stay? Arenal Backpackers Resort, which is located a short work from the city center of La Fortuna, and has an abundance of positive things going for it. From the spectacular views, friendly staff, on-site swimming pool, and the ability to even take advantage of their new deluxe camping area.
BOCAS DEL TORO, PANAMA – Located on the Caribbean, it is a short 30-45 minute water taxi from the mainland of Almirante and is home to the infamous Aqua Lounge hostel that was described to me as a floating hostel where you could literally wake up and jump out the window and fall into the Sea. While this is partly true, the ability to enter the water via a window, it is actually still attached to Cayo Carenero, the island just across from Bocas town. I had the privilege or unfortunate mistake–depending on whom you ask, since often backpackers don’t like retuning to places they have already spent time, but to look out on the horizon for new adventures–I returned to Bocas on three separate occasions, and all in all spent close to a combined month in this seaside town, mainly because I had a couple of great friends, Coco and Cat, that lived here and had their own apartment and were kind enough to let me crash on the twin mattress in that seemed to be a permanent fixture in their living room. I also stayed or ending up hostel crashing at almost every place in Bocas.
What I suggest doing? Since there is an abundance of beaches and other islands, we have done everything from renting bicycles for the entire day for $2 and riding out to Playa Bluff to organizing water taxis ($2 - $7) to take us to Red Frog or on the opposite side, which was deserted for our group and my personal favorite nearby–Wizard Beach.
Where to eat? My favorite place was the ocean front restaurant, Raw Sushi, which has an incredible ‘happy hour’ sushi rolls from 4pm – 6pm Tuesday thru Thursday, if I remember correctly for only $4. Obviously this was a constant repeat visit, and often we would be out at a beach and realize that we had less than 45-minutes to make it to this delicious oasis and were panicked to arrive before the happy hour time expired.
BOQUETE, PANAMA – This quiet mountain town has a refreshing setting, especially if you are traveling from either the hustle and bustle of Panama City (PC) or escaping the dreadful humidity and heat of Bocas del Toro. Named as one of the top places to retire
Where to stay? Mamallena hostel is located directly across from the central plaza park where the local buses arrive from David, since regardless of traveling from PC or Bocas, this is the main transfer hub leading in almost every direction. The owner, Miguel, is an extremely warm and friendly Panamanian that is unbelievably hospitable. There were several nights that he threw an entire family-style BBQ for guests and even invited non-guests to join in on this free meal. This is also a full service hostel as you can gather information about local activities and even schedule transportation bookings if you are seeking a more direct route to areas, but this will be a bit more expensive than utilizing local transportation and transferring buses in David.
What to do? While this was the most strenuous hike I have ever done, and that being said from a Coloradan, the overnight Volcan Baru hike is a must. Not only is this the highest point in all of Panama, if you are fortunate enough to be there (as we were) during a break in the clouds or a clear day, you can actually view both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean practically simultaneously. The downside, in some ways making it exhausting, is this is typically best being done as either as an overnight hike beginning at the base around midnight, which we did, or hiking to just past the midway point and camping overnight at the designated campsite, which I knew a few friends did. You can also rent camping gear if you haven’t brought your own as the mixture of rain, wind, and dropping overnight temps make this a necessary time to check your cold weather gear. My friend Rachel, who is from NY and has hiked over 20 different mountains in a single year, also agreed that this was the most strenuous hike she has done and she even did the overnight camping to break up the hike over two-days. So be prepared.
My last full day in Seoul is still a busy one. Similar to most backpackers, we are masters of utilizing the resources around us, and one of those at Mugunghwa House is a proper washing machine. The joys and headaches of packing is the dreadful chore that we all hate. Since there is no dryer onsite I’ve had to calculate the amount of time it will take for some of my thicker materials to hang dry (jeans and fleece jacket), and after laying them out on the rack I’ve asked Leslie if she’d like to do some souvenir shopping with me and grab some lunch as well. Just after 1pm we head towards the Hongdae University area, and since this is the first time I have purchased any souvenirs in all of my traveling, mainly because of being on a strict budget accompanied with shipping costs, the only people on my list that I’m purchasing small items for are my two sisters that are also Korean adoptees and my two nieces because I want them to have something that is part of their heritage and culture. Since I’m not one for sluggishly wandering from shop to shop, I am able to quickly find a few items that I think the girls will both enjoy and find some humor out of, and this even impresses Leslie with how quickly I’m able to find gifts.
We return back to the guesthouse in the late afternoon just as the winds are continuing to pick up and the sun is beginning to drop behind the towering skyscrapers. I have one last load of laundry to wash and begin the task of army-style rolling my clothing and shoving it in my bag. As I’m doing this I message my sister and ask if she would like to have dinner tomorrow evening since I am planning to stay the night at the airport and she lives nearby. Extremely excited by this invitation she agrees and later Crystal comes in and tells me that my mother has called her and has rented a car for my sister and instead of meeting at the airport tomorrow that she will be picking me up and driving me there personally, but first she is planning to take me to a fancy last supper. I am just shocked at the kindness of my Korean family and how hospitable and welcoming they have been. We agree upon a time of 6:30pm tomorrow evening, which allows me to relax from packing up quickly since I was planning to take the subway in the morning to the airport, which is a chore with 40lbs on your back plus an additional 30lbs that I’m carrying like a pregnant woman. I feel a sense of relief knowing that I can sleep in and have plenty of time to get the gifts mailed to my sisters back in the States. Life is full of surprises and I can’t help but be grateful thinking that I now have three beautiful sisters that care for me very much.