Bullseye Central America: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and....
Feb 12, 2008
David Rich 1000 Words
Costa Rica 500 Colon=$1
Nicaragua 19 Cordobas=$1
Honduras 19 Lempiras=$1
El Salvador $1=$1
Bull's Eye Central America: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras....
• Costa Rica Unchanged
We'd last toddled down to Costa Rica in the 80s when it was the miracle country of Central America. It's been displaced by Panama, the new magnet for expatriates. In the intervening quarter century Costa Rica has changed a flyspeck, except for San Jose expanding out of control and conceivably becoming a tad uglier. The prime attractions remain volcanoes and Pacific beaches. Skip the cloud forests unless enamored of trees in fog, or as one guidebook sirupily trumpeted, truly moving views of uninterrupted dense green, omitting wet. Why cross the street to suffer unending rain among indistinguishable blobs of green?
The many volcanoes remain superb, from always erupting Arenal to gorgeous Vieja. Tourists flock to Arenal but only half actually see it. The massive mountain not only cannot be climbed, prohibited as too dangerous, but is cocooned by cloud over half the time. During five days east of the mountain in La Fortuna I saw it twice. The west side, clustered with pricey resorts, provides superior visibility.
A better option is Liberia, a city near the Nicaragua border and in striking distance of Volcan Vieja, which is easily climbed in a seven hour roundtrip. The reward is a turquoise Crater Lake pocked with brilliant swirls of sulphur. A higher cone sits next door, the huge national park Rincon de la Vieja also offering refreshing waterfalls and bubbling mud pots.
Costa Rica offers other attractions galore from potable tap water and superb whitewater rafting to green sea turtles laying batches of eggs in Parque Nacional Tortuguera, a few hours up an exotic river north of shabby Puerto Limon. My favorite park remains Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast, great beaches fronted by rocky islets ridged with tree silhouetted against brilliant sunsets, ringed by extraordinarily expensive hotels.
• Surprising Nicaragua
Outside the money-grubbing city of Granada the Nicaraguan people are extraordinarily kind and friendly. Certainly Colonial Granada is lovely in its restored parts and wonderfully situated on Lago Nicaragua, yet the waterfront is completely devoid of interest. So skip Granada, other than a walk through between meals, and check out the close-by picturesque pueblo blanca, the whitewashed village of Catarina enticingly overlooking the collapsed crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo where Volcan Masaya sits prettily behind.
The other close-by attraction towers from the middle of Lago Nicaragua, a huge lake 110 miles (175 kilometers) long and 35 miles (60 kilometers) wide. Isla Ometepe was formed by twin volcanoes Conception (5000 feet) and Maderas (4500 feet), jutting abruptly skyward, a striking sight during the necessary approach by ferry from Granada on the western shore or San Jorge to the south. The island's volcanic soil is verdant and prosperous, providing excellent opportunities to bike, walk and climb about amongst laidback and amiable inhabitants. Nowhere else on earth can dollars be exchanged at the best bank rate in any local shop.
Nicaragua's other primary attraction is the colonial city of Leon near the Honduran border, the capital until 1857, hosting Central America's largest Cathedral, though far from the most attractive, 18 additional Spanish churches and the country's most prestigious university with a panoply of medical colleges. The attractive city was the home of the Sandinista revolutionaries, surrounded by volcanoes easily excursionable.
• Happy Honduras
Happily organized Honduras offers two primary attractions: the Bay Islands ringed in coral, a diver's paradise, and the grand Mayan ruins at Copan. The country is happily organized because a free quarterly publication entitled Nicaraguan Tips lists every hotel in every city by amenities and price, and luxury bus schedules, making travel a piece of cake, unlike other Central American countries.
The choice of Bay Islands principally divides between ritzy resort-laden Roatan and backpacker dive-school Utila. Laidback Utila wins hands down, described by Columbus in his last voyage in 1502 as inhabited by
robust people who adore idols and who live mostly from a certain white grain from which they make fine bread and the most perfect beer.
Beer remains plentiful while the new idol is diving lessons, offering the usual underwater tropical suspects lurking among the coral, including quaint hammerhead sharks. Ferries from La Cieba on the mainland take an hour to trundle back and fro several times a day, $15 each way.
For a similar charge luxury buses will tote anyone in comfort from La Ceiba to Copan Ruinas, a miniature town built on steep hills snaked by cobblestone streets strewn with over-priced hotels. These are balanced out by reasonably priced restaurants in the quiet restful town. The marvelous Mayan ruins of Copan sit a mile east of town, ancient Mayan pyramids and stelae towering around a capacious site also offering a phenomenal museum and tunnels burrowing among finely carved megaliths in glowing colors, dominated by burnt sienna etched in azure and albumen.
After enjoying the ruins, tunnels and museum at Copan, immediately proceed 12 miles west to Guatemala, the jewel of Central America, skipping backward El Salvador, which offers nothing of more than niggling interest.
Getting there and about: Americans driving RVs and private vehicles sprinkle Central America, safe everywhere outside a few bad pockets in the major cities of San Jose, Managua Tegulcigalpa and San Salvador. The infrastructure is uniformly excellent, excluding a few potholed roads in Nicaragua, making driving simple and easy. Hotel doubles are reasonably priced, offering all amenities including extensive English language cable from $20 to $40. Luxury buses manned by stewards and offering refreshments, recent movies and fully reclining seats, cover Central America, though journeys other than between major cities may require chicken buses outside of Honduras. The food is varied and inexpensive, gradually morphing from an emphasis on rice and beans, always accompanied by meat and seafood of choice, to Mexican influences further north.