From trekking around Nicaraguan volcanoes to exploring the Panama Canal, travel to Central America is unforgettable, writes Chris Zacharia
I’m standing on the edge of a steep green slope, gazing down at the shoreline of the glassy lake far below. Billowing wisps of sulphur cloud the air.
They call Nicaragua the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. Given that it’s only my first day here and I’m already on a volcano, peering down at a lake, it’s fair to say that the country lives up to its promise.
Not that you could call Nicaragua predictable. This is a country of contradictions. Peaceful beach idylls are tormented by violent bursts of rain. Paved roads give way to ramshackle dirt tracks. The colonial history of the Spanish conquistadors sits uneasily beside the primeval remains of earlier cultures.
Caught between tradition and modernity, Nicaragua is nothing short of kaleidoscopic. In this sense, Nicaragua is typical of central America. The region is home to an assortment of wild territories, teeming with tropical life, mesmerising cities and vividly gruesome history. We decide to travel to central America passing through Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama in one single trip, exploring what the region has to offer.
Much of the region is covered in volcanoes, but in Nicaragua it seems every horizon is punctuated by their ominous outline. Each of its many volcanoes and lakes has a different character. Mombacho, which we spend our first day exploring, even has endemic species of its own, including a nocturnal salamander and a unique orchid.
During our ninety-minute trek around Mombacho’s crater, through canopies of moist leaves and rocky ravine corridors, we lose count of the sheer variety of creatures we encounter. A butterfly with perfectly translucent wings. A sloth making his slow descent to the forest floor for his weekly defecation.
But the best came last. No sooner had we recovered from the incredible view, our guide came cavorting out from the trees with an enormous grin on his face. On his fingertip was a miniscule green tree frog, with bulging eyes of bright orange. For the next ten minutes everything else is forgotten as we marvel at this incredible frog. No wonder he’s always on the cover of National Geographic.
Night falls quickly near the equator, and the sun has long set by the time we reach León, fifty miles north of Lake Nicaragua on the Pacific coast. We arrive at El Convento hotel, a beautifully ornate colonial building which was once a nunnery. A vast foyer space, all mahogany and oak, is sparsely decorated with distinctive colonial furniture, clustered close together like distinguished guests at a party. A blossoming central courtyard, complete with a gushing fountain, provides air and light. It makes for a fantastic base: fascinating, charming and spooky all at once.
Home to artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries, León’s history is dominated by men such as Rubén Darío, a modernist poet whose renown extends far beyond the country’s borders. As an introduction to one of Nicaragua’s most famous artists, we visit his museum, located within what was once the poet’s own home. With Darío’s original drafts and manuscripts decorating the walls, there’s a mournful air about the place. The bedroom, where Darío died in 1916, is eerily untouched.
Close by is León’s Centro de Arte, whose displays offer a symbolic journey through Nicaragua’s history. Through the paintings, you can witness the unresolved tension between the influences of European art and the traditionalism of Nicaragua’s indigenous tribes. It’s well worth a visit.
A ten-minute walk brings us to León’s main square, dominated by the impressive cathedral but also by crowds of youngsters. It is, after all, still a university town. The cathedral is one of Nicaragua’s three UNESCO world heritage sites. Its interior is imposingly grand, but unusually you can also access the cathedral’s rooftop. The beautiful view of the city, through the cathedral’s gleaming white cupolas and domes, is wonderful.
After tiring ourselves out exploring the baking-hot rooftop, we take lunch in El Sesteo, a family-run restaurant on the corner of the plaza. A glass of hibiscus iced tea, hugely popular in central America, provides much-needed rejuvenation.
It’s followed by La Catamal, a coarse corn mash adorned with shredded pork, onion, potato, green peppers and tomatoes, all cooked and served in a plantain leaf. Authentic home-cooked food can be surprisingly hard to come by in Nicaragua, but El Sesteo is proof that it’s very tasty. And for all its progressiveness, León offers plenty of opportunities to engage with Nicaragua’s traditions.
Having spent two days in the comfort of cities, I’m ready for the wilderness. The short flight to Honduras, Nicaragua’s northerly neighbour, offers a tantalising aerial glimpse of the country’s untamed landscapes.
We’re heading to Jeanette Kawas National Park on Honduras’s north-westerly Caribbean coast, a peninsula accessible only by sea. Hopping out of the car, we descend to the shore and climb onto a speedboat, where we spend the next forty-five minutes gazing at its looming lushness.
Punta Sal, our landing point, is one of those pristine idylls which looks as though it were plucked from paradise. Smooth white sand, sapphire-blue water and a soundtrack of birdsong: all you want to do is lie down and soak it in. But instead we march into the thick vegetation, determined to explore one of central America’s most intriguing parks.
While Punta Sal looks like it’s always been at peace, it has a dark and violent history. During Honduras’s war with El Salvador in the late 1960s, this rich and beautiful land was bombed repeatedly by the government in weapons-testing exercises. Thanks to a committed group of environmental activists, led by ecologist Jeanette Kawas, in 1994 the peninsula became a protected national park. But the efforts of Kawas and her colleagues were inimical to businesses seeking to exploit the area’s resources, and Kawas was murdered a few months later in 1995. Members of Honduras’s government and armed forces were strongly suspected of killing Kawas, but no-one was ever convicted.
Thankfully, the parque nacional now bearing her name is remains protected. As we begin our trek through dense jungle and mangosteen forests, our guide goes ahead to check if there are any jaguars nearby. Howler monkeys, twenty feet above in the trees, call us with a dog-like bark as we clamber through the trees. We pass gnarly Sandbox Trees, whose fearsome two-inch spines were once bathed in pine sap by indigenous tribes and covered in the poison of the spider frog to be used as darts. Finally, we see a golden light at the end of a tunnel of leaves. Bursting free, we emerge to breathtaken gasps: before us is a pristine, diamond-shaped lagoon, so perfectly still that it roots us to the spot.
“They filmed the sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean here,” our guide tells us. “Not hard to see why, right?”
But Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow wasn’t the only pirate to visit. This lagoon, known as Laguna del Diamante because of its shape, was a hiding place for smugglers, who shrouded their contraband amongst the trees.
A lunch of freshly-caught white fish awaits us at Punta Sal beach, prepared by a community of indigenous Garifuna people who offer their hospitality to visitors. After our hike, we wolf it down atop wooden stools facing the ocean. Reluctant to leave such a paradisiacal place, we take a swim in the clear blue water before climbing aboard our speedboat.
We spend our evening aboard a boat, too. This time, however, it’s a kayak. In the late afternoon sunshine, we drive to the shores of an enormous swap, home to a rich cast of wildlife. Since our group is an odd number, I’m left to paddle my kayak alone.
“You say you’ve never kayakked before?” our guide says to me.
“You sure you’ll be ok on your own?” he asks, handing me an oar.
“Sure, no worries” I breezily reply, cursing myself for not bothering with travel insurance.
Too late. I’m off on my own, paddling my way around a dark corridor of trees, avoiding logs drifting like compass needles in the brackish water. Eventually we reach the vastness of the swamp, so big we cannot see the far perimeter. Our guide leads us around the heavily-forested shore, teeming with monkeys and birds.
Struggling to control my craft in the narrow passageways, I crash face-first into thick meshes of leaves and cobwebs, hastily swiping lurid yellow spiders off me. It’s my first-ever kayak and I’m praying that I don’t capsize into the black water.
In the time is takes for us to reach the point where the swamp meets the sea, darkness has fallen. The lake is lit up by the full moon, casting a strange silvery glow upon our little fleet. Silhouettes of birds punctuate the horizon. We angle back into the tunnel of trees from which we first emerged into the swamp, but by now it’s pitch black. Unable to see, I beach myself on a submerged log, straining to free my boat. After a few minutes of desperate struggle, another kayak rows past, offering me their oar to tow myself back into the water. By the time we reach the pier on the shore, my legs are soaked with swamp water.
Climbing out of my kayak, all I want to do is get dry. I grab my backpack and head behind our car to change. Just as I’m pulling my trousers off, I stop mid-motion, dumbstruck. In front of me, a meadow is illuminated by hundreds and hundreds of fireflies, fading and glowing in the darkness. Unable to help myself, I call out to the rest of the group, forgetting that I’m standing in my underwear with the wet rag of my trousers at my feet. Fortunately the fireflies are sufficient distraction, prompting everyone to unleash their smartphones in a futile attempt to capture the magic on camera.
A few minutes away is a restaurant run by the Garifuna community, where we dine on an outdoor pavilion beside the water. It’s another helping of white fish with rice and beans, but it’s so fresh I’m not complaining. As a digestif, we’re presented with a bottle of gifiti, a local rum introduced by our driver with a devilish grin. Brewed in a gigantic bottle the size of a gas cylinder, its depths are full of herbs, roots, and spices, including marijuana and coca leaves. Brewed for four weeks, its flavour is potent. The Garifuna call it the “love medicine”, for both its properties as a medicine and an aphrodisiac.
After a couple of shots of gifiti, everything becomes blurry. We sit on a whitewashed wall and gazing at the darkness of the ocean, smiling at the crabs making their journeys to and from the shoreline.
With heavy hearts and heavier heads, the following morning we wave goodbye to Honduras and head to Panama, a short two-hour flight to the south. As the strip of land connecting North America to South America, Panama has an extremely diverse ecosystem, a meeting point of flora and fauna from the two continents. Landing in Panama City, however, you feel more like you’re in New York. Towering skyscrapers of glass and steel dominate the cityscape. One of them, the twenty-storey Hotel Grace, becomes our home for the night.
We spend a day exploring the Panama Canal, watching a cargo ship make its slow passage from one ocean to another, learning about the country’s history in the canal’s smart museum. Few countries can have been so defined by an infrastructure project. By drawing immigrant labourers from all over the globe, the construction of the canal in the early 1900s provided the foundation of Panama’s multicultural society and international outlook.
The next day, we get to witness how one of these immigrants shaped the country. We take a forty-five minute internal flight to Chiriquí province, which forms Panama’s westerly border with Costa Rica. It’s a mountainous, densely forested place – perfect for growing coffee. We reach the hilly Finca Lerida plantation, whose slopes are enrobed in mist.
First opened in 1911 by Tollef Boche Mönniche, a Norwegian émigré who worked on the canal as an engineer, Finca Lerida Estate produces some of the finest coffee in the world. It’s also a guesthouse, allowing tourists to stay in the highlands and experience locally-grown food from its plantation. And superb coffee, of course.
Spanning fifty acres, the farm requires about a hundred labourers during harvesting season. Families of the Ngo-Bule tribe pick the beans together. It’s hard work just climbing up and down these foothills, but this location is vital to the beans. Since it’s spread over different altitudes, the farm has different microclimates, which influence the flavour of the coffee.
We encounter a table of Panamanian men sorting through a huge heap of coffee beans. They’re picking out those unsuitable for roasting by hand. It looks like demanding work, spending all day sifting through thousands of identical beans; how do they manage, I ask one of them?
“Sometimes” he deadpans, “we drink a cup of coffee”.
Fair enough. Inside, we drink a cup of the black stuff, trying different strains of the Arabica bean. There’s citrusy, tea-like Geisha, leathery Pacamara and rich Catu-ai. After sipping on each as if tasting wine, we’re lead through to a picturesque balcony, where we enjoy a fine lunch of vegetables grown on the plantation. Courgette fritters with balsamic reduction and parmesan shavings, quinoa salad with cabbage and garden vegetables, passion fruit cake – all the food we’re served has that zestyness belonging to the truly ripe. Every mouthful is savoured.
We spend a single night in the Chiriquí highlands. Here the temperature is much cooler than in Panama City. There’s a crispness to the air which forces us to find jumpers we haven’t needed for the whole trip. Before leaving for the City, we take the time to explore the cloud forest of Volcan Batun, near the plantation. With two-dozen high altitude bridges traversing hilly jungle, the views are nothing short of spectacular.
Back in Panama City, it’s a different world. Skyscrapers belonging to banks tower over South American-style slums, with shanty towns held together with corrugated iron. A colonial old town, reminiscent of the Mediterranean, blurs the picture still further.
Known as Casco Viejo (literally ‘Old Quarter’), it’s an astoundingly well-preserved assortment of colonial buildings, the oldest of which date back to the late 17th century. Built on a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean, the stone walkways flanking the sea make for an excellent afternoon’s walk. We spend our last day strolling around the market stalls, where tourist-friendly Panama hats jostle with leatherwork and handicrafts for the attention of passers-by. I try on a few hats before concluding, as usual, that my head is just the wrong shape for hat-wearing.
But with memories like these, who needs souvenirs? The countries and peoples of central America are unforgettable.
If you are planning to travel to central America get advice from the Central American Tourist Authority. They can help with central America tours and general travel information from the Nicaragua volcanoes to the Panama Canal.