Guest Blogger: Martha Staid
Whether you’re planning to study abroad or just want to travel somewhere cheap and off-the-beaten-path, Central America is a great destination. Here are five top places to visit, and things to do there. All of these towns are easily walkable and have Spanish language schools, if you want to brush up on your español or start from scratch.
Get out of the heat of Panama City in this laid-back town in the (very pretty) highlands. You can take small, personalized Spanish classes at the super-friendly Habla Ya Spanish School, or just let them arrange your activities: rafting, hikes, dance lessons, volunteering and more. They offer homestays with local families, too.
In town, Café Nelvis serves killer fried chicken, and you can get $1 domestic beer almost everywhere. If you make time to take a tour of the eco-friendly Café Ruiz coffee plantation, you can stop at the Canadian-run Sugar & Spice bakery on the walk back.
2. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica
Puerto Viejo, on the very southern bit of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, is probably one of the most chill towns you’ll ever visit. Wake up across the street from the ocean, get amazing pancakes at the open-air Bread and Chocolate, then rent bikes and ride south to go snorkeling in the coral reefs.
Rocking J’s has a fun backpacker vibe (and a treehouse to sleep in) if you want to meet other travelers, and the town is full of great Caribbean food (lots of coconut-y sauces and seafood) and quite a few vegetarian options. There’s more English/less Spanish spoken here than elsewhere because of the Caribbean influence, which could be either a plus or minus for you.
3. Granada, Nicaragua
My favorite city in Central America, Granada was built by the Spanish in the 1500s so it’s got an old-school European feel. This is a fill-up-your-camera-card town: colorful rows of houses, streets full of horses, bikes and motorcycles, and a bright yellow cathedral in the center of town.
Hotel Terrasol offers great deals and is run by an incredibly friendly family. Be sure to visit Masaya Volcano (Tierra Tours can arrange a day trip), where you can go right up to the edge of the smoking crater. El Quijote is a pretty gringo-ified bar, but it’s got memorable chicken fingers, if you want a change from local food. And for the weird-but-good category, try a glass of pinolillo, which is basically a corn and cocoa milkshake.
4. Suchitoto, El Salvador
Go ziplining over totally gorgeous Lake Suchitlan, then go pupusa crazy – women all over this pretty mountain town set up shop every evening to cook pupusas: flatbread stuffed with beans and cheese that are blow-your-mind delicious and will cost you less than a dollar.
You’re much less likely to be hassled for money or your business in Suchitoto than many other Central America cities. And if you don’t mind hostels, Hotel Obraje has two-person rooms for $11 a night, right in the town center. There’s also a shop in the main square that sells alcohol popsicles (cerveza, anyone?) and an arts festival every weekend.
5. Antigua, Guatemala
Touristy but worth it: Antigua is a World Heritage site, full of Spanish schools, internet cafes, pretty parks and all kinds of restaurants and nightlife. There are several attractively-crumbling ruins and a couple of good museums, and The Bagel Barn shows free movies most days (plus has free wifi). If you didn’t make it to El Salvador, they have pupusas here too, at the hole-in-the-wall El Sapo y La Rana.
The Antiguan government recently banned all street vendors, which will probably make the town feel a little odd to you if you’ve been elsewhere in Central America. For souvenirs, or just to experience the madness, head to El Mercado near the bus station.
Of course there’s far more Central America to explore, whether you’re into big cities or wilderness. The Lonely Planet books are a good place to start to learn more, and the internet is full of information on both Spanish schools and volunteer opportunities. ¡Buen viaje!
Photos courtesy of Martha Staid.
Martha Staid is an avid world traveler who has been blogging for ten years, both personally and professionally. She has been featured on About.com’s former College Life guide, where she wrote about study abroad programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.