Some friends and I fly into Mexico City in October and we have exactly one month to travel down to Panama City. We know that we will be a bit pushed for time, but unfortunately we have flights booked from Panama to South America that can't be changed.
We would really appreciate it if anyone who has made a similar trip, has any suggestions about where would be good places to stop, and where we should just pass through, as we know we will have to skip a lot of good places as we're limited on time. We would like a good mixture of beaches and culture. Nicaragua, Panama and Guatamala have been recommended by some friends, but we'd appreciate any other suggestions or ideas!
Thanks in advance
If you google "mexico" and "drug cartels" you'll find Mexico has had a lot of serious trouble with them over the last few years with cartel fighting cartel, and both fighting police, with some thousands of people dead, some horribly so.
I'm not saying you will have any trouble in Mexico but you should check safety in any areas you intend to travel through.
It's indeed a long way in one month but doable. You can basically cross any of these countries by long bus rides in one or two days max. I haven't been to Mexico, but travelled similar route from Belize to Panama.
See my recent comments on safety situation: http://www.travellerspoint.com/forum.cfm?thread=81502
Belize: If you are coming down on the east coast, you might consider stopping and visiting the cayes(choral islands) near Belize City.
Guatemala: near Belize border in the north, the Mayan ruins in Tikal and the nearby El Remata are very nice. Flores was less interesting to us, but still nice.
The east side of guatemala is less interesting, but if you take that route, you can stop for a break at Finca Isobel.
I don't know the west side, but the mountains, Antigua and the lake Atitlan are very said to be very nice. There is apparently a waterfall area from north to south - don't know the name - which is nice too.
Honduras: Mayan ruins near Copan are the no 1 destination for travellers. Beside that, the caribbean island Roatan is beautiful too. Comayagua is a nice colonial town. The are around lake Yojoa is pretty too and you can go trekking too. There is a farm run by an american with some brewery near Pina Blanca, which was nice for the swimming pool but a bit too posh-touristy for my taste. The nearby waterfalls at Pulhapanzak are nice, and camping there is an awesome experience, however robbery did occur there.
Nicaragua: better and nicer to cross from Honduras thru the mountains. The small town Ocotal near border is lovely. Masaya and Granada are very nice, top destination. On the way from Masaya to the volcano, we got kidnapped and robbed, which wasn't good.
Omotepe island on Lago de Nicaragua is said to be beautiful. In the very south, i think near San Juan del Sur, there is a popular surf town.
Costa Rica: is where you see all the american holiday people who you don't want to be around on a backpacking trip... I went to only San Jose and Puerto Viejo, which both were very nice and refreshing in Central America. San Jose for seeing nicely dressed people, PV to relax in a nice, backpacker-beach environment.
Panama: few hours from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is very nice, especially if you go to the northen beach, where you can collect star fish and see a perfect caribbean style white sand, azur blue coast.
From there, you can take bus to David, spend a night and take bus next morning to Panama city.
What i would recommend to skip! Belize City, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Managua. The terrible, ugly and very dangerous capital cities...
What is nice: to stop in smaller town and even if there isn't any interesting thing there for a tourist, but they will still be pleasant, with nice people, markets and small motels. guest houses. Just to see the real Central American life. Unfortunately, almost no tourist do it. We cycled and left usually with a much richer and pleasant experience than from any tourist destination.
The real beauty and cultural experience will start with Colombia.....
Thanks so much for the above information. Really helpful to know what places other people enjoyed. We are still debating whether to travel down the east side or the west side, but either way we will have to visit Nicaragua as the response from everyone is so good. Did you travel by local buses? We were looking at the Tica bus but I they say on their website that they only stop in the capital cities and not the smaller towns, and like you say I think it woudl be best to avoid going to many of the large cities and skip straight to the smaller towns
Either side you want to travel on, you will always get back to the panamarican road. East side of honduras and nicaragua are very remote, therefore difficult to access.
In any case, always nicer to travel through mountain areas than the plains, unless you are in a rush.
We cycled but as far as I know Tica buses have the largest network and best for international (border crossing) travels. Within the countries, you can take local bus companies too. You don't really have to plan your bus rides much, always just one or max two days in advance.
Before you get into Costa Rica, create a real-looking airplane ticket in word and print it out (they can't check it anyway). You can save $20 per person, otherwise custom officers will oblige to buy a non-refundable bus ticket out of the country.
Beside a guidebook, let's go travel and wikitravel give you very accurate information on transport, accommodation, safety, etc.
Central America lacks the history, modernization and truly beauty of nature that South America is famous for (but for the experience and to satisfy curiousity still worth going there). So don't feel too sorry if you have to skip certain parts highly recommended by guidebooks as the real thing comes in south america anyway. Especially, when it comes to mountains, rain forests and colonial towns. The beach side areas can be disappointing even along the carribbean, but can be very nice too. I think you will find nice beaches on islands or on the main coast of Costa Rica and Panama. The mainland part of the coast in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras or pacific side of Nicaragua is not that pretty, however islands can be nice.
We found actually the most beautiful beaches on Bocas del Toro in Panama, and the border area of Panama and Colombia has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world - although I guess you will fly from Panama city to Cartagena in Colombia. In any case, you can still find amazing beaches in Colombia.
Panama city will be the only cosmopolitan place in Central America (from belize to panama).