Exploring Central America

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When considering travel destinations, many of us rarely consider Central America as a vacation area. Probably more Americans have traveled to Costa Rica, but that’s about it for most.

Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The total population of the seven is more than 42 million people.

The major cities are San Salvador, El Salvador, Panama City, Panama, San Jose, Costa Rica, Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Guatemala City, Guatemala. The capital of Belize is Belmopan, but it is not as large as the other Central American cities. The entire population of Belize is only a little more than 300,000.

Guatemala City is the largest in Central America. Central America is in fact a narrow landmass stretching between South and North America. It is bordered by Mexico to the north and Colombia to the southeast.

The language of six of the Central American countries is Spanish, but the official language in Belize is English, however many people also speak Spanish.

In pre-Columbian times, the northwestern areas of modern Central America were part of the Mesoamerican civilization. The Native American societies of Mesoamerica occupied the land ranging from central Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south. Most notable among them were the Maya, who built numerous cities throughout the region, and the Aztecs, who created a vast empire. The pre-Columbian cultures of Panama traded with both Mesoamerica and South America, and can be considered transitional between those two cultural areas.

Following Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas for Spain, the Spanish sent numerous expeditions to the region, and they began their conquest of Mayan lands in the 1520s.

The climate depends on how high you go in the mountains and the tropical temperatures of the lowlands and beach areas. You can explore literal jungles away from many of the cities and find all sorts of interesting wildlife and sealife. Many people visit Central America with an interest in birds. They are plentiful and varied here. You can arrange for wildlife safaris with local tour companies. Fishing is the best and you may also board a fishing vessel and fish to your heart’s desire.

Central America is currently undergoing a process of political, economic and cultural transformation that began in 1907 with the creation of the Central American Court of Justice.

In 1951, the integration process continued with the San Salvador Treaty, which created the ODECA, the Organization of Central American States. However, conflicts remained until 2008 when an agreement to pursue a common currency and common passport for the member nations was signed but not implemented as of this writing.

There is a Central American Parliament, the Central American Bank and Central American Common Market, however each of the seven nations still remains separate. So, the nations are loosely tied because of location to one another and they all strive for the common good.

The Pan-American Highway runs through Central America and except for a 54-mile rainforest break, called the Darien Gap, the road links the mainland nations of the Americas in a connected highway system.

Each country has its benefits and surprises for the tourist.

Let’s take Belize first. You would fly into Belize City and locate at one of the fine hotels in the area. The climate is tropical and lazy. Spend a day or two to relax and forget the worries of home. Then, it’s tour time. Some rent automobiles and tour with maps and tour books. Others will take day tours with a tour company. One of the main sights is the Mayan country. There are several outstanding ruins available and you won’t want to miss the exploration. The weather will be hot, so dress accordingly. One of the more outstanding Mayan ruins is Altun Ha where the famous Jade Head of Kinich Ahau was uncovered by Dr. David Prendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum. This was a major Mayan trading post many hundreds of years ago.

Another interesting tour is the Lamanai and The New River Safari. You take a riverboat and head up the New River. You will go by several creeks and lagoons with wildlife and see dainty Jacanas lightly walking along on the lily pads while the crocodiles bask in the sunlight. Then you come to the ruins of Lamanai as they rise into view. Huge masks depicting dead rulers and gods seem to materialize out of the rainforest amid the chatter of birds and haunting calls of the Howler Monkeys. This is almost a must-do tour while you are here.

You can also tour the nearby Manatee breeding grounds.

Belize is uncomplicated and easy to take.

We have discussed Costa Rica several times in this article series, but I want to say that it is presently the Central America country most traveled to by Americans to date and it is hard to be disappointed here. The main city is San Jose, which is situated above sea level just enough to enjoy a mild climate year-round. Two hours by car is the sea and wonderful beaches. Not far away are jungles to explore and volcanoes to visit. It’s all here in Costa Rica and tourism is made easy for Americans. There are fine hotels and resorts, clean facilities, good food and friendly people. The language is Spanish, but many speak some English.

You have the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the calm Pacific Ocean and beaches with fine resorts located near the shore, and on the other side is the Caribbean Coast. Guatemala is coming into its own as a tourist destination. You would be staying first in Guatemala City, which has many day tours available. First take the city tour to explore, then consider other out-of-town tours. This is a good place to simply relax for a week or two with a little shopping thrown in.

The Mayan ruin of Tikal is one of the most popular day tours and I suggest you do this. Other Mayan ruins are also available for tourists to visit.

Nicaragua is not as popular as some of the neighboring countries, but Americans are beginning to explore here. It claims wonderful, unspoiled beaches waiting for tourists. I have heard it said that in the future these beaches will have fine hotels and resorts and tourists will flock to the beaches. We shall see.

Granada is the oldest city in the western hemisphere of the Americas. You may stay here or Managua. A Granada tour will be by horse-drawn carriage, allowing a slow and more detailed look at the surroundings and you can stop and shop as you choose.

Another tour is Granada and Isleta, which will be great for more shopping and take the camera for architectural photography. These are perfect examples of early American styles.

You can also tour rural Nicaragua and visit the active Santiago crater and the active volcanic phenomena of the boiling soil of Telica-Rota volcano chain.

If you are staying in Managua, you can see how the city is rebuilding from the ruins of the 1972 earthquake and you will find the city growing and alive.

Panama is best known for its world-famous canal. Right now there is construction on a new lock system that will accommodate larger cargo and tanker ships and will be a boon to the merchant shippers. This country and Panama City are growing by leaps and bounds. Panama City is the money center for trade between North and South America and has many large and modern skyscrapers and from a distance can look like Manhattan rising from the ground surrounded by water. This city will surprise you.

Many American tourists come to Panama and visit the Pearl Islands or Coronado on the Pacific side and Bocas Del Toro and San Blas and Isla Grande. Relaxing hotels and resorts are here. The climate is topical, warm and relaxing. Rates vary by property.

You should be aware that Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica are generally safer than Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and Belize which are known to have roaming street gangs and also have the highest crime rates and the police are often considered unreliable.

Also, be aware there are many mosquitoes and if you plan to go camping, bring DEET spray and a bug net to sleep under the stars. Malaria pills are a good idea.

Planning is half the fun and you may wish to contact an experienced travel agent for assistance with details.

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