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Central America: Center Stage

Bridge in the Rainforest, Costa Rica.Bridge in the rainforest, Costa Rica. Image: Getty.

Central America might be relatively small but its tapestry of cultures, landscapes and experiences make it big in appeal, says Paul Oswell

Of all the global regions mooted as ‘up and coming’, Central America seems to be discussed the most often. The term refers to the countries between Mexico and South America — Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The region has historically had its share of troubles but modern day Central America is gearing up to welcome a fresh generation of travelers, with Costa Rica especially leading the way thanks to progressive, eco-friendly accommodation.

As a sign of how far the region has come, in June the Global Tourism Monitor Survey asked 23,000 travelers from 26 countries where they’d traveled during the previous 12 months and which destination they’d recommend based on their own experiences. Costa Rica came top as the most recommended destination in the world, ahead of Austria, New Zealand and Italy.

The Guatemalan Tourism Institute (INGUAT) is also reporting record levels of interest after the country welcomed 744,890 international visitors between January and April, an 11.4% increase on the same period in 2013.

US travelers make up a substantial number of visitors. According to figures published by the Commerce Department in late February, there was a 4.2% increase in US tourists in 2013 — up to almost 2.5 million compared with 2.39 million in 2012. Costa Rica in particular benefited from the rising number of visitors, with the tourist board reporting that the country welcomed a record-breaking 2.4 million tourists last year.

The region has obvious appeal to US travelers. Its proximity means there are very few long flights involved to the major hubs and capital cities, and no large time difference to deal with. The region is exotic enough to feel like an adventurous destination without being too far from home, basic Spanish is good enough to negotiate your way around, and there’s certainly value for money to be had with US dollars.

In terms of experiences, soft adventure abounds, from the eco lodges of Costa Rica to Mayan temples such as Tikal in Guatemala. Divers and snorkelers, meanwhile, will find a wealth of places to explore, such as the Bay Islands in Honduras, while climbers and hikers will enjoy Isla de Ometepe’s twin volcanic peaks in Nicaragua.

In short, value, relative ease of access, a sense of adventure and originality all combine to make Central America an increasingly alluring proposition for US tourists.

Here we take a look at some of the region’s top tours and itineraries…

COSTA RICA

The tour: Exploring the country’s eco-friendliness and natural wonders.

How long: This basic tour lasts eight days, with an option to extend for those wanting to spend a few days relaxing on the beach.

The details: On this trip, travelers come face to face with the exotic wildlife that inhabits Costa Rica’s tranquil emerald rainforests. Clients can cruise the canals in search of wildlife in the eco-tourism hotspot of Tortuguero National Park, where toucans and egrets fly through the air and crocodiles lie in the cool waters. For two days, travelers explore the magic of the Monteverde Cloud Forest by crossing the impressive Sky Walk chain of suspension bridges. Other highlights include visiting a local family-owned palm plantation to try the delicate heart of palm, and calling in on master chocolatier Julio Fernandez’s home to enjoy a small chocolate workshop and a lunch of local ingredients.

Best for: Wildlife and nature lovers, and those interested in the strides being taken in eco-friendly tourism in Costa Rica.

Sample: Trafalgar Travel offers the land-only eight-day Costa Rica Eco Adventure 2014 tour, from $1,455 per person, including luxury coach transfers, seven night’s first class accommodation, sightseeing headsets, most meals and the services of a travel director throughout the trip. trafalgar.com

GUATAMALA

The tour: See many of the key highlights of Guatemala via cities, national parks and ancient historic sights.

How long: In just 10 days clients can take in the best of the country, beginning and ending in Guatemala City.

The details: The history lesson kicks off in the metropolis of Guatemala City, with a background on the Mayan civilization and the times that followed. Traveling on through Quirigua, visitors see preserved sights and huge monoliths before passing through to the Caribbean coast and beautiful nature reserves. Tikal also has ruins aplenty and a charming town center. The capital, Anitgua, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, incredibly well preserved with colonial buildings. On the way to Lake Atitlan, tour participants get a glimpse of the lush coffee-growing region before taking a relaxing cruise that looks out over the three dormant volcanoes overshadowing the lake. After this, it’s back through charming local villages to Guatemala City once again.

Best for: Lovers of history and nature, with archaeological sites and colonial cities bringing the country’s past to life.

Sample: Caravan Tours offers the land-only 10-day Guatemala with Tikal, Atitlan and Antigua tour, priced from $1,095 per person. The price includes all transfers, accommodation, most meals, all activities and destinations described, and the services of a tour director and local guides. caravan.com

BELIZE

The tour: A beach-based tour for the more relaxed traveler, with some soft adventure.

How long: Seven nights, staying in the same hotel each night.

The details: Ambergris Caye, in the sunny seaside resort of San Pedro, is the destination for Belize-curious beach lovers. Belize is an English-speaking country and life here is laid-back and unhurried. This tour package has multiple day trips, always returning to the same resort, making it perfect for who want less traveling around and more experience. Trips include a Maya Adventure Tour to the Altun Ha Maya site, which has ruins dating back to 900BC. A nearby adventure park is the destination for some easy thrills, in the form of cave tubing and zip-lining with resident experts. Another option is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley Snorkel Tour, for a close-up look at the marine life.

Best for: The more sedate traveler who still wants to experience sites outside of their resort.

Sample: Bob Jone’s Belize Holidays has seven nights at the Mata Rocks Resort in an Ocean View Pool Deck room, from $942 per person, including day trips and excursions described above. bobjonesbelizeholidays.com

PANAMA

The tour: A chance to see both of the world’s biggest oceans without ever leaving one country.

How long: Nine days are recommended.

The details: The adventure starts in Panama City, seeing the Spanish fortress remains in Old Panama or just taking in the atmosphere. After a day’s acclimatization, clients head along the canal and into the jungle. During the latter stage, participants can take to a kayak on the canal to get a closer look at howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and tropical birds. After this, they’re whisked away by plane to a few days of beach life, via the coastal town of Bocas del Toro. Back in Panama City, it’s time to catch up on the Casco Antiguo colonial quarter.

Best for: Lovers of boat life and the water.

Sample: Condor Tours & Travel has a nine-day Panama’s Atlantic & Pacific tour, from $1,050 per person, including accommodation, transfers, tours, breakfasts and some meals. Internal air transfers are extra (roughly $275 per person). T: 1 800 783 8847. condortoursandtravel.com

NICARAGUA

The tour: A romantic jaunt through the hidden gems of Nicaragua.

How long: Eight days, with a focus on high-end and memorable experiences.

The details: The tour starts with a stay at Jicaro Island Ecolodge, an eco-resort located on a private island in Lake Nicaragua. From there, it’s off to the colonial city of Granada with its colorful architecture and the edge of the Masaya Volcano — a short, easy hike. A private boat takes clients around the beautiful Cocibolca Lake, including a chance to fish for dinner. Next up is the Tola Region, the Riviera of Nicaragua, with spa resorts, beach villas and options for watersports. Private surf lessons and beach picnics can also be arranged.

Best for: Romantics, young couples and honeymooners who want generous amounts of time to relax between sightseeing trips.

Sample: Albee Adventures offers the eight-day Nicaragua: Central America’s Hidden Gem tour, from $2,380 per person, including hotels, transfers and tours. There’s also the option to rent a car instead. albeeadventures.com

SELLING TIPS

Speak easy: Many travelers can be put off by the fear of a language barrier in Central America but this is rarely a problem throughout the region. Belize, for example, is an English-speaking country.

Compact region: Emphasize the variety and ease of travel between major sights. Most Central American countries are compact, and tourists can see a town, some ruins and a beach in a single day.

Green travel: Almost all the major Central American destinations have hitched their wagon to the eco trend, and there are some genuinely impressive projects to be seen, particularly in Costa Rica.

Authentic experiences: For the most part the region retains its authenticity – compare and contrast this with instances of over-development seen in comparable parts of Mexico. Just a little further afield are similar Mayan ruins without the crowds.

Value for money: The region is generally considered good value as visitors can get genuine luxury experiences for relatively affordable prices with the US dollar

TAKING IT SLOW

From beach bar hopping and nature strolls to mingling in the markets, Paul Oswell slips into local life in the Costa Rican town of Puerto Viejo

It’s almost closing time at the humble beach bar I stumbled into a few hours ago. I’ve been passing most of my time concentrating on rest and relaxation and taking in the sea air. Couple this with people-watching and the odd foray onto the beach and that’s pretty much the full list of pastimes in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a coastal town in the Limon Province of Costa Rica.

Given the laid-back attitude of everyone who comes here, its no wonder the town’s full name hardly ever gets an airing — Puerto Viejo will do for most people. As the bar owner closes up for the evening it’s the end of another slow and steady day in paradise for the fans of this coastal enclave that doesn’t care to rush to anything much. And everyone’s fine with that.

Relaxed attitudes and friendly people abound here on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, away from the more luxurious tourist destinations. You won’t find golf courses or marinas with expensive yachts. People are down to earth, with a nice mix of Caribbean expats and natives. It’s cheap too, generally offering great value for money.

There’s also the option to be a little more active, from hitting the hiking trails in the Cahuita National Park to exploring the famously beautiful coral reefs near the shore. The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge isn’t far either, just down the coast in Mazanillo, boasting some of the region’s most impressive white sands.

Lush tropical vegetation gives way to stunning beaches, and if you’re lucky, leatherback and sea turtles can be spotted shoring up to nest. Manatees, dolphins and tropical fish await snorkelers and divers. And those venturing along the hiking trails here, might be rewarded with a glimpse of a tapir, hiding in the shady forests.

I took a couple of days to explore, but it wasn’t difficult to fall into the relaxed pace of life here, which, if anything, is contagious. The atmosphere is a little bohemian but not edgy or in any way unsafe — just people who like an unstressed way of life. Walking on the beaches, wandering the small markets, mixing with locals and dropping in for a beer in the evening, shooting the breeze until closing time wanders around again.

PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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