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Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestions

Discussion area for peaks outside of the USA.
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Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestions

Postby wildlobo71 » Wed Nov 14, 2012 9:06 am

Okay, it's time for me to spread my wings and get out to do something different. That all starts this coming week, Thanksgiving week, when I'll be off to climb Pico de Orizaba. But I am already setting my sights on more distant peaks. I am itching to get somewhere in Central America - I've been doing lots of back and forth research on the following three countries: Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There are several TRs around for many of the peaks in this country, but nothing too fresh so if all you are going to do is route me to a TR, I've probably seen it. So, my 2-cent analysis:

Nicaragua has lots of volcanos, many still active. Travel is less organized, from my understanding; less developed - meaning fewer travel amenities, less chance of getting away with little to no Spanish speaking skills, but costs are relatively lower... Using a guide group like Quetzaltrekkers here averages about $30 per 2-day trek, including food.

Guatemala has many of the highest peaks, including the highest (Volcan Tajamulco @ 13,845'; Volcan Tacana @ 13,343'; Volcan Acatenango @ 13,041')... Travel is better organized than Nicaragua; still less developed (same issues as Nicaragua above) and costs are also relatively low. Online reports of Tajamulco recommend taking Quetzaltrekkers on this 2-day trip, which is about a $50 fee, including food and shelter.

Costa Rica has 3 peaks over 12,000'; is way more "Americanized" but runs a bit higher priced.

My initial gut reaction is to aim for Costa Rica first; get the experience for travelling down there under my belt... then go back for more. The risk taker in me (shut up to all the people who know me on this board!) says try something a little bit more out of the normal... Nicaragua or Guatemala...

What are your experiences with travelling to these locations (better still if you've climbed, too, but that is secondary...)? Any advice is appreciated.

EDIT - As far as I know, I am planning on this being a solo trip.
Last edited by wildlobo71 on Wed Nov 14, 2012 9:43 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby Upstate Hiker » Wed Nov 14, 2012 9:24 am

Skip Costa Rica and start studying Spanish like a mad man. You will thank me later.

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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby captainp » Wed Nov 14, 2012 9:33 am

+1. Costa Rica is overrated. If you are interested in something a little more adventurous, Guatemala and Nicaragua are a good bet.

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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby jblyth » Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:03 am

Costa Rica is incredible once you get away from the touristy areas, and even they can be pretty awesome. But, if I went back again CR would be last on my list for the area.

I spent several months backpacking in Central America a few years back, I'll shoot you a pm later with some ideas. How long do you have for your trip?

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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby Scott P » Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:06 am

I have been to Central America many times and it is always a pleasure to go there. Because there is so much that could be said, here is a general summary of my impressions of each country which you might find useful to narrow down the list. I haven’t been to Belize yet, but it is on the list.

Nicaragua is statistically the 2nd safest country in the Americas (after Canada) and is a wonderful place to visit. The part with the normally climbed volcanoes tends to be less green than Costa Rica, but is still very scenic. Travel is rougher (as in comfortable buses, etc.) here than it is in Costa Rica. Wildlife is still abundant in some areas, less visible than others (such as Costa Rica). It doesn’t have the Mayan ruins to the extent of Guatemala, but there are many other historic sites.

Guatemala is nice with big volcanoes, Lake Atitlan, great hikes, very cultural (the most in Central America), and with fantastic ruins. Wildlife isn’t as visible and in your face as it is in places like Costa Rica. Crime rates are high, but I’ve never had a problem and most other people don’t either. It’s a hiking paradise.

Costa Rica is more “Americanized” as you mention, but it still has plenty of off the beaten tracks that are as wild as in any of the other countries in South America. Yes, there are expensive things to do, but the off the beaten track areas are still very cheap (we were paying $3 for hotels in 2004). There is lots of visible wildlife and because there are so many guided trips available, you are sure to see it.

Honduras is my favorite in Central America. It is Costa Rica without the crowds. The area around Pico Bonito is by far the most scenic I’ve seen in Central America and one of the most spectacular places on earth. Crime rates are high in the big cities, but again I’ve never had a problem and few travelers do. It is second to Costa Rica in terms of visible wildlife. It is missing the active volcanoes of places like Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala though.

El Salvador is an enigma. It’s the most developed and industrialized country in Central America, but few people from the US know much about it. It does have a high crime rate in San Salvador and Liberia, but the country side tends to be very safe. We came overland via Honduras. Overall, I found it to be the friendliest country in Central America. When you cross the border into most countries in Central America, you stand in line for customs, they collect their fee, stamp your passport and you hurry off. In El Salvador, the customs officials collect no fee; they shake your hand, give you a free map and warmly welcome you to their country. El Salvador is the most artistic as well. Because of deforestation, wildlife isn’t as visible as it is in the other countries. Still, there are many beautiful places.

Panama is a strange mix of all of the above. Minus the Mayan ruins farther north.

Recommendations:

All countries in Central America have some very scenic areas.

If you are short on time, pick Costa Rica. Because infrastructure and tours are well set up, you can see a lot of things in a short time period.

If you have a little more time and want a combination of scenery, off the beaten track places, and wildlife, pick Honduras, which overall is the most beautiful of the countries (though it’s missing the active volcanoes).

If you want to see ruins, climb some big volcanoes and cultural scenes, pick Guatemala. Travel is also slower there than say Costa Rica, but because many of the attractions are close together it’s still reasonable in a short amount of time.

Nicaragua has a good combination of everything, but takes more time and patience than say, Costa Rica. Still, it is one of my favorite places to visit and very safe. It has lots of variety, but the attractions are more spread out. If you can only visit a small area and are short on time, pick Granada and Lake Nicaragua.

I love El Salvador, but it is more of a place to do in combination with Southern Guatemala and Honduras rather than a destination.

Panama is getting far from Mexico, but is a strange combination of all of the above. It’s had to generalize at all. There are some wonderful areas, but I would tend to do it in combination with Costa Rica and as part of an extended trip. Wait until you have time to explore as the area around Panama City isn’t the best part.
Last edited by Scott P on Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:07 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby wildlobo71 » Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:07 am

jblyth17 wrote:Costa Rica is incredible once you get away from the touristy areas, and even they can be pretty awesome. But, if I went back again CR would be last on my list for the area.

I spent several months backpacking in Central America a few years back, I'll shoot you a pm later with some ideas. How long do you have for your trip?


No idea... looking to plan the trip(s), then work the schedule... I have plenty of vacation time available.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby Scott P » Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:15 am

No idea... looking to plan the trip(s), then work the schedule... I have plenty of vacation time available.


If you have "plenty of time available", it won't be that hard to visit more than one country. Three weeks is enough to combine at least two countries, though in any of those countries you can spend many months exploring. You won't have to pick just one area if you have the time.

Honduras/Guatamala make a good combination and you can literally see just about everything Central America has to offer (volcanoes, jungle scenery, ruins, culture, peaks, etc.). Nicaragua/Costa Rica makes a good combination as well. I'd recommend at least three weeks to combine those countries though as there is so much to see. If you have less than three weeks, stick to a smaller general area. In two weeks, you could still (for example) combine the Granada Nicaragua area with Costa Rica or Honduras with Copan and the part of Guatamala around there.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby Monster5 » Wed Nov 14, 2012 12:26 pm

I'm rather partial to Panama. I've sailed up and down Central American coast visiting each of the countries over the course of several summers and Panama remains my favorite, along with the sheltered bays between Puerto Escondito and La Paz, Baja. It could be because I don't like coffee or resorts.

Yes, the area around Panama City lacks charm as Scott mentioned, but the Darien, San Blas Islands, and the Portobelo area are fantastic places to explore. The Darien is rugged, adventurous, remote, and peculiarly lacking in roads (the missing link in the Pan-American highway). It is known to have drug runners, so a bit of caution is advised. The San Blas Islands are populated by the Kunas, a friendly and colorful sort living (displaced) in huts on white sand, palm-filled islands with dugout canoes being their primary mode of island hopping and fresh lobster, fish, and molas their primary trade. There is one island with the remains of a rich retreat that is uninhabited due to a rampant, imported population of monkeys. Naturally, the scuba and diving opportunities are world class with a variety of reefs to explore. We spent some time living in the highland jungles assisting a local (semi-crazy) man flirt with hushed glimpses of panthers - I believe he was later featured in NatGeo. There are a number of touristy attractions in the works (canopy zip-line tours), but they are uncrowded and personable. Spanish forts and cannons surround a number of bays and are interesting to explore and opine on naval battles between ghost admirals and privateers, the remains of which are readily apparent. Best of all, the population is friendly to US citizens due to the Canal, of which they are prideful.

Rambling reminiscence aside, I guess the other countries provide the quick attractions, smoking volcanoes, coffee plantations, and indeed their own charms, but Panama is an area that requires a bit of an investment.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby wildlobo71 » Wed Nov 14, 2012 6:26 pm

Fletch wrote:Monster is spot on about Panama. Carribean side is fun too and David is a nice little town to jump start an expedition. But if you're looking to 'climb' something, go to Guatemala.


Thanks Monster, and Fletch... I will consider Panama; but as my interests for this trip are diverse, I would still like to focus however long I take on at least 51% hiking and climbing... leaving the rest of the time for things I may find better information elsewhere, such as:

I've posted to the forum at www.sailnet.com, under my user screen name of "wildlobo71", about the merits of sailing around Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and now Panama.

I've posted to the forum at www.boardreader.com/tp/Zipline.htm, under my user screen name of "wildlobo71", asking about thrilling zip-lining options within each country.

I've posted to the forum at www.mariahcostarica.com, under my user screen name of "SurfNTurf", asking about how best to hit on the local women in the bars after hiking, sailing, and zip-lining, without immediately coming across as a john.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby mountain_man » Wed Nov 14, 2012 6:47 pm

I've actually hiked with Quetzaltrekkers in Guatemala. I support them, as a portion of the money goes to helping at risk youth. My friends and I hiked Pico de Zunil (I think that was the name) a dormant volcano towering over Lake Atitlan. It was an incredible 2 day trip up a relatively dry slope, and then down through a cloud forest which ended at a hot springs. This was in 2009, but I'd imagine they're pretty similar to what they were when I went. You can stay in a hostel they are based out of, and it's really nice to know some Spanish, but most of the guides are volunteers from the U.S., so if you can get across the country to their headquarters, you'll be fine. I can give you more details of the trip if you like.
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby taylorzs » Wed Nov 14, 2012 9:51 pm

Guatemala is awesome. El Salvador is as well. I lived in Guatemala for six weeks and traveled a little in El Salvador and Mexico as well. I do not think you could go wrong, any place you end up picking but I can tell you a little about the places I hung out at.
Guatemala first;
-you will fly into Guatemala City most likely, get out as quickly as possible. I did not dally there, I do not think most do. It is a big industrial, polluted city.
-Antigua is a beautiful city. I was based out of there for most of my trip. Awesome, old colonial style city, with cobblestone streets, a lot of culture, and good food. This city is known for its Spanish schools and gringo population (not in a bad way though). This is not a tourist town like Tamarino, Costa Rico or something like that. It is a very special place with a European kind of feel to it. It is also a good staging ground to Volcan Acatango, Pacaya, Fuego, etc... Acatanango is a fun hike, similar in difficulty to hiking an easier Colorado 14er.
I have fond memories of roasting marshmellows over magma on Volcan Pacaya that ran by in front of me, hiking to the summit of Acatenango on my birthday in some nasty, cold weather, and gorging myself on food at some of the local restaurants.
-Monterrico is a nice little beach town. Huge, dramatic waves that break in weird ways that make surfing almost impossible but are 10-20 feet high. I had some of the best seafood I have ever eaten in my life there. I remember listening to waves break on the beach from the rooftop deck of a happening nightclub in the evening with friends. It was great.
Guatemala is very affordable as well.
It is also not without its downsides as well. It can be a dangerous place. Towards the end of my trip down there Pacaya erupted and dumped black ash into Guatemala City shutting down the airport for more than a week, stranding us there. The next day Tropical Storm Agatha hit, and I was traveling between Lake Atitlan (an amazing place) and Antigua (also amazing) through the rural, poor, and gorgeous Guatemalan Highlands when a landslide struck us (caused by tropical storm Agatha). I was stranded on the side of the road for almost two days with almost no food, no contact with the outside world, and a gang of Guatemalans that tried to rob me twice in a night while we were sleeping on the side of the road. It was one of the more scary experiences of my life. Many people died over the course of the two natural disasters. I am not trying to deter you here, just thought I would throw in a word of caution amongst all the positive, amazing experiences I had in my time there. I am probably lucky to be alive after everything that happened over that two days.
El Salvador was beautiful too, although I spent less time there. I remember great seafood, awesome surf breaks on the west coast, rugged jungle wilderness, and a sketchy border crossing between Guatemala and El Salvador (that is a story unto itself).
Good luck with your trip and PM me if you have any questions about traveling down there! Zach
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Re: Looking for Central America Hiking Advice and Suggestion

Postby cheeseburglar » Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:12 pm

Some great advice about hiking/mountain walking in Central America.
But why bother getting off the plane when in another couple hours you could be in Ecuador, Bolivia or Peru? I've been to C.A. and S.A., and S.A. is much more interesting, culturally and geographically.
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