In Central America there’s a well established ‘Gringo’ trail for good reason. The Maya ruins, colonial cities and tropical coastline that make up the isthmus draw backpackers, holiday makers and expats from around the world.
For the most part, I’m an advocate of staying on or around the beaten path. Not just because there’s usually more infrastructure and market competition which makes life easier on a tight budget, but also because these places have developed because they are worth visiting.
I wouldn’t have skipped my time at Tikal for a moment, nor would I change the wonderful week I spent drinking cocktails on Samara’s beaches. Although surprisingly, there are some destinations in this small corner of the Americas where you can still accidentally lose the crowds. Here are my favourite Five:
1. Poptún, Guatemala
I lived for a month just outside Poptún and later, often struggled to explain exactly where it was. Almost exactly equidistant along the highway from Flores and Rio Dulce, this farming town is wonderfully unchanged by Guatemala’s tourism boom. While the town itself offers cheap fried chicken lunches and great second-hand Ropa Americana stores, the real adventures happen in the surrounding hills.
From the base of Finca Ixobel, there are several hiking trails such as Cerro Witz and El Pyramide on which I never encountered another person. I also took a guided tour of local Ixo cave; just one of many unexplored underground systems in the area. Add to that some local bathing pools and lots of birdlife, and I felt I’d found a pretty good all-round backpackers hideaway.
2. Juayúa, El Salvador
In a few years time Juayua, situated on the Ruta de las Flores, will be well-known. Right now though, it’s still enjoying that wonderful limbo between being completely off-grid and being overrun with visitors.
The town is steeped in a sombre history as one of the first in the area to be taken over by the country’s working classes in the early twentieth century. A justified uprising that led to the horrific peasant massacre by the government in 1932. Thousands of people, mostly of indigenous descent, were taken from their homes and shot in town squares and church grounds. However today, Juayúa looks brightly toward the future with its weekly food festival, colourful murals that tell its poignant stories and nearby hiking trails that take in coffee plantations and beautiful waterfalls.
As the tourism industry here develops, it will be important for visitors to be mindful of the atrocities that occurred within what is still a living generation.
3. Cahuita, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is still the only country in Central America where mass tourism has truly hit. Despite this, most people head straight for the adventure towns of La Fortuna, Monteverde or the west coast’s surfing beaches. Even those who venture to the Carribean side of the country tend to hotfoot it straight to Puerto Viejo, a large surfing town half an hour south of little Cahuita.
When I arrived (just before Christmas) accomodation was cheap and its stretches of beach were blissfully quiet. I also saw the benefit of having the free national park trail to myself most days, which meant I could spot aracaris, snakes and monkeys without groups of annoying humans gathering around!
4. San Ignacio, Belize
While the majority of holiday makers go to Belize’s Cayes to get their fishing and snorkelling fix, very few head inland to see what else this small country has to offer.
I spent a whole week in the small town of San Ignacio, only twenty minutes from the border with Guatemala. As well as being a base to explore two virtually unknown Maya ruin sites, the town also has adventure trips to nearby caves and mountain trails. One of my favourite activities was an afternoon spent making chocolate the traditional Maya way at Ajaw Chocolate.
5. Santa Catalina, Panama
My discovery of Santa Catalina was accidental. In looking for a spot to break up a journey south from Boquete to Panama City I stumbled upon the small coastal town on Google maps. With no direct buses servicing it and no free wifi connection, it really did feel like I’d escaped civilisation for a few days.
It also delivered my favourite snorkelling of the trip, with a day dropping into the ocean around Coiba Marine Reserve. After a day at sea there was nothing better than the cheap fried fish they served at one of only three little restaurants in the town. Don’t be fooled by the lazy lifestyle here though – on Sunday morning the local church service sounded more like a 90s rave!