Backpacking the Pan-American Highway

Cradled by Caribbean rhythms and South American style, Central America is a hot spot of cultural richness and flabbergasting nature. There are dramatic volcanoes, vast lakes, and resplendent rainforests offering the backdrop to charming colonial townships. Here the indigenous, Spanish, and civil war influences of history spill out onto the streets.

Central America lends its own twist to the Latin vibe.

Day 1 & 2: Guatemala City to Antigua, Guatemala

This early in your adventure you can take it easy and wander the mazy, cobbled streets of Antigua, which is nestled between three domineering volcanoes and famed for its iconic Santa Catalina arch.

You should also take the opportunity to admire the baroque features of Cathedral de Santiago and the gardens of La Merced monastery. From there it’s a manageable trek to Cerro de la Cruz for panoramic views of the terracotta rooftop and crumbling Spanish architecture in the shade of Volcan Agua.

The trek works up a fair appetite, and steaming pots of Guatemalan platos tipicos might look even more tempting than usual. La Cuevita de Los Urquizu is a great place to recharge of fresh tortillas, creamy avocados, and bubbling stews.

That should give you the energy to marvel at Mayan crafts in Mercado de Artisanias. When it starts to get dark take yourself to Parque Central, where you can wind down for the day to the tune of a mariachi band, the patter of the plaza’s fountain, and the clatter of horse and carriages.

Day 3: San Salvador, El Salvador

If you can manage it, arrive at dusk. Here you’ll find the best nightlife in Central America. Fuel up on traditional stuffed cornmeal pancake pupusas at a pupuseria shack, then head over to Plaza Volcan on the slopes of Quetzaltepec volcano for sweeping views of the chaotic traffic and reverberating, fiesta-ridden streets below.

And then it’s party time! Get into the carnival spirit by soaking in the atmosphere around the monument at Plaza El Salvador del Mundo, before bar-hopping along Paseo El Carmen for San Salvador’s eclectic mix of rhythms from reggae to rock and salsa beats.

Day 4 & 5: Leon, Nicaragua

You might be feeling a bit fatigued by this point. A banana leaf-wrapped tamales at El Sesteo, right in the glow of Cathedral Leon, is the perfect way to feel refreshed.

If you’re up early, take a wander through the fruit and craft markets along Calle Central Ruben Dario – they get heaving later on. From there you can appreciate the taut politics of the country by navigating the colourful graffiti murals of Nicaraguan revolutionaries along Avenida Central.

By then you’ll probably have worked up an appetite. Taquezal is a good spot to try some pollo a la naranja, and sets you up nicely to slip into the Revolution Museum. The grand colonial building is packed with fascinating civil war memorabilia.

If you have time in the evening, Leon’s community spills into Parque Central for evening salsa and games. If you need to be on your way, you could travel like a local and take the chaotic ‘chicken bus’ down to Granada.

Day 6 & 7: Granada, Nicaragua

Things can get a bit hectic here. It might be best just to delve in. Awaken your senses with a morning dash through fruit and garment vendors at the Mercado Municipal, dodging the speeding horse and carts as they pass.

The serene Café de las Sonrisas is an interesting place to breakfast, as it’s staffed by hearing-impaired workers. It’s time to test your sign language abilities!

Nearby is the bell tower Iglesia de La Merced, which offers a birds-eye view of the vibrantly coloured architecture of Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city. This is a great way to view the prominent yellow Cathedral.

By now you’ve earned some relaxation time. Venture down the bustling cobbles of Calle La Calzada to the breezy shores of Lake Nicaragua, maybe stopped on the way to marvel at the intensity of a local baseball match. Then you can chill out in the Garden Café’s courtyard hammock with a sumptuous lime, coconut, and pineapple smoothie.

Day 8, 9 &10: Monteverde, Costa Rica

The Hanging Bridges of Monteverde Cloud Rainforest float above the verdant canopy, offering the perfect opportunity to spot lackadaisical sloths.

They’ll also lead you to a tree house restaurant where you can stock up on Costa Rican casado in preparation for an afternoon of adrenaline fuelled zip-lining through the rainforest.

There are 19 platforms, ripping past the tallest trees and soaring above the canopy. The cloudy milieu will make you lose all sense of orientation. After that you can calm your heartbeat by navigating the damp and dense biodiversity of the forest floor of the nearby Santa Elena Rainforest.

Day 11, 12 & 13: Panama City

Sadly your Central American backpacking adventure is coming to an end. But there’s still plenty to see! The rickety architecture of Casco Viejo is a world heritage site, and feels like a microcosm of the region: narrow alleyways with children kicking footballs against the wall, Panamanian men playing cards, complete with Panama hats.

To save time grab a taxi down to the Miraflores Locks Observation Center to welcome in looming vessels as they traverse the country’s iconic canal. Indulge in the area’s seafood specialties, before walking along the palm-tree flanked Calzada road for harbor-side views of the Bridge of the Americas and the metropolis skylines of the San Francisco district.

It’s the perfect place to reflect back on your hectic Central American adventure.


TejTej Parikh is a freelance writer specialising in travel and international development. He has written articles for the Guardian, various NGOs and social think-tanks. His travels have taken him to the Middle East, Colombia and the Himalayas, amongst others, and have been inspired by his passion for ‘off the beaten track’ travel, and learning about different cultures. His unique prose is to illuminate conventional thought and societal trends by drawing on his experiences travelling. This is showcased in his blog where he raises debates on issues from Facebook to the economics of happiness.

If you need any more information about Central America just get in touch with Tej via his blog tejparikh90.

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