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Ecotourism, beautiful beaches, ancient history and fascinating cities — it’s all here. Meet the friendly people and explore the stunning scenery of these top Central American destinations
Costa Rica: where ecology comes to life
Costa Rica is one of the most diverse countries on earth when it comes to nature. Seemingly just a narrow strip between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, but from the miles of pristine beaches that define the coastlines to its inland of mountains, volcanoes, jungles and mangrove swamps, it’s home to around 250 species of mammal, over 400 species of reptiles and amphibians, nearly 900 species of bird, and 250,000 types of insect.
Unforgettable experiences for every traveler
No matter what you’re looking for and who you are — solo traveler, adventure seeker, honeymooning couple, family — there will be something for you. One of the most popular things to do is to explore the country with a local guide, and there are scores of companies that can help you with this. Costa Ricans are rightly proud of their country and want to show it off, but in a way that shows its true nature. Many provide a mixture of well-known tourist spots and off-the-beaten-track adventures, so ask around for the best scuba diving spots, most secluded beaches, and top hiking trails.
Over a quarter of Costa Rica is national park, and with such biodiversity on display, you’d be a fool not to take a trip into the jungles to see the animals that call it home. Sloths hang from the branches, monkeys leap about, parrots and toucans soar above, and you might even spot predators such as jaguars or crocodiles. If you’re a hardcore hiker, there are trails of up to ten days in the mountains and forests, or if you don’t feel like hurling yourself into the wilderness with such wild abandon, there are routes through parts of the jungle on treetop walkways and hanging bridges.
The capital city, San José, manages the tricky job of being the country’s only major hub relatively well. It’s dense and fairly modern, but still has a good arts scene and some interesting museums, green areas such as the huge La Sabana Park, the nightlife is great, and the locals are welcoming. Chances are this is where you’ll be arriving, so add a day or two in the city before you head out into the wild.
Nicaragua: an adventure in history
North of Costa Rica you’ll find Nicaragua, a storied nation with a bumpy recent history. Political unrest, dictatorship, occupation and fiscal crisis have all played their role, with the Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s and the Contra War of the 1980s still in the minds of many locals. Today, however, it has thrown its doors open to the wider world, and you’ll see every side to this amazing country when you’re there.
Tales from two cities
There are two cities that tell the country’s story best. Granada is a classic colonial city, founded in 1524 by Spanish conquistador Hernández de Córdoba, and its elegant buildings and rich cultural heritage tell of a historically important city that still feels that way. It managed to avoid much of the turmoil of the 1970s and ‘80s when the US-backed Contra group attempted to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government.
The same cannot be said of León, Granada’s historical rival and a proudly working-class cauldron of political ideas and unrest. Among the seemingly hundreds of churches, you’ll find battle scars from the wars, revolutionary murals and graffiti, monuments to thinkers, artists and poets, and a way of life that still contains a subtle satisfaction for more genial troublemaking. A large student population, a bouncing arts and music scene, and a city that comes even more to life when the sun goes down, means that among the occasionally crumbling brickwork and bullet holes, there’s a city that knows how to grab life by the scruff of the neck.
Incredible outdoor leisure opportunities
Outside the cities, it’s another of Central America’s top destinations for adventurous types. Surfing off the Nicaraguan coast is some of the best in the world, diving experiences include exploring underwater caves, and there are canoe trips through alligator-filled wetlands. Hire an off-road vehicle and head up into the mountains to the virtually unexplored corners of the country, a land of misty forests, cooperative farms on distant hillsides, volcanoes, jungles and so much more. For relaxing, choose between wild strips of shoreline backed by rainforest, or more accessible options involving beach bars, restaurants and the promise of having to do very little. Whatever you travel for, there’s a side to Nicaragua that’s just for you.
The Dominican Republic: merengue on the beach
Wherever you go in the Dominican Republic (or the DR as it’s often known), it’s merengue time. The national music streams out of the colmados (sort of corner stores that are a combination of shop and bar) and from the capital, Santo Domingo, to the villages and beach bars, it’s the language of the country.
A universal appeal
The DR shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti to the west, but unlike its financially and politically unstable neighbor, has embraced tourism like nowhere else in the region. Indeed, it’s the most-visited tourist destination in the Caribbean, and in many ways you can see why: beaches, high-end resorts, golf courses, top restaurants and bars, and that merengue-based nightlife is all very tempting, particularly with low-cost flights from cities across the US, Mexico, and further afield.
It’s not all cocktails on the beach, mind you. If you’re so tempted, you can head out on winding mountain bike trails, swim in clear blue lakes, or embark on week-long treks through the Cordillera Central, the island’s biggest mountain range. Depending on the season, there’s also the possibility to go whale-watching, and for a change of pace, head to a baseball game to see the DR’s young stars as they ply their trade, hoping some scout will set them on the road to riches and fame in the Major League.
Pristine beaches and sights steeped in history
The southwest of the country is the best area for the more undiscovered beaches or, as mentioned, there are plenty of all-inclusive resorts, many along the southeastern coast, but for a fabulous combination of both, spend a few days in Santo Domingo. Not only is the capital a treasure trove of history — its Zona Colonial is exactly what you think it is, a grand collection of houses, palaces, churches and defensive walls and forts — but contrast that with areas such as Santo Domingo Malecón, (ten kilometers of beach, boardwalk, bars and bedlam) and you’ll be dancing ‘til the sun comes up.
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