Boasting some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, active volcanoes, and culturally diverse countries, Central America is a travelers dream! Central America is a region of Latin America located in the “tail end” of North America including all of the countries between Mexico and Colombia. Recently I spent three months backpacking around Central America and it truly was all that it was made out to be. In my time there I had so many unforgettable experiences that it is hard to choose my favorite – but I have finally managed to do so. These are my top 3 experiences in Central America, ones that any traveler should not miss!
My Top 3 Central America Experiences:
1. Hike the Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala
The Acatenango Volcano is an active volcano, but it has been dormant for several years. Surprisingly, the main attraction of hiking the Acatenango Volcano, is in fact, not Acatenango at all. The neighboring volcano called Fuego (meaning “fire” in Spanish) erupts every few minutes putting on a show for those with the best seats in the house on top of Acatenango. For me, this is an activity one cannot miss while visiting Central America.
About the Hike
The hike itself isn’t an easy feat, but the experience and views at the top are worth the aching legs. The hike is 4-6 hours (depending on your pace) of walking uphill on the first day. The remainder of that day is spent watching Fuego Volcano erupt from only 2 kilometers away. That night is spent around a campfire and then sleeping in a tent. In the morning, it is an early start to hike 1.5 hours more up to the summit of Acatenango for sunrise followed by an easy 2-3 hour downhill to the starting point of the hike.
The Acatennango Volcano hike is easily accessible from the touristic city of Antigua with a tour company. Some experienced individuals do attempt the hike without a guide, but this is not recommended as it is easy to get lost and freezing temperatures create dangerous situations. Several tour companies leave from Antigua daily and charge about $50 USD per person including transport to and from the base of the hike, food, and a guide. Just book in person when arriving in Antigua, there is no need to book in advance.
Other Important Tips
- Gloves, a beanie, and warm clothing are necessary. In fact, many tour providers will not take you on the hike without seeing that you have warm enough clothing. As most of Central America is warm, most people won’t have warm clothes handy. Don’t worry, there is a second hand clothing market in Antigua where you can buy these items for very cheap.
- Waterproof everything is also necessary. Store extra clothing in plastic bags and have a waterproof cover for your backpack. Bring a rain coat and/or rain poncho to wear as well. It is almost guaranteed that it will rain at some point and wet clothes mixed with below zero temperatures is not a good combination. For more information on backpacking essentials check out this article here!
- Pack extra snacks. Tour companies will say that they provide the food, and they will provide some, but the portions are just simply not enough. Bring some nuts and chocolate bars for snacks, trust me, you will be glad you did!
- If you are worried about your fitness level, then make sure to book with a tour company which already has the tents and mats setup on Acatenango. Thus, not requiring you to carry a tent and sleeping mat on your back the entire way up. Some companies do offer this, and some don’t, so shop around.
- Altitude sickness can be a problem for some people. Buy altitude sickness pills from a Pharmacy in Antigua before leaving on the hike just in case. Also, drink plenty of water and start the hike slowly to prevent getting altitude sickness later on.
Why is it so special?
Hiking the Acatenango was challenging, but it was an experience I will remember forever. I never expected to see an active volcano erupting right before my eyes over and over again during my trip to Central America. Lava was shooting up into the air and spilling down the sides of the volcano. The hike was hard, yes. But, the experience was one unlike anything else I had ever done in my life. Every single person on my tour group was in awe when we saw Fuego erupt for the first time, and then every time after that it remained to be just as exciting.
For a complete guide on the Acatenango Volcano hike click here!!
2. Visiting Baby Sloths in Costa Rica
For those a little less keen on adventure activities while in Central America, this is for you! Unless you have seen a baby sloth before, you will not fully understand how adorable these animals truly are. I saw them feeding from a bottle when I was visiting and it immediately stole my heart. But besides the baby sloths, the animal rescue center I went to also had a ton of other animals from owls, to monkeys, to snakes.
Where to go
I highly recommend heading to the town of Puerto Viejo on the Southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo is a beautiful beachside town with tons of different things to do for tourists which makes it a top destination in Central America.
There are tons of wild sloths around the area of Puerto Viejo and in the neighboring national park “Cahuita National Park.” A day trip to Cahuita National Park will give visitors the chance to see sloths in their own environment along with other animals. While I was there I also saw several howler monkeys, a viper snake, a raccoon, and a tarantula.
However, to get up close to the animals and see baby sloths then you will have to go to the animal rescue center in Puerto Viejo. The rescue center is called the “Jaguar Rescue Center.” The have had jaguars in the center before but it isn’t all that common, the name is more eluding to the fact that they rescue endangered species.
About the Jaguar Rescue Center
The Jaguar Rescue Center is a non-profit organization which saves animals in the local area who need help. Many of the sloths are hurt by power lines and found almost lifeless on the ground when they come to the center. Some animals were illegally kept as pets and need to be trained on how to fend for themselves in the wild, and some were injured by hunters or farmers protecting their crops. Every animal in the center has its own unique story, and learning about each and every one of them is fascinating.
A visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center costs only $20 USD and includes a tour guide. The guide takes a small group around the grounds showing off certain animals and telling about their stories. You won’t get to touch or feed any of the animals (including the baby sloths) for the safety and protection of the animals, but getting to watch them so closely is amazing in itself.
Visiting the Jaguar Rescue Center is a great way to give to the community while visiting Central America.
Other Important Tips
- Visitors can only enter the Jaguar Rescue Center on a tour. Public tours run Monday-Saturday at 9:30am and 11:30am, but you can contact the center to schedule a private tour.
- The Rescue Center is located a few kilometers outside the center of Puerto Viejo. Taxi’s are available but are expensive. Consider renting a bike for a couple dollars and riding there. It only takes 30 minutes and is a nice ride on paved roads with lush jungle surround. There are also some great beaches to top at along the way!
- Bring some money to tip the tour guide! Tour guides are volunteers and rely on tips for their living expenses.
3. Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
Leon, Nicaragua is the only place in the world where visitors have the chance to slide down an active volcano on a board! This is an activity for an adrenaline junkie traveling in Central America. From personal experience, looking over the edge of the volcano where you are supposed to board down, is frightening – it looks steep and dangerous! However, once I actually started going I had complete control over my speed and felt completely safe.
What is Volcano Boarding?
Think of snowboarding, except for snow there is black volcanic sand! Some advanced snowboarders or skateboarders attempt this activity standing on the board like you would a snowboard, but it is challenging and not advised for everyone. The majority of people sit on their bums on the board with their legs out to use as breaks.
Volcano Boarding is a guided trip with a tour guide. The company will provide a complete suit, glasses, gloves, and sometimes a helmet (expect to pay more for the helmet.)
Once you are picked up, there is a short 30 minute drive to the volcano. The guide will take you hiking up the volcano which will take about 45 minutes. From the hike there are spectacular views of lush green jungle and other nearby volcanoes.
At the top of the volcano there is a chance to see lava in one spot. Also, by pushing away some of the sand and placing your hand on the ground you will feel the heat from the lava beneath you. It is a pretty cool experience.
Next came the thrilling (or dare I say “scary”) part! The guide gives a safety briefing as the group gears up. Although I was nervous after seeing the steep hill, it ended up being a blast and not scary at all! The guide taught me how to control my speed and I started the slide off at a turtle pace, and once I got comfortable I allowed myself to speed up a bit.
After the group is done sliding it is time to return to Leon.
Is it safe?
Not 100%, there have been many broken bones in the past. That being said, I believe if you listen to their instructions and go fairly slow to start it would be challenging to injure yourself. Most injuries are from daredevils attempting speeds they shouldn’t without previous experience, or not listening to how to ride the board safely.
Other Important Tips
- Book the trip in Leon. Several different companies offer the experience and prices vary a lot, but so does the inclusions. Some companies include food and water, some include extra safety gear like helmets, and some include two chances to slide down the volcano. It’s well worth it to shop around.
- Wear clothes and shoes that are okay to get dirty. The suit will cover most of you but that ashy sand seems to get everywhere! Also, bring wet wipes for cleaning up your face afterwards!
- Consider wearing a bandanna or something wrapped around your mouth and nose. This will prevent breathing in the dust of the sand as you board down.
Central America was a place I had such a fun time travelling. Before I went, I had no idea I would be experiencing all of these unique things, but I did – and it was awesome! Like I said, there were so many great memories that it was hard for me to pick just three!
If you have any questions or have something to add please comment below! I would love to hear from you!
About the Author
Bailey is an enthusiastic traveler always searching for her next unique adventure. She quit her job a year and a half ago and had been busy backpacking around the world since then. Her next destination? New Zealand, where Bailey plans on living out of a van with her partner Daniel. They blog about their experiences on their website, Destinationless Travel. You can also follow them on Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook!