The Grand Tour of Central America

Updated: Dec 28, 2020


The ruined Cathedral in Old Managua

Once again I have had the pleasure of travelling through all 6 Spanish-speaking countries of Central America.

On this Travelsphere trip I was met by 17 enthusiastic visitors from England, Scotland and Wales.

While I have come to know the region well, each trip is different with its own adventures and events.


Beginning (as always) in Panama, we flew into the isthmus country’s Toucuman Airport, south of the famous canal and therefore technically in South America.

We stayed right by the pacific entrance / exit to the canal, near the Balboa Yacht Club. It is always fascinating to watch the world’s economy pass under the ‘Bridge of the Americas.’

Shinny, modern Panama in the distance. The America's tropical Switzerland.

Shinny, modern Panama in the distance. The America’s tropical Switzerland.

Panama is always hot and in one full day we managed to visit the canal itself, as well as old Panama City and the ruins of the initial Spanish settlement. Panama is the crossroad of the world. Its story is central to that of the so-called Colombian exchange and it, of course, now transits a huge percentage of the world’s economy.

Modern day Panama feels stable and clean, but as the ultimate economic nexus, it remains a major centre of smuggling – particularly from South America.

For more details on Panama, click here.

Costa Rica

Although I would love to travel overland to Costa Rica, flying makes more sense for this substantial itinerary. The flight from Panama to San Jose only takes 70 minutes and offers beautiful views of both the Pacific and Atlantic!

The landing into Costa Rica was one of the bumpiest of my life due to a serious storm front blowing in from the Atlantic / Caribbean coast.

Driving through the city of Alajuela (where Intel had maintained its major Central American operations), we climbed up to 2500 meters to visit the Poas volcano. Often misty, the Atlantic storm system brought heavy rain and totally obscured any views.

Yet the storm that stole the view later rewarded us with one of the most beautiful rainbows I have ever seen!


The most magnificent rainbow I have ever seen, looking back towards the Poas volcano in Costa Rica’s coffee region

Costa Rica’s central valley is protected from the Atlantic’s heavy rain and the Pacific’s dry, making it perfectly fertile for grazing and coffee plantations. After an interesting coffee tour, we negotiated heavy traffic into San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital and largest city.

After a quick overnight in an excellent hotel, our planned two-hour drive down to the Caribbean lowlands was interrupted by a landslide. The main road was closed and we detoured for four hours. Although long, the drive was both wet and interesting.

We were rewarded with sloths and dart frogs! Click here.


Here we are travelling through the canals of the rain forest to Tortuguero.

Eventually reaching Tortugero Park by boat, the tropical weather cooperated perfectly by clearing nicely whenever we went looking for animals. The heavy rains fell when we were under cover!

Travelling north to Arenal, we enjoyed an excellent presentation about cacao (chocolate) plants and stayed yet again in an excellent hotel. The following morning we went on a two hour walk across many suspension bridges before heading to the Nicaraguan border.

Here is an additional link to Costa Rica.


Zip Line

Zipping over a volcanic caldero in Managua

I love leading these slightly more adventurous tours and generally the travellers are experienced.

Nicaragua is a country recovering from years of trauma, but is stabilizing. Nevertheless, the boarder is time-consuming and requires bribes to expedite the process. All very troubling. Moreover, the border we crossed has recently been in the news because of the Cuban migrants being stopped on their journey north.

We made it to Granada right around dark. As always the city is hot, interesting and fun. I do tire of colonial architecture after a while, but Granada, with the mighty lake and volcanoes close by is really a gem.

On the following morning’s tour, we took a horse-drawn carriage ride, as well as a boat trip on the lake and finally a short walking tour. Perfect.

Moving on through Nicaragua, we visited volcanoes (and saw Masaya puffing) and visited Managua – Nicaragua’s tragic capital. The city may not be worth an overnight, but certainly it deserves a visit. As always we took the opportunity to zip-line over a caldera.

And onto Leon. Its massive cathedral is among the largest anywhere in the Americas and the city’s heat is equally impressive. Or oppressive. From Leon, we carried onto a very nice hotel in Chinandego, near Nicaragua’s main port.

The following morning the adventures really began! Due principally to security concerns in Honduras, the company made the decision to cross the Gulf of Fonseca to La Union, El Salvador, by boat.While I am willing to drive through southern Honduras, I think this is a better option in the current political environment.

I had made this journey before and thoroughly enjoyed the voyage.

On this occasion, the Nicaraguan Navy delayed our departure due to high winds. We improvised a surprisingly good lunch, drank cold beer and waited. Here is the Nicaragua blog I wrote about the Zika ‘debate.’

When were were permitted to leave, the water was a little choppy 😉 …. effectively two hours later we all arrived safely, but entirely drenched!

At least we were afforded beautiful volcanic views before night fell. We arrived to San Miguel, El Salvador around 7pm.

Click here for more about Nicaragua.

El Salvador


El Salvador Blog.

On our full day in El Salvador, we drove clear across the centre of the country and wound into the northern, colonial hills. This area was rebel territory for many years, but is now clean, friendly and much more stable.

The Town of Suchitoto is a sparklingly clean architectural gem and despite the extreme 36 degree heat, everyone fell in love with the area.

Moving south, but climbing up several hundred meters, we drove to San Salvador, the country’s capital and largest city. The centre is rather dirty, chaotic and unsafe. Fancy a visit?

Nevertheless, while there, it is a ‘must’ see. We visited the tomb of Monseigneur Oscar Arnulfo Romero. As a religious leader he argued the church should advocate for human rights. In 1980 he was killed by the military.

We even saw bullet holes dating back to the 1979 student massacre.

Days such as these highlight the extreme contrasts throughout this region (and much of the world). In only one day, we saw too much litter, beautiful landscapes, an appealing colonial community and a capital city gradually recovering from war, corruption and a shocking distribution of wealth.

From our excellent hotel in the wealthy part of the city, it was only a two hour drive, through the rest of El Salvador to the border with Guatemala.

The Mayan World


Tikal – the great Mayan Capital.

The Mayan people are spread throughout Guatemala, southern Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.

In Guatemala, however they constitute roughly half of the population and this is why I prefer the term archaeological site rather than ruin. 

Here is a similar story from Peru.

Crossing from El Salvador into Guatemala is surprisingly efficient and we drive for 1.5 hours across a mostly mestizo coffee-producing region, before arriving to the Honduran border.

Honduras is very complicated these days, but fortunately the town of the Copan – famous for its magnificent Mayan site – is safe and accessible. We all love the day and night there and on this trip the town’s central plaza was alive with a fundamentalist revival.

Here is a more serious Honduras blog.

Turning back to Guatemala, we travelled north into lush, green country towards Peten, Guatemala’s sparcely-populated, Yucatan province.

En route we saw the largest stelae of the the mayan world at the site of Quirigua. We also crossed the Rio Dulce and saw the border with little Belize.

For two nights we stayed in a beautiful jungle hotel and spent a full day at magnificent Tikal. I think that is as visually impressive and Machu Picchu, Monte Alban and the Pyramids of Egypt.

From Peten we flew south the Guatemala’s nosy and polluted capital before driving to the most beautiful lake in the world – Lake Atitlan. The volcanic environment is spectacular, however I find visitors are even more thrilled to see the Mayan population living daily life, in their own languages and wearing their clothes. After 500 years of colonization and horrific wars, it is incredible to see how those cultures have survived and, to some extent, thrived.

Beautiful Antigua in the shadow of Agua and Fuego volcanos

Beautiful Antigua in the shadow of Agua and Fuego volcanos

Finally we visited La Antigua Guatemala. The countries old capital. Often rocked by earthquakes (located as it is by huge volcanoes), the city maintains a 17th century Spanish feel.

For more on Guatemala, click here.

This Grand Tour of Central America is an excellent tour. 18 days is a long trip, but it at least touches six countries and transitions from economic (Panama) to environmental (Costa Rica) to Colonial (Nicaragua / El Salvador) and into cultural (Mayan). Each country has its own story and the history is not always happy, but Central America deserves a place as a major global destination.

If interested: This is the tour (I’ll be going back in November)

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