Top ten Central American experiences – off the beaten track vs Instagram perfect

Instagram-perfection or off-the-beaten track? Top Destinations in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Belize compared

In December 2018 my four month Central America backpacking trip began, taking in five countries.

A loop from El Salvador into Honduras, on to Guatemala, across the Mexico border and back through Belize makes for a great Central America travel itinerary.

During my travels I enjoy getting away from the crowds and going a bit off the beaten path. But of course we all love an Instagram moment too.

Here are my top ten Central America highlights, two for each country, one quite simple yet super enjoyable and one Instagram perfect.

El Salvador – Tecapa Crater Lake, Alegria vs surfing in El Tunco

Nearly all backpackers I met on my trip were excited to hang out in El Tunco and try the infamous Sunzal Point Break. The sunsets here are picture perfect every time, making for an awesome Instagram post.

I spent a week here at the very end of my trip, staying in a simple yet welcoming guesthouse just minutes from the beach. Every evening I sat on the rocks just before sunset with a cold beer and watched the last few surfers catching waves as the sun dropped below the horizon.

Away from the beach there’s plenty more to explore in El Salvador.  One of these was a day trip from the southern town of San Miguel to pretty hilltop Alegria. Tecapo volcano looms high above with Laguna Alegria forming an crater lake with hues of yellow and green from its sulphur-rich waters.

The lake is a twenty minute pleasant walk from the town and you might find local homemade delicacies for sale outside people’s homes as you pass. The town itself is great for browsing,  set around a small square packed full of stalls selling local crafts. It also offers a fantastic mirador with views stretching far into the interior of El Salvador.

Honduras – a day hike through coffee region La Campa and Gracias vs  diving on the Bay Islands

My trip through Honduras took me from Tegucigalpa, the capital city, to Copan Ruinas via Lago Yojoa, then up to Gracias and La Campa, before crossing the border into Guatemala. My highlight was definitely the coffee region surrounding Gracias where I enjoyed a wonderful day hike.

La Campa is a tiny village high above Gracias  along a bumpy unpaved road. I caught the bus there and had a nice roam around, admiring the stunning gorge, the neat artisan houses and the towering town church. Then, instead of catching the bus back down, I walked instead. I followed the meandering bus route, meeting very little traffic along the dusty roads. It was wonderful to be out in the countryside away from people and vehicles.

I didn’t actually get to the Bay Islands on my trip, but I met many backpackers who said it was fantastic for budget diving. If you want to do your PADI course at a budget rate then the Honduras Bay Islands are the place to be!  Browsing photos of the gorgeous islands I’m confident in saying they’d be a perfect Instagram shot.

Guatemala – Cooking classes and village life in Nebaj vs Lago Atitlan

My best memory of Guatemala is making it all the way to Nebaj after taking three buses on a day long journey from Chichicastenango. High up in the mountains at 1900m it’s not a place overflowing with backpackers. I found a pleasant hotel off the main square and went along to El Descanso Cafe where I arranged a cooking class to try my hand at making boxboles, a local dish.

The next morning a small girl led me through a maze of streets before depositing me outside Maria’s house and shyly waving goodbye. A fun morning followed of me practising my terrible Spanish small talk on Maria, while wrapping cornmeal in squash leaves ready to be boiled and served with salsa and spices.

Compare this peaceful experience to the backpacker hangout of Lake Atitlan, a scenic crater lake in the Guatemala highlands. It’s absolutely stunning and I still remember my first glimpse of the lake as the bus descended the steep mountain road. I’d just spent two days in Guatemala City and was excited to be spending the next two weeks volunteering with a local family. Everywhere I looked was an Instagram perfect post. Ringed by three volcanoes towering above a moody looking lake there were dramatic vistas at every turn.

Mexico – Cenote bicycle ride from Valladolid vs Blue Lagoon

The southern provinces of Chiapas and Yucatan Peninsula were far more touristy than I was imagining, full of US citizens over on short vacations. I was hopping through quite quickly on my way to Belize so I didn’t get much opportunity to go off the beaten track.

My favourite day was hiring a bicycle in Valladolid and cycling the quiet village lanes to visit three cenotes. Cenotes are natural sinkholes deep in the ground, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock, creating underground caverns where you can swim. They are found all across this region. There’s an entry fee for each one but it’s worth seeing a few as they’re all different.

Lago Bacalar or the Blue Lagoon, also known as the Lake of Seven Colours, is full of Instagram moments. The seven colours are all shades of blue and are simply breathtaking. There’s an array of ways to see them. Choose to kayak across the lake, take a boat trip from the main pier or enjoy a walk along the lakeside from town to Cenote Cocalitos. Here’s where the infamous swings in the lake are. It’s full of parents trying to get that perfect Insta shot of their child!

Belize – St Herman’s Blue Hole National Park vs Amergris and Cay Caulker

Belize is full of adventures,from caves to Mayan ruins to snorkelling or diving on picture perfect cayes. However my favourite day trip was to St Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, which is one of several national parks in Belize. I saw only one other visitor there the whole day!

The bus stops right outside the park entrance and the information office. I started with the circular trail which took me high into the treetops. There wasn’t much of a view but there plenty of mosquitos! I stopped by the cave, which is linked to the blue hole by an underground stream and followed a rock path 200m inside using my phone torch to guide the way. It’s possible to book caving tours with the park rangers and float back through on inner tubes. Later I had a refreshing swim in the 100m deep Blue Hole, part of a small cenote.

The cayes in Belize are very backpacker friendly, with the most popular being Caye Caulker due to lower accommodation prices. I stayed on Ambergris Caye, the next one along, although both offer similar snorkelling safaris and boat trips. Instagram opportunities abound from crystal clear water to delicious meals like the gigantic lobster burrito I enjoyed at a cafe. One of my favourite days was hiring a bicycle and cycling the sandy path along the edge of the caye until it disappeared into a mass of seagrass.

Travel is full of highlights but some of the best days are the simplest ones.

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