An ode to Central America | One place that you must see in each country
The proverbial ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ is turning into a reality. As I transition to understanding a new continent, Africa; I feel a deep longing for what I have left behind, Central America.
This region of Earth, Central America, is created by artists, painters and musicians themselves. The lush green wildlife refuges, national parks, the romance of breakfast at the Pacific Coast, lunch overlooking the yachts in the Atlantic Ocean and air as pure as driven snow. These memories stoke every nerve of music in the ears, of sight, smell, taste, and touch, sensations evoking nostalgia profound and incurable. Central America is loosely referred to the seven countries bracketed below Mexico and above Colombia. Bordering Mexico are Guatemala and Belize, followed by El Salvador and Honduras, juxtaposed. Going further south are, three countries one after the other, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and lastly Panama. Of these seven countries only Belize and El Salvador unfortunately do not enjoy coastlines of both the oceans, Pacific and Atlantic. Panama could rightly be called the gateway to South America.
They are seven different countries but after travelling to all of them, the tapestry of Central America appears a single woven fabric. It breathes like one prehistoric creature, diverse yet united in anatomy, abundant in colours and replete in beauty. The geography of the landscape goes through sudden changes every 100 kilometers, yet appear like various characteristics of a single individual. Sitting on the volcanic ring of fire, the two coasts of Pacific and Atlantic are within a proximity of couple of hours, hot water springs gushing out of so many sleeping volcanoes, lush green and blue cloud-forests, mangroves, backwaters, the gaping blue hole, coral reefs, black volcanic-sand beaches, the combination of it all makes it spellbinding surreal. They are beauty, femininity, machismo, grace, wilderness, maturity, youth, frivolity and grandeur, all packed in one, together making it one whole being.
You are not alone here. From the resplendent Quetzal to arc-beaked Toucan, the mythical Golden Toad to forests lit up with fireflies. You will spot true to their name Sloths and Howler Monkeys perched high on trees. Expect unannounced rains, dehydrating heat and spine crackling thunderstorms in a measure of a day.
I miss the natives of Central America the most.
The tens of hundreds of smiling strangers whom I would cross every day over so many years. This is unlike what I know about the continents that I have been to – North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. You know what I miss the most about them? Their singsong way of greeting every and anyone in sight, at any time of the day. Did you know that if you are eating in a public place, the Guatemaltecos (Guatemalans) greet you with, ‘Buen Provecho’. The phrase essentially communicates ‘enjoy your meal, eat well’, something similar to Bon Appétit in French. You don’t really have to know anyone to say it out loud. If you find someone grabbing their grub, you just say it with a smile. When in the elevators, whomever enters would greet everyone inside ‘Buenas Dias, or Buenas Tardes’, and everyone would respond as if in a rehearsed chorus, ‘Buenas Dias’ ! No matter how many times the elevator stops and how many people get in. Ticos (Costa Ricans) greet with a phrase ‘Pura Vida’, meaning Pure Life. It is noteworthy how this is considered cool-enough to say this, by people across ages, from punk teenagers to abuelas (grandmas), from gold chain sporting dudes to cyclists. Pure life, they would raise their hand and make a ‘V’ for victory gesture at times. Pure Life, could be the catch phrase of entire Central America, neatly summing the spirit of the region in two words.
I miss the very thin waist line of Panama, traversing within two hours from The Pacific to The Atlantic. And how much does everyone run ! Every other week would be a marathon. There would always be participants. Better still, there would always be cheerleaders, whistlers and hooters encouraging those marathoners. If there is one place that you must visit, it would be Casco Vijeo. Hardly 15 minutes away from Panama City, visit the old part of Panama for the spectacular views of the Panamanian skyline, for restaurants of every cuisine, for the extremely popular bars that serve in house beers, and the cafes where you can lounge all day long. Dotted with museums and churches that tell the tale, the cobbled streets are easily walk-able. You are bound to get hooked on to the lazy mornings and vibrant nightlife of Casco Viejo.
Other places to visit in Panama would most definitely be the Miralflores Locks of the Panama Canal, one of the sprawling malls in Panama City, the free zone that shares its borders with Costa Rica for the duty free stuff and hiking one of the many easy trails in national parks.
The hot and handsome cyclists of Costa Rica in the long and winding roads of a hill or a valley, going uphill or tumbling downhill would give you health goals for a lifetime. The countless waterfalls, hidden beaches, thriving with life mangroves, the goofy Toucans and the resplendent Quetzals. If there is one place that you must visit in Costa Rica it would be its rain forests. Especially one that has a waterfall as a reward in the end. Pack your swim suit and hike up the Volcan Tenerio, called ‘the one waterfall if you must visit’ by Lonely Planet. Get rewarded with Rio Celeste, the blue waterfall and the blue-er river. To enter it, you will have to descend from you hike. Nearby there are thermal waters, a Rio Rojo (red river) and of course the shade laden beautiful but strenuous hike. Costa Rica is ‘impressionante’, to say the least with a solid itinerary that can keep you glued for two months at least.
The quaint little El Salvador, sits of the ring of fire which is a chain of volcanoes. So quaint it is, that once an immigration officer of a certain country refused to believe there is a country called El Salvador. It took some map-pointing and subtle eye-rolling to convince him of existence of such a place. The greenery of trees and whiteness of clouds insist on making you breathe deeper and longer. Hike up to one of the many craters that are wide open, that still spew some chemical laden gases. Let it transport you to decades ago when these balding hills were once shrouded with trees and screeching with sounds of the animals around. Enjoy the vistas and miradores on your way up to the volcano. Pretty please visit Volcan Boqueron in Parque Nacional El Boqueron if you want to absorb the bliss that is El Salvador. Thick clouds, snaking roads, vertigo inducing wood-boards built for panoramic miradores, green so thick and dark it will heal your sight. The most interesting part – hike the rim of the crater when you are here!
The vastness of Nicaraguan landscape and the seemingly empty roads that lead to its capital are humbling. The arresting, twin peaks of the conjoint volcanoes, Ometepe, in the vast Lake Nicaragua is a bucket list destination for sure. Simple yet powerful destination will spoil you for any other volcano/lake/crater destination from around the world. At dusk or dawn, catch the sunset or sunrise and try to get the picture with the twin peaks volcanoes and a faint distant moon in one frame. (Tip: This is only possible when you are on the jetty that takes you to and fro Ometepe during dawn or dusk.) Lake Nicaragua looks like a beach will remind you that it is a lake when you step in the quite waters and surprisingly your eyes don’t sting and itch. The misleadingly appearing small islands have much to do. Do not missing visiting Ojos de Agua, a natural spring pool which has a rope suspended from a tree near the banks. Stand in a queue and take turns to jump in the pool screaming your lungs out.
Just a boat ride here is good to witness nature being majestic and be humbled. The underwater storyteller and explorer Jacques Cousteau had called this place one of the top ten destinations in the world to dive. The Great Blue Sink Hole on the Lighthouse atoll is a tricky dive even for professionals. This quaint little country, strong on its feet is preserving a water wonderland. This is what the country is most popular for. National Parks and Mayan ruins will keep you on your toes. This is a piece of heaven that conquistadors had vied on for centuries. France, Britain, Honduras, Guatemala all had tried to stake a claim on it. Erstwhile British Honduras, English will get you by easily at any of the tourist places. Try to experience the extensive coastline with yachts if you still have the time (and the moolah).
I know what you are thinking, Roatan in the Bay Islands? Of course they are beautiful and the unofficial diving headquarters of Central America. But the beauty of the Honduran landscape would come out in a long drive by the coast. Rent a car and slow drive to most of the places you can, the Copan ruins, San Pedro Sula, Comayagua, or Tegucigalpa. You will witness the ocean on the one side and cliffs on the other, vast plateaus, water flirting with sunlight and changing to all shades of unimaginable blue. Stop at very few roadside restaurants in the villages for coffee and an unplanned break. If you are driving in from Guatemala, be prepared for numerous spontaneous checks by the border police. Keep your papers handy and luggage unlocked. Expect to be asked to step out of the vehicle so that they can cross check your vehicle for prohibited drugs. There is nothing to worry if your permissions and paper work is sorted.
Guatemala is a painter’s muse that has been brought alive by the powers that be. With clouds rolling in your balcony of the sixth floor house in Zone 14 of Guatemala City, this place is rightly called the country of eternal spring. The many lakes and the stillness around accentuates the quite. Those freckles and crowfeet on some smiling Mayan faces tell a thousands stories in one look. The sometimes-active, sometimes-dormant, fire gurgling and ash spewing volcanoes hold Antigua in their palms. Antigua ! The pebbled streets, with secret bakeries and fresh Guatemalan coffee tempting you inside with its trail of aroma. The powerhouses of Tikal, where you feel you still sense the energy, the vibrations, the chants and the faith.
Try as much, you would not be able to stop yourself from falling head over heals for Panahachel. Sure there is Tikal and Antigua, stealing the spotlight always. But if you want a steroidal dose of intense Guatemalan and Mayan community, spend a weekend here, eat the super healthy breakfast to your heart’s content, make life plans by the Lago Atitlan’s lake side sipping authentic, fresh-brewed Guatemalan coffee, in the foot hills of volcanoes that will inspire you to think lofty and stay humble.
Sometimes you yearn for a memory because of what you were/became in that place. Other times you miss a place because you just want to hold on to those memories for a little bit longer. Before they fade away, and are just brought up in functional conversations, through pictures and acquaintances. Fragrances and flavours, sights and sounds stir up sensations that are deep buried as nostalgia.
The serious hangover of Central America makes me want to make foolish plans like lovers make foolish promises. Maybe throwing a dice on the map of Central America and forever settling in whichever country the dice stops rolling on. Scroll through the pictures above and let me know in the comments section below if you can help me pick one of the countries.