Monday, January 21, 2013

Top Destinations in Central America

In response to Tripadvisor's somewhat unbalanced list of the top 'destinations' in Central America, here is my own, more reasoned selection. I have taken it as red that 'destination' implies a certain number of hotels and restaurants, plus a hub-like location for accessing other nearby sites and activities. 

1) La Antigua Guatemala: Well, of course...

2) Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico: Hippest place in the western hemisphere. 

3) San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: It is not unheard of for people to prefer this down-to-earth yet lively mountain town over La A

4) Panama City: A larger version of downtown Miami tacked on to a smaller version of Old Havana...with more than a hint of Vegas. What more could you want?

5) Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico: Somewhat over-tailored to affluent hippies (i.e. employees of New York magazines), you can't take away from it the best beach for thousands of miles.

6) Campeche, Campeche, Mexico: An under-visited fortified Spanish burgh staring into the beautiful Gulf sunset. A little low on evening activity, but plenty of Mayan interest points beyond the city limits.

7) Granada, Nicaragua: Emerging from neglect, this is Nicaragua's colonial showpiece, with its lovely Calzada leading to the shore of Lake Nicaragua.

8) Lake Atitlán, Guatemala: Panajachel is the Bohemian go-to destination on this most beautiful of lakes, but there are numerous other characterful villages along its shores.

9) Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico: The most elegant of Central America's big cities.

10) San Ignacio (Cayo), Belize: Grubby in itself, but an undoubted hub for perhaps the most rewarding eco-tourism opportunities in the region.

11) Livingston, Izabal, Guatemala: Guatemala's Garifuna enclave, and gateway to the Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal, perhaps the most stunning landscapes the country has to offer.

12) San José, Costa Rica: The most approachable of Central America's capital cities with a central core that can easily be explored on foot. The dining scene is not so bad either.

13) Placencia, Belize: Relentlessly gentrified over the past couple of decades, yet the veneer of first world sophistication is refreshingly thin in places. Best beach in Belize.

14) Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico: Access point to one of the greatest of all Mayan sites, plus the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Há.

15) Flores, Petén, Guatemala: Set on an island close to the shore of Lake Petén Itza, this is not just the kick-off point for Tikal, but also a delightful mini-destination in itself with an appealing, almost Mediterranean vibe.

16) Caye Caulker, Belize: An almost unavoidable backpacker destination right on the reef, offering some of the best and cheapest snorkelling and diving opportunities in CA.

17) Cahuita, Costa Rica: Laid-back and at least partially English-speaking, this Caribbean outpost features a protected beach lined by almond trees densely inhabited by capuchin monkeys.

18) Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico: The original state capital, and where one boards the boat to explore the majestic Sumidero canyon.

19) Cobán, Guatemala: A centre for coffee and more recently, stronger stimulants, the city offers a pleasant stop-off before the approach to Lanquin and Semuc Champey.

20) Quetzaltenango, Guatemala: 'Xela', the country's calmer second city; neo-classical architecture and a lively cultural scene.

Plus five other significant spots in the region which I have yet to visit, yet which I suspect might well have made it into the top 25...

  • Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico
  • Leon, Nicaragua, 
  • Bocas del Toro, Panama
  • Boquete, Panama
  • The Bay Islands, Honduras

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