Central America: First Stop – Panama
I wanted to travel around in Central America with the first stop in Panama.
As a child, I watched a children’s Tv Serie and one of the characters always happily emphasizes: “Oh wie schön ist Panama“ which can be translated to “Oh how beautiful is Panama”.
I needed a vacation from the 4 marathons I ran in 4 weeks. The last one ended in New York, and then I went back to my travel vibes to visit Panama, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
For the next weeks, I ended up hiking approximately 12 volcanoes in those countries (almost every second day I would go for a hike). The country of Panama is well-known for its Panam Canal. But, I was surprised to see that it was also home to many American fast food franchises.
Slow Pace in Panama City
As I travel to Panama, I enjoyed the slow pace of life again in contrast to frantic New York City. Panama City is quite a modern city, but the humidity hit me hard, and I barely could move much in the heat and humidity. After the must-visit of the Panama Canal (which I highly recommend due to its importance and how it was built, especially if you are a history buff) I did a night walk in Casco Viejo with its little bars and restaurants.
I did not feel very safe walking in the evening in some areas of the city, but you always need to keep your eyes open, wherever you travel, anyway.
Panama Viejo, has historical bearings, was very dull, but I think it was simply because I was lacking information about the ancient time. Staring into the rain at the ruins was not very much of fun, if you know what I mean. At the end of the day, I cooled off with a stroll along the Amador Causeway.
Another fun fact: I tried many Asian restaurants around the world out of Asia, but in Panama, all of them were bad of quality. Even the owners were Asians, but somehow it felt like they forgot how to cook once they migrated to Panama.
To the Highlands – Boquete
To escape the heat of the capital, I made my way to the Highlands in Panama, a city where most Americans are going to live after their retirement. A city called Boquete in the mountains. I enjoyed very much my time hiking in Boquete and having a few coffee tours, so I decided to stay there for a whole week.
Boquete is a small town, and you can explore it all on foot. I encountered some retired Americans living in Panama, but I was unable to connect with them in any way. It felt like, even though they lived in Panama, they created their own community. And from my observation, I felt that they didn’t make much, if any, effort to understand the culture and people’s traditions of the country they moved to.
Probably my highlight in Panama was hiking Volcan Baru, the highest volcano in Central America. With a little bit of luck, you will have a view of the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean from the summit on clear days. I also hiked by myself, the Los Tres Cascadas . A hike as the name implies to three different beautiful waterfalls. The other hike I did another day in the same area was the Quetzal trail. (Quetzal national bird of Panama?)
Just one piece of advice: don’t do the hikes in the late afternoon as I did, I thought I learned my lesson from a dangerous hike I did in South Africa, but again I started the hike too late.
Bocas del Toro
As you might know, I love diving. I wanted to explore the underwater playgrounds of the island Isla Colon. By the way most backpackers usually settle down in Bocas del Toro. I imagined myself diving and cruising through some Mangrove swamps.
The great thing is that you could explore the island with a bike, but during monsoon season it is not fun to bike in the mud. I somehow didn’t connect much with the vibes of Bocas del Toro and left earlier than planned.
Anton de Valle
When I left Bocas del Toro I decided to travel to my final destination in Panama. Anton de Valle was the right choice for me, and of course, I ended up on another hike: The sleeping Indian girl, or in Spanish “La India Dorma”.
I stayed at an incredible place and made immediate friends with the owner and his family. Also, I met Kristina, Yasha, and Osho while staying at Casa di Pietra. They are originally from the US, but decided to build up a life in Panama. Kristina is building her own mud house and doing sustainable projects which shall help the community they live in.
As I have partner up with Perfect Corp. and Cyberlink I would like to underline the waste problems I encounter on my hikes or natural sites.
On all my hikes, I tried to pick up all the garbage on the trip. To my frustration, I realized that even bringing two big bags, it is difficult to pick it all up.
What Makes Me happy
Having a great ending in this town and meeting wonderful people, I realized again how much I have loved and missed traveling so freely. It is true, to keep my mental health sane I need to let my spirit be free in terms of exploration and learning more from this world, new places, and meeting new people etc. I embrace this kind of life, and I start to realize that I can’t live happily without adventurous exploration and trying to understand more of this world.
Next Stop in Central America: El Salvador
El Salvador – Enchanting Country and Insider Tip
I have met so many fellow backpackers in Central America who were afraid to visit El Salvador, hence the country is often missed by many travelers.
I enjoyed every bit of my adventures and travels while I was in this little country. Finally, food wise, I also enjoyed it more than Panama. Another reason was my reunion with Mau.
As you know I met Mau in Bariloche, Argentina 5 years ago, and we have been traveling to four different continents and experienced tons of adventures together.
Starting our adventure in San Salvador, I read on the internet I shall avoid the neighborhood in the eastern part of town. But as you know we like walking around and landed somehow in the eastern part of the capital. One could feel it was not a great location to roam around. So if you ever visit San Salvador, try to avoid the eastern part of the city.
But don’t miss exploring the center around Plaza Barrio and shopping and eating fresh fruits in the Centro Market. We stayed at the nightspot Zona Rosa which was quite safe, even to stroll in the evening. Lots of shopping options and nearby the café scene of Colonia Escalon. If you can visit the center of the Iglesia del Rosario and Jardin Botanico, there’s not much more to it. I would stay just one day in the capital and then leave.
Another option I also highly recommend is to visit El Boqueron National Park which is not too far from the city to see a non-active volcano crater but also to get some fresh air.
Suchito aka Suchi
Suchi is the cultural capital city of El Salvador. Markets, cobbled stone streets, great hikes. And it is just 50 km far away from San Salvador. Not only my love for the country grew, but also the amount of my daily devouring of pupusas was just getting abnormal.
If you don’t know what Pupusas are, it is El Salvador’s most notable fish. It is a flatbread mostly made from corn flour and sometimes made from rice flour stuffed with cheese or chicharron (grounded pork meat) or refried beans. I ate only the vegetarian options with ayote or spinach.
Yuca frita is another popular dish, even though I don’t like to eat deep-fried cassava. I also got hooked on the typical Salvadoran breakfast, which usually comprises eggs, beans, plantain, rice, and chorizo (although I didn’t eat that).
Ever since I visited Suchi, I knew I liked this country. Sometimes you just need to feel if it’s rather the right place for you or not, El Salvador is one of them. And I bet in 10-15 years it will be full of backpackers.
Rutas de las Flores in Central America
There is a specific time of the year when the flowers on Ruta de las Flores are blooming, I didn’t come at the right season but still had a chance to see flowers.
The Towns I visited on these routes were the following: Juayua (very difficult to pronounce), Apaneca, Nahuizalco, Salcoatitán, and Concepción de Ataco. In each of these towns, there are weekly food festivals, you can take a coffee tour, zip lining, go hiking and so do many more activities.
My highlight on the whole Rutas de las Flores was the hike of the 7 Cascadas, as originally indicated, it was a hike to 7 different waterfalls. If you go you need a guide. Without the guide, I wouldn’t know where to find the other waterfalls after the third one. Some parts were challenging as you climbed up on slippery rocks at the waterfall. Also, it is impossible to stay dry, so be prepared to get wet.
On our way to Santa Ana, we visited Tazumal. A pre-Columbian Maya archeological site in Chalchuapa. An architectural complex within the larger area of the ancient Mesoamerican city of Chalchuapa, in western El Salvador. We thought they could do better conservation work, and didn’t understand much about this archeological site without any guided information.
Santa Ana and Parque Nacional Los Volcanes
How could I ever resist a good hike to two sister volcanos? Close to the city of Santa Ana, which we both didn’t enjoy much, I convinced Mau to do both volcanos in one day. Even though our host at the hostel told us it’s impossible to do it in one day. Challenge accepted!
The volcanic peaks are named Izalco and Santa Ana. In the morning we went to Santa Ana, apparently, you can’t go without a tour guide to Santa Ana, but we still met people on the way who did it by themselves. The trail is easy actually, you don’t need a guide. We took much longer than usual, since our guided group took time to climb the summit.
After that, I decided to climb Izalco quickly, but Mau refused to go because it would get dark within a few hours. Instead, he waited for me in a coffee shop nearby while I managed to climb it in a short time. On the way, I met some park rangers who wanted to stop me.
I had to beg them to let me go, and after 10 minutes they were convinced I could hike it before dawn. I finished it as expected very fast and passed the rangers on my way back, joining Mau for a beautiful sunset at the coffee shop. What a wonderful day!
Lago de Coatepeque
The next day I went to Lago de Coatepeque and had lunch at a restaurant called Aquetzalli where I met this old man and owner Pepino. I still feel so guilty until today I couldn’t see him again. Why? A crazy hiker decided that she desperately wants to hike around the whole lake. She eventually did it and couldn’t finish before it got dark. Then she arrived by evening time in the restaurant and everybody told her it was too late to catch a bus back to Santa Ana.
So worried about what to do, she started hitchhiking back to Santa Ana until old man Pepino took her and drove her back to Santa Ana. She told him she would visit him tomorrow again, but she couldn’t make it the next day. Probably, until the end of her day, she will feel guilty. I don’t think he is taking it as seriously as how I feel, but it is quite embarrassing for me not to be able to give him a big hug to help me out of my misery.
Thank you, Pepino, please if anyone would ever visit that Restaurant in El Salvador, say thank you from me to great Pepino! You won’t miss this man, he has such a great and chilled vibe like probably no one else in El Salvador.
Options of Beaches
Because Mau and I rather spent our time hiking in El Salvador, we made the conscious decision not to visit the beach sides in Central America. If you have more time, consider visiting the following beaches because it’s worth it. As you can imagine, it is less crowded than Costa Rica and Nicaragua. For a surfer, it must be paradise to have few people in the lines up, as El Salvador is still an insider tip for backpackers.
Costa del Sol: Many of El Salvador’s luxury travelers head to Costa del Sol. This beach has beige sand, the banks are lined with oceanfront villas and vacation rentals. The region includes three distinct beaches: Costa del Sol, San Marcelino, and Los Blancos.
Playa el Zonte: El Zonte is popular with international surfers. If you are on a surf trip you might consider this secluded beach. The waves are much less crowded than on other El Salvador beaches like El Tunco and El Sunzal.
Goodbye, El Salvador – Next Stop in Central America: Nicaragua
I felt like El Salvador is still a secret tip to many travelers. I highly recommend everyone to visit before it gets too touristy. Next, I traveled to Nicaragua, my highlight in Central America: endless hiking adventures of Nicaraguan volcanoes.
Nicaragua – Hiking Volcanoes in Central America
Itinerary of Nicaragua
- Visit Managua – get in but then get out with a bus to Granada
- Granada: Hiking Volcán Masaya, Mombacho, and visiting Laguna de Apoyo
- Bus to San Jorge and then taking a ferry to Ometepe
- Ometepe: A half-day hike to San Ramon Waterfall. Another hike to the top of Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas. Renting a bicycle and exploring the island. Swim in Ojo de Agua and visit Playa Santo Domingo. If I am interested, I might explore another coffee farm on Ometepe Island.
- A ferry to the mainland then taking a bus to Managua transferring to Leon
- Explore the history and humid city of Leon and soak in the revolutionary street art and murals with old cathedrals. Hiking around Leon and sand boarding.
- Matagalpa to escape the humidity and heat of Leon (I didn’t plan to travel to Matagalpa, but because of a Swiss couple I met on Ometepe I decided traveling to that mountainous town).
The capital Managua
I arrived in Managua and I skipped immediately the capital. I learned over the past few years to be more flexible on my travels and listen to my gut feeling. Because I felt not feel very comfortable in and around Managua, I went straight to Granada, a city on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.
Welcome to Granada
As soon as I arrived in Granada, I felt I liked this little colonial town suited me. Walking in the humid heat with my backpack, I kind of had a hard time coping with the heat and knew Granada would be challenging in terms of walking around the whole day, like I usually do.
The city is well known for its Spanish colonial landmarks that have survived many pirate invasions in the past. The best way to explore the city is by foot and walking around the main plaza. If you like architecture like I do, visit the neoclassical facade of the Cathedral of Granada, originally from the 16th century.
Of course, I wanted to go on a hike. There are two options: Volcan Masaya and Volcan Mombacho, the latter one I preferred, whereas many tourists would visit Masaya to witness the active lava of the volcano.
As mentioned, Volcan Masaya is the most active volcano in the region and therefore very popular for tourists. The volcano has an active lava lake, but since my visit to Mount Nyiragongo in DRC, it is very difficult not to compare any lava lakes around the world with this natural wonder of the planet. Masaya has erupted at least multiple times in the past.
I visited in the evening to see the active lava lake. Due to bad weather conditions, I barely saw anything.
Volcan Mombacho is steep. Very steep. At the entrance, the lady asked me if I wouldn’t like to take transportation until the top, but I refused. I ran all those marathons this year, and now I definitely wouldn’t take a truck to get me up there. Besides me hiking up in total sweat, there were two other guys from France who hiked up the volcano. The road is super easy, you can’t miss it, and it is all on the tarmac.
As competitive as I was I went very fast, the two guys tried to catch up with me, but my competitive nature just pushed it in under 2 hours to the top (they told me at the entrance it will take a few hours to get there). At the top, you can choose to do some trail hikes, but only with a guide. I did the Puma trail (Sendero el Puma) and the two other guys returned. Thinking about it, you could do this trail by yourself instead of paying for the guide if you are an experienced hiker. But unfortunately, there is no option of hiking by yourself and I like to support the locals anyways.
It is worth it and if you have lots of energy just do it, it’s going to be fun!
Banana Burger in Granada
I know this is very random, but in Granada city, there is a vegan burger place where you can try a banana burger. I know it sounds weird, but the family who runs the business is so sweet and their burgers are delightfully delicious, it’s worth a try even if you’re not vegan. Just go to the central market and ask where the banana burger location is. It’s quite well-known.
Ometepe Island- A small paradise in Central America
It took me a long time to get to Ometepe Island. From Granada take an early morning bus to San Jorge and from there you can get the ferry to Ometepe Island. I arrived in the afternoon in Ometepe. From the ferry you could even spot the twin volcanoes of the island: In the north the active Concepción Volcano. And in the South the Maderas Volcano. Later it turned out both hikes were my favorites on this island.
I randomly picked to stay at Finca Mystica, which was the best choice I made on this trip in Central America. I booked myself a dorm but stayed there by myself since it was COVID-time and there were a few couples who all stayed in private rooms. The place is magical, they were next to the ocean sunset view and had a beautiful garden and terrace. Every evening we had delicious community dinner, and you could chat with the other backpackers. There I befriended a Swiss couple: Meret and Raphael.
As soon as I arrived, I decided to walk 11 km to my stay in order to explore thehumid island. I always do it, I usually don’t care how far my place is as long as there is daylight and I feel good and safe. It took a while to get to my stay, but I walked probably about a third of the hourglass-shaped island.
The moment I arrived, I knew it was the perfect place to stay. I joined last minute the community dinner, where I met Meret and Raphael. In the following, we all three decided to hike Maderas the next morning.
Maderas Volcano and Concepción Volcano
The next day, I hiked Maderas Volcano, which was exhausting. You get the jungle feeling, it was wet and the elevation was quite high. I just remembered the hike was very muddy and I kind of enjoyed every bit even though when I got to the top, it had no view and it was completely covered with clouds.
The opposite terrain was Concepción Volcano, which I did the next day after Maderas. Everyone told me I am crazy, but I felt quite energetic as usual. Concepción is an active stratovolcano and it was easier than Maderas. The terrain of rocks made it much easier to climb than the muddy hike of Maderas. Most people wouldn’t agree I guess, it seems like Concepción is steeper, but as mentioned, it was easier and I enjoyed hiking fast. On the top, I was unlucky again and didn’t get to have a view due to the cloudy weather. Take a jacket with you, it is very cold up there.
My the final days on Ometepe Island, I just wanted to soak in the beauty of extraordinary nature and hiked to San Ramon Waterfall.
I took a bicycle and went for a short dip into Ojo de Agua, a natural swimming hole of volcanic-origin water. It felt like I could stay on Ometepe Island for months, escaping almost the reality and worries of this world.
Magical, this paradisiacal island!
From Paradise to Leon
Leon was very hot and humid, more than Grenada. Even though I got more used to humidity, the weather was unpleasant. León is the political, industrial, and intellectual center of Nicaragua and was home to Nicaragua’s most noteworthy poets like Rubén Darío and Alfonso Cortés.
For the first few days, I was just walking around the city to see the rooftop of the Cathedral de León, where you can have a view of the city. I also went to a church called Iglesia San Juan Bautista de Sutiaba, it is one of the first religious buildings in the city, later it was bombed during the revolution in 1979. The next days I wanted to go hiking again and chose these volcanos to hike: Telica Volcano is one of the country’s most active volcanoes. The last violent volcano eruption was in 1948. It has a rocky and well-marked path, you can even camp there in the evening to watch the sunset.
Nicaragua volcano boarding is an unforgettable adventure travel activity I had to do while I was traveling in Central America. As the youngest volcano, Cerro Negro in Nicaragua, it offers the opportunity to do volcano boarding. I hiked up Cerro Negro to slide down on a board of the active volcano. With a need for speed, I experienced my first volcano boarding spectacle.
Everywhere in the town of Leon they offered Cerro Negro Tours, I don’t know even if you could do it by yourself due to the equipment you need for the volcano boarding: I wore a yellow onesie, thick gloves, goggles, and a multi-use gaiter. To take most of my time in Nicaragua, I combined the Nicaragua volcano boarding experience with a hike to El Hoyo and Asososca Volcano and Lagoon.
The Cerro Negro, El Hoyo, and Asososca tour is a whole day activity. This involves volcano boarding at Cerro Negro in the morning and then hiking to El Hoyo Volcano. Another option would be a sunset or sunrise tour from the summit of El Hoyo. At the summit of the volcano, there’s a massive hole, which is what El Hoyo is famous for, plus an incredible steaming fumarole.
Last Volcano in Central America: San Cristobal Volcano Hike
The last volcano hike in Central America was the best, yet challenging. Probably it is one of my most memorable hikes on that trip…
At 1,745 meters, San Cristobal is the highest volcano in Nicaragua and very steep to climb. The steepness is not as challenging as the terrain you have to climb up. Nearing the end and summit, the trail consists exclusively of soft volcanic ash.
I needed gloves to grab the falling rocks and volcanic ash, which meant a few steps forward and a few slides back down while ascending San Cristobal. As a reward, I could watch the volcanic activity from the San Cristobal crater. Certainly, this is one of the best Nicaraguan volcanoes to hike and the most difficult one on my round trip in Central America in my opinion.
Bye Bye, Central America
I hope this article gives you the inspiration to travel around Central America and have the greatest adventure. As I am always excited to travel, I am very much looking forward to traveling Central America in the future again!