There Really Should Be More Hikes Here: Central American Wandering
As pastimes go hiking seems to be an unpopular one in much of Central America, asking a local about going on a recreational ramble will illicit pretty much the same bewilderment as asking to French kiss his dog, or questioning the gastronomic appeal of eating rice and beans three times a day. Actually the latter may incite a lynching. Walking is a practical necessity for most people, which is evidenced by the vast number of trails, frustratingly for your avid hiker they know where they are going so there is no need to mark any of them. Literature is pretty sparse when it comes to the subject, Jonathan J. Wunrow’s excellent book High Points-A climber’s Guide to Central America, covers finding your way to the top of the highest peaks in each country but beyond that you are left with your ‘Rough Planet’ guidebook telling you that such and such place is a nice spot for a walk but little practical advice.
The truth is that there are several great hikes in the region, “But is it safe?” I hear you ask. Central America conjures images of war, poverty, corruption, and drug lords. These perceptions at least in some part have legitimate origins, the history of Central America is a tumultuous one, but for most part it is just that, history.
Not since the 80’s has any government had close ties to drug trafficking (Honduras and Panama were the most prolific culprits) and while drugs bound for the US still flow through these countries, drug use is relatively low. The last war in the region came to an end in 1990 when Dictator General Manuel Noriega was disposed of as a result of “Operation Just Cause”. Corruption, talk to the young people of these countries they will still talk about issues with government but most believe change is around the corner. Finally poverty, undoubtedly there is still poverty, however 3 (Costa Rica, Panama and Belize) of the 7 countries are rated as high on the human development scale, while the other 4 are rated as medium, suggesting a strong foundation for continual improvement across the region.
Having said all of that, it is still important to check on current safety of an area with a local source. We ended up on a guided tour with armed police escort in Guatemala after a group of hikers were held up at gun point and had their packs and shoes stolen days prior to our planned hike. This is not the norm, that trail had not had an incident of theft in 5 years, it was just unfortunate timing.
The following is a snap shot of hikes we did over a three month period during a Pan American road trip. It is by no means comprehensive but hopefully it may whet your appetite.
Guatemala is a honey hole for hikers, with good transport links trailheads across the country can be reached easily and inexpensively. Within easy striking distance of Quetzaltenango (or more commonly known as Xela, its indigenous name) Volcan Tajumulco, Santa Maria and Lake Chicobal offer excellent hiking opportunities. Standing just shy of 14,000ft Tajumulco is the highest point in Central America, the hike starts at the village of San Sebastian and first follows a dirt road to the trail. The trail head is identified by a dilapidated rust pocked white sign from there the trail is obvious. Continuing to a radio transmitter station used during the civil war to broadcast anti-government propaganda, it then branches to the right and up to the summit, where the vistas are incredible. Santa Maria has the potential to be a very special hike, it’s a classic cone shaped volcano, its neighbouring volcano Santiaguito is the true star of the show as it is still regularly spewing lava. You can camp overnight here and watch the show. Route finding on this volcano can be tricky, for a description see JFDIoverlands description. The last walk in this area is especially uncommon as it is signed, Lake Chicobal, is a sacred site for the Mam Mayans, and is closed to the public in May for ceremonial rituals. The trail leads steeply to the craters edge where you get your first glimpse of the lake. A series of steps then leads you to the edge of the lake, a walk around the lakes reveals several sites with both Mayan and Christian significance.
Also in Guatemala Volcan San Pedro and Acatenango are great hikes. From the lofty peak of San Pedro you are afforded stunning views over the massive crater lake, Atitlan. Acatenango was the hike mentioned in relation to safety, we went in a group with a police escort, camping below the summit to watch Fuego the neighbouring volcano spew lava hundreds of feet into the air. The following morning it was a short hike to the summit, so long as there are no safety concerns this would have made a great unguided hike. Finally in Guatemala I feel I should mention the Mayan ruins of Tikal, not your typical hike, but the complex is vast and in a morning exploring jungle we covered 20km only bumping into other tourists at a few main attractions, while seeing and hearing all manner of wildlife.
El Salvador, sadly we only spent a few days in this beautiful little country, we did pop up Cerro Verde. Situated in the National Park of the same name, is one of two hikes available. Now if you are looking for a bit of solitude, this is not for you, hikers are required to go with a guide ($4) and there are only two departures a day. We were there two days after Christmas and seemed to have been joined by half the population of El Salvador, walking off their Christmas dinners. Yes I know I said Central Americans don’t hike, this seems to be an odd exception. The way the locals surged up the trail jockeying for position only to flop down on the grass minutes later was most entertaining, especially as the process of surge, flop, pant was repeated all the way the summit. The hike itself wasn’t terribly long (6 miles) and was an out and back on pretty well maintained trails. The payoff was peering into the crater of Cerro Verde and admiring its turquoise sulphur spewing crater lake.
Honduras’s tourist infra structure has a long way to go to catch up to its neighbours, we attempted a few hikes, most not terribly noteworthy, La Tigra NP however is an exception. Situated close to Tegucigalpa, the beautiful park sees few visitors, it is easy to spend a few days losing yourself in the lush jungle admiring the numerous waterfalls.
Panama, the town of Boquete is a staging point for several hikes, you can walk to waterfalls, following the Quebrada La Mina trail or you could opt to walk up Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama. We opted for the latter, located 13 miles outside of town we decided to take a shuttle to the trail head rather than begin our hike at 9pm, the shuttle can be booked at the hostel Mamallena in the main square. We were dropped off at midnight to begin our ascent, the aim being to make it to the summit for sunrise. The trail is easy to follow, even on a dark night, needless to say there wasn’t much to look at on the way up other than some stars. Relentlessly uphill, as you would expect from a volcano we summited an hour before sunrise and proceeded to freeze our asses off waiting for the bloody sun to get its arse out of bed. When it did finally arrive the colours were spectacular. The views on the knee knackering decent were topnotch, upon exiting the park we payed our park entry fee to the ranger who was wisely at home asleep when we started the hike. Then it was just a matter of waiting for a bus back into town.
Nicaragua, our first hike was Cerro Negro for the sole purpose of sliding down it on what the tour company described as a volcano board. It was rather good fun and the park had several other hiking options that didn’t require hoofing a sled up a volcano. Volcan Masaya ended up being less of a hike and more of a wander, it is one of the biggest natural polluters in the world, as you watch the sulphurous clouds emitted from its crater it is important to keep track of wind direction so as not to become engulfed in it. Isle Ometepe offers lots of hiking options the two standouts being Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepcion. We decided to tackle Maderas, a guide is required on these trails, but at $25 it was pretty reasonably priced. The hike was a wet muddy slog, and sadly the top was covered in thick cloud, but it was fun and on a good day the views would have been awesome.
Belize, we didn’t visit Belize on this trip so can’t really give a very informed opinion of the hiking hot spots. However from a previous trip we had a great time exploring and hiking around the Jaguar National Park. The Actun Tunichil Muknal is less a hike and more a guided caving expedition, eventually leading to an underground Mayan burial site, this unique day trip is a must.
Costa Rica or “Costa Lotta”, there are plenty of hiking options here but they don’t come cheap, national parks charge a staggering $16 per day, making overnight stays difficult for the budget minded. The star of the show is arguably Cerro Chirripo the highest peak in the country. Sadly the park services have been privatized which has led to increased costs and crippling inefficiency, the advice is to book a minimum of 3 months in advance. All our attempts to book were met with the rings of an unanswered telephone, undeterred we decided to move our attentions to the Peninsula de Osa and the Parque Nacional Corcovado, where we discovered that a guide was now required and for the two of us to go on a two night hike it would have cost over $400. In the end we contented ourselves with beautiful day hikes around Monte Verde Cloud Forest, the lava fields of Volcan Arenal and Manuel Antonio NP.
This is a taster of what Central America has to offer, if any of the above hikes strike a cord drop us an email at [email protected] and we will happily send over GPX files.
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