Wednesday 13 December 2017

Nicaragua, Honduras & Panama: The crystal waters of Central America

Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama

Paradise found: Central America has thousands of 'away from it all' beaches like this one in Honduras
Paradise found: Central America has thousands of 'away from it all' beaches like this one in Honduras
Refuge Panama Cathedral, Sal Felipe Old Quarter, Panama City
Katy Harrington takes in the sights on the Boquete Tree Trek, Panama
Katy at the Embera Quera Community on the Gatun river in Panama
Casco Viejo
Masaya Volcano
Parque Nacional Jeannette Kawas

Katy Harrington

Having emerged from the cloud forest at Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve, our Nicaraguan guide Eric disappears with a promise to return soon with something worth seeing.

After a few minutes rustling among dense foliage, he does, carrying a long green leaf. Perched on the end of it, eyes bulging, is a startled-looking red-eyed tree frog.

The sticky orange pads on his webbed feet are spread wide. He sits still as a mouse trap for a moment, allowing us to marvel at the flashes of electric blue and yellow along his kermit green body, before springing from the leaf. He travels through the air stretched like a hand giving a high five, before disappearing back into the forest.

That brief encounter, and walking around the crater of the extinct volcano gave us a good idea of Nicaragua's incredible and diverse ecosystem. Almost 1,400m above sea level, the national park is home to 50 species of mammals, 174 species of birds, 30 species of reptiles and amphibians and 750 species of flora.

There is no getting away from nature here - from the amazing views of the famous Lake Nicaragua (at 65km long and 25km wide it's the biggest in Central America) to its islands and lagoons, rainforests and wildlife.

It's up to you how you want to see it, but if you have a head for heights zip-lining is one option. Near the small coastal town of San Juan del Sur is Da' Flying Frog Canopy Tour.

Here they will put you in a very unflattering harness and take you deep into the forest to zip through the tree tops at speed along a distance of 2.5km and about 50m above the ground. The longest line is 328m. By the time you have progressed to this you may have stopped screaming for long enough to enjoy the stunning views below.

A boat is a more relaxing option, and a good way to explore Las Isletas de Granada on Lake Nicaragua. The abundance of secluded small islands were formed when Mombacho Volcano erupted thousands of years ago. Today, they are home to cormorants, herons, parrots, hawks, vultures, and the filthy rich.

Probably the most spectacular site to see near Lake Nicaragua is Masaya Volcano. It's as awe inspiring as nature gets. Leaning over its vast smouldering crater is like looking into a witch's cauldron. Nothing can really prepare you for the sight of the fiery lava churning below. No wonder the Spaniards who invaded Nicaragua nicknamed it "the mouth of hell".

Nicaragua's cities are interesting too. It's a country with a hairy history - as recently as 1979 the left-wing Sandinista party overthrew the president, putting an end to decades of dictatorship. In the capital Managua, the Palacio Nacional was one of the buildings taken by the Sandinistas, and Tiscapa National Park is home to a famous statue of Sandino, the guerilla leader who gave the party its name.

Granada and Leon (Nicaragua's second city) are both preserved in colonial times, with their crumbling but charming buildings and cobbled streets. But for all the interest its cities offer, nothing can compete with Nicaragua's natural wonders.

As wild as Nicaragua is, it started to feel like a Disneyland once we arrived in Honduras. Honduras is a rough diamond and, not quite everywhere is ready for the tourism its economy so desperately needs.

Its tropical climate means it has two distinct seasons, dry from November to April and rainy from May through October. "Rainy" is a euphemism here. The skies often turn from blue and cloudless to a menacing bruised grey in a matter of minutes, and when the heavens open you think you might get washed away. We arrive in a rainstorm, but the terrible visibility didn't seem to bother our driver Alexis, who frequently overtook up to six cars and motorbikes at once while rounding a corner. When the rain stopped and the clouds cleared, I got my first glimpse of Honduras's majestic mountains, covered with a thick fur of green trees and topped with a ring of fluffy white clouds.

We headed for the northern coast, which borders the Caribbean Sea. Using Tela as a base we explored the Laguna de los Micos, famous for wildlife and birdwatching, and then headed way off the beaten track to the home of the Garifuna people in the small village of Miami. The Garifuna maintain a traditional way of life, living in simple huts on the beach, catching their food and occasionally allowing voyeuristic tourists to visit and nose around. They'll cook you a simple meal of fish, plantain and rice and beans, take you on a trip into the mangroves to spot monkeys and birds, but mainly ignore you. The beach they live on is beautiful, but slightly spoilt by litter. A building that used to be a visitor centre is dilapidated and deserted.

On a small fishing boat heading towards the jaw-dropping Parque Nacional Jeanette Kawas, you see what a paradise-in-parts Honduras really is.

The park, only accessible by sea, is surrounded by crystal waters. We land on a soft sandy white beach and take a short hike through the dense rainforest, where not-too-far-in-the-distance is one of the spots where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.

Our last days in Honduras were spent around La Ceiba - the main launching point to reach The Bay Islands and Pico Bonito National Parks. The area is surrounded by lush jungle, mountains and sandy white beaches.

At dusk, we kayaked on a lagoon, paddling past mangroves and watching for low-flying bats.

Our last excursion was by open air train to Refugio de vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado, the battered tram built illegally by the US back when Honduras was a banana republic. Today, it mainly transports people and occasionally some heavily armed guards.

It would be remiss to talk about Honduras's natural beauty and not mention one thing that is painfully obvious almost everywhere you go - poverty. It might be less apparent in the more tourist-trodden parts, but in many places seeing barefoot children, piles of litter, kids selling fruit at petrol stations when they should be at school, old men in fields drenched with sweat and people living in shacks reminds us that Hondurans live hard lives and reap little reward for their labour.

Yet whilst it is true that many areas of Honduras suffer from poverty and underdevelopment, many of them are completely reliant on tourism and the funds brought in by international travellers. It's why it is crucial for Honduras that we keep supporting tourism in the country and encourage people to travel there.

We never felt unsafe, and weeks after returning home, Honduras was the one place that kept coming back to my mind.

The affluence of (parts of) Panama City felt strange after Honduras. Downtown Panama has all the traffic, fancy hotels and shiny skyscrapers you'd expect from an international centre of commerce, but there's a lot more to it than its big banks. Take a 30 minute walk from downtown along the water and you get to the old city - rundown, ramshackle, romantic and well worth exploring. The Casco Viejo (also called Casco Antigo) is lined with apartments with colourful wooden shutters, flower boxes and washing hanging from their windows.

Relaxed by day, it comes alive at night. The best thing to do is find a restaurant or bar (try Tantalo) with a good rooftop terrace and take in the amazing twinkly view over the water. But don't be distracted by Panama city, as a country Panama has as many natural gems as its Central American neighbours. A very short flight away is the Chiriqui Highlands and the beautiful town of Boquete, with both rainforest and coffee plantations to explore. Finca Lerida is a stunning coffee plantation where you can take a guided tour to see how the plants are grown and then taste the beans. You can stay on the plantation overnight, but whatever you do don't leave without getting a slice of passion fruit cake from the cafe. It's one of the best things I've ever eaten.

Among Panama's many greatest hits is the Boquete Tree Trek, a hike into the rainforest which leads to a series of long hanging bridges. Walking along them, high off the ground, you get up close and personal with the trees and a breathtaking aerial view.

At Gamboa rainforest they've gone one step further and built an aerial tram tour. It takes you (slowly) about 280ft from the forest floor through dense undergrowth up into the canopy giving you the opportunity to spot birds, butterflies, sloths and white-faced capuchin monkeys on the way.

The next, and the last of a 12-day trip across three countries, began with a short journey on the Gatun river in a dugout canoe. Our driver is one of the Embera Quera Community. His skin is the colour of mahogany, his hair jet black and he is wearing nothing but a very short beaded wrap. His friend, who sits silently at the back of the boat, is almost completely covered in temporary tattoos, painted on with ink made from a tree.

We arrive at their small hillside home and are greeted by a line of women, old and young, all wrapped in bright fabric and with flowers in their hair and all singing. The men stand opposite them playing instruments and when they are finished they approach us in single file and shake our hands one by one. Over the course of the day the leader of the tribe patiently answers our questions and guides us along a trail to show us the plants they use for medicine. They dance and cook for us, and offer us tattoos which fade after two weeks.

Luckily the memories don't.

Getting  there

Katy at the Embera Quera Community on the Gatun river in Panama

Katy at the Embera Quera Community on the Gatun river in Panama

Katy flew from London Heathrow to Miami International with American Airlines, and from Miami International onwards to Managua airport, Nicaragua; San Pedro Sula airport, Honduras; and Panama City airport, Panama. Return flights with American Airlines via Tocumen International airport, Panama, and Miami International.

For more information on multi-destination travel in Central America visit

Take three: Top attractions

Parque Nacional Jeannette Kawas

Parque Nacional Jeanette K.jpg
Parque Nacional Jeannette Kawas

Located outside Tela on the Caribbean coast, this jaw-dropping natural paradise is only accessible by boat. Surrounded by sparkling blue water, it’s made up of sandy beaches, tropical forest, lagoons and rivers. It’s named after Honduran environmental activist Jeannette Kawas. Her attempts to preserve the flora and fauna from being destroyed by money-making palm plantations is probably what led to her murder in 1995.

Masaya Volcano

Masaya Volcano.jpg
Masaya Volcano

Nothing can quite prepare you for the sights at Masaya in Nicaragua. After a steep uphill drive, you disembark on the edge of an enormous smouldering crater, and peer over to see lava boiling right below you. It’s like looking into a giant witch’s cauldron. The Masaya Volcano has erupted several times, with the Spanish invaders aptly naming it “La Boca del Infierno”, meaning the mouth of hell.

Casco Viejo

sn 20 1 panama city casco .jpg
Casco Viejo

This romantically ramshackle district is the historic centre of Panama City and far more interesting than the downtown area with all its high rise skyscrapers inhabited by bankers. Quiet during the day, Casco’s narrow streets come alive when the sun goes down. Head to one of the many bars and restaurants with roof terraces and balconies for a seriously impressive view of the city lit up at night.

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