The ideal low-cost getaway awaits in Central America — book it before you get left in the cold.
The ideal low-cost getaway awaits in Central America — book it before you get left in the cold.
Best Place to Do It: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife sanctuary, Belize
For most people, Belize conjures images of tropical reefs. But that’s just scratching the surface; because Belize’s colonists settled on the coasts, its interior is thick with great expanses of untouched jungle, much of which can be hiked.
The country’s best trek is in the 128,000-acre Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and jaguar preserve, which was the world’s first such reserve, founded in 1986 after zoologist Alan Rabinowitz convinced the Belizean government to protect the 60 jaguars concentrated in the area. Within the park towers Victoria Peak, Belize’s second tallest mountain and the destination of a four-day hike through land teeming with otter, puma, ocelot, more than 375 types of bird, and, of course, jaguar. Spend the night in one of the park’s campsites or cabins (from $10), and at first light, head out on the 30-mile round-trip trail (open February through April). The highlight is a section of rock scrambling that requires the help of a rope. The trail ends with you above the treeline, taking in views of the Caribbean Sea from the 3,675-foot summit. Because the terrain is so rough, you’re required to hire a guide for the trek before entering the preserve at nearby Maya Center ($5.50 park entrance fee, $200 for guide; belizeaudubon.org).
MORE PLACES TO TREK
Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
Ideal for wildlife lovers, the family-friendly Sky Walk lets visitors trek for two hours high up in the jungle canopy, crossing five man-made suspension bridges. There you’ll spot some of the thousands of species here, including the stunning quetzal bird ($30; anywherecostarica.com).
El Mirador Ruins, Guatemala
To reach these massive Mayan ruins, you have to machete through the jungle for two days. But the 15-square-mile site, where an entire civilization once lived, is the most extensive and uncrowded in the Mayan world. Ni’tun offers weeklong excursions ($1,540; nitun.com).
BEYOND THE JUNGLE
For something more luxurious, stay at Ka’ana Resort and Spa in Belize’s Cayo district, an outpost for basically any adventure — from zip-lining and canoeing to Mayan archaeological sites and horseback riding. The resort offers five-star dining in the heart of the jungle (from $250; kaanabelize.com). —NICOLE CUSICK
TIP: For the jungles of western Belize, you can save $300 or more by flying to Guatemala City, Guatemala, instead of Belize City — which also allows you to see the famous Mayan ruins at Tikal before crossing the border.
Best Place to Do It: Antigua, Guatemala
Guatemala’s dirt paths, rolling hills, towering volcanoes, and rambling back roads make it a paradise for bikers. Antigua, a well-preserved colonial town amid three volcanoes (Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango), offers some of the country’s most jaw-dropping terrain. Bunk at Hotel Quinta de las Flores, where you can take in views of the cloud-piercing volcano you’ll be tackling on your bike.
Rent your wheels from Old Town Outfitters and book its daylong Volcano Ride, a cross-country singletrack route that rings Volcán Agua on farmers trails and ancient footpaths. You’ll start out pedaling through dense green forests, progress through corn and coffee fields, and, for the finale, scream down five miles of singletrack along the side of the 12,350-foot Agua ($40; adventureguatemala.com).
BEYOND THE VOLCANOES
If you want to sneak in some time on famed Lake Atitlán (and you should), Old Town also offers a two-day pedal and paddle excursion that will drop you down 2,000 vertical feet of singletrack before arriving at the Mayan village–ringed lake. From there you’ll head, via kayak, to secret swimming holes and cliff jumps before spending the night at a lakeside hotel reachable only by paddle ($209; adventureguatemala.com). —N.C.
TIP: Visit Livingston, a Garífuna beach town reachable only by boat from Río Dulce, for tapado: a delicious dish that combines red snapper, crab, squid, and shrimp with the unlikely flavors of coconut milk and banana.
MORE PLACES TO BIKE
Copper Canyon, Mexico
At four times the size of the Grand Canyon, Mexico’s Copper Canyon is the biggest such system in North America. On this 80-mile hiking-biking expedition, you’ll ride along soaring waterfalls, mining villages, imposing canyon walls, and rugged desert scenery ($2,000 for a nine-day excursion; rei.com).
SoberanIa National Park, Panama
Only 15 miles outside of Panama City, Soberanía National Park is easily accessed from the city via the Madden Road to Gamboa — in fact, many bikers ride straight from the capital to the park, which covers about 85 square miles. Once inside the park, on the 15-mile Pipeline Road, you’ll happen upon panoramic canal views and share paths with green iguana, several types of monkey, and up to 500 species of bird, here in Latin America’s birders paradise.
Best Place to Do It: Las Perlas Islands, Panama
Panama City has its charms, but the country’s true treasures are found on a handful of off-the-radar islands, especially the Pacific side’s relatively unknown Las Perlas chain (fewer than half of its 220 islands even have names).
The best way to see this part of the coast is to splurge on a chartered luxury boat from Las Perlas Sailing: You’ll spend days anchored at deserted islands, exploring remote sandbars near where some of the world’s most renowned pearls havebeen found. The 36-foot catamaran can be stocked with snorkel equipment and offers kayak rentals, plus plenty of fishing gear to go after trophy-size marlin (from $180 per person per day; thepearlislands.com). If you want to spend a night on one of the Pearls, have the captain stop off at Isla Viveros, where a boutique hotel, restaurant and Jack Nicklaus signature golf course are slated to open in early 2010. If you fall for the island, take heart; you can purchase one of the brand new private residence — all while enjoying Panama’s cushy tax laws (islaviveros.com).
BEYOND THE ISLANDS
Panama Fishing Expeditions has trips for both of Panama’s coasts: Try the Pacific for tuna and the Caribbean for barracuda ($185; panamafishingexpeditions.com). —N.C.
MORE PLACES TO CHARTER
Los Roques, Venezuela
The largest marine park in the Caribbean, this chain of 40-plus islands has sugary beaches, great bonefishing, and water of such brilliant shades that it looks floodlit. The chartered sloop comes with a crew of two, plus snorkeling and fishing gear (from $300 per person per day; los-roques.com).
Outer Atolls, Belize
Tropical Yachts offers charters complete with four double and two single cabins. Onboard scuba equipment lets you take in bewildering coral formations and the Great Blue Hole, a massive sinkhole 400 feet deep and 1,000 feet in diameter (from $8,800 per week for eight; tropicalyachts.com).
TIP: Panama uses the U.S. dollar, but unlike in most of Latin America, you’ll need to buy a $5 tourist card at the Panama airport.
Best Places to Do It: Central Nicaragua
After slipping under the travel radar due to decades of revolution, Nicaragua is back on the map — unfortunate news for those surfers who have long known about the country’s near constant offshore winds, low-80s water temps, and clean, world-class waves. The surfing epicenter is expat favorite San Juan del Sur in the southwest, which is striking distance by boat from such celebrated breaks as Popoyo and Manzanillo. But to escape the crowds, move up to the harder-to-access north-central coast for empty lineups, offshore winds 250-plus days a year (minus the unpleasant gusts that can batter the south), and an authentic Nicaragüense vibe. Eliminate the challenges of unruly roads and tough-to-find breaks with an outfitter like Surf Tours Nicaragua, which will take you by boat or 4×4 to the best spots (seven-day packages from $800; surftoursnicaragua.com).
BEYOND THE WAVES
Rising from Lake Nicaragua, Isla de Ometepe makes for a perfect day of paddling: a picturesque island home to two spectacular volcanoes and rich Náhuatl history. Stay at breezy El Encanto, on a lush hilltop farm at the foot of the mist-shrouded Volcán Maderas (from $15; goelencanto.com). —LAURA SICILIANO-ROSEN
TIP: March through September is known for the biggest swells (up to 20 feet), but November can be quite good as well — plus it offers excellent offshore fishing for marlin, dorado, and more.
MORE PLACES TO SURF
El Sunzal, El Salvador
Northeast of Nicaragua, lesser-known El Salvador is acclaimed for its long-riding right point breaks. Enjoy them while ensconced in modern comfort at Casa de Mar Hotel (from $110; casademarhotel.com). Or have it all and book Nicaragua Surf Tour’s Border Blitz — 10 days of surfing El Salvador and central or south Nicaragua ($1,700; nicaraguasurftour.com).
Thanks to Nicaragua’s magnificent Maribios range, opportunities abound for exploring active volcanoes, and one of them is steep and smooth enough to surf…kind of. Volcano boarding involves sledding down Cerro Negro’s pebbly face on a sit-down plywood-and-plastic board, at speeds up to 50 mph ($23; bigfootnicaragua.com).
SWIMMING WITH SHARKS
Best Place to Do It: Cocos Island, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is well known as the most diverse eco-destination on Earth, packed with rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, volcanoes, whitewater rapids, and white-sand surf beaches. But under that pristine Pacific water lies giants: hammerheads, whale sharks, and tiger sharks — beasts bigger than your car. At Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, scuba divers are all but guaranteed to spot the mega-sharks. A protected national park some 36 hours by boat from the mainland, Cocos is far enough from land that creatures such as mantas and humpback whales converge to play. It’s also one of the few places where hammerheads will school. After the sharks mate, they are unsurprisingly bruised and wounded; Cocos is their preferred cleaning station, where barber fish eat parasites out of postcoital injuries while you watch. Sharks are plentiful year-round, and while the rainy season’s surge might prolong your boat crossing from May to November, the cooler currents can also make for bigger deep-sea animals (from $4,495 for a 10-day trip; underseahunter.com).
BEYOND THE DIVE
At Lapa Rios rain forest eco-lodge on the Osa Peninsula, explore numerous hiking trails on 1,000 acres of rigorously protected jungle that overlooks the Pacific, and stay in luxe open-air bungalows amid the serenade of howler monkeys and macaws (from $210; laparios.com). —SARAH ROSE
MORE PLACES FOR SHARKS
Cano Island, Costa Rica
If a 10-day dive charter is too much bottom time for you, dozens of white-tipped reef sharks, sting rays, and sea turtles lie in wait off Caño Island, a national reserve only 12 miles into the Pacific off Drake Bay ($105 for a two-tank dive; costaricadiving.com).
Utila Island, Honduras
This island bills itself as the whale shark capital of the Caribbean, where it’s possible to see as many as five of the planet’s most massive fish in a single site while snorkeling. Spotters watch for sea birds circling to signal that small baitfish have been herded into a ball; below them, tuna will be feeding, and following the tuna is likely to be a 20- to 40-foot, 20-ton whale shark. Utila, a paradise with few beaches, is also one of the best bargains in diving ($25 per tank; dive-utila.com).
TIP: If you must stay the night in San José, a big and charmless city, book into Finca Rosa Blanca, a Gaudí-esque boutique hotel and coffee plantation 25 minutes from the airport (from $235; fincarosablanca.com).
Best Place to Do It: El Cocuy, Colombia
The Colombian Andes offer climbing at its most pristine, without a tourist in sight. Of course, the peaks of Sierra Nevada del Cocuy have remained untrammeled for a reason: Guerrilla factions found their remoteness ideal for hiding out and preparing for war. That started changing in 2003, when a presidentially appointed brigade began patrolling the area. Now El Cocuy National Park, more than a thousand square miles of mossy boulders, craggy summits, and crisp glacier ponds, has been deemed safe for travelers.
For the first time in 24 years, Mountain Travel Sobek is reinstating its Cocuy excursions. Its 11-day tour — one of the most strenuous in its arsenal — leaves from Bogotá. You’ll then drive to El Cocuy and hike for seven hours to a cliffside lagoon. Over the next week you’ll camp under the stars, see Colombia’s few remaining glaciers, swim in clear mountain lakes, and enjoy the silence of truly isolated peaks (from $5,000; mtsobek.com).
BEYOND THE CLIMBS
Spend a few days in Bogotá, which throbs with salsa beats and tiny restaurants that offer chocolate santafereño (hot chocolate served with a bit of cheese in the mug). Stay at Abadia Colonial house, in the Candelaria district (from $75; abadiacolonial.com). —N.C.
TIP: Book passage on the Stahlratte, a shuttle sloop from Panama to Colombia, for a gorgeous four-day sail ($385 with meals; stahlratte.de).
Best Place to Do It: Tulum, Mexico
The world’s best spot for cavern diving is located just 75 miles south of Cancún. Bright white beaches and laid-back visitors make Tulum, a small windswept town most known for its Mayan ruins, the best jumping-off point for the massive network of underground caves dotting the Yucatán.
These caves, called cenotes — thick with tree-size stalactites and stalagmites, silvery fish, and bats — were formed after a meteor socked into the Yucatán 65 million years ago, creating vast sinkholes that eventually filled with water and became, to the Mayans, portals to the underworld. The best way to see these geological wonders is with fins and a snorkel. Book an excursion with Edventure Tours, run by a family who will steer you clear of the tour-bus crowds. Be sure to snorkel through Dos Ojos, a pair of adjacent cenotes that look like huge eyes ($75; edventuretours.com).
BEYOND THE CAVES
Dry off at Tulum’s El Paraiso Beach, a stretch of ultramarine water prized by kite surfers just a $4 taxi drive from the hotel zone. Book a cabana at Zamas, a collection of palapa-roof huts situated between palms right on the water (from $100; zamas.com). —N.C.
MORE PLACES TO CAVE DIVE
Caves BranchArchaeological reserve, Belize
Underground rivers flow through several of Belize’s caves, and visitors can take it all in via inner tube. Hike 45 minutes through the archaeological reserve (an hour’s drive from Belize City) to the Caves Branch River. From there, rent some tubes and start floating ($45; explorebelizecaves.com).
Cave of the Glowing Skulls, Honduras
Used for burials in pre-Columbian times, this cave on Honduras’s Talgua River was named for the roughly 200 calcium-crystal-encrusted human skulls and bones found here in piles in 1994. Local guides are on-site, but note that some caves close when archaeologists are digging.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.