Getting to grips with Central America: The best of Race Across the World Episode 2

16/03/2020 09:41

Written by Bradt Guides

The race across the world (in this case Latin America, from Mexico City to Ushuaia) is well underway. After a short respite in Copán Ruinas, the contestants were tasked with navigating their way across vast swathes of Central America to the next checkpoint – Panama City. With money mishaps and a misplaced map, the reality of making this mammoth 25,000km journey without the trappings of modern life was really beginning to set in. 

Nevertheless, this leg of the race saw the couples pass through an array of historic sites and spectacular landscapes. From the UNESCO-listed cathedral of León to Costa Rica's mysterious cloud forest – here are our pick of the highlights from Episode 2. 

Honduras 

Santa Rosa de Copán

Santa Rosa is an important regional town with a colonial atmosphere of cobbled streets and striking architecture. The town is set in some of the best scenery in Honduras and the fine weather makes it ideal for hiking, horses and mountain biking. 

Santa Rosa de Copán Church Honduras by milosk50, Shutterstock© milosk50, Shutterstock

Originally known as Los Llanos, Santa Rosa was made a municipality in 1812 and became capital of the Department of Copán when it was split from Gracias (now Lempira). Santa Rosa owes its wealth to the fact that it's an agricultural and cattle-raising area. Maize and tobacco are grown here, and visitors can see traditional hand-rolling at the Flor de Copán cigar factory. The central plaza and church are perched on a hilltop. 

El Salvador 

San Salvador 

Surrounded by a ring of mountains in a highly seismic valley known as 'Valle de las Hamacas', San Salvador toils under the threat of earthquakes. As one of the largest cities in Central America, a sprawling, relentless and busy place, San Salvador can at times seem almost heartless. Do not be deceived. Beneath its hard urban exterior are some sensitive cultural inclinations and a slew of intriguing museums dedicated to art, anthropology and history.

San Salvador Square Dusk El Salvador by Joey Villaflor, Shutterstock© Joey Villaflor, Shutterstock

There are green zones too, including city parks, a botanical garden and a zoo. San Salvador also retains the charm of the Spanish era, thanks to being one of the first European cities in the New World. 

Nicaragua 

León 

León is the artistic and intellectual heart of the country, the spiritual home of Nicaragua's greatest poets, and, since 1979, a hotbed of Sandinista activity. A wealth of satirical murals, bombed-out ruins and bullet-marked buildings are evidence of the city's turbulent past, whilst its student population lends it a vibrant nightlife. 

Leon Main Cathedral Leon Nicaragua by LMspencer, Shutterstock© LMspencer, Shutterstock

The cathedral of León, officially the Basílica de la Asunción, is the pride of both city and country. This impressive structure – a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011 – is the work of 113 years of labour (1747-1860). Legend has it that the plans for the cathedrals of Lima in Peru and León were switched by mistake, but there is no evidence to support that charming excuse for such a big church in such a little country. 

If you're seeking adventure, León is the gateway to some immense and extraordinary panoramas. Home to one of the most densely active volcanic chains in the world, the Cordillera Los Maribios, this is a land born of scorched skies and violently shifting geological tempers. Smoking craters, steaming pools, tranquil lakes and stark, rolling, black-sand slopes perfect for high-speed boarding all await exploration. 

Managua 

If, as the local saying goes, Nicaragua is the country where 'lead floats and cork sinks', Managua is its perfect capital. It's certainly hard to make any sense of a lakefront city which ignores its lake and where you can drive around for hours without ever seeing any water.

Managua has 20% of the country's population, yet there is little overcrowding; it has no centre and lots of trees (from the air you can see more trees than buildings); it is a place where parks are concrete, not green, spaces – there are too many of those already; and where, when directions are given, they refer to buildings that haven't existed for over 30 years.

Managua Cityscape Nicaragua by PixieMe, Shutterstock© PixieMe, Shutterstock

Managua is the capital without a city, a massive suburb of over a million people (there was a downtown once but it was swept away in the 1972 earthquake). And yet, despite having no centre, no skyline and no logic, Managua is still a good place to start your visit. It is full of energy and is the heartbeat of the Nicaraguan economy and psyche.

Costa Rica 

Puerto Limón

Built on the site of the ancient indigenous village of Cariari, Columbus dropped anchor at Punta Uvita, the island off the coastline, on his fourth and final voyage. The climate is very humid and it rains almost every day. With a mainly black population and a large Chinese contingent, the town has a distinctly Caribbean feel, expressed particuarly during carnival but in most bars every weekend. Puerto Limón is not a popular stopover, but experienced travellers may have an interest in exploring this town. 

Parque Vargas Puerto Limon Costa Rica by Solarisys, Shutterstock© Solarisys, Shutterstock

Parque Vargas and the seafront promenade at the rocky headland are popular places for social gatherings and killing time, making for ideal people-watching territory, especially in the evening. Parque Vargas, sadly rather run down, has an impressive botanical display with a colourful mural depicting the history of Limón and a bandstand. 

Parque Nacional Marino Ballena

The vast majority of Ballena (Whale) Marine National Park is coastal waters – 5161ha against 116ha of protected land – which may go some way to explaining why there isn't a lot to see at this least-developed national park.

Humpback Whale Marino Ballena National Park Costa Rica by Jaime Espinosa, Shutterstock© Jaime Espinosa, Shutterstock

The underwater world is home to coral reefs and abundant marine life that includes common and bottle-nosed dolphins as well as occasional visits from humpback whales at times seen with their calves.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the most precious natural jewels in Costa Rica's crown. Protected by law, this private preserve is also protected by appalling access roads on all sides (the nearest decent road is at least two hours from the town).  

Monteverde Cloud Reserve Costa Rica by David Gonzalez Rebollo, Shutterstock© David Gonzalez Rebollo, Shutterstock

Straddling the continental divide, the 10,500ha Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is privately owned and administered by the Tropical Science Centre – a non-profit research and educational association. The reserve is mainly primary cloudforest and spends much of the year shrouded in mist, creating stunted trees and abundant epiphytic growth. The best months to visit are January to May, especially February, March and April. The reserve contains more than 400 species of bird and more than 100 species of mammal, including monkeys, Baird's tapir, six endangered cats, reptiles and amphibians. 

Panama

David 

Steamy David is Panama's second city and the capital of Chiriquí province. International trade with Costa Rica, a mere hour away, has long brought a special prosperity to this growing hub of ranching and commerce. David's journey from cow town to boom town has been remarkable, but at its heart it remains a down-to-earth city with bustling street life and hodgepodge urban planning.

David San Jose Park Panama by Fotos593, Shutterstock© Fotos593, Shutterstock

Its abundance of banks, shops, hotels, restaurant and other useful amenities – along with its transportation links and convenient location halfway between Panama City and San José in Costa Rica – make it a practical and comfortable place to pause. More compelling are the languid lowlands east and west of the city, where you'll encounter an arresting labyrinth of scattered tiny islands, beaches, tangled mangroves, yawning estuaries, marshlands, rainforests and swamps. 

Checkpoint 2 – Panama City

Founded five centuries ago as the Pacific terminus of Spain's pioneering transcontinental trade routes, Panama City has always thrived on the flow of commerce and imperial power. Today, perched at the entrance to the Panama Canal, its multinational banks and corporate headquarters are driving rapid development across the isthmus.

Panama City Skyline Dusk Panama by Rodrigo Cuel, Shutterstock© Rodrigo Cuel, Shutterstock

Extravagant high-rise condos, boutique shopping malls, luxury car dealerships, showy international bars, restaurants and nightclubs all cater to the city's booming nouveau riche. With the gentrification of the city's most historic neigbourhoods, lavish colonial mansions are receiving multimillion dollar renovations, and, elsewhere, brand new mass transit systems, bold contemporary architecture, and a slew of modern festivals all signal Panama City's emergence as a dynamic regional player. 

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