7 cool backpacking towns in Central America

Traveling through the Central American wilds means delving into a land of primeval rain forests and smoking volcanos, keeping company with sloths and tarantulas and quetzals and jaguars, surfing the rollers of the Pacific and Caribbean seas, and tasting uber ­fresh, chilli­ packed foods. It’s also about meeting new and likeminded people, which is why this selection of the region’s top backpacker towns should feature on the itineraries of any would­ be adventurer heading for the lands of Costa Rica and Nica, Panama and less ­trodden El Salvador...

LBW

Santa Elena, Costa Rica

The big brother of iconic Monteverde is the de facto gateway to Costa Rica’s wild and untouched cloud forests. Backpackers flock to its many hostels and dorms for a taste of that fabled Central American biodiversity: three­toed sloths; snouted tapirs; swinging howler monkeys and more make their home here. Others come for the heart­thumping activities, like zip­lining through canopies or trekking the high­up wire bridges, while coffee tours and chilled­out days lazing amidst the orchid gardens are also on the menu.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro fragments into a series of sun­splashed Caribbean islands as it spills into the sea from the western edge of Panama. A fusion of tropical beaches and world­class surfing swells (just check out the hollow tunnels of Playa Larga and the empty stretches of Isla Bastimentos to name just two), welcoming beach huts and night­time partying, there’s really nothing not to like here. Reggae is the backing­track, punctuated now and then with chirps and tweets from the wild rainforest nearby, while Cuban eateries and raucous happy hours dominate the menu! (Of course, this one makes it onto our Caribbean Dream itinerary.)

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

La Fortuna is the fabled gateway to the pyramid­shaped caldera of Arenal Volcano: one of the undisputed kings of adventure tourism in Costa Rica! Hikers, mountain bikers, waterfall swimmers, mountain climbers and wildlife lovers alike flock to its collection of ramshackle hostels and homestays, all of which narrowly escaped destruction when the tops of Cerro Arenal exploded in plumes of magma and ash back in the late 60s. LBW head this way on our awesome Rockin’ Rica itinerary, offering our backpackers the chance to seek out three-toed sloths in the jungle and raft the demanding rapids of the Rio Celeste.

LBW

Santa Catalina, Panama

Once the closely­guarded secret of Central America’s intrepid surf explorers, the draws of Santa Catalina have only just become known to most travelers making their way through the region. But boy are we glad the proverbial beans have been spilled, because this gorgeous stretch of the Panamanian Pacific takes the meaning of sleepy backpacker town to a whole new level. The surf swells are long and open and break left­to­right over the sands at spots like San Pedrillo, or whitecap atop rocks at Punta Brava, while casas hide in the jungled hills, and the Coiba National Park beckons with empty beaches and majestic coastal scenery. Perfect!

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Ah, San Juan Del Sur: the backpacker town extraordinaire of Nicaragua. A place of elegant Victorian come Georgian townhouses, ice­cream­coloured surf shacks, soaring Pacific cliffs, one Christ statue to mimic Rio, and a nightlife powered by ice­cold cerveza and rum­filled cocktails, samba and merengue, this one rarely disappoints. Okay, so it’s riddled with gringos, but that’s precisely why the parties last so long, and how it’s so easy to get hold of a longboard for riding the swells of nearby Playa Maderas and Colorado. Oh, and rest assured, LBW head here on our acclaimed Central Teaser itinerary!

El Tunco, El Salvador

El Tunco is something of an unexpected arrival on the line­up of Central America’s top backpacking towns. Found clutching the edge of the Pacific on the less­trodden coastline of El Salvador, it still attracts only a humble crowd of backpackers to its sands. However, the place is firmly on the up, boasting its own selection of beach bars and hostels, ad hoc surf schools and bamboo drinkeries for the evenings. Add to that a medley of rugged rocky promontories out at sea, oodles of dank caves ripe for exploration, some unknown surfing sells, great sunset viewing, and El Tunco becomes a well­ rounded backpacker destination!

El Gigante, Nicaragua

For a more off­ the­ beaten­ track sampling of legendary Nica, the up ­and­ coming town of El Gigante is perhaps the perfect choice. Boasting a duo of secluded sandy playas (Gigante itself and pretty Amarilla just around the headland to the north), the town is a fine fusion of traditional Mesoamerican fishing settlement and gringo backpacker spot. Expect sleepy little beach bars mixed in amidst the tin­shack shoreline homes, a clutch of new yoga lodges to enjoy, and the bobbing outlines of catamarans and local pangas next to the regular rollers out at sea.


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"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."

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