Backpacking in Leon, Nicaragua

Sandinista Fever in Leon, Nicaragua

sandinista revolution

Viva La Revolution!

revolution museum nicaraguaLeon is a rebellious city in every way. It is totally different from its conservative rival Grenada and all its picturesque churches and attractive streets. Pretty it may not be, but Leon more than makes up for that thanks to thepassion of the people and a history that includes a violent and ultimately successful struggle for freedom.

The Sandinista revolution that took place in 1979 was largely inspired by events in the city which has always been traditionally left leaning ever since Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821. Daniel Ortega, the driving force behind the revolution is the current president and remains extremely popular in this city. Visit the Revolution Museum (above) in the main square for a passionate if rather one-sided tour of the small museum (in Spanish) which houses many photos and artefacts charting the rebel uprising.

It’s all in the Walls…

steet art in leon, nicaraguaOne of the many fascinating things about visiting Leon is keeping an eye out for the street art and politically motivated graffiti on the walls around town. Some of the murals are strikingly artistic and tell the tale of the revolution perhaps better than any museum could. The graffiti is of the pro-Ortega, anti-US variety and while in other parts of the country you feel it could be part of some sort of government agenda, here you sense that it truly reflects the views of Leon’s loyally pro-Sandinista residents.

There are also still probably thousands of bullet holes that scar the cities walls following the fierce fighting that took place here in the build-up to and during the revolution. These are particularly noticeable around the main square.

Backpacking in Leon = Mojito Time!!

There are some cool bars in Leon and you’ll meet some colourful characters as you make your way around them. Leon is popular with travellers so there is a healthy international presence in some of them but those with a more local feel are well worth checking out. The city also attracts all sorts of liberal minded people from across Central America and the Caribbean with a healthy Cuban presence notable. It’s the sort of place you can go for a wander and it won’t be long before you discover a cool spot for a cheap evening cocktail. Mojitos are the drink of choice and you’ll find special deals on them in various bars and hostels around town. There is a real party vibe in some of the hostels, with Big Foot Hostel leading the way with parties and random drinking games. Free mojitos all night for the winner!

Out of Town

There’s plenty to see and do outside of town. Hop on a bus and you’ll be into beautiful Nicaraguan countryside in no time at all, and the pace of life takes a sudden drop from the hustle and bustle of central Leon’s markets. The Pacific Ocean is only 20-30 minutes away on the bus where you will find almost deserted long beaches. It can be fairly chilly thanks to the high winds that make for some huge waves and great surfing but often somewhat dangerous swimming conditions.

Some of the hostels also organise trekking trips to the nearby volcanoes, where you can even try your hand at volcano-boarding! You can also volunteer for several months as a hiking guide for an organisation which raises money for local street kids.

 


This article was published in December 2011.


Backpacking Destination: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Lazy Days at Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Guatemala is a pretty cool place to travel in and it doesn’t get much better than spending at least a few days on the banks of Lago Atitlan. The giant lake is not the only attraction as volcanoes, dodgy boats, funky little towns, chicken buses, colourful locals, spanish schools, cheap bars and very basic accomodation help make this a great place to hang around while travelling through Latin America.

PANA ROCKS!

PanajachelThe lake is a vast at 130 km² and is surrounded by stunning mountains as well as three volcanoes. There are many small towns and villages on the banks of the lake, and boats make the bumpy crossing many times a day between the main towns. When heading to Lago Atitlan you’ll most likely arrive in Panajachel (Pana for short). It is a good base with basic rooms for under $5 a night and some lively bars and nightly live music at Pana Rock! The main street. Calle Santander (right) has all you would expect from a popular backpacking town including internet cafes, laundry services, cheap restaurants and street food. From Pana you can catch boats to all the main towns including San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz and Santiago (fares range from Q10 to Q25….$1=8 Quetzals). All the towns have their own unique qualities and are worth a visit if not neccesarily a nights stay. San Pedro is similar to Pana just with less stray dogs and a bit more of a stoner hippy vibe to the place. There’s some good nightlife and nightly live music and movies plus some real dirt cheap places to stay so it’s worth stopping here a night or two once you’ve had enough of Pana.

LIFE ON THE LAKE

Lake Atitlan boatsThere’s plenty stuff to keep you occupied during the day here including hiking up the San Pedro or Atitlan Volcanoes. You can swim in the lake or rent a kayak from many places in San Pedro. Scuba diving is another option, Pana or Santa Cruz are your best bets for this. Guatemala is a popular place to learn Spanish and there’s many language schools offering cheap and intensive 1:1 tuition. There’s a load of volunteering opportunities here including helping local disabled children and ecological projects but it’s best to ask at your hostel or a language school for more info. Or you can simply hop between the different towns on the lake and get to know the Maya people who have lived on these shores for centuries. If there’s no public boats running, there’s normally many locals who’ll take you on their boats to where you want to go (negotiate the price).

WATCH OUT FOR THE WEATHER!

A word on the weather, the lake is 1.5km above sea level and needless to say the volcanoes are even higher. So basically this is at fairly high altitude and is far from the tropical paradise you might expect from this part of the world. It gets cold and wet here so pack as if you’re going on holiday in Britain! Otherwise Lago Atitlan is fantastic place to spend a few days or even hang around here for a few weeks while you improve your Spanish.

Useful Lake Atitlan Links

Lagomap: Local Run and easily the best info on Lake Atitlan

Wikitravel
GoNomad
Info on San Pedro

 


This page was last updated in June 2013.


 

Top 10 Latin America Travel Highlights

Top 10 Latin America Travel Highlights

Ordered geographically from North to South, these are our Latin America travel highlights.

1. Smoke cigars, drink rum and travel like it’s 1959 in Havana, Cuba.

Latin America Travel Highlights

Read our Cuba backpacking budget for more info on travel on the Caribbean island.

2. Explore colourful Central America on Chicken buses.

chicken bus in guatemala

3. Reach the summit of an active volcano in Guatemala.

volcano in guatemala

Check out our Central America backpacking route for some inspiration.

4. Discover Caribbean beach paradise beneath snow-capped peaks in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park.

tayrona national park

5. Sail deep into the vastness of the Amazon.

amazon river

6. Follow the Inca Trail up to Machu Pichhu.

machu picchu

One of several destinations on this list to make our South America backpacking route.

7. Lose yourself in a world of salt at Uyuni, Bolivia.

salt flats uyuni bolivia

8. Party hard at Carnaval in Brazil.

carnaval in brazil

9. Witness the World’s most wonderous Waterfalls.

iguace waterfall

10. Explore the incredible landscape of Patagonia.

patagonia argentina

Take on our Backpacking Route for Patagonia.


This article was published in March 2014.

Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018  for a full overview of budget travel in the region.


Popular Backpacking Route in Central America

latin america routes

south america | brazil | patagonia | central america | mexico


Backpacking Route in Central America

Mexico aside, the countries in this part of the world are really small but there’s loads to see and do. Backpacking around Central America on this route will see you pack in 6 countries, Mayan ruins, fiery active volcanoes, stunning lakes, colonial-era towns and chilled out Caribbean beaches while trying to avoid the generally unpleasant capital cities in the region (Panama City is the exception). You may well need to change buses in Managua or Tegioculpa for example but even if you’re a city lover, you seriously won’t want to hang around long. As well as plenty to see, it’s a cheap region to learn Spanish, which is handy especially if you are heading onto South America.

It’s not just Spanish lessons that come cheap though as Central America is widely regarded as one of the most budget friendly regions in the whole world. If you are willing to travel like a local, you can get by on seriously little. For some great tips on how to travel on as little as $10/day and plenty more, get Will Hatton’s backpacker bible.


TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS

On average we’d suggest spending about 10 days in each country although you could squeeze it all into 6 weeks at a push. With lots of volunteering and learning opportunities you could easily stick around for longer.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1350 €1500 $1800

This is purely for your travel expenses in the region itself and is based on travelling on a shoestring budget using local transport and hostels and being quite disciplined in terms of your general expenditure. It doesn’t include flights in/out of the region or other pre-trip expenses. It is based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2018.

See our Central America backpacking costs for more.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR CENTRAL AMERICA

Mostly not required for stays of up to 90 days. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have a mutual agreement in place enabling you to travel freely around the 4 countries for 90 days without passport checks.

Use our visa check tool to see which countries you will need a visa for.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads who provide excellent cover for backpackers.


Central America Backpacking Route



Mexico

budget travel in Mexico

Cancun  – Consider flying into Cancun, the 2nd busiest airport in Mexico with good links to Europe and North America.  However you might not want to hang around long. The beach is okay but it’s fairly seedy, expensive and doesn’t really cater for backpackers or people travelling on a tight budget. 

Playa del Carmen – Only an hour South of Cancun, it’s also a resort town but it has plenty of hostels and budget options. With nice beaches and vibrant nightlife, it’s a fun start to your trip and you can party till dawn in one of the many bars and clubs (girls drink free on some nights).

Tulum – There’s a great beach in Tulum with beautifully clear blue waters. There a few small Mayan ruins, which is a taster of things to come as you progress further on this Central America backpacking route.

(Night bus to Palenque)

Palenque – It’s a long trip to Palenque (pictured above) but worth it once you start to discover the ancient ruins in the dense jungle nearby an unremarkable town of the same name. There is a sense that your adventure has truly begun when you hit Palenque though. It’s also popular with some travellers for easily available magic mushrooms.

San Cristobal – Colonial town at altitude and a pleasant break from the heat.  It’s a popular hangout for hippy and bohemian types.

Check out our extended backpacking route for Mexico, if you fancy more time in the country.


Guatemala

Backpacking Routes

Quetzaltenango AKA Xela – Loads of volunteering options here, which makes it a popular stop for longer stays. You should immediately notice that your money goes further in Guatemala. Xela is also a good place for salsa classes and clubs, while the local markets in surrounding villages are worth a visit.

You may be able to find free volunteering projects one you arrive in Guatemala. Many come with a cost although you should at least get your accommodation and perhaps food paid for. Here are 11 volunteering options in Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan – Stunning scenery here with a huge lake surrounded by volcanoes and dirt cheap backpacker towns. You could probably spend a week just visiting the different lakeside villages which all have a slightly different vibe or just relaxing and taking in the beauty of the place. Most visitors only stay for a few days though. See Destination: Lake Atitlan for more.

Antigua – Colonial town surrounded by volcanoes that can be explored on foot (one of our top 10 latin america experiences). It is also a hugely popular and cheap place to take some Spanish lessons which will certainly be handy as you progress further along this backpacking route for Central America.


Honduras

Honduras backpacking route

Bay Islands snorkelling, CC BY 2.0

Copan – More ancient ruins. Copan was a major centre for the Mayans over a 1000 years ago and is home to some of the finest pre-Columbian art around.

San Pedro Sula – City with decent nightlife but a bit dangerous! San Pedro Sula has been described as the most violent city in the world so it’s probably not advisable to hang around long but you may need to pass through it anyway to reach the next two coastal destinations.

La Ceiba – Reasonably sized city with some nice beaches and the best place to catch the ferry to Utila. If you visit in May, be sure to check out La Ceiba Carnival, the largest festival of its kind in Central America.

Utila (Bay Islands) – Scuba diving hot-spot and one of the real highlights of the region. The Bay Islands are perhaps the closest thing you can find to a Caribbean beach paradise on a budget! They also feature in our article on 5 budget-friendly Caribbean destinations.

(Long day of travelling between Utila and Leon)


Nicaragua

Street art in Nicaragua

Leon – Birthplace of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and still a staunchly pro-revolution town. It’s home to some cool street art (above) which helps tell its story and is one of the few genuinely interesting urban destinations on this route. Read more about funky Leon!

Granada – A colonial-era town and perhaps the most beautiful and best preserved in the region. It’s a real contrast to its traditional rival Leon with lots of churches and relics to an altogether different, distant past. It’s also nicely located on the banks of Lake Cocibolca, the largest lake in Central America.

Isla de Ometepe – Island in middle of the giant lake with two volcanoes. It’s an excellent location for mountain biking or hiking. Here are six things to do on Ometepe.

San Juan del Sur – This is the first stop on the route on the Pacific Coast and that means two things. Giant waves and lots of surfers! If surfing is not your thing, then it’s not an amazing place to visit with a fairly average beach and a few cheap, decent bars but nothing remarkable.

Check out the cost of travel in Nicaragua.


Costa Rica

Backpacking Route in Central America

Volcan Arenal, CC BY-SA 2.0

Monteverde – Nearby Volcan Arenal is the third most active volcano in the world and there are also some awesome cloud forests nearby, one of the many natural wonders in Costa Rica.

Montezuma – Another great destination for nature lovers. Get lost in a world of waterfalls, nature reserves and nude beaches!

San Jose – The capital city of Costa Rica is a bit rough but better than the big cities further north. It could be easily skipped but it might be worth hanging around for a day or two with some interesting museums while there are also a few options for day-trips and tours in the surrounding countryside.

Puerto Viejo – Surfing, beaches, marijuana. Those are probably the three main draws in Puerto Viejo, a chilled out Caribbean town popular with surfers and backpackers. With the number of foreigners so high, there are certainly more authentic Central American experiences to be had but it’s a nice place with Cahuita and Manzanillo National Parks also nearby making for excellent day-trips.

It is worth noting that the cost of travel in Costa Rica, is slightly higher than average for the region and things are noticeably a bit more pricey than in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.


Panama

Panama backpacking route

Beach in Panama, CC BY 2.0

Bocas del Toro – These are more chilled Caribbean islands covered in thick jungle. With largely calm conditions, it’s a great spot for some skuba-diving with affordable prices.

David – Pleasant town on Pan-American Highway with good hostels. There are plenty of things to do with lots of options for adventure sports while a trip out to the Los Pozos de Caldera hot springs is also popular with travellers.

Panama City – A good place to finish your travels in Central America or potentially move onto another region. Unlike most of the other destinations on this Central America itinerary, the capital of Panama is a vibrant modern city. Check out the famous Panama Canal and hit the shops if you’ve still got money left to spend.

Read more on the cost of travel in Panama.


(Fly home, or see more of Latin America by crossing the Darien Gap)


More on Budget Travel in Central America & Introducing the Chicken Bus!

Our Central America backpacking itinerary aims to give you an idea of popular travel spots but if the hostel scene is getting a bit repetitive then it’s well worth heading off to some of the less touristy parts (although mainstream tourism only really exists in small parts of Mexico and Costa Rica).

Outside the capitals, the people are generally very friendly and it’s really not that dangerous. While you could do this route in 2 months there are many places that you will find hard to leave and adding a few other destinations you could do as much as 6 months in Central America, particularly if you get involved with some volunteering projects or study Spanish.

Border crossings are relatively pain free. You can normally do direct buses between destinations in different countries but it is much cheaper and more of an adventure to get a local bus (known as a chicken bus and found across the region) to the border and cross on foot. There will always be buses to the nearest town at border posts and the budgets at the top are based on using local transport which is very cheap rather than tourist options. There is some good info on travelling across Central America on chicken buses here.

This route can also easily be combined with our Backpacking Route for South America.


 Budget Accommodation in Central America

Central America is one of the most enjoyable regions to travel in and it has a really good hostel scene. Typically each of the destinations on our Central America backpacking route will have a few hostels (in the European sense of the word), one of which might be generally considered the main party hostel. A bit of research online or just from talking to other travellers and it should be quite easy to work out which one it is.

In addition to the hostels, there are lots more very small budget hotels or ‘hostals’ which are little more than homes converted so some rooms are available for daily rent. They may be better value if you are travelling as a couple or with friends but single travellers may prefer to opt for a dorm in one of the bigger hostels. Expect to be paying anything from $3-10/night for budget accommodation in these parts and perhaps slightly more for better places in the more touristy parts of Mexico and Costa Rica.


 This page was last updated in January 2018.