Central America, that expanse of land between Mexico and South America, can seem to be a puzzle of small countries, and many travelers find El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua the most puzzling. For a variety of reasons these four nations have yet to offer a stable enough framework to attract major corporate investment. There are no grand resorts or elegant hotel companies—Aman and Banyan Tree, for example, have steered clear. But by accepting some ruggedness and inconsistency, visitors here can find true cross-cultural experiences. “My clients do not go to Central America for the familiar or the chic,” says custom-travel planner Lisa Lindblad. “They go because it is dramatic, stunning, and irreverent. They go for a journey to the authentic.”
I’ve spent the past ten years living in this region—what Pablo Neruda referred to as “the lithe waistline” of the Americas—flying across and hiking through it, photographing and filming, observing, participating, connecting. What follows is a peek into my little black book for these less-visited countries, a list of the places that bring out the best the region has to offer: small hotels where the owners are on hand to welcome guests, bistros where the chefs themselves serve the meals, ancient sites that are explained by those who excavate them—personal hosts who open doors for intrepid travelers.
The second-poorest but largest Central American country, Nicaragua is about the size of New York State and has substantial coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific. To many, the only things the place brings to mind are Sandinistas, Oliver North, and the Iran-Contra affair. But times have changed: The United States is no longer supporting the contras, and the country’s president is once again Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader whose first administration, from 1985 to 1990, the contras opposed. These days most dollars flowing in from the States are in exchange for beachfront property near great surf breaks.
In Nicaragua’s low-slung capital, the 13-room Hotel Los Robles is the only hotel with any real charm; it has well-appointed rooms and a welcoming owner, Swiss-Nicaraguan Walter Bühler. At La Casa de los Nogueras, Spanish chef Jean-François Noguera Bussalleu prepares excellent Mediterranean-inspired dishes: Start with the Catalan-style lobster and end with the homemade orange sorbet. My favorite shop in the country, Simplemente Madera, is actually a design studio where Forest Stewardship Council–certified Nicaraguan hardwoods are transformed into elegant furniture. Founded in 2002, the company pioneered responsible use of the nation’s wood resources.
This city is an easy hour’s drive from Managua. (There are recognizable car rental agencies at the airport, roads here are decent, and traffic is minimal.) Opened in 1953, Hotel Alhambra, on the central plaza, retains a certain neocolonial charm—and its airy main foyer is a hub for all that goes on in town. Just behind the cathedral, El Zaguán serves superb local cuisine, especially grilled meats, and two blocks away, in a former Spanish Colonial home, is MiMuseo, the best place in Granada to see Nicaraguan pre-Columbian art and artifacts. At the Convento de San Francisco, an old monastery turned national museum, my favorites are the oil paintings done by the self-taught artists of the Solentiname archipelago (on the southeast shores of Lake Nicaragua) and the dramatic, freestanding stone sculptures carved—with no metal tools—between A.D. 800 and 1200 on the Lake Nicaragua islands of Ometepe and Zapatera.
San Juan del Sur
An hour’s drive west of Granada lies the scruffy beach town of San Juan del Sur. Here the much-buzzed-about—but well worth the hype—Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge offers 15 handsome hardwood cottages overlooking a private crescent of Pacific Coast beach. The 1,800-acre property has its own organic farms that supply much of the produce on the lodge’s menu—a unique blend of Nicaraguan, French, and Asian cuisines. Guests can go for a swim in the ocean or a ride on the schooner, take a yoga class, count sea turtles, or explore the Pacific dry forest with lodge naturalists in 4x4s.
The majority of Guatemala’s 14 million citizens are indigenous Maya, and there are more than 20 Mayan languages still spoken here. Though the nation is experiencing the poverty of progress—overpopulated villages of concrete blocks and satellite dishes—there are many reasons to visit: highland lakes nestled among the country’s 34 volcanoes, as well as ancient monuments, vibrant markets, and unique Maya festivals that help preserve this 4,000-year-old culture.
Most flights to Guatemala land in the capital, Guatemala City. I recommend continuing directly to Antigua, the old capital, which dates back to the 16th century. (Transportation from the airport can be arranged by any Antigua hotel.) Here I stay at Quinta Maconda, a four-room colonial guesthouse. (Full disclosure: It’s owned by my partner, John Heaton.) Filled with antiques, art, and storied charm, the house has been on the registry since 1547.
Antigua is a shopper’s paradise. An excellent selection of fine Guatemalan jewelry, pottery, and wooden figurines is available at Casa de Artes, and Nim Po’t stocks a large assortment of Guatemalan folk art and indigenous crafts and weavings. At Cerería Evelia del Pinal, the Cuevas family has been making hand-carved beeswax candles for clergy (and now top designers in the know) since 1890. Then there is the delightfully sub-rosa Libros San Cristóbal, whose letterpress books—many of which have found their way into top libraries and museums around the world—are made by local craftsmen using the finest leathers, exotic skins, and paper.
For a snack there are the delicious pepitoria (pumpkin seed–and–molasses) cookies at Doña María Gordillo, or La Tienda de Doña Gavi’s ice cream, which comes in unique flavors like avocado, corn, and rice. For a real meal I go to young Guatemalan chef Hector Castro’s tiny, nameless, two-year-old bistro and order the duck breast with roasted grapes. And at French chef Jean-François Moulin’s new bistro, Tartines, both the ratatouille crêpe and the arugula-pear-Gorgonzola salad are excellent.
Someday someone will build a truly grand hotel overlooking this stunning body of water. Until then my preferred lakeside stop is still the Posada de Santiago. Just outside the town of Santiago Atitlán—a two-hour drive from Antigua—the posada is made up of a hacienda and eight simple stone cottages built in 1977 by the expat American owners, Susie and David Glanville. Take the canoe out for views of local farms, towering volcanoes, and fishermen in their cowboy hats and traditional handwoven knee-length pants.
To see Guatemala’s most impressive Maya ruins, catch a TACA flight from Guatemala City to Flores, the capital of the country’s Petén region and the city closest to the Maya ruins of Tikal. While there are some attractive lodges on Lake Petén Itzá, a more compelling way to experience the area is to stay with scientists and scholars working there and go farther afield from Tikal to places like San Bartolo and Sak Nikte’.
Spending the night at an active archaeological site is a real adventure. It involves making advance arrangements with the scholars themselves, helicoptering to remote jungle sites, and sleeping in tents with no electricity. But it’s worth the hassle: Visitors to San Bartolo can see the stunning polychrome murals from circa 100 b.c. that Boston University archaeologist William Saturno discovered in 2001. At Sak Nikte’ (known today as La Corona) another Maya scholar, Yale anthropologist Marcello Canuto, studies the timeworn carved-stone panels and hieroglyphs. Both men are excellent guides and welcoming hosts.
The word honduras means “depths” in Spanish, and it’s what the cartographer traveling with Christopher Columbus marked down in 1502 when their ship sailed through some rough, deep waters off the country’s northeast coast. Though the mapmaker was referring more to the water than to the land, the name stuck. Today Honduras has about seven million people of very diverse cultures: the Garifuna, who are partially of African descent; the Chorti Maya; the indigenous Miskito and Jicaque peoples; and the Spanish-speaking mestizos, who make up the majority. The poorest and most undeveloped country in Central America, Honduras is also the least known and most complex country in the region.
Though Tegucigalpa is the capital of Honduras, it is best to fly into the “second city” of the country: tropical, sugarcane-producing San Pedro Sula. From there it’s just a two-hour drive to the western village of Copán Ruinas, one mile from the entrance to the Maya ruins of Copán (or Xukpi, in ancient times). Flavia Cueva, the owner of the local Hacienda San Lucas guesthouse, can coordinate car service.
Between A.D. 400 and 800 Xukpi dominated the Copán River Valley, boasting vibrantly painted palaces, huge stone sculptures, and 25,000 inhabitants. In the 1930s the village of Copán Ruinas was built as a base for archaeologists excavating Xukpi’s ruins. The place to stay here is Cueva’s tile-roofed, six-room house, where there are always fresh wildflowers, hammocks to lie in, and pretty Maya girls cooking their grandmothers’ recipes. In the village, Honduran entrepreneur Sandra Guerra’s shop, La Casa de Todo, offers cigars, hats, jewelry, books, music, and home furnishings from every region of the country. At Finca El Cisne Carlos Castejón takes visitors riding across the dramatic landscapes of his family’s 1,800-acre coffee, cardamom, and cattle farm. And Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Preserve, a haven for tropical birds, is a short ten-minute tuk-tuk ride from town.
For Honduran travel beyond Copán, I recommend consulting with Flavia Cueva, Tanya Clementson of Copán Connections, or Belgian entrepreneurs Geert Van Vaeck and Annemarie Van Nieuwenhove, who run the tour outfit Basecamp. These experts will be able to advise, based on weather and other conditions, whether to take the one-hour bush-plane flight to La Ceiba or to make the five- to six-hour trip by car instead.
Upon arrival in this city on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, you know you have entered another world. Here the people are Garifuna—descendants of Carib Indians and African peoples known for their traditional dance form, the mesmerizing punta. In La Ceiba I like to stay at the nine-year-old Lodge at Pico Bonito, which has 22 plantation-style cottages, a great staff, and a perfect location at the juncture of the Corinto and Coloradito rivers. I go swimming in the natural rock pools, climb the wooden towers for birdwatching, and sample the harvest at a nearby pineapple plantation.
There are several flights and boat trips each day shuttling visitors and locals between La Ceiba and Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands, off Honduras’s Caribbean coast. Pico Bonito’s travel office can give guidance on the best way to get there. (I prefer the boat, though the view from the plane is spectacular.) Several large resorts have been built on Roatán, but I’m partial to the old-school Anthony’s Key Resort: Its wooden cottages sit on stilts over azure seas, which are home to magnificent coral reefs and schools of dolphins.
In 1524 the invading Spanish dubbed this region—then known as Cuscatlán, or “the land of precious things,” by the indigenous Pipil—La Provincia de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, el Salvador del Mundo (The Province of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World), a name that was quickly and thankfully abbreviated to El Salvador. Too often remembered only for its 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the country today is delightfully unspoiled by tourism. The smallest, most densely populated of the Central American nations—seven million people live in an area just smaller than Massachusetts—it boasts rugged, undeveloped Pacific coastline beloved by surfers, as well as beautiful old haciendas that cultivate native indigo.
The country’s capital city does not yet have any charming small hotels; for now the 194-room Radisson Plaza Hotel is the best bet. Well located for shopping and museums, it has a handsome pool and a wonderful concierge, the knowledgeable, bilingual Jocelyn Alvarez. Charming Italian Roberto Sartogo graciously presides over my restaurant of choice here, Il Buon Gustaio, which he operates out of a clean-lined Neutra-style house. I order his homemade porcini tagliatelle.
While in Salvador, hire a car and driver; the hotel concierge can make the arrangements. About 45 minutes north of the city lies the village of Suchitoto, home to my favorite Salvadorean lodge, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. Former Parisian event planner Pascal Lebailly took the ruins of an indigo merchant’s domain and converted them into a six-room hotel, which he opened in 2003. Three blocks from Los Almendros is Argentine artist Miguel Martino’s La Casa del Escultor. A painter and wood and metal sculptor, Martino also loves to cook. On Sundays he and his wife transform his studio into an informal restaurant, with grilled meats and regional vegetables. At the town’s only dock on nearby Lake Suchitlán, simple, open-air boats are available for rent—this is the best way to see the tens of thousands of herons, cormorants, ducks, and egrets that flock here year-round.
Indigo is native to Central America, and El Salvador produces a small portion of the world’s best. In La Libertad—20 minutes northwest of San Salvador, by car—Grace Guirola-Séassal, the daughter of one of the country’s founding families, owns and runs a working indigo plantation, the Hacienda San Juan Buenavista. She recently opened two rooms in the 500-year-old manor house to guests, who can take indigo-dyeing courses, hike through the fields for stunning views of the Pacific, or just enjoy lazy afternoons in the hacienda’s cool corridors.
Hotel Alhambra Rooms, $65–$120. West side of the Parque Central, Granada; 505-2/552-4486; hotelalhambra.com.ni
Hotel Los Robles Rooms, $100. Managua; 505-2/267-3008; hotellosrobles.com
Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge Rooms, $180–$265. San Juan del Sur; 505-2/254-7989; morgansrock.com
El Zaguán Dinner, $15. Calle la Sirena, Granada; 505-2/552-2522
La Casa de los Nogueras Dinner, $30. 17 Av. Principal Los Robles, Managua; 505-2/278-2506; firstname.lastname@example.org
Convento de San Francisco North of Plaza de Leones, Granada; 505-2/552-5535
MiMuseo 505 Calle Atravesada, Granada; 505-2/552-7614; mimuseo.org
Simplemente Madera Calle Principal Los Robles, Managua; 505-2/276-8840; simplementemadera.com
Posada de Santiago Rooms, $65–$95. Santiago Atitlán; 502-7/721-7366; posadadesantiago.com
Quinta Maconda Rooms, $145–$200. 11 Fifth Av. Norte, Antigua; 866-621-4032; quintamaconda.com
Hector Castro Dinner, $12. 9A First Calle Poniente, Antigua; 502-7/832-9867
Tartines Dinner, $22. 1C Fourth Calle Oriente, Antigua; 502-7/882-4606
Casa de Artes 11 Fourth Av. Sur, Antigua; 502-7/832-0792; casadeartes.com.gt
Cerería Evelia del Pinal 30 Sixth Calle Poniente, Antigua; 502-7/832-0616
Doña María Gordillo 11 Fourth Calle Oriente, Antigua; 502-7/832-0403
La Tienda de Doña Gavi 2 Third Av. Norte, Antigua; 502-7/832-6514
Libros San Cristóbal To make an appointment, contact email@example.com
Nim Po’t 29 Fifth Av. Norte, Antigua; 502-7/832-2681; nimpot.com
Sak Nikte’ To arrange a visit, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
San Bartolo To arrange a visit, contact email@example.com
Anthony’s Key Resort Rooms, $150–$225. Sandy Bay, Roatán; 800-227-3483; anthonyskey.com
Hacienda San Lucas Rooms, $110–$125. Copán Ruinas; 504/651-4495; haciendasanlucas.com
Lodge at Pico Bonito Rooms, $240–$325. La Ceiba; 504/440-0388; picobonito.com
Finca El Cisne Copán Ruinas; 504/651-4695; fincaelcisne.com
La Casa de Todo Av. Los Sesemiles, Copán Ruinas; 504/651-4689; casadetodo.com
Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Preserve Copán Ruinas; 504/651-4245; macawmountain.com
Basecamp Copán Ruinas; 504/651-4695; basecamphonduras.com
Copán Connections Copán Ruinas; 504/651-4182; copanconnections.com
Hacienda San Juan Buenavista Rooms, $120–$150. Huizucar, La Libertad; 503-2/249-1919; azulmaya.com.sv
Los Almendros de San Lorenzo Rooms, $95–$150. Suchitoto; 503-2/335-1200; hotelsalvador.com
Radisson Plaza Hotel Rooms, $160–$1,000. Colonia Escalón, San Salvador; 503-2/500-0700; radisson.com
Il Buon Gustaio Dinner, $25. 327 Calle Loma Linda, San Salvador; 503-2/245-1731
La Casa del Escultor Dinner, $20. Sixth Calle Oriente and Third Ave., Suchitoto; 503-7/836-7940; miguelmartino.com