I spent nearly 1 year backpacking through 10 insanely beautiful countries: Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. Phew! In all honesty, I feel like I could still be living that simple, adventurous life…taking long bus rides, eating street food, sleeping in bunk beds, and meeting crazy interesting people from all over the globe…but it has run its course (for now).
From the beaches in Colombia to the volcanoes in Guatemala, here are some of my favorite spots in Latin America. Let me know if you agree or disagree, and enjoy!
Best beach: Cabo San Juan (Tayrona Park), Colombia // Runner up: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
I visited countless beaches, so it’s hard to pick just one. The most memorable was inside of Tayrona Park, Colombia. You can only enter and exit this beach on foot (or by horse), and camping is encouraged. It’s small, serene, and surrounded by coconut-bearing palm trees. Local vendors hike in to sell empanadas and helados (ice cream) each day, and there’s a restaurant nearby if you want prepared food or cerveza. Bonus: you’ll experience the most amazing sunrise ever. Waking up before dawn just feels natural here.
The 10k stretch of jungle beaches in Puerto Viejo is perfection. There are hikes to viewpoints, expats meeting up for volleyball matches, surf lessons, yoga sessions, and fresh coconuts. If you’re lucky, you might catch a sloth sighting or two. It’s less touristy on this side of Costa Rica (the Caribbean), so as an added bonus, you won’t see any high rises. A “nice” Airbnb might even feel a bit rural, depending on what sort of accommodations you’re accustomed to.
Best water: Isla Holbox, Mexico
The ocean is incredibly calm for wading and swimming (but terrible for surfing), and there is a sandbank you can walk on for miles. The water never seems to get too deep, and the temperature is perrrrfect. What else can I say? I’ll let this photograph speak for itself. (Ps. There are pink flamingos here too!)
Best value: Nicaragua
This country will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my second visit, and this time I got to know it on a budget. I swam in crater lakes, hiked volcanoes, and visited the stunning cathedral posted below, all for a fraction of what I’d pay in Panama or Costa Rica. It you’re up for a lot of beans, rice, and plantains, you can easily live on $15/day. Plus, the “chicken buses” (local transport) are super fun to get around in. I like to see how each bus driver decks out the interior. (Read my full post on Nicaragua here!)
Most exotic: Punta Gallinas, Colombia
Rolling sand dunes meet the Caribbean Sea in this remote, windy location. The northernmost point of South America and very close to Venezuela, Punta Gallinas embodies peace and beauty. It’s only accessible by lancha (speed boat), and that is after driving for hours through a very large dessert. With all the effort required to get here, you’ll have Mother Nature all to yourself, except for the indigenous Wayuu who inhabit the space.
Most off the grid: Bahía Solano, Colombia
Not family vacation friendly, but definitely for the adventurous traveler, Bahía Solano can only be accessed by boat or tiny plane. (Are you sensing a theme here?) I arrived via a 21 hour cargo ship. Yes, a cargo ship. There were insane thunderstorms. The entire town flooded. The bridge connecting us to the airport and port collapsed, and no one got in or out for an entire day. BUT, it was magical. I’ve never been anywhere like it…and there were hardly any tourists there, just how I like it.
Most postcard moments: San Blas Islands, Panama
Every day I felt like I was living in a real life screensaver. I have never seen islands so pure, so tiny, so perfect. Most of the 300+ islands are uninhabited, but the “larger ones” are populated by the Kunas. I paid for a tour with San Blas Adventures to see as many spots as possible, sleep on the islands, and meet the locals. You can also sail from Colombia to Panama if that is more your style. Either way, expect fresh seafood and dazzling sunsets on the daily.
Best food: Mexico
Specifically, Mexico City. From street cart tacos to white tablecloth lunches, there is something for every taste and budget. I am personally still drooling over the seafood tacos at Contramar. For a scene, check out Mercado Roma for a variety of eats and drinks. (Do you recognize this spot from The Bachelor with Ben Higgens?)
Tastiest beer: D&D Brewery, Honduras
Honduras is a country that I was afraid to visit. The media really got in my head, and a lot of backpackers were skipping it. I, on the other hand, did not want to skip any country on my route, so I decided to give it a try. After visiting the Copan Ruins, I went inland to Lake Yojoa and stayed at the D&D Brewery. Oh. My. Gosh. It was the first time I had real beer off the tap in months! I had pints. I had flights. I enjoyed the beer while still experiencing the sights. The brewery is run by someone originally from the states, and all the employees were Honduran.
Best dancing: Cali, Colombia
I have never seen better salsa dancers in my life! Everyone is jaw-dropping good. The speed. The passion. Ahhh. I took private lessons at a salsa school, went to small clubs, and even saw the spectacular Delirio show that is put on once a month. If you have a passion for dance, shake your hips over to Cali ASAP, and grab tickets to this show while you’re at it!
Best party: Sunday Funday, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
This pool crawl lasts all day and all night. I almost didn’t go because I’m 33, and it sounded like something I would have enjoyed at 23 (maximum). I decided to bite the bullet, and you know what? It was pretty fun! Disfruta and ready more about Sunday Funday here.
Best snorkeling: Belize
While this country wasn’t my favorite (it’s super touristy), I got to swim in caves and experience some of the best snorkeling of my life! The Great Mayan Reef extends from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down to Honduras and is home to all sorts of wildlife. I saw reef sharks, manatees/sea cows, sting rays, eels, sea turtles, and all sorts of fishies! Next time I want to swim with the whale sharks.
Best trek: Quilatoa Loop, Ecuador
The Quilotoa Loop is a trail that weaves through remote Andean villages and finishes with a breathtaking view of the Quilotoa crater lake. Go with a group so you don’t get lost! The trek can be done in 3-5 days, all of it between 9,000 and 13,000 feet, and you won’t run into many people along the way. Bliss.
Best hike (overnight or day trip): Acatengango Volcano, Guatemala
It’s steep. It’s hot. It’s also freeeezing cold (literally) when you camp near the summit. But it’s all worth it to see the neighboring Fuego volcano erupting right in front of you! Have you ever seen lava shoot out of a volcano? EPIC.
Biggest surprise: El Salvador
San Salvador was once considered the most dangerous city in the world, so I was skeptical (ah hem terrified) to visit the capital, let alone the entire country. It turns out that my fear was wayyyy off base. I met the friendliest people and had a great experience all around! I sort of hitchhiked from the border of Honduras to get to the capital, and I ended up becoming good friends with the driver and his wife. They ended up showing me all around their beautiful country for an entire week! Meeting the locals is the best way to get to know a spot (but you don’t have to hitchhike to do it. That was totally unintentional, and I was with 2 strong men.)
Best anthem: “Duele El Corazon” by Enrique Iglesias // Runner up: “Shaky Shaky” by Daddy Yankee
Yes, it’s terrible, but I love love love reggaeton. (Btw, if you love the Justin Beiber remix of “Despacito” then you do too!) I taught myself all the words to Enrique’s hit on a long bus ride in Ecuador, and it has been stuck in my head ever since.
Well, there you have it! A roundup of some of my favorite spaces and places from my #wanderingdawn adventures!
What are your favorite spots in Latin America, or elsewhere?
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