Jenna & Brendan's five-country, Central American, backpacking adventure

June 18 2013 | offbeatbride

It's summer time and as my mind starts to turn to vacation schemes, we also have new Home & Life schemes. We're thinking of moving Offbeat Bride's honeymoon profiles over here to continue our celebration of life after weddings. And, you know, to hook you up with awesome travel ideas!

Macaw Mountain, Honduras
At the bird sanctuary, Macaw Mountain, Honduras.
Honeymooners: Jenna & Brendan

Type: International travel

Budget: Midrange ($1000-$5000)

Where did you go? After a few days in New York and Washington, DC with friends who had never been, we flew into Panama City and traveled overland to Guatemala Antigua via Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. We stopped in Panama City and Boquete in Panama, the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, Isla Ometepe and Granada in Nicaragua, Copan Ruinas in Honduras, and Tikal, Semuc Champey and Antigua in Guatemala. It took us a month and we did the whole thing by bus!

Panama City
Panama City -- The only capital city in Central America worth visiting, Panama City is dynamic and booming.

We chose this destination for no particular reason — we'd never done any traveling in Latin America, I'd heard that Panama and Nicaragua were amazing and underrated destinations, and, duh, Tikal and Antigua! it was in our budget and the geography of Central America lends itself to backpacking on an open-jaw ticket.

Granada
Iglesia de la Merced in Granada - you can pay a small fee to climb the bell tower
What did you do? A little bit of everything. And I really mean that! We did some urban exploration and ate high-end food in Panama City. The area where we stayed, Casco Viejo, is where the colonial buildings are, was very dangerous until recently, and is now undergoing urban renewal. We saw the Panama Canal, too! We went ziplining and drank amazing Panama Guessha coffee in Boquete, where we also took a one-day Spanish class (we'd both studied it in school, and forgotten most of what we'd learned – now that I study Chinese, when I wanted to express something in Spanish but Chinese was coming out). We sat on a beach and went hiking and kayaking in Costa Rica (where we saw four kinds of monkey in one day, as well as sloths, poisonous frogs and toucans). We wandered through churches and climbed bell towers in Grenada, a highlight of our trip in part for the delicious local fried cheese and our boutique hotel. We climbed a volcano in Ometepe, getting covered in mud on the way to a view out over the twin volcano on the adjoining island and Lago de Nicaragua.

Scenes from the Copan Ruinas.
Scenes from the Copan Ruinas.

Then we got stuck in a tropical storm and spent a night in the not-entirely-safe city of Tegucigalpa before heading to Copan Ruinas in the north. The scenery on the way was spectacular! After visiting a bird sanctuary and exploring Mayan ruins in Copan Ruinas and Tikal (a short bus ride away across the Guatemalan border), we swam in limpid stepped lakes in Semuc Champey and kicked back in style — and did a lot of shopping and eating — in Antigua.

It was really interesting to do the entire trip by bus. We weren't up for renting a car to zip up the highway (neither of us is a confident driver). In some places, the high-end buses had more security than most airports, including photos, document copies, multiple x-rays and inspections. This is all due to the dodgy security situation north of Costa Rica. In others, it was real local travel, with Latin music or Spanish-language soap operas blasting over the bus speakers.

Spider Monkey!
A baby spider monkey hangs out on my back in Nicaragua.

What would you have done differently? Saved a bit more money and taken more time to include some stops that are less touristy, especially in Panama and Nicaragua, and more of Guatemala (As a coffee lover, I would have loved a trip to Huehuetenango). I would have liked to have included Belize and El Salvador — basically, more time. There's so much to see!

Ometepe
Isla Ometepe has two volcanoes - this photo is taken from halfway up Volcan Maderas with a view of Volcan Concepcion. We hiked to the cloudline on Maderas before turning around.

What was the most meaningful moment of the trip? There are too many to pick just one. That's not surprising, considering that the trip was a month long!

My birthday, which landed smack in the middle of the trip, was really memorable. We started the day by hiking in the jungle, where we saw a howler monkey, helped some guys who'd gotten stuck in a flooded section of road and then spotted a sleeping three-toed sloth and a toucan. We came back covered in mud – my boots never quite recovered – and I took a shower in our cabin, on the 2nd floor in the jungle canopy. I looked out the screen window (no blinds, because there's no way for anyone to see you) and saw a tiny squirrel monkey watching me curiously! Then we took a long walk on an empty beach under stormclouds while our eco-friendly resort's pet dogs followed us, and then attended a party at the resort (which we stayed at for a song because it was the off-season and we were the only guests – the partygoers were all locals and local expats) where they gave us a cake and announced our newlywed status and my 30th birthday.

The famous Star Wars view
The famous Star Wars view. It was in A New Hope for about ten seconds. Hope you like my Engrish shirt!

Second to that was standing on the site from which the view of the Yavin-4 rebel base was shot in Star Wars, wearing the most ridiculously worded t-shirt I own. It was definitely the geekiest part of the trip.

In Nicaragua, we took a bus on a rainy day to a "famous market". The market was so-so, but a local kid with a pet spider monkey (which I have some ethical objections to…) came over while we were drinking coffee, and the monkey sat on my shoulders. Later, in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, some parrots would alight on my shoulders. Finally, at Café Fernando in Guatemala Antigua, the café's cat would perch himself on my shoulders – apparently my shoulders were the happenin' place to be that month!

Zip line tour in Boquete, Panama
Brendan comes in on one of the longer zip lines.

Ziplining in Panama was ridiculously fun. You don't see a lot because you're concentrating on not getting stuck or destroying your fingers, but just whooshing through the treetops is a great thrill.

After all that, when we got to Guatemala Antigua we were exhausted. This part of the trip felt like a more typical honeymoon. Our boutique hotel was comfortable, with a view over tiled rooftops to a nearby volcano, and we spent most of the time drinking fantastic coffee at Café Fernando, wandering the cobbled streets and exploring churches and monasteries, both ruined and functional. We had one amazing dinner there at La Fonda de la Calle Real near the famous Arco de Santa Catalina (the most famous landmark in Antigua). My mouth still waters when I think about the food (traditional Guatemalan cuisine) we had there!

Honduras
Macaw Mountain rehabilitates sick and mistreated birds, and the friendlier ones are let out of their cages at certain times.

What's your best travel advice for other offbeat honeymooners? Take a few days "off" at first. If you're not leaving immediately, that means relax at home and regain your energy after the wedding — even if you had a small wedding, your emotional energy will need to be recharged.

If you do leave immediately, spend the first two days doing nothing. Then go and have a blast. Oh, and expect to get sick. I caught a nasty cold and I think it was my body finally releasing all of the stress and energy from making the wedding happen.

Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey was formed by water flowing over a natural limestone bridge above a river, creating pools and small waterfalls that are very good for swimming.

Don't feel like you have to do fancy things, like stay in pricey hotels — a honeymoon is just as much fun taking the bus between mid-range hotels in amazing places. If you do go fancy, try to go eco-friendly. The two "nice" places we stayed were either ecologically conscious (the resort in Osa) or sensitive to preserving local culture (the boutique hotel in Antigua).

View from our hotel, Antigua
View from our hotel, Antigua. We paid extra for a volcano view at Casa Cristina!

Never underestimate the power of good food. For me, anyway, a fantastic meal and delicious wine or coffee will bring more joy than a day at the beach. I ate one of the most memorable meals of my life in Antigua, and it's one of my happiest memories of the trip (especially as it came after three weeks of nothing but arroz y frijoles).

Cafe Fernando in Antigua
Cafe Fernando in Antigua

If you're doing a backpacking trip, always pack a thin blanket and a shawl — you never know when you'll need the layers, or to sleep somewhere unexpected — and a Swiss Army Knife. Always.

Do be safe, but don't be afraid to take risks. It's true that the buses of Central America are known for onboard armed robbery, and bus stations in major cities have more security than many airports (this was especially true in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras), but we paid a bit extra for more secure buses (most of the time…heh) and we jumped in and did it.

If you're doing a backpacking trip, always pack a thin blanket and a shawl — you never know when you'll need the layers, or to sleep somewhere unexpected — and a Swiss Army Knife. Always.

If the whole long backpacking trip by bus thing doesn't suit you, I would heartily recommend any one of our stops as a full honeymoon destination: especially Panama, Guatemala or Nicaragua. Panama is wildly underrated and relatively secure (and is the only country that doesn't export its best coffee, so be sure to drink some). Guatemala is every bit as breathtaking as you imagine. And Nicaragua is friendly, has a gorgeous landscape and is full of unexpected gems.

A three-toed sloth in Corcovado, Costa Rica
A three-toed sloth in Corcovado, Costa Rica. We saw a lot of animals in Corcovado, including my first ever three-toed sloth. Unfortunately he was sleeping and we didn't get to see his face.

Costa Rica was, as expected, gorgeous, but there's not much I can say about it that you don't already know — although if you go anywhere in Costa Rica, I'd say Osa is a must just for the wildlife and hiking. Honduras has some stunning country scenery, and I can only hope that the security situation improves.

Enough talk, let's see some honeymoon pics!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/53660106@N02/sets/72157625888873842/show

So what do you think of our idea to feature honeymoons on Home & Life?

  1. Gorgeous trip! Makes me nostalgic for our honeymoon backpacking through Peru.

    And I'd totally like to cast my vote for travel posts migrating to home and life!

    2 agree
  2. Since I got married last summer I no longer read Offbeat Bride, but I was thrilled to read this honeymoon post because it absolutely works for non-honeymoon vacation planning. I'd happily read more of these travel/honeymoon stories. Thanks!

    20 agree
  3. totally cool here. Travel is key to my leisure-time and different homie-moons are great to read about. Okay, sometimes I wonder if my norm friends who like package deals at all-inclusives are really having the blast they say they are, so I guess honeymoon all-inclusives would be interesting too. I just booked a cruise, and for the first time ever am going on a trip where I don't control the stops. I feel like I'm about to be kicked out of the explorer club. Otherwise a ticket to fly/ride and general idea of direction is all I ever need.

    1 agrees
  4. I love this idea and would be excited to see more vacations/trip planning posts over here, be they honeymoons or not.

    Also, those pictures? Gorgeous. Another place I never knew I wanted to visit.

    4 agree
    • Thanks! They're all mine (Brendan lost his camera awhile ago and hasn't bothered to replace it). It was especially hard because it was the rainy season, which is why tickets were so cheap. The near-constant cloud cover especially over Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras (we got some sun in Panama and Guatemala) made it hard to take photos.

      1 agrees
    • Have to agree with this, especially as an avid, single traveler myself! I would love to read more about traveling at any stage, with anyone, for any reason.

      • No worries! Plans are in the works to bring a travel submission form over here for ANY kind of trips. All we have right now is the honeymoon submissions over on Bride. But we'll get a non-newlywed version out ASAP! 😉

  5. I don't read Offbeat Bride much anymore, and since the honeymoons aren't featured there anymore, there's even less reason to do so. I would LOVE to read them here.

    And this one looked great!!!

  6. I adore this post! I spent a month in Honduras and have been longing to get back to Central America as soon as possible. Macaw Mountain is fantastic! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

  7. Such a great trip! My husband did almost the same for our late honeymoon last year, we traveled down from Mexico via Guatemala and Nicaragua to Costa Rica, where he has family. I also wished we had more time….

  8. This looks like a fantastic trip!! I love the pictures of the monkey and cat shoulder-sitting. Also the views are gorgeous! (I also had a nice laugh at the Engrish t-shirt).

    Really liking this new feature and will add my own once the trip I am planning (does it have to be honeymoon? Can it be a fun-moon?) is completed!

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