First time backpacking in Central America - Nicaragua or Guatemala??
Replies: 11 - Last Post: Jul 9, 2012 7:33 PM Last Post By: SoloHobo
Jul 4, 2012 9:22 PM
- hiking (e.g. jungle, nature)
- attractions (e.g. ruins, caves)
- cost (transporation/food/hostel)
Edited by: lennyd44
Jul 5, 2012 4:17 AM
1That's a tough decision :) Both places are great, but I do have to say there was something a little more special for me in Nicaragua.
Cost wise I found Nicaragua a tiny bit cheaper - but barely enough to notice, and may have been b/c I had more time there so was in less touristy spots. Guatemala though isn't known for it's beaches, I've only been to Monterrico and it wasn't special at all. I think, but don't know from personal experience, that diving in Nica will be better.
For culture - I met great people in both. GT has a stronger Mayan culture. I had good and bad food in both, I wouldn't really rate one over the other.
But for ruins - Guatemala wins...
Jul 5, 2012 9:20 AM
2It is indeed a tough decision to make, since both countries are beautiful.
As far as culture goes, it depends. Guatemala is often considered the main cultural gem of Central America, due to the prominence of the colorful Mayan cultures. IMO, this alone makes Guatemala a country worth visiting, since you haven't already been there. Nicaragua is culturally interesting as well, particularly at the folk towns such as Masaya, and areas that are a little more off the beaten path. Indigenous groups also exist, but they're in the most remote areas, so that would be difficult to work with. Wherever you go, though, the people are very friendly.
In my opinion, big cities are not a highlight of Central America at all - Panama City may be my only exception. Some of the capitals do have nice colonial architecture and a few attractions, but the cities as a whole don't compare to what smaller towns and other areas offer. That being said, cities such as Antigua in Guatemala are very fascinating. In Nicaragua, I would recommend both Granada and Leon.
As far as nature goes, they both offer a lot, though they're not my favorite countries for that. In Guatemala, the region surrounding Tikal is spectacular - just by visiting the ruins, you'll be amazed. The area around Lake Atitlan is also very nice. In Nicaragua, I'd recommend Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho, and if you had the time, the area along the remote Rio San Juan.
Guatemala is definitely not about beaches, IMO. Some of the Pacific beaches are either average or unpleasant, and not a reason to travel to the country, especially with Honduras's Bay Islands being a country over. As far as diving goes, Honduras and Belize are the best countries for that, but between Nicaragua and Guatemala, I'd go for Nicaragua's Corn Islands. The diving, IMO, isn't as awesome as some parts of the Bay Islands, but it is still great.
As for ruins, Guatemala has a wealth of Mayan ruins, and depending on your itinerary, it might even be possible to visit the Copan Ruins in Honduras. Guatemala also has great heritage in terms of colonial architecture. Nicaragua doesn't have many ruins - I liked the Ruins of Leon Viejo, but other than that, it is mainly fascinating in terms of colonial architecture in Granada, Leon, and rural towns. In short, I would choose Guatemala for ruins.
I found Nicaragua slightly cheaper, but your wallet is not going to be sore from visiting Guatemala either - it is a high value country to travel to. In this case, you can't go wrong with either country. The same goes for the food.
With all this in consideration, I'd think about what particular interests you weigh most importance upon. For example, if diving is much more important to you than ruins, then I'd lean towards Nicaragua, even if it's not my favorite country (in CA) for it. If it's ruins, then Guatemala. After that, it gets difficult.
How long will you be in Central America? You stated that December is the month you'll most likely travel, but not how long you hope to stay in the region.
Jul 5, 2012 9:48 AM
3Both the above posters lay out the positives and negatives well, so just to add to your list-
I think Guatemala has the most cultural offerings compared to Nicaragua, not to discount Nicaraguas culture at all, but you have some wonderful ruins to visit in Guatemala, not to mention ethnic Mayan villages through out the country. You also have the Garfuna/Miskito culture on the caribe side in Livingston/Rio Dulce. The UNESCO world heritage city of Antigua is a lovely old spanish colonial area of ods churches, casas and a vibrant nightlife and cuisine scene. Lake Atitlan is one the prettiest areas I ever scene, nicer than Inle Lake Burma, or 4000 Islands Laos, and its a good base to chill and a great place to party too. But beaches are not a good thing overall in Guatemala, as the Pacific side is pretty univiting and run down and the surf is huge with black sand beaches. So for some beach time, you would be best served to head to Belize maybe, and some great scuba diving. There is also great scuba diving in Bay Islands Honduras, which you can access after Copan Honduras ruins, though you need a good 10 days just for the Honduras portion when all said and done. Belize Cayes/Honduras Bay Islands, is on the second longest reef in the world...
Nicaragua is a nice blend of culture and adventure/outdoors, and the Corn Islands are really off the beaten path when compared to most beach areas in the region. Its also a different culture being afro Miskito. Its best to fly to the CI, its about $200 R/T. Another great area to explore is the Rio San Juan river area, as well as great fishing.
The main difference between SE Asia and Central America is safety, night time in the majority of CA is not very user friendly, and you need to be aware of where not to go, and also use taxis, safety is main drag. The other difference is the food/cuisine overall is more exotic, tasty and less expensive in SE Asia, besides Burma. Start reading this branch weekly/daily, every issue and risk will be discussed and debated weekly. Or just read back.
December is high season, so there will be more people overall, but never as nutty as Thailand, Vietnam or Laos, which has true backpacker ghettos, like KSR in Bangkok, Vang Vieng Laos, and Siem Reap Cambodia to mention a few.
I was going solo to Costa Rica 3-4 times year for a decade for long weekends to surf and enjoy the nature/wildlife and adventure, and each Xmas going solo to SE Asia for 3 weeks and have been all over SE Asia, much of it via a moto. But I was really surprised how enjoyable and nice Guatemala was two years ago with my wife, we had a great time there for 3 weeks, though I have taken her to CR two times, she liked the culture and traditions in Guatemala.
Just a note on the scuba diving, apparently Dec is peak rainy season in the Bay Islands, so check into that. There are a lot of micro climates in the region, and some times one coast or elevation is the opposite of the rest the mainland or region.
How many weeks you have also impact where to go, if under two weeks, head to Nicaragua, if more, head to Guatemala.
Overall, avoid the capitals, they crime ridden, congested and polluted, and not worth the time compared to the rest of the country.
Jul 5, 2012 5:36 PM
4My two favorite countries in CA. You can't really go wrong with either place. Probably Nicaragua is just slightly cheaper, not by much, with slightly less tourist infrastructure. Guatemala has the stronger indigenous culture, but in both countries there is powerful living history leftover from the long wars which ended only about 20 years ago. Both places offer beautiful natural areas for hiking, though you do have to be careful about hiking alone in rural areas. Nicaragua has a few more climbable volcanoes, but Guatemala has all of the Mayan ruins in the north.
It's too hard to choose.
Jul 6, 2012 8:05 AM
5Thank you all for insightful info for things to do and places to check out. I'm planning to be there between 8 - 11 days. I know it's very short but it sucks planning for travel when you have a job. My goal is to travel overseas at least once a year though.
Based on the information, I'm leaning toward Guatemala (culture, ruins). I think I can do without beaches this year (I visited Phuket and Krabi, Thailand last year). With that short time, I'm thinking about covering Antigua and Tikal. Any other recommendation?
It's very likely this will be a solo trip. Any advice on Safety is much appreciated. I'd have to do more research on that topic.
Jul 6, 2012 8:32 AM
6You are spoiled after Thailands beaches/islands, so just focus on culture.
Guatemala is easy enough to base in Antigua 45 minutes from the airport. Getting to Tikal/Flores is a long hual, but can be broken up, like some nice waterfalls in Semuc and the area around Coban.
Though Nicaragua is more compact to see the big 3, Granada, Leon and Ometepe island.
Jul 6, 2012 6:20 PM
7Going to Guatemala, you should definitely not miss Lake Atitlan. It's ringed around by volcanoes and indigenous villages, and is often mentioned when people make up lists of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It's maybe about 4 hours from Antigua. The entry point is the town of Panjachel, with lots of hostels and hotels, but there are other lodging options in towns scattered around the lake, for those who want something more remote.
Jul 9, 2012 3:51 AM
8Just came across this post.... Me and my friend (2 girls) are planning on traveling through central america in October/november time and are wondering if any of you guys that have already travelled through could give us an insight as to whether it is safe or not, we have travelled through south America before and had no problems there but have read some horror stories online whilst trying to put a rough itinerary together, which is somewhat putting us off!! Any advice will be greatly appreciated!
Jul 9, 2012 1:09 PM
9@ Maddie87: I'd go for it. Honestly, the vast majority of travelers that have visited Central America have had only pleasant experiences, which would overwhelm the few horror stories. I recommend taking simple safety precautions, and you'll be fine. Safety is often discussed in this forum, so I'd do a search for "Guatemala safety" and so on, since they're so common. If you've travelled through South America, Central America shouldn't be any more of a hassle regarding safety, even in the countries with the most serious reputations for being "dangerous".
Jul 9, 2012 7:11 PM
10You should have a safe trip; most people do, and really enjoy CA. It's good that you're travelling with a friend. Just use normal precautions, and be much more careful when in a major city like Guatemala city or San Pedro Sula. Also, be sure to get advice from local people before you plan any walks in the countryside.
Jul 9, 2012 7:33 PM
11If you travelled SA with no issues, you should be fine in CA. Safety is a issue everywhere, but it is usually petty crime and muggings, that occur to 1% of travelers, the other 99% are fine. Big cities/capitals are the place to avoid be very careful and sue taxis etc.
The main issue is really the time of year, its peak rainy season, so be prepared for afternoon showers or worse, if a tropical low or hurricane is in the Yucatan...
Most of Costa Rica and Panama in October are best avoided IMO, and key parks are closed and many places hard to even reach, or the beaches have major mud run off from the rivers...
Dengue fever is a issue in rainy season in lowlands and beaches too, so stay abreast of outbreaks by asking lodging/bartenders and taxi drivers etc..
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