Non-Resorty Vacation Spots in the Caribbean & Central America
April 28, 2014 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I would like to hear your recommendations for travel locations in the Caribbean and Central America which are focused more on culture and history than lying on a beach.

I love wandering around cities and small towns in Europe, but it costs a lot of money and time to get there. I'm wondering where I can find a similar experience closer to home (which is the East Coast of the US).

My husband is zero percent interested in the more traditional tropical vacation (beach/snorkeling/fruity cocktails/etc) and it's not really my first choice, either. I would like to have personal reports with which to convince him, for example, that Puerto Rico would be a good place to spend a week - Old Town San Juan looks lovely, but I'm not sure how much there is to explore outside of that area. Someone has told me Nicaragua looks interesting but she has not actually been yet there herself. So, are there places we can go to learn about the plantation history of the Caribbean? See Spanish explorer stuff? Interesting historical architecture? Other?

Thanks for your help.
posted by something something to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Dominican Republic
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:40 AM on April 28, 2014

I really recommend Puerto Rico. First, you don't need a passport. Secondly, it's very different culturally than the US. Plus, the food is amazing!

Here's a listing of historical places in Puerto Rico. I've been to the Fort and Old Town and have enjoyed both tremendously.

There's the El Yunque National Forest, which is fun to explore and gorgeous.

I believe that you'll both be very happy with Puerto Rico.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:00 AM on April 28, 2014

It sounds like you might love Antigua Guatemala. It is the "old" Guatemala City, and is still very much in the style of an old Spanish town. There are many accomodation options, from 5 stars to one star, you'll surely find something to fit your budget.

And if you're going to Guatemala, I would definitely also go to Lake Atitlan. There are several small towns surrounding it, all very chill. You'll probably enjoy the atmosphere. Once in the area there is a bunch of cultural stuff to take a look at, you could enjoy the open market at Chichicastenango, visit the active Fuego Volcano, or one of the many caves, oh and of course the Mayan ruins at Peten.

I can't recommend Guatemala enough. It's pretty safe for tourists, especially if you stay away from the Capital city. Plus from there it's a short(ish) drives to the Copan Ruins in neighbouring Nicaragua, and the rest of Central America.

If you have any questions feel free to send me a PM! Oh and also, if you'd like I can get you in touch with my brother in law. He lives there and used to operate his own tour company, he's in a different line of work now but knows the ins and outs of tourism in the region and as a pretty swell guy he'll be happy to give some friendly advice.
posted by papafrita at 8:05 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Merida and the surrounding Yucatan penninsula. If you fly into (but don't stay in) Cancun, it's a relatively quick and cheap flight.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:08 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding everything papafrita said about Guatemala. Although I do think Guatemala City is worth a visit, too. As long as you do a little research ahead of time and plan where you will be and where you will avoid, it's fine, and there are arguably some risks in visiting some of the other places, so you might as well go for it. But I've been to Guatemala three times without major incident, and would go again in a heartbeat. If you do go, please read up on the history of the country from the mid-20th century, to get some context for contemporary life and culture. Also Copan is in Honduras, not Nicaragua.

Also, Cuba is a fascinating place that has the things you want, but obviously there are additional logistics involved when traveling from the U.S.
posted by univac at 8:24 AM on April 28, 2014

Costa Rica? San Jose has all of the things you mentioned.
posted by xbonesgt at 10:05 AM on April 28, 2014

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba. Don't believe the hype, it's easy to go. And so worth it.

Colombia is a home run destination if Cuba is too "scary". Cheap flights from the US too. It's safer than the US, honestly. Cartagena is super awesome. San Gil is my utopia.

Puerto Rico. Mexico. Grenada. Nicaragua. Costa Rica (but get out of San Jose asap).

Have fun!
posted by karst at 12:45 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Grenada in Nicaragua has a lot of history, and you can use it as a base to explore the whole southern part of Nicaragua. San Juan del sur for beaches, climb volcanos and look at petroglyphs in ometepe, the market in masaya, and Laguna de apoyo.
posted by empath at 1:03 PM on April 28, 2014

I usually don't plug specific commercial enterprises, but 20 or so years ago a lawyer I knew in Minnesota threw caution to the wind, sold everything he had an bought land in Costa Rica. He and his wife set up the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge.

I've known a few folks who have visited there and loved what they found.

Read about it, it's not just laying around by the pool. There are lots of local activities including helping out on conservation projects, etc.

I don't get anything out of recommending his place, and I suspect that he no longer remembers who I am, but the other folks who have visited have all noted that it is worth a visit.
posted by mygoditsbob at 1:23 PM on April 28, 2014

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