Where to spend 10 days in Central America for vacation?
August 2, 2014 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Looking for travel recommendations in Central America late September, with some specific requests.

I'm looking for vacation ideas, and Central America has come up as a possibility. Travel time would be in September/October. I've gone through and looked at previous AskMe questions, but would appreciate relatively up-to-date recommendations and suggestions based on what I'm looking for, which includes:

- diving/swimming/snorkeling/scuba opportunities (I have no experience with diving and would be looking for classes, and am extremely nearsighted)
- in the same vein, any chances of seeing sharks of any sort?
- cave exploration
- language: I can speak some passable French and can understand Korean when my mother yells at me
- volunteer opportunities of any sort that's easy to become involved with (not necessarily medical).

If you've had any particularly great experiences or have specific recommendations of things to see or do with your destination, please share them! And if you have an idea as to how much should be budgeted per day or for the activities listed above or that you recommend, I'd appreciate that as well.

Thanks so much!
posted by herrdoktor to Travel & Transportation around Central, SC (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have a friend who loves diving and leads a college trip every year, and has been to many diving destinations in the Caribbean and Central America. Belize is the top of his list.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:02 PM on August 2, 2014

I can tell you that the Honduras coast (Caribbean) has world class snorkelling. Specifically, Roatan. Also, Panama's Caribbean coast has the Bocas Del Toro islands. Both are incredible.

As for language, Spanish is the Lingua Franca, but the snorkeling areas receive so much tourism that English works pretty well.
posted by antipode12 at 11:42 PM on August 2, 2014

I just got back from San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua. This place has a lot of what you are looking for. It is possible to dive, with lots of excursions, but the place is more of a surfer hotspot. There are some caves to explore if you ask around too. Additionally, there are ample opportunities to do some volunteer work. For example, The mobile library will take people out three days per week where you visit local elementary schools and assist with record keeping at each site. They give full instructions on what to do. As far as Spanish goes, knowing some helps. But it's touristy so a lot of businesses speak English.
posted by Captain Sunshine at 11:47 AM on August 3, 2014

Best answer: Just returned from CA three months ago, so this information is up to date.

Diving & snorkelling are for the Caribbean (read: north+west) coasts of CA. The Pacific coast is more for surfing. There are a few tourist "hot spots" along the Caribbean coast of CA that offer diving courses, mostly 5 days long, I think:

- The Cancun area of Mexico (but not Cancun!), called Quintana Roo state: Isla Mujeres has a great hostel called Pocna which offered what appeared to be excellent and thorough diving courses. Also, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel - didn't visit them but know a few people who went diving there.

- Belize: Caye Caulker.

- Honduras: Utilla

Costa Rica and Panama probably have great diving spots on their caribbean coasts, but I don't know much about them. Besides, these are the two most expensive and "americanized" countries in CA. Nicaragua's north is pretty hostile, I don't imagine you'll find yourself there.

As for volunteering opportunities, I believe most programs are for longer periods of time, but once you've decided where to travel you can conduct more targeted google searches. I think October is sea-turtle hatching time, so you can look into that. You should take note that there is a big debate surrounding volunteer tourism, whether it has a positive or a negative effect. I tend to agree with the negative aspect of it (for more info, just google "volunteer tourism opinion"). But understand that just by spending money in a certain country, you are contributing to its economy, because tourism is a big source of income for most of these countries. You can also choose to travel with companies (hostels, tourism companies, diving schools) that have a social agenda - some companies specifically hire locals to give them more job opportunities (as opposed to tourists who work in a hostel for a few months to pay for their travels), or donate part of their earnings to community projects, etc.

Language shouldn't be a barrier. As mentioned, people who work in tourist towns have passable English (at least for buying/ordering/asking for directions). In the rest of the region, you'll be hard pressed to find someone who speaks any English at all. But as someone who also speaks very basic French, I found it was really easy to pick up a few basic phrases in Spanish and just rely hand signals to get by.

Also, you should take into consideration the weather - sep/oct is the end of the rainy season, which in the more tropical areas of CA (Honduras, CR, Panama) means a lot of rain, depending on the specific area. Mexico and Belize are less tropic, I believe, so they might be drier. It'd be wise to check ahead.

Now, a quick rant about travel in Central America, which you can skip if you have your heart set on the type of trip you want:
I don't know exactly who you are and what you enjoy, but a word of warning: A lot of times the beach towns with the diving schools attract the type of tourists who are more interested in having fun than in really travelling and getting to know a new country and culture. That means that there'll be a lot more English, a lot more parties and noise in most places, and everything will feel tailored for tourists, as opposed to authentic. During my travels, however beautiful the coasts were, I always prefered being inland and experiencing the country I was in as opposed to partying with other tourists. YMMV. BUT if you are an adventurous type, why not spend your ten days in Mexico, or Guatemala, or Nicaragua, away from the shores? 10 days is perfect for seeing San Cristobal de las Casas and the Palenque jungle & ruins in Mexico, and there are cheap domestic flights from Mexico City to San Cristobal. 10 days is perfect for a brief stint in Guatemala - maybe a few days around Lago Atitlan, and a few days in Xela, or Antigua, two very different cities, both very close to active volcanoes that you can climb.

In short, Central America has beautiful diving spots and beautiful beaches, but I also recommend considering other travel opportunities in the region.
posted by alon at 12:37 PM on August 3, 2014

+1 for alona's suggestion of Guatemala or Nicaragua. Nicaragua was one of my favorite places on Earth, for culture, for travel, and for time-spent-out-of-your-usual-life.

The people were consistently warm. The American's were consistently absent. Avoid Managua.
posted by antipode12 at 2:32 PM on August 14, 2014

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