Cities and Towns in Central America
No one will claim that Costa Rica's capital is beautiful or even slightly enhancing. Drab concrete monsters will insult your aesthetic senses, while most of the colonial leftovers are worn down or neglected (or both) with a few splendid exceptions. The streets are bustling with people without being lively and the range of shops doesn't leave much reasons to have a browse. It's a place you go to do stuff and even that is probably best done elsewhere. It is therefore a refreshing blow to your face when you have seen too much of groomed tourist Costa Rica and need a kick of "real" Costa Rica.
More than just another great little mountain village, it is the highest in the country (1590 m above sea). The people are friendly and the air is cool. There is not much to see or do besides circling the plaza, which also seems to be what the locals do. A few kilometres outside of town, you can join the love birds at Laguna de Alegria. This crater lake with its emerald green water as been hyped as one of the prettiest place in the country, though it is probably a bit overselling it. The mountain roads to Alegria are amazing, offer splendid views over the plane and are worth the whole journey.
El Salvador has a fair share of charming villages. They even host an annual Puebla contest, voting for the best village, and La Palma is always doing well. Besides being inhabited by friendly people, it is an art centre, which they are not shy to show. Pretty much every surface, being it a wall, pole or door is painted with "La Palma" motifs in fresh colours. We're not sure if the residents think it is as pretty as the rest of us, but we like it... at least for a day.
Halfway between the Salvadorian capital of San Salvador and the Honduran border, the tiny village of Suchitoto proves good things come in small packages. The village, popular with weekenders from the city with its cobble-stoned streets and red-tiled roofs, is wonderfully atmospheric. Galleries, craft centres and street-side cafes fill the time. The laid-back town is a pleasure to stroll through. But more than strolling prowess, the nearby Suchitlan Lake offers a nice diversion. Just outside town, the bizarre Cascada Los Tercios (waterfalls) tumble over a cliff of tightly packed hexagonal stone spires.
© Louise Brønden
Just a charming little trading town. Mercado, cowboys and a parque central. Nothing more, nothing less.
The centre of this little colonial town is lovely and neat. The colorful traditional houses are cared for, the street signs are made of tiles, and the fine cathedral is freshly painted. But down the side streets the facades are decayed and it gets a little more gritty. Here the elders drag their rocking chair out in the evening to keep track of life. Right outside town the two volcanoes and Lago Nicaragua offers a range of nice day trips. This is the classic colonial town of Nicaragua.
Rivalling Granada as the "most" colonial town in the country, Leon leads regarding size and scruffiness. The huge worn cathedral (the biggest in Central America) build in 18th century is massive and the plaza in front is still a gathering place for the locals - not the tourists. Tourism is just too small and the town too big for that to happen. It is a big university city where students flock the faded streets at lunch time and where colonial houses still are homes for families, and not a fancy coffee shop. This is the real colonial town of Nicaragua.
At first sight, the old quarter down at the waterfront can seem worn down and very dodgy. Demolished buildings, empty lots, barbed wires, and scruffy looking people, but good thing are also happening. Historical houses are getting restored, great eateries are around the corner, police patrol the streets and local people are still hanging out on their balconies playing dominoes or singing along to some Latino tunes. It is place full of local character and very different from the flashy skyline of modern Panama city which is towering just across the bay. But beware of how far you venture off, for some of the most scary neighbourhoods are just a couple of blocks away.