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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

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Wild Animal Encounters

Spotting critters is a big goal and a definite highlight of our Trans-Americas Journey and we’ve had some amazing wild animal encounters as we’ve traveled through The Americas. Back in 2010 we put together a list of our top wild animal encounters to that point which included grizzlies in Alaska, scarlet macaws in Mexico and (almost wild) jaguars in Belize. On the eve of Earth Day we thought it was high time we updated that list to include the whale sharks, resplendent quetzal birds, hammerheads, turtles and so much more that we’ve seen since.

Red eyed Tree frog Costa Rica

One of many red-eyed tree frogs that stared us down in Costa Rica.

See more of this adorable little guy and his other rainforest friends in our post from Rainforest Adventures in Costa Rica.

School of Hammerhead sharks

We were surrounded by hammerheads (and loved it) while scuba diving around Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of the Undersea Hunter Group.

Hammerheads were just the beginning of our underwater wild animal encounters. Get the full sharky story in our Cocos Island post.

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male quetzal emerged from its nest inside a hollow tree trunk and posed for us on a nearby branch in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Learn how you can visit this wonderful protected forest and lodge and bag your own quetzal sighting in our post from Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Gentoo Penguins Port Lockroy Antarcica

Gentoo penguins proved they are even more adorable in person when we visited Antarctica.

We also sighted killer whales, chin strap penguins and crabeater seals in Antarctica. See them all in our photo-filled posts from Antarctica.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Small snorkeler with massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico where we also got in the water with these giants. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

More whale shark details, including how to make sure sea sickness doesn’t ruin your encounter, are in our post about snorkeling with whale sharks near Cancun.

A herd of buffalo literally roamed through our campground in Badlands National Park.

Find out which campground and more in our Badlands National Park post.

Baby sea turtles El Salvador

We held life in the palms of our hands when we helped release baby olive ridley turtles near Barra de Santiago in El Salvador.

Watch these hatchlings scramble to the sea in our post from Barra de Santiago, El Slavador.

Black bear and cub Yellowstone National Park

A black bear and her cub explored downed trees in Yellowstone National Park.

See more bears and learn about the park’s wolf population too in our Yellowstone National Park post.

Hummingbirds - Giatemala

Hungry hummingbirds barely noticed we were there on a porch in Guatemala.

More amazing shots of these tiny stunners are in our photo essay of hummingbirds from Guatemala.

This young wolf seemed as curious about us as we were about it when our paths crossed on the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota.

See more in our Minnesota North Shore photo gallery. Read more in our Minnesota North Shore travel journals part 1 and part 2.

Harris Hawk Chucky - El Salvador Falconry

We had a wild animal encounter of a totally different kind when guide Roy Beers of Cadejo Adventures took us falconing with his Harris hawk, Chucky, in El Salvador.

Find out why hiking with a bird of prey is way cooler than normal hiking in our post about falconing in El Salvador.

A moose and her calf appeared around a bend during a hike in Grand Teton National Park.

See more in our Grand Teton National Park photo gallery.

We spent nearly an hour watching this female grizzly and her cub feast on blueberries in Denali National Park.

See more in our Denali National Park photo galleries – part 1, part 2, and part 3. Read more in our Denali National Park travel journals part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Muskox roamed the tundra on the North Slope in Alaska where we spotted them from a helicopter.

See more in our Deadhorse, Alaska photo gallery. Read more in our Deadhorse, Alaska travel journal.

This arctic fox already had its winter white coat on so it was easy to spot in the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.

See more in our Dalton Highway photo gallery. Read more in our Dalton Highway travel journals part 1 and part 2.

Gray whales put on an impressive show for us in Baja.

We wandered among millions of migrating monarch butterflies near Valle de Bravo in Mexico.

See more from this epic annual migration in our monarch butterfly migration post.

Crocodiles of all sizes lazed near our boat as we traveled to La Tovara Springs in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico.

See more in our San Blas, Mexico post.

Thousands of flamingos went about their strange pink business as we floated through the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in Mexico’s Yucatan State.

There are plenty more flamingo antics in our Rio Lagartos post.

We failed to find the whale sharks we were looking for during some scuba diving trips in Belize but a pod of bottlenose dolphins found us.

Learn more about our search for whale sharks in our post from Hopkins, Belize.

This spider monkey was just hanging out near Chan Chich Lodge in Gallon Jug, Belize.

See more in our post from Northern Belize.

A keel-billed toucan stayed put long enough for us to capture its impossibly long beak at La Milpa Field Station in Belize.

More toucans (and pygmy owls and laughing falcons and many other species) can be seen in our post about the birds of Belize.

Jaguar belize

Full disclosure: Tikatoo is not a wild jaguar but she is the closest we’ve come so far to seeing this elusive big cat in the jungle.

For more beauty shots of Tikatoo at her rescue home at Banana Bank Lodge check out our post from Belmopan, Belize.

A clan of howler monkeys befriended us while we camped at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas, Mexico.

Learn how you can have your own howler encounter in our full Las Guacamayas post.

Wild scarlet macaws gorged themselves in a tree above our tent at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas.

Want your own face time with macaws? Check out our full Las Guacamayas post.

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One Million Eyeballs!

We can hardly believe it but we just reached 500,000 views of the 202 travel videos we’ve shot, edited and uploaded to our Trans-Americas Journey YouTube channel. That’s one million eyeballs!

As you know, Eric is a photographer, not a videographer, but in the summer of 2008 he was sent a Flip Video camera (now defunct) and started shooting an occasional video or two.

These days Eric shoots video using our GoPro camera and the video function on his compact Canon S95. Basically, we wanted to be able to enhance our travel blog posts with video since so much of what we do and see and eat and survive is best explained in moving pictures.

While none of our videos have gone viral (could use your help with that), we’re quite pleased that these videos have been viewed more than half a million times. Though Eric still does not consider himself a videographer even he admits that his videos have gotten better over time (the earliest videos were pretty rough around the edges). At least now he’s figured out the basics of Adobe Premiere to edit his footage into what he hopes are more watchable and entertaining little packages with graphics and everything.

To celebrate the unexpected success of our travel videos, here’s some of our favorite and notable footage.

 

Our most watched travel video is also a personal favorite (you can’t beat pint-sized dancing cowboys):

This video has been watched more than 49,000 times. It was shot in May of 2009 when we were invited to the annual fiestas in a town in Mexico called Union de Tula. Wandering from neighborhood party to neighborhood party we came upon the La Loma neighborhood, got handed an adult beverage and sat down to enjoy this little kid putting us all to shame on the dance floor.

 

The first travel video we ever uploaded to YouTube:

Nearly four years ago, on April 25, 2009, we were on Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara in Mexico with our dearly missed friends Tom, Iliana, Cristina and David. We were all enjoying the Red Bull Air Force, Red Bull’s world famous aerial acrobatics team as they did some awesome aerial ballet over the lake. Eric filmed a bunch of clips and uploaded some of those unedited clips that very night.

 

The first travel video we ever shot:

Shortly after receiving our first Flip Video camera we were traveling through the Southwest of the US and received a coveted permit to hike “The Wave” in the North Coyotte Buttes area of the Paria Canyon Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area in Arizona. On October 28, 2008 Eric shot this “Walk through the Wave”. Sadly that first Flip Video camera didn’t have any kind of image stabilization and walking with the camera lead to a very shaky video. That said, it still conveys the awesomeness of that spectacular location and it’s been viewed more than 23,000 times.

 

Obligatory funny animal video:

No teasing ‘talking’ dogs with bacon or cat videos videos here. While Eric hasn’t videoed many animals (he’s usually too busy talking photos of them), in Northern Belize we came across this male ocellated turkey strutting his stuff. Really, still photos can’t do justice to this over-the-top display.

 

Another personal favorite:

This one is called Beetle Ballet and it has nothing to do with insects. Mexico’s famous silver mining town of Taxco is a Colonial classic built in the hills. In  addition to silver, it’s famous for wonderful architecture and some of the narrowest, steepest streets in the world. When we were there in September of 2010 it was also one of the few remaining towns in Mexico that still used old VW Beetles as taxis. This video shows how crazy these streets are, even for little cars like the VW Beetle. As you watch, imagine the shenanigans we went through to navigate our full-size truck through this town.

 

Our most recent travel video:

The most recent video we’ve uploaded comes from our great experience at this years Carnival in  Las Tablas, Panama. On Tuesday, the final evening of Carnival, the ladies dress up in the beautiful and very expensive national dress of Panama. It’s called a pollera and this video shows Polleras on Parade in the towns of La Villa de Los Santos, Santo Domingo and Las Tablas.

 

Our deepest travel video:

This video was shot during one of the coolest things we’ve ever done: riding a submersible down to 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean while we were exploring Cocos Island in Costa Rica.

 

Famous folks caught on film:

We had press credentials which got us into Mexico City’s Zocalo (main square) for the gigantic bicentennial celebrations in 2010. Not only were we directly beneath President Calderone as he shouted the traditional “Grito, we were also beneath several other Mexican icons who were sharing the balconies of the Presidential Palace during the speech including one of Mexico’s most legendary singers, Vincente Fernandez, lucha libre wrestling star Santo Jr. and the (then) newly crowned Miss Universe, Mexico’s Ximena Navarrete.

 

Why time-lapse is our friend:

We’ve used time-lapse a bit–for example, to produce videos shot with our GoPro camera mounted in the windshield of our truck to show you our driving route each month by compressing all of our  driving into a 10 minute video that shows you Where We’ve Been. This video from the Panama Canal uses time-lapse to take you from the Atlantic to the Pacific through all six of the amazingly simple yet sublime locks of this engineering marvel.

 

Subscribe to our YouTube channel  and never miss another one of our travel videos from the road as our Trans-Americas Journey continues south to Tierra del Fuego.

 

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The Majestic, Mighty, Magical Ceiba

We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this magestic, mighty and possibly magical tree.

Giant Ceiba at Tikal, Guatemala

This stately example of a ceiba tree greets visitors to the Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Ceiba Tree

A mature ceiba tree.

 

A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.

All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where  they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.

 

The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.

Young Ceiba tree spikes

A young ceiba tree--it loses these spikes as it matures.

Twin Ceiba trees at Caracol Mayan ruins

These twin ceiba trees are at the Caracol archaeological site in Belize.

Cieba El Mirador National Park

Karen dwarfed by a ceiba tree at the La Florida archaeological site near El Mirador in Guatemala.

 

 

Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.

Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree

Buttress supporting a giant Ceiba

Buttressed above-ground supports like these help keep massive ceiba trees upright, even when they grow to 200' or more.

Ceiba tree at  Hacienda Uayamon, Mexico

This ceiba tree is as old and stately as its home, the historic Hacienda Uayamon hotel in Mexico.

The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestial realm in which we live and the underworld (Xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.

Rainforest canopy observation platform built high up in a ceiba at Belize Lodge Excursions

A small observation platform suspended 100' up a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp lodge (operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions) provides one of the best bird watching and rainforest observation points in all of Belize.

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.

Giant ceiba tree in Costa Rica

This giant ceiba at the Shawandha Lodge on Costa Rica's Carribbean coast is over 205 feet (63 meters) tall and is believed to be the second tallest ceiba in all of Costa Rica.

Ceiba tree painted on a school in Belize

A ceiba tree painted on a the side of a school in southern Belize.

Bathroom built around Ceiba tree at Hacienda San Jose, Mexico

A ceiba tree continues to grow in the middle of the bathroom in one of the rooms at Hacienda San Jose hotel in Mexico.

Cotton tree (Ceiba) Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize

Cotton Tree Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize borrows another common name for the ceiba which produces pods that are full of a cotton-like fluff.

 

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Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 3 in our  “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels of the year (from showers with a view to urban eco hotels). Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Attractions of 2011 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2011 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here…

The best hotels of 2011

Best private plunge pool: The Honeymoon Cabana at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize has many romantic touches. The most irresistible one is the private plunge pool. It’s roomier and deeper that most plunge pools and it’s ultra-private with sweeping views over the hills and forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Privassion Creek below.

Best eco hotel: Sure Hotel Arbol de Fuego in San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador) has made all the usual eco moves like long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives (low-flow showers for example) that have resulted in epic reductions in energy use, water consumption and pollution.The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of the pupuseria La Unica which serves what we consider to be the best pupusas in El Salvador.

Best massage room: The petite spa at Belcampo Belize (formerly Machaca Hill Rainforest Lodge) near Punta Gorda in Belize has just one massage room but it’s a doozy. An entire wall is floor to ceiling windows  with views into some of the 13,000 acres of jungle that surrounds the resort. Book a treatment in the morning or evening for the best chance of seeing toucans and howler monkeys right outside.

Best hostel kitchen: The shared kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador has more tools and gadgets than the kitchen in our old apartment. It’s also spotless and there are two refrigerators–one entirely filled with ice-cold beer. Related thought: we’re loving this website that dishes about easy recipes that can be made in even the most basic hostel kitchen using cheap, available ingredients (and gadgets) with delicious results.

Best unexpected hotel moment: We were thrilled at the chance to witness the epic Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala. Then the owner of Hotel San Jorge (large, spotless rooms from $50 with fireplaces and Wi-Fi arranged around a meticuously maintined and super-serene garden) invited us to take it one step further. And so we found ourselves helping her create a traditional temporary street decoration called an alfombra on the road in front of her hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua that offers this experience. Our advice is to book your Semana Santa room now.

Best beach house: It’s a perfect recipe: a rustic chic private beach house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, small pool, hammock-filled deck, open air kitchen and living room all mere steps from the waves on a secluded beach. Even better, Los Caracoles, on Maculis beach in El Salvador, is owned and run by the same guys who operate the stunning Los Almendros hotel in Suchitoto–one of the best hotels in the country.

Best hotel for Mayanists: Hacienda San Lucas is a lovingly restored 100 year old family home which now oozes rustic charm in the foothills above Copán in Honduras which is home to the epic remains of the Mayan city of Copán. But you need not leave the hillside to get close to one of the most fascinating civilizations that ever existed. Hacienda San Lucas is run by Doña Flavia Cueva who is the daughter of a man roundly credited with preserving Copán and creating the archaeological discipline in Honduras.  Doña Flavia’s daughter, Frida Larios, has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. The kitchen turns out traditional Mayan dishes during five-course gourmet dinners and the hacienda is just a short walk away from a small, mysterious cluster of Mayan remains called Los Sapos.

Best outdoor shower: The outdoor “jungle showers” on the decks of the plush hillside suites at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize are spacious and beautiful but odds are you’ll be too busy admiring the view of the Caves Branch River, karst hills and sprawling orange groves in this bucolic section of Western Belize to  notice the tile work and charming use of a tin bucket. The perfect way to wash off your cave adventures!

Best boutique hotel newcomer: Newly opened five room Casa ILB in San Salvador, El Salvador is minimal, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable with rates from $110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. We did not want to leave.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 2 in our “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the year from the necessary (homemade bread) to the not so necessary (cow udder). Part 1 covered the Best Adventures & Activities of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We’ve also eaten nearly all our meals in restaurants of one description or another from street food stalls to bustling markets to multi-star restaurants. In no particular order, here are some of the best bites and top tipples that made all that time on the road even tastier.

You will notice that this list is significantly shorter than our Best Food & Beverages of 2010 list. Honestly, that’s because we didn’t spend any time in Mexico this year. You just can’t beat Mexico for spectacular food. Still, we managed to eat all right. Here are our picks for…

The best food & beverages of 2011

Best ice cream: Sin Rival truly is without rival. With locations all over El Salvador, this mini-chain, which started out as one street cart, offers all-natural flavor bombs of goodness that comes satisfyingly close to gelato.

Best beer in Central America: Tomas Wagner is serious about beer. Serious enough to drive 10 miles for his spring water. Serious enough to wear a lab coat while he brews. Serious enough to import all of his gear and ingredients from his native Germany (where he’s won awards for his beers). None of that would be remarkable in Amsterdam or Portland or Sydney but Tomas is brewing artisanal, strictly German style beer in Copán, Honduras—a small town best known for its neighboring Mayan ruins of the same name. Sol de Copán Brew Pub is not in your guidebook (yet) and the sign is easy to miss so ask anyone in town and look for the building with the turrets. We were tipped off to the existence of this truly delicious micro-brewed beer by the border agent we made friends with when I crossed into Honduras from Guatemala. He made me promise we would go see “the German” while in Copán and that we did, three nights in a row. 

Best steak: Overall, the food in Guatemala did not thrill us. Except for the steak served at a restaurant called Guajimbo on the main drag in the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. It’s not the cheapest restaurant in town by a long shot, but for 72Q (about US$9) the tender, juicy expertly grilled beef with chimichuri and vegetables is so worth it. And did we mention the awesome basket of garlic bread that comes with it?  Add that in and you’ve got all the fixin’s for a five star steak sandwiches.

Best ceviche: Okay, there was one more dish that wowed us in Guatemala. What started out as a humble street cart has morphed into not one but two Los Chavos restaurants (both in Zone 5) in Guatemala City. They serve up plenty of cooked seafood dishes but the real reason to come is the ceviche. You choose your ingredients (fish, shrimp, calamari, etc) and your size and they whip up a bowl of unbelievably fresh fish perfectly seasoned and marinated. A tiny bowl of seafood bisque is the perfect amuse bouche. At 100 quetzales (US$13) for a large ceviche which is big enough to share, it’s reasonably priced too.

Best pupusas: Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa. It’s basically the national food of El Salvador, usually filled with chicharon (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (see below) or a shredded squash called ayote or any combination of said ingredients. After nearly three months in El Salvador (and hundreds of pupusas later) we can say that (in our humble opinion) the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at La Unica, a large, bustling, bright pupuseria which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscutlan, a neighborhood in the capital San Salvador. Antigua Cuscutlan is known for having some of the best pupusas in El Salvador and there must be a dozen or more pupuserias competing for your attention within a 10 block area. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?) to eat your gourmet pupusa with. However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and using our hands.

Best chic bar surprise: There are many reasons to visit Gracias, Honduras, including great hiking in Celaque National Park and great culture in the heart of an area still inhabited by the Lencas, the largest indigenous group in Honduras. What we weren’t expecting was a cool bar. Then we were tipped off to Kafe Kandil which has a loungy vibe, good music, original art on the walls and properly made cocktails which attracts a fascinating crowd of young local hipsters, Peace Corps volunteers and couples on dates. Read more about travel to Gracias, Honduras in this feature we did for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Best unlikely combination: Steam some yuca (aka cassava), make a spicy sauce, pickle some shredded squash then pile it all onto a banana leaf and top it with chunks of rich, juicy chunks of fried pork and you’ve got yuca y chicharrón (pictured below), a staple in El Salvador.

Best bread: So the Kafe Kandil bar in Gracias, Honduras was a surprise. Equally unexpected? A whole-grain, nutty, chewy loaf of crusty home made bread (available in whole or half loaves). You can thank Lizeth Perdono, owner and chef at Rincon Graciana which is the only restaurant in town that serves traditional Lencan food and the only place in all of Honduras to get bread like this.

Best food we’ll never eat again: Grilled cow udder. We had it in Metapán, El Salvador. Tasted like foie gras. Sort of.

Best everyday local ingredient: Loroco. This flower bud is a staple in El Salvador, particularly in pupusas. It tastes like asparagus.

 

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