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Published on February 22nd, 2016 | by admin


Urban oases: the best towns in Central America


Central America is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet but its natural assets are just part of its allure. The “sweet waist of America”, as South American poet Pablo Neruda christened it, is also rich in history and home to a diverse and dynamic mix of cultures.

Dip into its museums, dally among its architectural jewels and experience its living culture on the streets in these can’t-miss towns and cities.

Panama City, Panama

Cosmopolitan Panama is a tale of three cities: tombstone-like ruins are all that’s left of Panamá Viejo, the original city abandoned to pirates in the 17th century; Downtown is a mini-Miami with a skyline of glittering steel and glass towers, where you’ll find the glitzy shopping malls and the upscale eateries and nightlife of Bella Vista; and then there’s the Unesco-protected colonial district of Casco Viejo, a mini-Havana that’s fast becoming the city’s cultural hub thanks to an ambitious restoration.


What can I do?

Explore the imposing plazas, crumbling churches and hidden streets of Casco Viejo, where you can shop for a Kuna mola textile from the San Blas Islands, or the work of young designers at Diablo Rosso (, a cafe-cum-gallery-cum concept store. Tántalo Bar’s terrace is the place for a sunset mojito or two, or drop into The Dining Room at the stylish American Trade Hotel. Join the locals cycling along the Amador Causeway for a look at Frank Gehry’s first Latin American project – the new Biomuseo (

Granada, Nicaragua

One of the oldest cities in the Americas, photogenic Granada is a colonial masterpiece. And it was designed as such: founded as a model city for the New World in 1524 and nicknamed the ‘Great Sultan’ as a homage to its Moorish namesake in Spain, it’s as pretty as a picture and the city’s rich past gives it a regal air. But she’s an old dame with a sparkly future, as it’s rapidly becoming the country’s culinary hotspot and there’s no better place to taste gourmet local produce by day, knock back aged rum by night and wake up to organic coffee in the morning.


What can I do?

Spend lazy days clip-clopping around cobbled streets in a horse-drawn carriage, church hopping or strolling from plaza to boutique. Every February, the city’s weeklong International Poetry Festival attracts poets and poetry-lovers from around the globe for readings and concerts. The historic Convento y Museo San Francisco is a museum and cultural centre, as well as the oldest church in Central America. You can get a great organic steak at the stylish Ciudad Lounge (, as well as indulging in a glass of local Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum and a hand-rolled cigar from Estelí. Granada is also one of the best places in Central America to learn Spanish – try a nonprofit school such as Casa Xalteva. For those wishing to dig their heels in, volunteering opportunities abound.

León, Nicaragua

Colonial León, the former capital, is Granada’s more liberal, edgier cousin, where bullet holes still scar the imposing buildings and revolutionary murals adorn the crumbling walls. It wholeheartedly embraces the country’s twin passions – politics and poetry – and has the lively, more lived-in feel of a university city, with the nightlife to match. Escape the sultry heat in its shady plazas for a real slice of Nica life.


What can I do?

You’ll find a superb collection of contemporary art at the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián, including works by Latin American masters Rivera and Botera. The impressive Catedral is the largest in Central America, with rooftop views over the city and smoking volcanoes. Entombed within is Nicaragua’s national poet Rubén Darío, along with some of León’s other local lyrical masters. The Galería de Héroes y Mártires, run by mothers of Sandinistas killed in the civil war conflict, is a reminder of the city’s more recent history.

San José, Costa Rica

At first glance, the urban sprawl of Chepe – as the Costa Ricans call their capital – isn’t the most attractive of cities. Dig a little deeper and there’s charms worth exploring. It’s home to some of the region’s top museums; rice and beans are off the menu at its fine-dining fusion restaurants; there’s a burgeoning craft cerveza scene and top-notch coffee for the morning after.


What can I do?

Discover the country’s often overlooked pre-Columbian history at the dazzling Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática, the world’s largest collection of American jade at the Museo de Jade, and Central America’s most important collection of modern art at the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo. In the historic and newly hip barrios of Amón and Otoya, the tree-lined streets are filling up with trendy bars and restaurants. To sample Costa Rica’s famed eco-credentials in the capital, splash out on a room at Hotel Grano de Oro, set in a 20th-century mansion, which has a top ‘Five Leaves’ sustainability rating.

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