Steeped in history, the countries of Central America are home to natural wonders and a rich cultural heritage, borne of the fact that, at one time or another, everyone wanted to call this place home. Travel writer Polly Rodger Brown unearths some of the treasures that await the modern-day visitor
Over thousands of years, Central America, seven small countries formed in a narrow curve of land between Mexico and Colombia, has become home to people from many continents and countries. Some – like the conquistadors and pirates – have plundered its natural wealth. Others, like the Mayans, have established complex societies, with notable architecture, art and culture
Arawakan Indians skilfully planting the fertile soil with corn and chocolate. Mayan priests wrapped in cloaks made from jewel-coloured feathers. Spanish generals riding on horseback, surveying their vast estates. Dutch pirates sailing covertly into harbours at dawn to ambush unwitting cargo ships laden with gold. Jamaicans toiling away in misty banana plantations…
Over thousands of years, Central America, seven small countries formed in a narrow curve of land between Mexico and Colombia, has become home to people from many continents and countries. Some – like the conquistadors and pirates – have plundered its natural wealth. Others, like the Mayans, have established complex societies, with notable architecture, art and culture.
During the height of their supremacy over much of Central America, between 250 and 900AD, the Mayans built fabulous cities, decorated with intricate carved stelae (stone slabs), hieroglyphics and coloured wall paintings. The finest of these is Tikal, home of the jaguar kings, whose vertiginous stepped temples rise several hundred feet above the steamy jungle of Petén in northern Guatemala. The site is easy to reach from Belize, which has its own share of interesting Mayan ruins. Situated in the western district of Cayo is Xunantunich, a major ceremonial centre with more than 25 great palaces and temples. Nearby Caracol is famous for its Canaa (‘Sky Place’) pyramid, the tallest manmade structure to be found in Belize.
Though this grand empire mysteriously died out around 1000AD (plague, war or depleted resources have all been speculated as causes), pure-blooded descendants of these Mayans still make up half the population of Guatemala, and live mostly in the country’s Western Highlands, cultivating the land in a similar fashion to their ancestors. Lake Atitlán is a particularly traditional area, sacred to the Maya, and each of the small villages that fringe its shores has a different language, set of customs and form of elaborate embroidered shirt. The lake, ringed by tall reed beds and towering volcanoes, which are reflected in its dark blue water on calm mornings, is not far from Guatemala’s Pacific coast and the port of Puerto Quetzal.
The first colonial capital of Panama, known as Panama Viejo, was built to facilitate the transport of Incan gold to Spain, but now lies in ruins just outside modern Panama City. In 1671, fearsome Welsh pirate Henry Morgan blasted it to pieces with gunpowder in an attack on the Spanish. From the manmade causeway of Fuerte Amador in the Bay of Panama, a natural harbour where galleons unloaded their cargo to be transported across the country to the Caribbean, there are staggering views over modern Panama City, and the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal.
Pirates came to Central America in the late 1500s, drawn like magpies by the fabulous treasures the Spanish were sending home. They used Roatán, a Caribbean island in the Bay of Honduras, as a strategic launch pad for many attacks on Spanish vessels. Roatán, now an idyllic island paradise famous for superb snorkelling and scuba diving, has been settled by many different groups, among them the original Paya Indians and a group of escaped mixed-race slaves called the Garífuna (who made their way to the mainland of Honduras and on to Belize), but most influentially by the British, who intermittently ruled the island between 1742 and 1859. The islanders still speak English, and there are a number of white families who claim English descent.
The settlers’ legacies
Lilting English is also spoken in the port city of Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. This is because, in the late 19th century, US entrepreneur Minor C Keith was given 300,000 hectares of land by the government as a reward for building Costa Rica’s first railway. He planted the land with bananas and sugar cane, and brought in African slaves from nearby Jamaica to work on his plantations. Several restaurants in Limon serve Jamaican-style coconut rice, and the city is surrounded by natural beauty. Particularly atmospheric are the canals of Tortuguero – all overhung with knotted red mangroves – which wind northwards to turtle-nestling shores.
Minor C Keith was just one of many American visitors to make his home in Central America. North American Quakers, escaping the draft for the Korean War in 1950-53, settled in an area in northern Costa Rica known as Monteverde. Monteverde is a cool mountainous region with peaceful Quaker communities making cheese and raising cattle. Its Cloud Forest, a nature reserve much loved by bird watchers, is home to the resplendent quetzal (a bird with magnificent red and green plumage) and remains one of the country’s loveliest places. The Pacific coast, famous for its surfing beaches and scenery, and Puntarenas, a port city with great seafood restaurants, are less than 50 kilometres away. And still they come. Central America, the land of lakes and volcanoes, of rich cultural heritage and continuing tradition, of battles fought by bloodthirsty pirates and freedoms won by slaves, continues with its pristine beauty and long-standing ethnic diversity to draw immigrants and visitors alike.
This feature has previously been published elsewhere and all information was checked at the time of its original publication.