Central America probably won’t appeal to all travelers, just those interested in nature and outdoor activities, relaxing on white sand beaches, hiking through tropical jungles and rainforests, snorkeling, scuba diving, windsurfing, touring ruins of ancient civilizations, learning more about indigenous cultures, and enjoying fine dining and nightlife in major cities. Hey! Isn’t that just about all travelers?
Central America is composed of seven countries that connect North and South America. Some of the countries may not be very large, but this means travelers on tight schedules will get to see more of a country.
Still, touring Central America is not to be rushed. Some of the most intriguing places to visit in Central America are in remote locations. Hiking into some locations may be required, so travelers should make sure they’re in good physical condition.
But travel to this region doesn’t have to be strenuous. If it were, Central America wouldn’t be so popular with seniors looking for someplace different to retire. Gorgeous beaches, just made for sunbathing, can be found on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides of Central America.
Central America has some of the best tropical rain and cloud forests in the world, with plants and wildlife that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s also the only place on earth where people will find outstanding archaeological sites dating back to one of the world’s great civilizations, the Mayans. Volcanoes that destroyed towns in their active era are another attraction.
Graceful colonial buildings built when the countries were colonies of Britain and Span can be found in many of the countries. European style cathedrals are not to be missed, either.
1. Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker is a small island near Belize Barrier Reef that is also known as Cayo Hicaco. It may have gotten its English name from sailing ships stopping there to pick up fresh water or caulk their boats. In recent years the island has become a popular Belize attraction for backpackers and other tourists for its relatively cheap prices, laid-back vibe, and abundance of restaurants and bars. It’s a good place just to relax on the beach, snorkel or go bird watching.
2. Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is the most famous and popular of Belize’s islands; it is also the country’s largest island. It used to be a hub for fishing and coconut growing, but now is increasingly popular with scuba divers and snorkelers since Belize Barrier Reef is only a quarter mile away. A short plane flight or ferry ride from Belize City, Ambergris Caye also offers world-class accommodations, fabulous dining and ultra relaxation. San Pedro Town is the only inhabited area on the island.
The Maya ruins of Xunantunich are located atop a ridge above the Mopan River near San Ignacio, within sight of the Guatemala border. Xunantunich has been around since at least 900 BC. The huge dark gray structures stand out against Belize’s blue skies, making for great photo ops. Previous visitors recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes and bringing lots of water.
4. Belize Barrier Reef
The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300 kilometer (190 miles) long section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is popular for scuba diving and snorkeling and attracting almost half of all the tourists in Belize. The reef includes the Great Blue Hole, the most famous dive destination in all of Belize. The deeper one dives into this massive sinkhole the clearer the water and the array of bizarre stalactites and limestone formations become more complex and intense.
Located in northern Guatemala, Flores is an island town situated on Lake Petén Itzá, once the home of the last independent stronghold of the Maya Itza Indians. The many tourists who come to Flores, eager to explore the nearby famous Mayan ruins at Tikal, often discover that the charming old town itself is worth the visit with its Spanish colonial churches and cobblestone streets, lined with shops and restaurants.
Located in the lowland rainforest of northern Guatemala, Tikal was once one of the largest cities of the Mayans. Today, however, all that is left of this ancient metropolis are a number of beautiful Mayan ruins. It’s most famous for its five towering pyramids as well as the rainforest’s varied flora and fauna.
7. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a deep blue lake in the Guatemalan highlands, famous for its Mayan villages and stunning scenery. Although tourism is popular here, the region hasn’t been changed as much as some other destinations in Central America. Native women still wear their colorful traditional clothing on a daily basis, with museums devoted to the Mayan culture. Popular attractions include a butterfly sanctuary, nature reserve, and San Pedro Volcano, considered a tough hike.
Antigua is a city in the central Guatemalan highlands that is famous for its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. The city dates back to 1524, but was destroyed by fire, earthquakes and an avalanche over the years. A major center for learning the Spanish language, Antigua provides an abundance of impressive sights of spectacular architecture, historic churches and prominent landmarks like the Santa Catalina Arch.
Located in western Honduras, Copan is another example of the great Mayan civilization. The site is home to the best high relief Mayan sculptures and two outstanding archaeological museums. Copan is also a great place for bird-watching and is home to one of the best aviaries in Central America. The nearby town of Copán Ruinas has all types of accommodations and other facilities for tourists.
The largest island in Honduras Bay, Roatan is popular with travelers seeking a tropical vacation. Columbus was the first European traveler to visit the bay, but he never set foot on land; that honor belongs to French buccaneers who did so in 1510. For many years the island was a hidden gem, with some of the most beautiful white beaches and the best snorkel and diving spots in the Caribbean, but nowadays it has been discovered by cruise ships and hotel developers.
11. Ruta de las Flores
Ruta de las Flores (Flower Route) is a 36-km (22-mile) long road that winds through the Salvadoran countryside. It goes through picturesque colonial towns, featuring great food and galleries. It also appeals to travelers who enjoy off-road mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding. The country’s first coffee plantations were here. The route is a great place to buy native handicrafts and take in a weekly food festival.
12. Ometepe Island
Two volcanoes, joined by a thin isthmus, make up Ometepe Island, giving it an hourglass shape. The island is located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. One volcano, Concepcion, is active, spreading ash over the area. Ometepe is a good place to see pre-Columbian artifacts, including petroglyphs, and is home to some of the world’s best rock art. Locals hold many colorful religious and folk festivals.
Granada, the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua, is a popular tourist destination because of its year-round balmy weather and proximity to the freshwater Lake Nicaragua. It’s popular with travelers ranging from shoppers and spa lovers to nature lovers who like to sail on the lake, zipline through the forests and hike to Mombacho, a dormant volcano. Iglesia de la Merced, a beautiful cathedral, is the city’s top tourist draw.
Leon, Nicaragua’s second largest city, was founded by Spanish conquistadores. The university town is described as an elegant city, with museums, art galleries, the largest cathedral in Central America and colonial architecture. The region also is known for its eight volcanoes; indeed, an eruption destroyed the first city in 1610. The nearby Las Peñitas on the Pacific Ocean is a popular beach that is close to a nature preserve.
15. Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park, located in southwestern Costa Rica, is considered the crown jewel of the country’s national park system. That’s because its offers some of the best wildlife viewing in Latin America. Popular with backpackers and nature lovers, Corcovado is home to 13 major ecosystems, ranging from swamps to highland cloud forests, as well as a variety of endangered wildlife, such as jaguars and scarlet macaws.
16. Arenal Volcano
Arenal is a volcano in Costa Rica’s northern lowlands that was active up until 2010. Although visitors won’t be able to see the volcano spewing ash and lava anymore, they’ll still be treated to stunning sights as they hike in the mountains or raft down the rivers. Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s most scenic and accessible attractions, a must on any visit here.
17. Manuel Antonio National Park
What do travelers find when beach and nature activities are combined? Manuel Antonio National Park, located on the Pacific Ocean 132 km (82 miles) from San Jose, the Costa Rican capital. Visitors will find white sand beaches and forests growing right to the high tide line. Besides lush forests, the park is home to 109 different mammals, and dolphins and whales can be spotted from outlying islands.
18. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is probably the most famous cloud forest in the world. The continental divide runs through it, allowing travelers to stand with one foot on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and the other foot on the Pacific side. Hiking, such as to remote waterfalls, is the main way to get through the spectacular jungle and cloud forest. Other popular activities include ziplining and canopy tours.
19. Panama Canal
Regarded as one of the modern-day wonders of the world, the Panama Canal is a vast canal system built to allow ships passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal consists of artificial lakes and three sets of locks. Watching the ships pass through the waterways and the locks can be experienced from various locations. One of the most popular spots is at the Miraflores locks, which also has a museum where visitors can learn about the history of the canal and how it works.
20. San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands is an archipelago of about 400 islands which are located just off the Caribbean coast of Eastern Panama. Most of the islands are not inhabited, and the indigenous Kuna Yala tribe on the islands manage tourism to preserve their culture and the environment. There are small and very basic hotels on some of the islands, and due to the lack of restaurants, they offer all-inclusive meal packages.
21. Panama City
The largest city in Panama, Panama City is considered the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. Located at the entrance to the Panama Canal, the city also is an international finance hub. With a mild climate and surrounded by rainforest, the city is a popular place to live for ex-pat retirees. This historic city has an old town filled with charming buildings as well as trendy restaurants and boutiques.
22. Bocas del Toro
Located in the Caribbean Sea on the west coast of Panama, Bocas del Toro is an archipelago of six forested islands and numerous smaller uninhabited islets known for their laid-back vibe. The province’s capital city, Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon, is well worth a visit to see its historic Caribbean architecture. Numerous beaches offer white sands while water sports enthusiasts will find adventure in snorkeling, diving, fishing and sailing in the Caribbean.