Discover the Top 14 Must-Visit Destinations in Central America
Central America is a traveler's dream, offering a diverse range of activities and destinations all in one trip. From hiking volcanoes to exploring ancient ruins and snorkeling coral reefs, the seven countries of Central America have something for everyone.
History enthusiasts will be torn between the impressive Maya ruins and the charming colonial cities. Nature lovers can trek through the lush jungle in search of monkeys and sloths, or witness the incredible sight of newly hatched turtles scurrying to the sea. For those who simply want to relax on the beach, Central America has no shortage of idyllic seaside locations.
Fortunately, short regional flights and a robust bus system make it easy to explore multiple countries in one trip. To help narrow it down, we've compiled a list of the 14 best places to visit in Central America. But be warned: no matter where you go, you may never want to leave!
1. Experience the beauty of Ambergris Caye in Belize
Known as "La Isla Bonita", Belize's most popular vacation island boasts pristine beaches, luxurious resorts, and a sophisticated culinary scene. San Pedro, the bustling city center, also offers exciting nightlife. But what draws travelers most to Ambergris Caye are its warm waters and thriving marine life. Whether you prefer swimming, kayaking, or snorkeling, this island paradise has it all.
2. Marvel at Guatemala's stunning Lago de Atitlán
Surrounded by lush hillsides and towering volcanoes, Central America's deepest lake is a peaceful retreat from the bustle of everyday life. The turquoise waters of this crater basin attract visitors from around the world, as well as diverse local communities who proudly display their traditional ways of life. From long-distance kayaking to volcano climbing, San Pedro La Laguna offers plenty of outdoor activities. But taking the time to sit back and relax by the tranquil waters is a must.
3. Experience the island life of Bocas del Toro in Panama
This picturesque archipelago in Panama is a must-see for those seeking the Caribbean lifestyle. With charming clapboard houses lining the shore and dockside restaurants serving up local cuisine, Bocas del Toro is a beach paradise. Its crystal-clear waters and swaying palm trees attract visitors from all over the world, while a sizeable expat community has made this archipelago their permanent home.
No matter where you go in Central America, you'll find endless opportunities for adventure, relaxation, and discovery. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for more travel inspiration, tips, and exclusive offers.
Embark on a thrilling adventure during the day, where you can ride a beach cruiser, observe giant sea stars while snorkeling, surf powerful reef breaks, visit chocolate farms, and savor scrumptious Caribbean cuisine. As the sun sets on Isla Colón, Latin rhythms and clinking glasses fill the air.
Behold the remains of an ancient Mayan metropolis by exploring Tikal, the most significant archaeological site in Guatemala. Strolling through the haunting ruins and twisting jungle, one can hear a symphony of bird squawks and howling monkeys. Although a millennium of dense overgrowth has claimed the remains of this once mighty empire, the sprawling park is still worth exploring for several days. Base yourself in laid-back Flores or stay on the site to catch a breathtaking sunrise over the majestic and ancient temples.
Discover the heart and soul of Panama City by wandering through the restored colonial buildings, boutique hotels, swanky restaurants, and rooftop bars in Casco Viejo. Exploring the crumbled ruins of Panamá Viejo, one can witness part of the original city, while experiencing the rollicking nightlife of Calle Uruguay. Drive west to witness the ingenious lock system of the world-famous Panama Canal or explore the rainforest and the beach, which is only a short distance away.
Experience a glimpse into the soul of El Salvador by cruising along the 20 miles between Sonsonate and Ahuachapan on the Ruta de las Flores, considered the country's best road trip. The local villages, artisan shops, fragrant coffee plantations, and colorful wildflower meadows embody the entire country's essence on a small scale. Any stop during the weekend will include food extravaganzas and merrymaking, while visitors should take ample opportunity to shop for crafts and sample coffee. Don't be afraid to deviate from the main route either, as at Los Chorros de Calera, one can hike among the cliffs and swim in waterfall-fed swimming holes.
7. Experience Romance in Magical Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio is a place for lovers. It boasts dozens of prestigious hotels perched on cliffs overlooking the serene Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The lavish accommodations are just a cherry on top of the region's romantic dining establishments, picturesque beaches, and refreshing spa treatments that make this destination irresistible.
The area is also home to a variety of wildlife, with squirrel monkeys visiting during breakfast, iguanas basking with guests by the pool, and sloths waiting to be spotted at the nearby Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. And for the adventurous honeymooners, there's a myriad of thrilling activities such as zip-lining, white-water-rafting, kayaking, and more, all within reach.
8. Stroll in Amazement around Granada, the Oldest City in Nicaragua
Granada is one of the oldest colonial cities in Central America, and you simply can't miss exploring its well-preserved architecture. Take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage around town to admire the charming colonial homes and ubiquitous hand-painted tiles.
At Parque Central, the mustard-yellow Catedral de Granada presides over the square while food vendors and handicraft artisans showcase their wares. Nearby, on the lake, you can take a boat or kayak tour of Las Isletas, a cluster of volcanic islands off the city's shore, where you'll discover elegant vacation homes and an ancient Spanish fortress.
9. Unwind on the Beaches of Costa Rica's Serene Southern Caribbean Coast
The pace of life on Costa Rica's Caribbean shoreline is deliberately slow, which appeals to travelers who seek relaxation. Visitors come to sip fresh coconuts, bask on graham-cracker-colored beaches, and dip into the warm blue-green water.
For more active visitors, there are jungle hikes, cacao farm tours, and snorkeling excursions to indulge in. And if you're up for it, wild all-night parties are on offer too, but don't forget to fuel up on the delicious local cuisine first, like whole fried snapper with a side of coconut rice and fried plantains, all washed down with agua de sapo, a refreshing drink made of unrefined sugar, lime, and ginger - aka "toad juice."
10. Party the Night Away at Playa El Tunco in El Salvador
Named after a distinctive pig-shaped rock, Playa El Tunco is an idyllic black-sand paradise famous for its beach breaks and raucous surfer crowd. Locals and tourists alike come to experience wild weekend festivities before recovering with thin-crust pizza from Tunco Veloz the next day.
When it comes to seeking a serene and low-key vacation experience, travelers need not look far. Just a few minutes in either direction from the bustling crowds will take you to tranquil and secluded beaches. Venturing into the windswept wilderness of Barrio Santiago, visitors can witness the hatching of turtles along the shore.
For backpackers with lofty travel aspirations and a modest budget, Utila in Honduras is an ideal destination. This Caribbean island boasts of idyllic turquoise waters teeming with unique coral formations and curious fish. Moreover, certifications for diving are relatively inexpensive here.
Diving enthusiasts and snorkelers can view whale sharks near the island's northern tip all year-round. Once the adventure is over, visitors can indulge in some delectable seafood at the local eateries and explore the lively bar scene.
Foodies who love a spicy kick should head over to the Caribbean coast in Central America, specifically the remote Corn Islands off the east coast of Nicaragua. The region is well-known for its spiny lobsters. After devouring your fair share of these coveted crustaceans, try digging into a whole fried snapper, a generous serving of rice and beans, and the famous rondon. This local soup is prepared with fish, shellfish, tubers, heart of palm, plantains, peppers, and spices.
For those interested in history, Copan in Honduras is a must-visit. The ruins of this Maya site contain impressive chiseled stone sculptures, with human-sized carvings scattered across the area. A day spent strolling around this locale will give visitors a deep insight into the region's past. The world's longest inscription of Maya text, the revered hieroglyphic stairway, describes the history of the ancient city's rulers. Visitors can stay at boutique hotels located in the neighboring town of Copan Ruinas or in the nearby pine-forested hills at Hacienda San Lucas.
Scuba divers should head to Belize's Blue Hole National Monument if they are looking for an adventurous experience. Divers can explore this massive submarine sinkhole, more than 100ft deep below the water's surface. They can marvel at oversized stalactites and encounter large, powerful reef sharks as they gaze down into the 430ft abyss. Accommodations on Long Caye, a secluded, small island just minutes from the country's underwater attractions, are ideal for thrill-seeking travelers.
If you're planning a visit to Central America, be sure to check out Lonely Planet's top picks of the 15 most fascinating activities to do in the region, the eight best places for surfing for beginners and pros, and most thrilling volcano adventures.
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