Central America Travel Guide
Central America is the name of the region that connects North and South America. It is also sometimes referred to as the “southern end of North America.” Central America is home to 37 million people. We invite you to discover a variety of incredible destinations in Central America. The unique hospitality of its people, the gorgeous nature of the entire isthmus, and the mystique of several different cultures will inspire your senses. Whether your interest is in Colonial history, rainforests, volcanoes, beaches, Mayan ruins, or nature, Central America can be the perfect vacation.
This narrow strip of land separates the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. On its narrowest point, Darien in Panama, the land is only about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide. It is said that there is no area in Central America that is more than 125 miles from a body of water. Like the Caribbean, Central America also lies on the Caribbean Plate. This region gets its fair share of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The region is mountainous (with the majority of its people living in the mountains than in the lowlands), though there is also a stretch of lowland along both coasts. The seven countries in Central America occupy a total land area of 202,265 square miles (523,865 square kilometers).
There are seven countries in Central America: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Belize is a tropical paradise boasting something for everyone, with its spectacular reefs, magnificent rainforests, and beautiful white Caribbean beaches. Despite its small size, it is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and one of the most bountiful when it comes to natural splendor, flora, and fauna.
Belize City has old Caribbean charm in spades combined with the modern conveniences and buzzing nightlife of a busy metropolis. It has a great variety of Creole and international food, as well as great bars and music to offer visitors and a good range of accommodation from backpacker hostels to five-star hotels.
For those with an interest in archaeology, Belize has a wealth of fascinating sites. Caracol, a Mayan city larger than modern-day Belize City was buried under jungle for centuries and is well worth a visit. Belize’s other major Mayan site, Xunantunich, at San José Succotz, also offers stunning views and fascinating history, and there are many more archaeological jewels throughout the country.
For natural beauty, Belize is a world leader, with the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, home to angelfish, triggerfish, whale sharks, and other amazing flora and fauna, as well as being one of the top dive sites in the world. Belize boasts many habitats including incredible mangrove forests and extensive and impressive cave networks. The stunning Belize rainforests are home to jaguars, puma, howler monkeys, iguanas, and boa constrictors to name but a few.
Belize also has some fantastic wildlife sanctuaries which give visitors a glimpse of the incredible bird population that inhabits the country. Bird enthusiasts will be delighted with Shipstern Nature Reserve, Rio Bravo Conservation Area, and Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.
Belize is served by Philip Goldson International Airport, which handles all international travel. It also has active seaports with many cruise ships visiting daily. It is best to stay in tourist zones when in Belize due to security concerns. Hotels in these areas are reasonably priced but can be dated.
Costa Rica is one of Central America’s most popular tourist destinations. It boasts a great climate, a beautiful Caribbean coastline, abundant jungles, and good infrastructure and tourism facilities. Costa Rica is a friendly, relaxed country that welcomes visitors with open arms and a greeting of ‘Pura Vida’, an affirmation of the national motto: ‘pure life’.
The capital, San José, is a dynamic city with markets, cafés, and great shopping to offer the visitor. It has some wonderful museums and many hotels to suit every budget and taste. San José also offers some world-class cuisine as well as the ubiquitous fast-food joints.
One of Costa Rica’s main attractions is its beaches, and it offers both Pacific and Caribbean choices. Golfito is a great starting point for exploring the Pacific coast which offers dramatic scenery, jungle accommodation, surfing, rainforest, and access to Isla Tortuga. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica offers a different experience, characterized by eco-tourism at one of Costa Rica’s many national parks and wildlife refuges. The main town is Puerto Limón, from where the Parque Nacional Tortuguero can be accessed. The Creole beach paradise, Cahuita, also has a nearby national park with beautiful beaches, reefs, and rainforests.
Of course, the incredible national parks are one of the main tourist attractions for Costa Rica and there are many to choose from. Volcàn Arenal National Park is globally recognizable for its perfectly conical volcano, which is still active and puts on spectacular displays occasionally. Or visitors can see the full range of stunning flora and fauna Costa Rica has to offer at the country’s oldest and best-developed park, Península Santa Elena.
San José has its own international airport, Juan Santa Maria International Airport, which provides service for flights arriving from many North American cities. It also offers flights to other Central and South American cities. For those on a budget, vacation homes, condos and cabins offer the most reasonably priced accommodation but hotels are also widespread.
El Salvador is a tiny country with a great deal to offer. As the smallest and most populous nation on the American continent, it makes up for what it lacks in size with its personality. Visitors can discover fine colonial architecture, world-class hiking, great museums, beautiful beaches, and some of the best surfing in Central America.
The capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, is a vibrant city with a rich heritage and culture to be explored. Tourists can view the beautiful Metropolitana Cathedral, unearth fascinating Mayan history at the Joya de Ceres archaeological site, or take in some of the city’s violent history at the military museum. For the more adventurous, Devil’s Door Peak is located to the southwest of the city and has some great hiking and climbing.
El Salvador’s beaches are becoming more and more popular as tourist attractions and are renowned as surf destinations. Some of the best waves in Central America can be found at La Libertad, Garita Palmera, and El Zonte.
El Salvador has a lively volcanic history too, and visitors can take a trip to Santa Ana, El Salvador’s tallest volcano, or the San Miguel volcano as well as many others. The natural beauty of El Salvador can also be seen in the country’s national parks; Montecristo National Park is a highlight and offers an incredible display of the country’s diverse flora and fauna as well as great hiking.
The war-torn history of El Salvador (which has been peaceful since 1992) can be explored more thoroughly from Perquin, the guerrilla capital of El Salvador, where the Museum of the Revolution is located and many local people can provide a first-hand experience of the war.
Large numbers of tourists and surfers alike fly into Comalapa International Airport, 50 km southeast of San Salvador.
Guatemala is an incredibly diverse and interesting little country that offers visitors the best of Central American travel experiences. Explore magical Mayan ruins, huge volcanoes, great museums, and a rich cultural diversity that is hard to beat.
The sprawling capital, Guatemala City, has an interesting colonial past still visible in its architecture and many museums, including the Museum Popol Vol’s collection of Mayan and Spanish art. For a more indigenous experience, there are many markets with colorful handicrafts and ethnic products to explore. Visitors can enjoy the splendid colonial churches around the central square of the city.
Antigua is a popular tourist destination, both for those wishing to take a Spanish course or for history buffs wishing to see one of the oldest and most picturesque cities in the country. The charm of Antigua is enhanced by its quaint cobbled streets and contrasted with the majesty of its three nearby volcano peaks, which surround the town. Antigua also plays host to Guatemala’s most vibrant festival, Semana Santa, during Easter week.
The jewel in the crown of any trip to Guatemala is the unparalleled Tikal, an ancient Mayan temple site of incredible proportions nestled in the jungle surrounding it. Tikal is a huge ancient city that boasts its own pyramids and is an absolute must-see for those visiting Guatemala.
Guatemala also boasts the world’s deepest lake, Lago de Atitlan, as well as Lago de Izabal the country’s largest lake. It also has several lovely coastal towns, including Tilapita and Monterrico, where visitors can relax and enjoy beach life.
Guatemala’s international airport, La Aurora International Airport, serves most international destinations and has good transport links to the rest of the country and most regional American cities. Accommodation in Guatemala is widespread, cheap, and for the most part basic but luxury options exist in the capital.
Honduras is one of the least developed of all the Central American countries, yet still has many attractions which charm its many visitors each year. Those who come to Honduras are delighted by its lack of commercialism, incredible jungle, great diving, and beautiful and welcoming people.
Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America, is known as the land of volcanoes and lakes and for good reason. Its spectacular scenery is characterized by magnificent peaks and vast lakes, along with rainforests and jungle which provide plentiful scenic opportunities for its visitors. At the same time, Nicaraguan cities offer some of the most beautiful and historic architecture and fascinating cultural sites in Central America.
Granada is Nicaragua’s first city, and a bustling metropolis offering much for the visitor. The city is the oldest in the New World, and having been built as a showcase for Spanish architecture, still has some fantastic buildings and architecture on display. There is a great live music scene here, and many of the modern amenities to be expected of a big city. From nearby Volcán Concepción, there are stunning panoramas of the city.
Nicaragua’s second city, León in the northwest, is the cultural heart of the country and boasts some fantastic churches and museums, including the largest cathedral in Central America. Visitors will find colonial and pre-colonial architectural delights here. León has a thriving arts scene and visitors will be enchanted by the galleries, plays and poetry that are available in León. It is also a great place to take a language course.
For those looking to experience the natural delights of a Nicaraguan holiday, the country’s beautiful national parks can provide an education about the flora and fauna of the region. Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in the north and Indio Maiz Biological Reserve in the south are both home to jaguars, cougars, anteaters, and many types of monkeys.
For beach holidays, Nicaragua is becoming more and more popular. The Pacific coast is renowned for surfing, and the San Juan del Sur area is a tourist spot. The Caribbean coast with its many islets, bubbling hot springs, and dramatic jungles and beaches is becoming more accessible and is definitely a great experience for the adventurous.
Visitors can fly directly to Nicaragua’s Managua International Airport from many destinations but may want to connect through the region’s hub in Costa Rica for more frequent flight options. Accommodation is typically cheap, even for mid-range rooms with air-conditioning.
Offering more than just its famous canal, Panama is a great holiday destination and offers beautiful scenery, picturesque towns and villages, great cities, and a laid-back vibe to visitors. Add to that the fantastic rainforests, soaring volcanoes, and rich bio-diversity and Panama becomes a destination to please all takers.
Panama City, the capital, is a melting pot of different influences including African, Spanish, Chinese, and others. Historical sights such as the Plaza de Bolívar and the Metropolitan Church dating from the 17th century can be seen in the San Felipe district, while the city’s excellent museums, including the Interoceanic Canal Museum of Panama, are equally fascinating. The city’s diverse culture is reflected in its cuisine, which is more varied than other Central American countries, and in its vibrant music scene. Panama City also boasts botanical gardens, a zoo and two national parks, Sobrerania and Metropolitana.
Away from the cities, Panama has some great beaches. Santa Catalina is a surfer’s paradise with renowned waves and a lovely beach. Or the islands off the coast of Panama offer some of the most beautiful and unspoiled beaches. These include Isla Taboga and Isla Grande, where some of Panama’s most beautiful flora and fauna can be seen by snorkeling or diving.
Highland town Boquete offers a mountain retreat from the heat of the coast, and also some of the most amazing scenery, hiking, and climbing Panama has to offer at the spectacular Volcán Barú peak. Panama’s most famous attraction, the Panama Canal, is a fascinating engineering marvel and a spectacle to be seen, linking the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the continent, and also providing a pleasant day out.
Visitors can fly directly into Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport from a variety of destinations, including Miami. The city has a good range of hotels from hostels to luxury, and facilities, amenities and infrastructure are all very good.