Your comprehensive guide to Central America Travel – things to do, what to see, the best time to visit, Central American weather, and the highlights you really wouldn’t want to miss.
Updated January 2020
Central America usually plays second-fiddle to its much-more prominent big sister to the south. Although the seven-nation region is popular with North Americans (given these are their closest tropical havens), Australians have yet to clue up on the wonders of this exceptional corner of Latin America.
Yet Central America travels are not just for beach-bumming and cocktail-sipping: these are some of the most fascinating and rewarding countries to visit. Rather than a convenient stop-over for meatier adventures, Central America is and should be seen as an impressive travel destination in its own right. Some of the most outstanding archaeological finds in the Americas are found right here. The second-largest coral reef in the world? Yep, right here. Jaw-dropping volcanoes, jungles and hidden ancient cities? All here. Some of the most colourful, exuberant and friendly cultures in the world? Yes, you can probably guess where you should be heading.
With a wealth of wilderness and wildlife delights, an astonishing variety of landscapes, cuisines, histories and highlights, Central America travel is – perhaps unsurprisingly – the fastest-rising trend for 2020.
Visiting Central America
When looking at a map of the Americas, it’s hard to imagine that seven countries make up the narrow slither of land between north and south. From the top, we have: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. When it comes to Central America tours, however, Mexico and Cuba are considered part of the region as well, given the array of flight connections and tour itineraries that easily incorporate these fellow ‘Latino-lands’.
Framed by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean on the east, Central America offers a mind-boggling variety of landscapes. What unities them, however, is luscious tropical scenery, lakes and rivers, volcanoes and jungles brimming with an amazing array of wildlife (the likes of which are only found in the Amazon Rainforest) as well as a cluster of UNESCO-listed archaeological sites belonging to some of the mightiest ancient empires the world has ever known.
Due to political instability throughout some Central American nations during a good part of the last half a century, the entire region was off the well-trodden tourist path for years. Luckily, things are looking up for this part of the world, and everyone is taking notice. The whole region has come under the tourist hotspot, so there’s never been a better time to plan a trip to Central America than right about NOW.
What makes Central America so Special?
To those who have never been, Central America may seem like one homogenous destination. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Due to differing topography, history, and cultural influences, each country boasts unique attributes. Yet, all share enticing commonalities: from resplendent natural wonders to fascinating indigenous cultures, an overload of mesmerising historical ruins (do the mighty Mayans ring a bell?) and more tropical gorgeousness than the rest of the world combined. The (relative) diminutive size of the region means that you can experience all of these highlights in one single, totally unforgettable trip.
A multi-country tour in Central America is not only easy but also convenient and achievable within a short time-frame. Some countries, like Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize, boast excellent tourist infrastructure, making them ideal for shorter trips and exciting family vacations.
Things to do in Central America: Highlights of the Region
Central America’s best hot-spots are so numerous that playing favourites is almost impossible. But we have! Here are 10 incredible regional highlights that we think are the most unmissable. Plenty more where that came from once you hone in on an itinerary but, if you don’t have the faintest idea of where you should start, these are the treasures you need to know about:
1. San Blas Islands, Panama
The San Blas is an amazing archipelago that comprises almost 400, utterly spectacular islands. Largely uninhabited bar for the Kuna (Guna Yala) indigenous inhabitants who are in charge of tourism, the San Blas are among the most unspoilt and fascinating islets on earth. An inexpensive destination (where you’ll mostly find rustic but beautiful accommodation) San Blas can also be sailed on beautiful vessels, with liveaboard experiences including world-class snorkelling and diving. This is, by far, the most hidden treasure in the most hidden corner of Central America.
If you think there aren’t any more off-beat-trails left in the world, it’s time you visited Panama.
2. Semuc Champey Swimming Holes, Guatemala
Hidden in the heart of pristine jungles in Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz province, the natural gem that is Semuc Champey is the kind of place for which Instagram was invented, although no filter is ever needed to make this place look any more extraordinary. Hard to get to but infinitely worthwhile, this ethereal maze of turquoise pools nested in limestone steps is the perfect setting for exciting adventures, with whitewater rafting, caving, river tubing and even night-time canyoneering attracting adrenalin junkies in their droves. If you’re a little more laid back, however, you can also spend a day or two simply soaking in the otherworldly pools and enjoying guided jungle walks to nearby waterfalls and viewpoints (for those wicked pics) and to spot the myriad of exotic birds and bats that call the jungle home. This is a great place to spot the elusive Quetzal but take a birding guide if you want the highest chances of seeing them. Accommodation around here is basic but certainly good enough for a rustic overnight stay – the pools are a 4 to 5hr drive from Antigua.
3. Old Town Antigua, Guatemala
The magnetic pull of Antigua is multi-faceted, the splendid colonial city boasting stunning architecture and a natural frame of volcanoes that makes for an eye-popping setting to boot. One of the best-preserved old cities in Central America, Antigua is laid-back and very liveable and is considered one of the best places in Latin America to learn Spanish. If you’re after a more immersive travel experience and want to take it slow, include a Spanish-language course in Antigua at the start of your journey and you’ll be rewarding in innumerable ways. Antigua is the cast-off point for our Guatemala Highlands tour.
4. Tikal Archaeological Site, Guatemala
Central America boasts dozens upon dozens of exceptional Mayan ruins. Among the astonishing cache, Tikal stands apart. It’s not only the fact that this was among the largest cities the ancient Mayans ever built (big enough to accommodate over 100,000 people) but it’s the glorious setting, amidst a dense jungle forest that seems to still hide treasures in abundance, that makes it overwhelming. Tikal is so expansive that to do it justice, you’ll need to plan a 2-day visit. Don’t miss the on-site museum which gives you a wonderful oversight of the Mayan civilisation. Tikal attracts a healthy number of tourists but don’t let this fool you into thinking it is a modern-day tourist trap: given its remoteness and sheer gargantuan size, Tikal is anything but! Our Guatemala Highlights tour guides to the country’s most unmissable sites.
5. Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System – Belize, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala
The 300km-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is the second-largest of its kind in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It showcases an astonishing biodiversity and comprises mangroves, rich reefs peppered with a multitude of marine life and the largest population of manatees in the world. The Belize Reef – as it is often called – is also one of the best places on earth to see whale sharks. This is one of the best SCUBA diving destinations on earth and considering it touches four countries (Belize – home to the famous Blue Hole and our favourite, Caye Caulker – Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala – your diving-trip options are numerous.
6. Monteverde Cloud Forests, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is particularly wilderness-rich and boasts some of the most biodiverse national parks in the entire continent. Although all its treasures are worth exploring (the volcano of Arenal and remote wilderness of Tortuguero among them) the cloud forests of Monteverde are our #1 recommendation. Swing along suspended bridges above the jungle canopy and walk among the clouds, whilst keeping your eyes peeled on all corners for sightings of the more than 400 distinct species of birds, and 100 mammals who call this place home. Adventure seekers will also be happy to know that Monteverde offers all those adrenaline-pumping activities for which Costa Rica has become world-renowned – including ziplining, perhaps the most iconic Costa Rican activity of all. Take 11 days for our Classic Costa Rica Tour and you’ll experience Monteverde, Arenal, Manuel Antonio and Tortuguero.
7. Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolga), Nicaragua
Central America’s largest lake is slightly smaller than South America’s Lake Titicaca, but is just as enticing. Famous for being home to one of the biggest bull shark populations on earth, Lake Nicaragua is a result of tectonic plate movements and boasts islets formed by ancient volcanic explosions. Some of these are now home to dreamy lodges that make for ideal rest-spots on a whirlwind tour of Central America. There’s a ton of stuff to do here if you’re feeling active, including SUP boarding, kayaking, birdwatching, sunset boat touring and day-trips to lakeside Granada – a wonderfully colourful colonial town. When it comes to lakes and volcanoes, Nicaragua gives Costa Rica a run for its money although if you do love smaller tourist crowds and a more authentic feel, then it beats it by a mile, in our eyes. Transport and accommodation options are a lot more limited here but, for many, it’s a huge part of Nicaragua’s appeal.
8. Caracol Ruins, Belize
The largest Mayan site in Belize is hidden behind the canopy of the Chiquibul Forest and its 41m-tall pyramid, the Sky Palace, remains the country’s tallest structure. A visit to Caracol is impressive both in and of itself, given the stupendous drive and multitude of places you can stop to visit along the way. As grand as Tikal except not nearly as well-excavated, Caracol makes visitors feel like they are the archaeologists and, what’s more, you can easily have the place to yourself since it doesn’t attract the kind of crowds that Tikal commands. Choosing between the two is a challenge and we often recommend history-buffs visit both but, generally speaking, choose Tikal if you have plenty of time so your visit isn’t rushed and Caracol if you have only one day to dedicate to the ancient Mayan world. Belize is particularly revered for its incredible array of wildlife, so combine a Belize Wildlife Tour with a visit to Caracol for a comprehensive experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
9. Copper Canyon, Mexico
Mexico, its divine coastlines and ancient Mayan pyramids may need little introduction yet its multi-hued canyon, four times the size of its grand cousin in the north, is a treasure that is far-too-often overlooked. A maze of four deep canyons carved into the Tarahumara Range, so named after the indigenous people who still inhabit them, gets its name from the terracotta-hued mountains that frame it on all sides. It stretches for more than 1,500km and although it’s a very popular place for hikers and mountain bikers, the most beautiful way to experience it comfortably is aboard the exquisite Copper Canyon Train (called El Chepe) which runs from Chihuahua (inland) to Los Mochis, on the coast and right opposite Baja California. Rated one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, the 4-hr ride meanders through some of the most rugged terrain in Mexico. This is one of the country’s best side trips you could include in your itinerary although there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Firstly, you can include two stops free of charge along the way but you must state which ones when purchasing your ticket and you’ll have to book your overnight accommodation wherever you stop and take the train again the next day. Secondly, you should book well in advance if planning the trip at Christmas time, Easter Week or anytime in July and August. Our Mexico Tours are as diverse as the country.
10. Panama Canal, Panama
The man-made wonder that still leaves visitors awe-struck almost 140 years after it was completed, the Panama Canal is one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. When it comes to Central American experiences, embarking on a weeklong journey between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans is still as enticing as ever, the voyage offering insightful experiences of the flora, fauna, culture and history of this outstanding region. Most guests will recommend doing a full transit rather than a partial one (you haven’t come this far to only do a section of it, see Gatun Lake and then return!) and although the recent building of new locks has allowed much larger ships to navigate the canal, we still recommend a small ship experience, one that allows for better and more personalised service and a much more intimate experience overall. We choose the Discovery, a stunning 33m-long catamaran that hosts only 24 guests, for our Panama Canal journeys.
Best Time to Visit Central America
A region prone to torrential downpours and transport disruptions during the rainy season, Central America is best visited during the driest months of the year. However, these dry months can vary quite a bit depending on where it is you want to go and, perhaps more importantly, which coastline you wish to explore more.
Need information specific to a certain country? View our detailed country by country guide to the Best Time to Visit Central America
When trying to determine your ideal time to visit Central America, here are some things to keep in mind:
Central America Weather
Dry season in Central America
Generally speaking, the first four months of the year (Jan – April) are the driest in the whole region.
There are always exceptions – Whenever one side of Costa Rica is experiencing its rainiest months, the opposing side is enjoying its driest ones. Alternatives abound in the region so no matter what time of year you want to travel here, you will find several regions at their prime.
The edge of the rain season can be idyllic
The first and last months of rain season can be quite idyllic, especially if you’re an early riser. Rains usually start pouring in the early afternoon and, although strong, they don’t last very long. You can still visit during the shoulder season and have wonderfully clear skies in the morning (perfect for outdoor adventures) and have an excuse to indulge in a mid-afternoon siesta.
Temps are relative to altitude
Central America is a balmy place to explore year-round, except if you head way up the mountains, anywhere. If you are planning a little mountaintop getaway, do pack for (and expect) cold nights.
Overcrowding is real
Forget international tourism being a problem in Central America: try going anywhere in the region during Easter Week and you will understand the real meaning behind overcrowding. Central Americans travel a lot at any given time but, during peak religious holidays like Easter and Christmas, the mass human migration is unreal. Everyone wants to get home and, considering there are so many neighbours working in one another’s country, the entire region is a buzzy hive of activity. Great if you don’t mind crowds and love booking everything ahead, not so great if you’re claustrophobic.
But it’s not a problem outside the most touristed areas – If you want to hang back on a beach in Mexico or spot sloths in Costa Rica, the busiest periods will indeed seem a little too hectic. However, 7 out of our top 10 highlights simply don’t receive that many tourists, year-round and/or are extensive enough to handle larger numbers. The region’s spectacular Mayan ruins may well be popular but they still aren’t Machu Picchu in July and August.