Your Guide to all the Best Places to Visit in Central America
Central America is truly one of the most interesting regions in the world. The region consisting of seven countries, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize is located between Mexico and South America. It is boasting with a rich culture, delicious food, stunning nature and fascinating history. With all that this region has to offer it has quickly become one of my favorite destinations for exploring, surfing, scuba diving devouring in mouthwatering food and just leisure. And to top it off it is a pretty inexpensive region to travel compared to Europe and North America. Some of the countries are even comparable to South East Asia in terms of travel costs.
It is pretty easy to travel between the countries, but as the infrastructure leaves a lot to wish for (or not as it is part of the charm) it takes time and traveling the region requires a bit of planning.
WHEN TO VISIT
Depending on what your purpose of the trip is this region is a full year destination. However, because of the diverse landscape and tropical climate, if your trip is depending on good weather you need to plan around hurricanes and heat waves.
In general, the best time to visit any of the seven countries in Central America is during the dry season that last from November to April. However, if your main purpose of the trip is surfing or scuba diving it might be better to visit during the wet season, sometime between March and November, when the waves are their best and the chances of seeing the big stuff while scuba diving is almost guaranteed.
Of course, the costs vary from country to country. Costa Rica and Belize being as expensive as the US and Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador being some of the cheapest countries in the world. In general, I would say that you should budget for at least $40 per day. It is enough for accommodation, food, and some activities. Obviously if you plan on bigger activities or adventures or renting surf boards you need to add some to that.
One recommendation to make your money last longer is to start planning based on the activities you want to do and tailor your budget from that. It is always possible to save on simpler accommodation and food. You can also spend shorter time in the more expensive countries and extend it in the cheaper places.
Unfortunately, Central America has some places that are not considered safe. Traveling to those places are not recommended and if you do, do it wisely. When I traveled to Nicaragua, which in general is considered as a safe country, apart from the capital Managua, I had to spend a night in Managua. I chose a hotel that offered airport pick-up and served food at the hotel. However, I wanted to check out the neighborhood still but I quickly changed my mind. Just a short way from the hotel I saw guns everywhere. I did not expect that. So now we know and no reason for you to find out as I did that fore us. When you´re told it isn´t safe, you best listen to that.
That being said it is possible to travel around Central America as long as you use common sense. Arrive at your hostel or hotel before nightfall, don’t take overnight buses, especially if you can´t stay awake. In some places it is wise to have a “fake wallet” with a small amount of cash that you can give up, should worst case scenario happen, and you get mugged or attacked in some way. Don´t travel wearing jewelry, even if you don´t think they are very valuable, a simple gold chain can be worth a lot to someone that doesn´t have anything.
Be confident when you move around and even if you´re lost, try not to look lost. Walk and talk with confidence and try to blend in as much as possible. If you are lost the best thing is to go into a café or restaurant and try to sort out your way.
As a woman you should take extra care and don´t walk alone or at night in places that are considered dangerous. Do your research online before, as local business owners or locals in general don´t want to scare off tourism and therefore they might minimize potential dangers. And always remember, as much as traveling is an adventure, it is better to be safe than sorry!
Another important tip is to get travel insurance and to get one that covers all activities that you´re planning on doing. A good one that covers a lot of activities is World Nomads
PLANNING YOUR ITINERARY
The wisest thing is to start in one end of the region and work your way up or down. In which direction to go obviously depends on if you are going to continue your travels after or not. And to where you find the cheapest tickets. If you are planning to continue to Mexico or North America start in Panama and work your way up. If you´re planning on continuing to Colombia and South America start in Belize and work your way down.
As I was coming from the south and was planning on continuing to Mexico, I started my trip in Panama and worked my way up.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN CENTRAL AMERICA
Panama is amazing! I wasn´t sure what to expect but it definitely exceeded the expectations I had. It is a bubbly and fun place with a rich culture and delicious food. It has turquoise water, cloud forests, coffee farms and an amazing abundance of wildlife and is more than definitely a place worth visiting.
I didn´t really think I was going to spend a lot of time in Panama City, but already in the first day I decided I was wrong and I really fell in love with the city and it´s welcoming people.
Even if it is the most modern city in Central America, with skyscrapers and perfect infrastructure, you still feel the rhythm of the central American tunes through out the city. People dancing in the streets, the smell and flavors of amazing street food filling the air and smiles being handed out right to left.
I highly encourage that you take a stroll down Amador Causeway during sunset and savor some world class ceviche in one of the many cevicherias, each one being as good as the other. Enjoy some people watching and part take in the salsa dancing along the streets.
Casco Viejo (also known as San Felipe) is the old part of Panama City and it is here you find that stunning colonial architecture, beautiful churches, quaint restaurants, and much of Panama’s history. This is a great gateway to start learning about Central American History in general, actually.
…and of course, you need to visit the Panama Canal. The best place to see the Canal in action is the Miraflores Visitor Centre. From the Visitors Center you can see ships travelling through the locks. There is an observation terrace, a restaurant (not recommended unless you´re really starving), four exhibition halls and a gift shop.
You can get there by bus from the Albrook Terminal, or you can take a cab that will cost around 10 USD but make sure to agree on a price before.
San Blas Islands
From Panama city you easily get to the mind blowing, absolutely gorgeous San Blas Islands. San Blas Islands is inhabited by the indigenous people of Panama. You stay with them, you eat with them, you go fishing with them, or you just chill in a hammock all day long. As if getting to experience the life of the indigenous Panamanians wasn´t enough, this group of tiny islands are surrounded by pristine turquoise waters filled to the brim with sea stars, turtles, lobsters and tons of colorful tropical fish, making it perfect for snorkeling. The accommodation is very rustic and while there might be a small kiosk with some dusty cans of cola on some of the islands, it is better to come prepared with all that you might want. If you can’t handle very basic living, and I mean very basic, accommodation and food, I suggest you go for a day trip only. I loved visiting San Blas Islands and ended up staying five days, basically just enjoying life and learning about Panamanian culture.
Bocas Del Toro
Bocas del Toro on Panama´s Caribbean coats draws travelers because of its amazing scuba diving, snorkeling, nightlife and of course beaches. Bocas del Toro is the place where you can chill and go wild in the same day. Bocas has something for everyone, and it is well worth a visit as it is an easy gateway to Costa Rica for those who wish to cross over by land.
Arriving by land from Bocas del Torro you will arrive to Puerto Viejo, a vibrant beach town on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica.
Puerto Viejo is a place where you easily can get stuck longer than you planned. It has a lot to offer, everything from just relaxing on the beach to visiting the non-profit Jaguar Rescue Center and visit Cahuita National Park , which offers a great opportunity to see the amazing wildlife of Costa Rica. You’ll find tarantulas, howler monkeys, racoons, sloths and the best preserved coral reef on the Caribbean side.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde Cloud Forest, and especially the Cloud Forest Reserve is like taken out of a fairytale. You´re really walking on a mountain amongst the clouds topped off with a great variety of wildlife. Because of the great altitude it is also a nice escape from the hotter beach towns in Costa Rica. You can read more about the adventures in Monteverde Cloud Forest in my blogpost about the best places to stay in Costa Rica.
San Juan Del Sur
San Juan del Sur is a picturesque beach town on the Pacific side of Nicaragua. It is one of the most popular places for travelers to visit in Central America. It draws backpackers as well as luxury travelers and everything in between. San Juan del Sur offers incredible hikes, a nightlife worth mentioning but more than anything it offers great surf for beginners as well as advanced surfers. San Juan del Sur is the epicenter of easy travels, there´s no need to make reservations beforehand and opportunities for adventures seem to magically present themselves.
Isla De Ometepe
Smack down in the middle of a lake in the middle of Nicaragua you find the island of Ometepe. As it’s located in a lake and made up of two volcanos it makes for a different experience and destination than your regular islands trip in the area. My pro tip: rent a motorbike to explore the islands many waterfalls, beaches, and natural swimming pools. Also, and don´t miss out on the sunsets! For the ones looking to level up on the adventure, hike the summits of the volcanos!
I don´t know what it is about Granada, if it is the vibrant colors, the history, or the warmth of the people but it truly is one of my favorite Central American destinations. It offers both cultural experiences, like artisan markets and seeing how cigars are made at Mombacho Cigars and natural experiences, like the Masaya Volcano (best done at night!) and touring around the 365 Islets of Lake Nicaragua.
If you have considered Nicaragua as a travel destination, you for sure have seen endless pictures of people volcano boarding in Leon. And this is because it is just as fun as it sounds! For around 45 USD you get an exhilarating experience and enough great photos to fill your Instagram for a while. I got a few bruises here and there and heard stories about worse injuries, so if you´re not a thrill seeker this is not the activity for you. However, you can minimize the risk of injuries depending on your preferred way of going downhill (compare it to going down a slide, the possibilities are endless, and the more daredevil you are, the bigger the risk of getting injured, and vice versa.
For some reason that I can´t wrap my head around Honduras is the least visited country in Central America. I would say you have to include Honduras in your trip to Central America! Even if it had a rough past, it is now a much safer country and it is the home to biodiverse jungles, ancient Mayan Ruins, and vast national parks brimming with wildlife. Being one of the cheapest countries in the region Honduras has a lot to offer budget travelers. (Should you however for some reason want to skip Honduras, you can go straight to El Salvador from Nicaragua).
With crystal clear waters, world class snorkeling and scuba diving, high end hotels to reasonable prices, and mazing restaurants Roatan is one of the best beach destinations in Central America. Here you can also visit the Roatan Butterfly Garden with more than 30 different species of all imaginable butterflies and moths as well as boa constrictors, parrots, scarlet macaws, and tropical orchids. Visit early in the morning to see the butterflies in their most active state. Entrance fee is 7 USD.
The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve
Established in 1982 The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the last remaining tropical rainforests in Central America. Spanning over 5,250 square kilometers it is home to Mayan ruins, ancient petroglyphs, pumas, jaguars, giant anteaters, sloths, and indigenous locals. I have to say, it is an effort getting there. It took me 6 hours with bus and boat from La Ceiba, but it was well worth every minute of the trip. The views, the sightings and getting an insight into the indigenous life in the rainforest is something that will stay in my heart forever. It is possible to do a day trip, or to travel up the river for multiple days. If you have the time, I recommend the latter. You really become one with your surroundings and will experience things that you will never forget. A one-day tour is around 16 USD and multiple day around 160 USD (meals and accommodation included). Entrance to the reserve is by donation.
Valle de Angeles
Just around half an hour outside of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, is this cute colonial town that is perfect for a day trip. It´s full of beautiful colonial buildings and tons of beautiful, reasonable handicraft shopping to be done. Also make sure to relax in the tranquil Parque Central, visit the historic colonial church and head into La Tigra, the nearby cloud forest, full of breath-taking hiking trails …and mosquitos! Bring bug spray. I honestly can´t stress the importance of the bug spray enough… however it is worth it! Entrance to La Tigra is around 15 USD.
El Salvador might not be considered the safest or easiest place to travel around, but that doesn´t go for all parts. Make sure to do your research, stay in areas with tourists and use your common sense. It is also a mesmerizing beautiful country, with pristine lakes, lush green landscapes and impressive volcanoes. It simply is a place that shouldn´t be missed on your Central America Travel.
El Tunco is a vibrant and bustling tourist town full with ex-pats without taking away the genuine vibes of El Salvador.
It is an excellent place for tons of things. It is one of the best surf destinations in all of Central America, it has beautiful beaches, amazing ocean view restaurants and filled with unique and quirky boutique shops and cafés along the cobblestoned streets.
The town is located 25 miles (40 km) from both El Salvador’s International Airport and from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The beaches here are grey or black, due to the volcanic landscape, and creates for the most stunning sunsets.
If you don´t know how to surf, lessons are offered at around 30 USD per session. I recommend Sunzal Surf Company https://www.sunzal.com/things-to-do/surf-lessons/. If you already know how to surf, you´ve reached your Mecca. If you´re not into surfing you can just beach hop around for days one beach more stunning than the other. And if you´re looking for something more exciting – go and explore the sea caves of El Tunco. It is really something I haven’t experienced before and the silhouettes from inside the caves makes for beautiful pictures and memories. And then there are the Tamanique Waterfalls, located a 30 min hike from town. The hike requires some energy, will power and proper footwear. Once you reach the waterfalls you can cliff jump or just chill at the crystal clear pools. So worth the hike!
As many other surf towns it is also heaven for yoga lovers. My favorite is Sunshine Yoga https://www.facebook.com/sunshineyogaretreats/ that offers both yoga and surf retreats led by amazing people.
Ruta De Las Flores
The next popular destination in El Salvador is Ruta de las Flores (literally meaning the road of flowers) and it is a region made up of a few super cute and super friendly towns connected by one road paved by beautiful flowers. The flowers bloom in spring, but don´t be sad if you miss it, the region has plenty more to offer. If you only visit one of the towns, make it Juayua. Stay at one of the small guesthouses, stuff yourself with delicious food at their weekend food market, enjoy the endless vibrant parades and hike to some beautiful waterfalls. Once you´re done you can simply just take the local chicken bus to get from town to town. Even if Juayua was my favorite, they are all worth a visit, and they all have something unique to offer.
Santa Ana Volcano
Heading to Guatemala from El Salvador you might as well and actually don´t wany to miss out on making a stop at the Santa Ana Volcano. It is not only the most beautiful Volcano in all of Central America (if you ask me that is). It is also possibly to hike to the summit and back in the same day. Make sure to make the hike on a clear day, as you might miss the beauty of it all otherwise. Well at the summit you have amazing views of the surrounding landscapes as well as views into the blue lake of the volcano’s crater.
You can reach the volcano by day trip from El Tunco or from the nearest town of Santa Ana. If you´re going from Santa Ana you will need to spend the night before and after the hike in Santa Ana, but there´s is plenty of affordable accommodation and you will feel well rested after a long day of hiking, ready for your next destination. Guatemala.
If there is one place that forever will have my heart it is Guatemala. I don´t know what it is. Maybe it is the indigenous culture, the colonial charm and the warmth of the people, I really don´t know, but it is easy to want to stay forever and ever.
Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular places to visit in Central America and it is easy to see why, there´s hiking, kayaking, yoga, great local restaurants, markets, and stunning views.
This huge lake itself is nestled between volcanoes and surrounded by Mayan villages and vibrant little towns. It is called one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and it really lives up to its name and calls for a blogpost of its own.
Make sure to have at least 3 days to explore the lake, but if you really want to get the best of it an explore different viewpoints, villages and live the life, stay for at least a week. You´ll probably want to stay longer.
Semuc Champey is a national park of bright turquoise pools and fairytale like waterfalls. The park is stunning and most of the time you´ll probably just be relaxing in the pools, hiking up to the viewpoints or exploring the caves.
I suggest staying in the jungle, and personally recommend Utopia Eco Hotel it is really place to disconnect and reconnect if I´m allowed to use clichés.
Another place that really, to my surprise, stole my heart, was Belize. I thought it would be too much “American Spring Break”. It was not. You best belize it was paradise on earth. I didn’t travel around much though, as I quickly made my way to Caye Caulker which instantly became like a second home.
This little sandy Island has no roads, you walk, ride a bike or if you want to roll like the cool kids on the block, you use a golf cart. The smell of lobster being barbequed to perfection (and for a cheap price) fills the air in the late afternoons. During the day everyone hangs at the dock, sunbathing, jumping in the crystal clear water, going on fishing trips or scuba diving and snorkeling. At night the few clubs are filled with both locals and tourists and the Caribbean rhythms fills the air. I didn´t find one hostel or hotel I didn´t like, I didn´t find one restaurant or bar that wasn’t up to par, so wherever you go, you´ll go right. Pro tip, even if it isn´t hard, make sure to befriend some locals, they´re super friendly and fun and will show you the “go slow” mentality of the island.
Which one of these places to visit in Central America are you most excited about? Let us know in the comments below.
Costa Rica is arguably one of the most beautiful countries in the world. So, if your travel plans include an itinerary for Costa Rica, you should know about the area’s landscape. Costa Rica is a beautiful country that is highly focused on conservation. About 25% of...
Even though Costa Rica is a relatively small country it has one coast to the Pacific Ocean and one to the Caribbean Ocean and it contain 5 percent of the worlds biodiversity. It might not sound like a lot but trust me, it is. This, together with lovely tropical...
While Costa Rica has plenty to offer, marvelous rain forests, blissful waterfalls, long hikes, endless white sandy beaches, horseback riding, snorkeling and scuba diving, it might be mostly famous for being a surfer’s paradise. All year around surfers from all over...
Playa Santa Teresa Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica is not only every surfer’s paradise, every yoga lover’s dream and every beach bums get away. It has something for every traveler. One of the world's top dream destinations I'd say. It is the place you...
Like it? Pin it ?