Best Places to Visit in Central America
Tropical Central America is home to so many gorgeous destinations with stunning nature, beautiful beaches and islands, activities, delicious food, and world famous historical sites.
There are seven countries in Central America: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, and on our guide we highlight some of the most popular places to go.
There are options for every type of traveller, whether you are seeking a luxury beach resort holiday, a budget backpacker adventure, an eco retreat in paradise or an epic overland trip, get all the inspiration you need.
Here is where to add to your Central America itinerary.
Sitting on the Caribbean coast and bordering Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is one of the most laid back destinations in the region with some of the best snorkelling and diving destinations in the world.
The Great Blue Hole National Monument, situated off Ambergris Caye, is breathtaking. This underwater sinkhole – 300 metres across and 120 metres deep – can be seen from space. More practically, it can be seen on a diving or snorkelling trip with a licensed tour guide.
South Water Caye Marine Reserve is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s packed with endemic marine life and nesting sites for rare birds and turtles.
Belize is also an English speaking destination which makes getting around and visting much easier.
2. Costa Rica
Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. It’s probably the most touristy country in Central America, catering for many US visitors. It is also one of the safest.
What brings them is outdoor activities – white water rafting and snorkelling to name a few – and ecotourist opportunities. Fuelled by a breakfast of Gallo Pinto, the national dish of rice and beans, surfers head to locations on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, such as Tamarindo and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
There are abundant natural wonders to see on a tour of Costa Rica. The Corcovado National Park alone has 13 different ecosystems! The endangered red-backed squirrel monkey lives here as do over 40 species of frog and 28 species of lizard. The park has 23 miles of beach, and hammerhead sharks school off the coast, so take advice on where to swim.
3. El Salvador
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and the only one without a Caribbean coastline. It also one of the more daunting countries to visit due to the high crime rates and gang violence.
But don't let this put you off.
The Pacific coast beachside town of Playa El Tunco attracts backpackers and surfers and has a lively atmosphere at weekends. Just to the east of the capital city San Salvador is the serene setting of Lake Ilopango. The lake was created by a volcanic eruption and is now a bewitching freshwater expanse used by locals for fishing and visitors for diving and boating.
Near the capital city, San Salvador, is Joya De Ceren. In 600AD, this settlement, like Pompeii in Italy, was buried under volcanic ash due to the eruption of Laguna Caldera volcano. Many of its features were mummified creating today’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
El Salvador is definately one of the more off the beaten track locations on our list, but visit and you will get a really authentic and great value for money experience.
Squashed between Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras has a mountainous yet volcano-free terrain. Maybe appropriately, it’s most popular dish is plato tipico, a mountainous plate of beef, plantains, beans, marinated cabbage, fresh cream, and tortillas.
For sightseeing, the ruins of Copan, close to the Guatemalan border, represent one of the most impressive achievements of the Mayan period – the complexity and scale of its architecture is breathtaking.
For some of the most thrilling activities head to the biodiverse Pico Bonito National Park where you can enjoy jungle hiking and white water rafting on the Cangrejal River.
Going scuba diving in Honduras is also recommended, the corals, waters and marine life off the islands of Roatan and the Bay Islands are some of the best in the world. This really is one of the top rated things to do in Central America, and if you have never tried diving before there are lots of beginners courses available.
The largest country in Central America is bordered by Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. It’s less touristy than Costa Rica so deserted beaches with excellent surfing aren’t unusual.
San Juan del Sur is a party town that attracts the surfing crowd and tourists from Nicaragua and the US. There are stunning sunsets over the crescent-shaped bay but for something energetic, hike up to the 134 metre tall Christ of Mercy statue that watches over the town.
Nicaragua is a land filled with volcanoes – 26 to be exact! – and a number of them are still active. Ometepe Island on the country’s largest lake, Lake Nicaragua, is the only island in the world with two volcanoes – one active, one dormant. A ferry takes visitors there for guided hikes to enjoy cascading waterfalls and views from the top of volcanoes.
Panama is, strategically, a significant country, thanks to the 82km long Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, providing a vital world trade route.
Picturesque places to visit include Bocas del Toro, a series of islands in the Chiriqui Lagoon in the north-east. Backpackers and tourists flock to its white sands, blue-green waters, and palm forests.
The Casco Viejo area of the capital Panama City was built by Europeans in the 17th century. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a gastro centre. Savour city views from a rooftop restaurant while enjoying the national dish Sancocho, a chicken and vegetable soup.
A must-see is the Panama Canal, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Its Miraflores Visitor Centre is just a 15 minute drive from downtown Panama City.
Guatemala is one of the most underrated destinations in the Americas, and it is also one of the best value for money.
Some unmissable locations in Guatemala include the scenic town of Antigua, home to pretty cobbled streets and colourful buildings. Lake Aticlan is where to go for beautiful nature and scenery, it is also one of the best places to study Spanish due to the amount of reputable language schools located here.
If you would like to volunteer in Central America there are lots of worthwhile projects in Guatemala, where you can help communities, wildlife and nature. Don't leave Guatemala without travelling to the mystical ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal located deep in the jungle near the town of Flores. These are some of the best preserved and most impressive ruins in the Americas.
Plan Your Trip to Central America
Central America really is a beautiful and facsinating region of the world to travel and hopefully our guide has highlighted some of the top rated locations and tourism attractions which you need to add to your itinerary.
Whether you have a few weeks, or months to explore, start planning an epic trip to Central America and discover this incredible region and tourists attractions for yourself. You might also like to view some important tips for female travellers in Central America.
Go explore Central America now!