Central America Travel Guide
Central America is a land of volcanoes, lakes, jungles and coral reefs - everything an adventure-seeker and nature-lover can hope for. With a culture and atmosphere that is distinct from South America, it very much deserves an extensive exploration. What's more? Central America is the birthplace of some of the most famous ancient cultures in the world, the Maya civilization being the most prominent one.
Discover our travel tips, articles, and virtual tours for Central America !
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Your Guide to Central America
Quick Facts About Central America
- 7 countries (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama).
- Mexico is often considered part of North America, but sometimes part of Central America as a “Latin American” country.
- If we leave Mexico out, the largest country is Nicaragua, the smallest are El Salvador and Belize.
- Key geographic facts:
- Central America acts like a bridge between North America and South America, but it is also considered a part of North America.
- It has the Caribbean Sea (part of the Atlantic Ocean) on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west.
- Geologically speaking, Central America is a very active region and it features a whole series of volcanoes, known as the Central America Volcanic Arc.
- We can also find non-volcanic mountain ranges, such as the Talamanca Cordillera or the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.
- Along the Caribbean coast lies the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, one of the most extended coral reefs in the world.
- Large parts of Central America are covered with dense rainforests, which are some of the most biodiverse areas in the world.
- Apart from Belize which speaks English, the whole of Central America speaks Spanish.
- Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America because it is a former British colony.
- The vast majority of Central Americans are Christians.
- Close to 70% of Central Americans are Catholic, and 19% are Protestant.
Central America, A Region of Many Records
- The Isthmus of Panama, between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, is the narrowest part of the Americas. Its narrowest point is just 50 km / 30 miles wide.
- The Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second-largest coral barrier reef, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere. It is found along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
- The Masaya Volcano, in Nicaragua, is one of the few places in the world where one can see an active lava lake.
- Still in Nicaragua, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua can be found Ometepe Island, made of two volcanoes linked by an isthmus. This island’s configuration, on a freshwater lake, is unique in the world.
10 Handpicked Central America Highlights
10 fantastic places and experiences in Central America, in no particular order.
- Watch the giant ships go through the lock of the Panama Canal, and witness this incredible piece of engineering in action. You can choose to visit the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side, easy to access because close to Panama City, or the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side, or both like I did!
- Be mesmerized by the glow of the lava lake at the bottom of the crater of the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua. Volcanoes are one of the most powerful and impressive things you can see, and lava is truly fascinating for anyone lucky enough to see it.
- Watch the leatherback turtles laying eggs on the endless black sand beach of Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It is quite moving to see these animals, coming to that specific beach as they have been doing for thousands of years, preparing the next generation of turtles.
While you are there, go and explore the maze of canals of the park, and watch more incredible wildlife such as black caimans, heron birds or the basilic lizard that is able to run on water!
- Climb the Baru Volcano in Panama and stand on the country’s highest point. The isthmus of Panama is so thin that, if you are lucky with the weather, you are able to see both Atlantic and Pacific coasts from the top. If you are even luckier, you might see a quetzal, the gorgeous turquoise sacred bird of the Mayas. I had this luck and I still remember it vividly after many years.
- Visit the Omotepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Made of two volcanoes linked together, this island is unique. Climb the volcanoes to appreciate the unique geography of Ometepe, and the best views of Lake Nicaragua, with its waters shiing in the sun.
- Go bird watching and kayaking at Lake Yojoa, Honduras. Located between Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, this is the largest lake in Honduras. There is also plenty of things to do around the lake, such as hiking and caving.
- Take a helicopter ride above the Great Blue Hole in Belize. Part of the Lighthouse Reef, the Great Blue Hole is probably one of the most famous sights of Central America, and can really be appreciated only from the air.
If you are a diver, don’t miss the opportunity to explore one of the most mythical sites on the planet!
- Explore the Maya archaeological site of Tikal, in Guatemala. Tikal is one of the most prominent and most exceptional Maya sites. As such, it is not surprising that it is one of Guatemala’s most visited sites. The view from the top of the pyramids will blow your mind. Truly a must-see
- Discover the incredibly well-preserved San Blas Islands in Panama, and immerse yourself in the Kuna culture. The San Blas islands are an indigenous archipelago, governed by the Kuna indians. Most people go there for the dream white-sand beaches like the ones you see in postcards!
- Dip yourself into the natural pools of Semuc Champey, in Guatemala. Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful sights you will get in the country, and it is made of a 300-meter limestone bridge, under which flows the Cabahón River. You will be greeted with a series of farytale-like turquoise limestone pools, which are getting more and more popular with travelers.
When to Go to Central America
Central America is best visited in the dry season, which runs from December to April in most countries. But this also means that in this period, prices will increase. If you are looking for a compromise of cheaper prices with still acceptable weather, the solution is to visit at the end of the dry season, in April-May.
Visiting Central America during the rainy season (May to November) will most likely cut your costs, but you are in for really heavy downpours! I remember visiting Central America in August, and while it wasn’t catastrophic non-stop rain, it was still really humid at times. It happened a few times that I suddenly found myself in the middle of a heavy shower while walking around.
In any case, if you are visiting a specific country or region, the best is to check the weather patterns for this specific place.
Traveling to Central America
Central America can be safe or unsafe, depending on where you go, and the precautions you take. Some countries are safer than others but honestly, while violent crime in the region is a reality, you will probably not be affected by all this as a tourist. All it takes to stay safe is behaving responsibly and taking some precautions:
- Don’t walk alone in secluded areas, especially at night.
- Never leave your bags unattended.
- Don’t show off your valuables. Better leave them at home.
- Don’t do drugs, and don’t get drunk.
- Theft is the most common issue travelers may face in Central America. If you are not traveling alone, split the cash and valuables and use a money belt.
- Research about the safety of the areas you are planning to visit. You must know what areas are safe and what areas you must avoid.
- Always pay attention to your surroundings, and make sure nothing looks/feels fishy, or that no one is following you or staring at you.
- Learning the basics of Spanish can be useful.