Central America can seem a bit daunting to North American travellers, especially those past the backpacker stage: it’s less familiar than Mexico, not quite as touristy as the Caribbean, and a little uncertain when it comes to safety. But over the past 10 years, I’ve travelled to most of the countries in Central America, and I can attest that if you’ve never been there, you’re missing an exciting and interesting part of the world.
Of course, not all parts of Central America are the same. Some countries are richer and better developed than others, some have more attractions, and some are better equipped to give tourists the amenities they want. Where to go? With the benefit of visits to six of the seven countries in the region (little El Salvador is still on my bucket list), I thought I’d provide my recommendations on where to go and what to see.
Here are my picks for the three top destinations in Central America.
There’s little doubt that Costa Rica is the king of Central America destinations for North Americans. With 25 per cent of the country devoted to national parks and nature preserves, it’s a wonderland for nature lovers. But it’s also becoming more and more popular with beach goers, the all-inclusive crowd, and even foodies.
When I first visited Costa Rica, the country mostly offered nature lodges, guest houses and fairly simple beach resorts. But today there are high-end resorts with spas and infinity pools, as well as tour companies offering every kind of adventure, from zip-lining to white water rafting and hot air balloon rides. Nature is still the number one attraction, though. There are few places in the world with more bird species, and it’s easy to see monkeys, coatimundis and other types of wildlife almost everywhere.
The country is peaceful, there are good roads and infrastructure, the people are friendly, and the weather is hot. And while the cuisine is mostly the standard Latin rice-beans-and-meat, there are some top-class restaurants nowadays. While the country isn’t cheap, prices are still reasonable. One note: English is spoken widely in tourist centres, but if you’re going out in the countryside, it helps to know some Spanish.
Where to go
Many of the flights to Costa Rica land in the capital. And while it’s not a great metropolis, it’s a decent place to spend a couple of days, with a downtown pedestrian mall and some good museums, including the Gold Museum and Jade Museum.
More importantly, it’s a good base for visits to two of Cost Rica’s less active volcanoes, Irazu and Poas, both within easy driving distance of the city. For those seeking a place to retire in the sun, the San Jose area also provides a comfortable and affordable destination, with good services and health care.
Just a couple of hours’ drive from San Jose, Playa Jaco is a favourite beach getaway for Costa Ricans and North Americans too. With its four-kilometre (2.5-mile) strip of beach, it’s a mecca for sun seekers. There’s lots to do, too: deep-sea fishing, ATV tours, bicycle rentals, horseback riding, crocodile safaris, boat and kayak excursions, white-water rafting … you name it.
If Jaco is too busy for your taste, the nearby Playa Herradura offers some quieter beach time. And the Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge is where the Olive Ridley sea turtles come ashore to nest in the summer and fall.
This highland town is probably the most famous destination in Costa Rica due to its renowned cloud forest, which draws moisture straight from the morning mists. The forest is also the home of a rare bird: the spectacular resplendent quetzal, which attracts birders from all over. The town itself is a quaint and comfortable place, with its mix of tourists, expats and a colony of Quakers.
Don’t miss the nearby Arenal district, with its mountain lake and its perfect, cone-shaped volcano. The town of La Fortuna offers a great base for birding, white water rafting, fishing, zip lining or canopy tours. Or you can just lie in a hot spring deep in the green forest and sip fruit smoothies. The volcano is dormant these days, but still a great sight – when the weather is clear.
The northwest coast
This is a great place to go if you want spend your vacation just chilling out: beach towns like Playa del Coco and Playa Tamarindo are great places to get some sun. There’s also a surfing community, and lots of restaurants and bars for nightlife. And there are some natural attractions in the area, like Rincon de la Vieja National Park, with its live volcano, hiking trails and unusual tropical dry forest. If you prefer some solitude, there are less populated beaches scattered down the Nicoya Peninsula, all the way to Montezuma.
To really see Costa Rica’s nature at its best, head down to the wilder, less developed south. Manuel Antonio National Park, 192 kilometres (120 miles) from San Jose, has an abundance of wildlife, including sloths and three kinds of monkeys, as well as some fine beaches.
In the deep south, Corcovado National Park offers a look at some of the country’s least-visited wilderness, with the possibility of seeing a tapir, a giant anteater, or even the endangered jaguar. There are nature lodges and even world-class eco-resorts to stay at.
The Caribbean slope
This is a whole other side of Costa Rica. The weather tends to be hotter and wetter than the rest of the country, and the landscape is quite different. Nature lovers will find great birding at places like Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, and tourists gather from March to October to see huge sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches of Tortuguero National Park. Farther south, Puerto Limon has a distinctly Caribbean vibe, if that’s your taste.
When you say “Panama”, most people think of one thing: the canal. But there’s a lot more to Panama – a large country with several distinct regions and great opportunities to enjoy beach culture, wildlife, history, outdoor sports and (unlike most of Central America) some big-city life.
There’s no doubt the Panama Canal changed the country permanently. It brought American infrastructure, at least to the area around the capital city, as well as a flood of international visitors and business people. All that has fuelled Panama’s development, making it easy for tourists to find the resources they need.
Panama’s diversity makes it a place where you can spend a long time without getting bored. From the city to the rainforest to the mountains and the beach, there’s a lot to do. The weather is much like Costa Rica’s, and costs are moderate compared to North America, though higher in the city. Again, it’s best to speak a bit of Spanish in smaller places, but you can usually find someone whose speaks English.
Where to go
This is the only world-class city in Central America, and it’s getting more world-class by the day. The expansion of the canal will bring more money and more visitors to Panama City, and the skyline already reflects the new prosperity, with modern skyscrapers everywhere. There are good hotels now, good restaurants and a ribbon of lovely new parkland running along the canal.
Of course, the major attraction is still the Panama Canal: you can get a great view from the Miraflores Locks, or cruise through it on a day excursion. But there’s also shopping, good night life and fascinating historic districts, including the Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo, the site of the original city — it was destroyed by the pirate Henry Morgan. And there’s nature nearby, at Parque Natural Metropolitano in the city and Soberania National Park, just outside.
El Valle de Anton
If you want some relaxing time in cottage country, this valley located near Panama City is the place to go. It’s lush and inviting, with a small-town feel that has drawn a lot of North Americans to choose it as a retirement home. The combination of a mild climate, low costs and proximity to big-city services makes it ideal.
The Pacific coast
Looking for some beach life? Drive a couple of hours from Panama City and you’re in Cocle Province, where the coast is lined with beach resorts offering all the usual amenities, from lifeguards to pools, golf and private villas (here’s a review of my stay at the Royal Decameron Golf & Beach Resort and Villas).
This area is also becoming popular as a retirement haven for North Americans, with an international airport for charter flights. And the local towns are colourful, safe and fun to explore, with their country atmosphere and old churches. There’s even an archaeological site nearby.
If you’re tired of the heat and want to see another side of Panama, take the short drive from the city of David up into the mountains and visit the town of Boquete, near the border with Costa Rica. This small community is rapidly becoming another centre for expats, who like its cool weather, natural beauty and affordable housing.
Boquete is pretty much a nature destination. The mountainsides around the town are covered with pasture land and coffee plantations, and La Amistad National Park is within walking distance. Venture a little farther up the mountain and you might see a resplendent quetzal, as I did one memorable day.
Bocas del Toro
If you like your beach life a little more casual, head north from Boquete to the Caribbean town of Bocas del Toro. I call it a beach town without a beach – you have to take a water shuttle to the nearest ones. But it’s a good place to chill out, with good restaurants and lots of places to stay, from little guest houses to Caribbean-style resorts.
There’s also a lot of water sports, as you’d imagine, from diving and snorkelling to dolphin-watching excursions: the dolphins like to play in the boats’ wakes. Bocas also has a string of offshore islands, which you can visit – or settle in and use as your base while you’re there.
This is another of Panama’s unique destinations, an archipelago off the Caribbean coast that’s owned and controlled by the Kuna Indians. The 378 islands in the Golfo de San Blas are known for their lovely white sand beaches. You can fly in from Panama City – some of the larger islands have airstrips – and stay in a hotel, lodge or a cabana.
There’s not a lot to do in San Blas except enjoy the beach and try some water sports. You can take day excursions to some of the islands with the best beaches, such as Isla Perro and Isla Chichimei. Or you can spend some time getting to know the Kunas and finding out about their culture.
While it may not have the famous attractions of Costa Rica and Panama, Belize has two things that make it a favourite destination for a lot of North Americans: its easy-going, Caribbean way of life and its official language — English.
Located just below Mexico, on the Caribbean side, Belize is fairly close to Eastern North America. However, there are few cheap air flights and a limited number of vacation packages headed there, so it’s not the hot spot it might be.
However, its best destinations have a charm of their own: Caribbean islands with crystal-clear water and great diving, jungle retreats with fascinating Mayan ruins, and laid-back beach towns with water sports galore. It’s not a cheap country — they even call their currency the dollar — but you can find affordable places to stay, and the fresh seafood is well worth the money.
Where to go
If you’ve heard “La Isla Bonita” by Madonna, you’ve heard of the cayes. Pronounced “keys”, these are a chain of islands running off Belize’s Caribbean coast. There are many, but the two famous ones are Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, which inspired the Madonna tune. Both are great places if you dive, snorkel or do other kinds of water sports: the coastal waters are full of great sites like the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where you can swim with sharks, and the Blue Hole, a deep, mysterious sink hole that’s a favourite with divers.
Caye Caulker is a small, laid-back island with a sleepy main street full of restaurants, bars and coffee shops (you can read my review here). Ambergris Caye is a bigger, busier, more happening place. It has hotels of every description, and even some spas. There are lots of restaurants, bars where they rock all night, and services for all kinds of water activities, from kayaking to manatee watching to fishing and diving. If you want to chill, go to Caye Caulker; if you want to stay busy, you might choose Ambergris.
Located near the Mexican border in the north of the country, Orange Walk isn’t much of an attraction on its own – just a quiet agricultural town filled with Chinese restaurants and Mennonite farmers. But it’s a good place to stop for a day or two and take a tour to see one of the country’s best Mayan ruins, Lamanai. Travelling by boat down the New River, you can see all kinds of wildlife, from monkeys to crocodiles, and the ruins themselves are an impressive sight.
Orange Walk is also near the Rio Bravo conservation area, which has a wealth of wildlife, including 392 bird species and 70 mammal species, with all five of Belize’s jungle cats. It also has more than 60 Mayan sites, including La Milpa, the third-largest site in Belize. La Milpa is largely unexcavated, and a more “natural” experience than Lamanai. You’ll need a guided tour to see these areas.
Few people would recommend spending your vacation in Belize City. It has a reputation as a run-down, gritty town with areas where you don’t want to venture after dark. But it’s the place you’ll likely fly into, and it’s the jumping-off point for the cayes, as well as a few other points of interest — for example, the Belize Zoo, the Community Baboon Sanctuary (they’re really howler monkeys), the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha (whose picture is on the money) and the Crooked Tree wildlife sanctuary.
All of these are within an hour or two of the city by car. As for lodging, there are some resort-style beach hotels just outside Belize City, so you could combine a beach vacation with some sightseeing. If you do decide to stay in the city, be careful where you wander, though natives tell me it’s not as unsafe as some say.
A three-hour drive south of Belize City is the country’s biggest beach destination (you can also fly there – its airport even gets direct flights from the U.S.) When you arrive, you’ll find a happy-go-lucky beach town with a long, beautiful beach and a good selection of hotels and restaurants. There’s good sea food and a Caribbean vibe, so it’s easy just to put your feet up and watch the waves roll in.
There are other things to do here, however, like kayaking through the mangroves, sailing a catamaran, taking a boat ride out to the small offshore cayes or snorkelling on the barrier reef. And there are land-based activities: you can visit the Mayan Ruins of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, do a cave tour, or visit Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary — the world’s first Jaguar Reserve.
I hope this quick guide to my three top destinations in Central America gives you a better idea of what to see, and what to expect, when you decide to travel a little farther than Cancun or Acapulco. Generally, you’ll find a warm welcome, lots of sunshine (plus a little rain) and some fascinating sights.
Generally, I’ve found Central America to be safe for independent travellers, but if you’re nervous, start with a package tour – maybe you’ll find the place you’ll want to return to for years to come.