The Highlights of Central America
The Highlights of Central America
First up, what is Central America, exactly?
Central America is the seven countries in the skinny sliver of land that connects the continents of North America and South America. From north to south, starting below Mexico, the countries are Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
What can be expected?
There's incredibly diverse wilderness – jungles teeming with wildlife, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls and loads of glorious tropical beaches. There's plenty of ruins from Mayan and Aztec cultures, brilliant snorkelling in coral reefs, character-filled colonial towns and uber-hip cities.
And so, we present to you... our highlights:
Belize: Caribbean islands and laid-back charm
Caye Caulker, Belize
This Caribbean island is set in turquoise waters next to the the second largest barrier reef in the world – so, yeah, it's gorgeous and the snorkelling is sublime. There are loads of diving options and snorkelling off the beach is easy. Easier still, chill on the sand or hang out at laid-back beach cafes.
Great Blue Hole, Belize
The famous Great Blue Hole is not far from Caye Caulker – this stunning scuba diving site is an almost perfect circular hole in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Experienced divers can explore the dark caves deep in the clear still waters.
San Ignacio, Belize
This rustic town makes a great base for regional exploring. Check out the ruins at Cahal Pech and Xunantunich, both Mayan ceremonial centres. It's also close to the delicate site of the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, an archaeological Mayan site housing ancient ceramics and skeletons.
Guatemala: Jungle ruins and colonial cities
The ancient Mayan temples of Tikal, set deep in the jungle, are perhaps the world's most impressive Mayan site. Tikal Park is 576 square kilometres of jungle and at the heart of the park, six major granite temples loom out of the treetops. All up, there are thousands of ancient structures here, some deep in the jungle, some yet to be excavated. Exploring the more remote areas of the site, you might see toucans and howler monkeys and find vine-covered tombs. It's all very Lara Croft.
Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Lago de Atitlan is a huge, beautiful lake surrounded by towering volcanoes, lush hills and local villages. The serene beauty of the landscape is what will bring you to Atitlan, but it's the local way life by the water that will draw you in. The colourful villages are welcoming places to hang out, and offer the opportunity to hike, kayak, bike ride and go scuba diving.
Antigua is perhaps the most charming city in the whole of Central America. It is famous for its colonial architecture, which has been so well preserved and restored that the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cobbled streets and colourful buildings make this town a pleasure to explore.
On Thursdays and Sundays this town comes to life with the largest native market in Central America. It's a sprawling and colourful display of just about every local handicraft imaginable. There are rugs, woven textiles, pottery, masks and dolls, as well as fruit and vegies, medicine, tools, flowers, tortillas and chickens.
Honduras: Mayan ruins and astounding birdlife
Copan is not as large as some other ancient Mayan sites, but it makes up for it with incredible monuments and intricate carvings. The stunning UNESCO World-Heritage-listed Mayan ruins of Copan include artefacts like 'Stela N', an intricate carved column depicting the ruler K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil, and 'Alter Q' which has 16 kings of the Copan dynasty carved around it edges.
Macaw Mountain Bird Park, Honduras
Not far from the ruins at Copan is the Macaw Mountain bird sanctuary, which helps birds recover from mistreatment as pets with the aim of returning them to the wild. The walk-through aviaries offer a great opportunity to spot colourful macaws, toucans and parrots in a jungle setting.
Costa Rica: wilderness and wildlife
Monteverde, Costa Rica
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve holds over 10,000 hectares of extraordinary bio-diversity. The permanent cloak of low-lying cloud creates a moist sub-tropical environment that is home to over 500 types of orchid, 58 bat species and 400 types of bird. The reserve is a great eco-tourism initiative, as all park profits contribute to forest preservation and research.
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
The dramatic symmetrical cone of Arenal Volcano dominates the skyline of the low-lying northern region of Costa Rica. The volcano is set in a national park studded with canyons, waterfalls and lava-heated hot springs. Base yourself at the nearby town of La Fortuna, set on beautiful Lake Arenal, and get stuck into the range of adventure activities on offer – hiking, canyoning, rafting, horseback riding and mountain biking.
Manual Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
This is an outrageously pretty little national park of lush jungle and glorious deserted beaches. Hike through the jungle to spot howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, iguanas, sloths, pelicans, toucans and woodpeckers – and on the beaches keep your eyes open for dolphins and whales.
Panama: a hip capital and beautiful beaches
Panama City, Panama
Panama city is a place of contrasts – there's cosmopolitan towering skyscrapers and old-style local charm. The crumbling buildings of the city's old quarter, Casco Viejo, are the setting for a gritty neighbourhood that's recently been out-cooling every other city in Central America. It's a hipster city on the rise.
Santa Catalina, Panama
A remote and low-key fishing town, with beautiful beaches and a scattering of offshore islands to explore. Surfing is a drawcard and the abundance of fish make for great scuba diving and fishing. Hanging in a hammock by the beach is pretty popular too.
Bocas del Toro archipelago, Panama
Live the Caribbean lifestyle on these beautiful islands – they have a fabulous blend of local cultures, great food and nightlife and loads of laid-back beach charm. Isla Bastimentos in the archipelago is a gorgeous island wth no cars, beaches lined with palm trees, clear water, fabulous snorkelling and a resident turtle population. What more do you need to know?
Nicaragua: remote and enchanting
Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
The twin volcanic peaks of Ometepe Island are a pretty spectacular site – the classic volcano cone shape of Mt Concepcion towers over the smaller cone of Maderas, as they rise out of the waters of Lake Nicaragua. It's a remote natural wonderland – hike the volcanoes, kayak, fish, swim, visit waterfalls and learn about the ancient petroglyphs which are literally strewn across the island.
An historically important city, Granada has rich colonial architecture and a beautiful lakeside setting. Colourful houses, six interesting churches, a handful of local markets and a chocolate museum make this town a pleasure to wander. You can also use Granada as a base for exploring the region – check out the Mumbacho Volcano Nature Reserve, the active Masaya Volcano, or take a boat ride on Lake Nicaragua and check out the nearby islets.
El Salvador: world-class surf and quaint towns
Suchitoto, El Salvador
Nestled between the mountains and Suchitlan Lake, Suchitoto is a colonial town that used to be the centre of the regional indigo dyeing industry. Wander down quiet streets, visit the beautiful colonial church, explore galleries and stop at a street vendor for a traditional pupusa – a delicious tortilla filled with beans, pork and cheese. There's plenty of hiking in the area and the lake is a haven for bird life.
Playa Las Flores, El Salvador
Playa Las Flores might be El Salvador's most beautiful beach and is probably its best known surf beach. Standing on the dark-sand, you're part of a wild environment – the surf rolls endlessly in to the dramatic cove and the hills of dense tropical forest come right up to the back of the sand. Stroll down the beach to the nearby charming cafes and deluxe resorts to bring yourself back into the modern world.
El Tunco, El Salvador
El Tunco is a top surfing destination with black-sand beaches and a laid-back vibe. It's a pretty tiny town but the beach front is lined with bars and cafes – pull up a stool, order a cerviche and a Pilsener and watch the surfers on La Bocanita beach break.