By Mark Eveleigh – January 2019 – 6 minute read
Colourful culture and ancient cities, Pacific surf and Caribbean beach bliss, wild jungle and even wilder inhabitants make Central America spectacularly diverse for such a compact region.
From the Kuna community of Panama’s San Blas Islands to the Quiché people of the Guatemalan highlands and back to the Garifuna musicians of coastal Belize (who descended from African slaves), Central America is one of the most intriguing regions in the world for aficionados of human diversity.
Add to this the natural riches of a Caribbean and Pacific coastline and historic attractions that span 3,000 years and you have an area ripe for tourism.
Central America is just over twice the size of the UK, so it’s easy to combine two or more countries and benefit from contrasting experiences.
The historic and engineering marvels of Panama are ideal complements to the natural riches of neighbouring Costa Rica; while the vibrant indigenous villages of the Guatemalan highlands complement (English-speaking) Belize’s Caribbean coast and barrier reef.
Known locally as el tapon (the ‘plug’) because of the virtually uncrossable wilderness of the Darien Gap which separates it from Colombia, Panama is perhaps the greatest natural land-bridge on our planet. It’s here that the wildlife of North America mingles with that of the south in an explosion of biodiversity.
Panama is a little larger than Ireland but is so sinuous that it’s possible to travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific in under 10 hours. The monumental Panama Canal is an unforgettable sight for its sheer scale and audacity and Panama City, with its gleaming business centre and the tangled alleyways of the old town, is certainly the region’s most attractive capital.
There are 1,800 miles of Pacific and Caribbean coastline, including the fantasy desert islands of San Blas where you can visit the indigenous Kuna communities, and the Caribbean vibes of Bocas del Toro.
Other attractions include the jungle around the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake, replete with wildlife like iguanas, sloths and toucans; the surf beaches of the Pacific; Coiba National Park, also on the Pacific side, where coral reefs and giants like whale sharks compete for divers’ attention; the misty coffee region of the Chiriquí Highlands and Barú Volcano National Park, towards the Costa Rica border; and the indigenous tribes and nature of the wild Darien National Park.
Only in Africa could you find a country to compete with Costa Rica for wildlife-sightings. Even on a short stroll through any rural village you might see wildlife that include unique fascinating creatures like coatimundis, howler monkeys or anteaters. Costa Rica also has almost as many bird species (an incredible 930) as are found throughout the U.S.
The wave-smashed Pacific Coast attracts many visitors, yet you can always break away from the crowds on one of the two peninsulas that hang, like swollen papayas, from the trunk of Central America.
Nicoya Peninsula is recognised as one of the ‘Blue Zones’ (places where people live to unusual old age).
It’s also home to Costa Rica’s own ‘Great Migration’ featuring thousands of giant sea turtles. The smaller Osa Peninsula is another spectacular wildlife hotspot.
From Costa Rica’s highest peak (Cerro Chirripó at 3,821m) on a clear day you can see the whole country, a region of soaring volcanoes and jungle valleys and an adventure-playground for rafting, climbing and trekking. Highlights include Arenal Volcano and its hot springs and Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve for wildlife.
The legacy of a turbulent political history means that many people are surprised by the genuine friendliness and hospitality that are the usual first impressions upon arrival in the sprawling capital city of Managua.
Arrive in the historic city of Granada (just 25 miles away) and things quickly get even better. This is one of the most intriguing colonial cities in the region and its location on the shore of Lake Nicaragua – and within easy reach of the laid-back Pacific Coast surf-town of San Juan del Sur – make it an ideal base.
Nicaragua has its share of wildlife, and the spectacular rainforests that cover around a quarter of the country are becoming a tourism draw-card.
Jungle-trekkers are drawn to the trails of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve while those with a taste for heights head for the twin volcanoes on Ometepe Island, Lake Nicaragua.
The Corn Islands offer a taste of Caribbean life less commercialised.
Sporadic political demonstrations mean that few people tend to consider Tegucigalpa (the capital) an attractive holiday option, but there are some major attractions elsewhere in the country.
The ruins of Copán, which are around 1,700 years old, provide a great alternative to the Mayan ruins of neighbouring Guatemala, with significantly less crowds. The jungles of UNESCO-designated Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, in the La Mosquitia region on the Caribbean coast, also have numerous Pre-Colombian sites and are home to 2,000 indigenous jungle-dwellers such as macaws, turtles, tapirs, jaguars and monkeys.
But Honduras’ jewel is the tangle of 61 islands and cays known as the Bay Islands, which account for drawing more than a quarter of Honduras’s tourists. The main islands of Roatan and Utila have a reputation for some of the region’s best diving and snorkelling.
Central America’s smallest country offers a world of adventure. While the capital, San Salvador, offers little in the way of tourist appeal, the country’s second largest city, Santa Ana, seduces visitors with its colonial riches and pretty barrios.
The people of Santa Ana are well aware of the beauty of their natural surroundings and take advantage of swimming and sailing at nearby Lake Coatepeque, climbing on Santa Ana volcano and trekking among the dramatic landscapes of Los Volcanes National Park (which boasts three other volcanoes).
While El Salvador is considered the poor relation in terms of archaeological sites, La Libertad (known primarily for its beach town) is also home to what UNESCO calls ‘a Central American Pompeii’, where Joya de Cerén town was buried by volcanic ash in an eruption around 600CE.
The great appeal of Guatemala lies in the country’s colourful traditional communities.
As with several other Central American cities, most visitors tend to avoid Guatemala City and head instead to Antigua (just over 20 miles away). This colonial-styled city offers immense photogenic appeal and is a base for trips to even more vibrant communities around the shores of Lake Atitlán or Chichicastenango – possibly the world’s most colourful market-town.
Travellers often choose to divide their time between these highlands and the northern Petén region, where they find the beautiful and aptly named Lake Flores (Lake of Flowers) and Tikal National Park.
Lying in virtually unexplored jungle, Tikal is surely one of the most mysterious lost cities on our planet, encompassing about 3,000 structures that were once the centre for an estimated 50,000 people.
One of the world’s least-populous countries and the only English-speaking nation in Central America, Belize has a Caribbean character all of its own.
From Belize City down through the coastal towns of Dangriga, Hopkins and Punta Gorda, visitors will be charmed by a laid-back attitude, often at odds with the bustling towns in neighbouring Guatemala.
Head inland to the capital, Belmopan (population just 20,000), to explore the appropriately named Valley of Peace and charming farming towns like Spanish Lookout and San Ignacio, near the Guatemala border.
Ambergris Caye is the most popular island escape but there are seven protected marine habitats along the world-famous Belize Barrier Reef. The Blue Hole, a marine sink hole, is a world famous diving spot.
Other stand-out attractions are Mayan ruins at Xunantunich and Caracol and Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s first jaguar reserve.