Located north of the equator, Central America is home to seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. This southern North American region is known as an "isthmus:" a narrow strip of land surrounded by sea that connects two larger bodies of land (in this case, North and South America).
With the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and diverse terrains in between, Central American travel destinations are known for their lively culture; turquoise beaches and popular surf spots; volcanos, mountains, and jungles; and ancient ruins and old cities.
If you are thinking about visiting Central America for your next trip, you have made a great decision. Use this guide to explore must-try activities for history buffs, adrenaline junkies, nature lovers, and water babies.
Central America has an amazing offering of mountains, caves, and volcanos for travelers to explore. Some adventure options include zip lining, bird watching, volcano and jungle treks, and nature walks. Costa Rica for example, one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, is known for extremo zip lining, as well as its government's dedication to preserving local nature and wildlife. While you can find zip lining in almost every Central American country, Costa Rica is known to take zip lining (or canopying, as they call it) to new heights -- literally.
Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica are known to have some of the most breathtaking volcanos in the world (like the popular Arenal, Ometepe, and Pacaya volcanos) and some of these volcanos even offer beautiful green and blue lagoons to swim in.
Nature lovers enjoy visiting Central America because of its diverse wildlife by day and night. From sea turtles to mangroves and thick forests, you can best experience the ecosystem right under your nose with a wildlife tour. For a unique experience, learn how much the nature around you changes by signing up for a guided night walk with an experienced tour guide. You'll get a glimpse at fauna and flora you never knew existed.
Culture & History Tours
If you think Asia and Europe are the only places known for their abundance of ancient ruins and preserved cities, think again. Central America (Latin America in general, really) not only has a plethora of ruins and preserved cities that tell the story of its intriguing history, but also a large amount of caves left unexplored!
Belize, for instance, offers the largest cave system in Central America (that we know of) and access to Mayan ruins, pottery, and secret passageways. If you were ever interested in spelunking (cave exploration) in Central America, Belize is best place to do it. If Central American ruins or historical cities are more your thing, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador are also great countries to visit.
Beach & Sea Tours
Join the crowds of sweaty twenty-somethings and surf enthusiasts, and head to the beach on Central America's Pacific side. You'll often find brightly painted school buses and colectivos shuttling herds of surfers wearing swimsuits, sunburnt hair, and carefree smiles -- all eager to hit the waves.
Travelers bounce from popular surf towns across Central America chasing surf competitions, the best beaches, and quaint towns to crash in for a few nights. By no surprise, you can also find great yoga studios and zen vibes where ever there is surf. Famous beach towns throughout Central America include San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua), Tamarindo and Nosara (Costa Rica), and Santa Catalina (Panama).
Being near the Caribbean Sea has its perks for most Central American countries, too. With a breathtaking sea of warm turquoise blue water, options to swim, snorkel, and scuba dive seem endless. Top spots to explore all things blue: anywhere along Central America's Mesoamerican Reef (which stretches across Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras), and of course, Belize's Blue Hole: an ancient rock formation that collapsed millions of years ago, believed to be thousands of feet deep.
Planning Your Trip
Use this guide when planning logistics, itineraries, and budgets for your Central American trip:
Best Time to Visit Central America
The best time to visit Central America is outside of the wet season, January to May. Always check the weather forecast for your specific region and go as far as to consult with your hotel, since a "chance of showers" forecast usually translates to "who knows?". If you decide to visit the cloud forest in Costa Rica, for example, there is almost always going to be a bit of rain –- but it will be much lighter in the dry season. On the other hand, with only sporadic rain during wet season in Panama, many areas can still be enjoyed with off-peak prices.
What to Look For In a Tour to Central America
Despite being relatively small, many Central America countries may not have the best roads for ground transportation and it can take a long time to get from one place to the next. When choosing a destination, check out what other activities are nearby in case you want to change it up. This will help you choose a tour provider and itinerary more easily.
Remember to inquire about rental fees, transportation and accommodation, and meals when choosing a tour. Be sure to also check tour operator reviews carefully, as many tours may not have the same safety regulations as the United States.
Typical Tour Costs
Compared to other adventure-friendly regions like Western Europe, Australia, and the United States, travelers find Central America to be quite an affordable place to visit. One thing to keep in mind though is that there is still a luxury market in each country and their tour and hotel prices can be costly if you want higher amenity standards. Average tour costs range from $1,000-$2,000 for a multi-day tour.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
When packing for Central America travel casual, light-colored cotton clothing, hiking boots, swimwear, and long sleeves (for the evenings) are sufficient. Rent adventure gear onsite whether diving, surfing, hiking, or zip lining. If you want to stick around long term for outdoor sports, another option would be to purchase gear (like a used surfboard) from a tourist who is leaving and then resell it when you go home.
Other Tips for Travel in Central America
- Visas: While most countries in Central America do not require entry visas, many require proof of exit (return ticket home) to enter.
- Budget & currency: Each country in Central America uses their own currency and requires exchanging money, with the exception of Panama which uses the US dollar, though most of these countries will easily accept payment with US dollars (you just get remaining change in the local currency).
- Transportation: Depending on your schedule and the region, choose between a domestic flight, bus (coach and repurposed school buses), shuttle, ferry, or rental car. Many countries also offer colectivos (a ride share) and many travelers hitchhike -- but these should be done with caution. It is wise to note that public ground transportation may adversely affect a tight itinerary, as some countries still use underdeveloped roads, unreliable schedules, and unregulated traffic.
- Accommodations: All seven countries in Central America offer a range of accommodations: from budget to luxury quality and price points. You can find hostels, bed and breakfasts, chain and independent hotels, retreat centers, and now -- thanks to sites like AirBnb -- private home rentals.
Health & Safety
Routine immunizations are required for visiting countries in Central America, though they often do not check immunization cards. Malaria (in Belize), typhoid, and Hep A and B vaccinations are recommended. Check the CDC website for updated information and give yourself at least six weeks to get it all done.
Many travelers have been conditioned to believe that they should pretty much avoid drinking tap water in Central America. That's not entirely true. While it is smart to use caution and stick to sealed, bottled water, you should know that you can drink tap water in some places throughout Central America. Many luxury or chain hotels, for example are likely to offer filtered water. Some cities in more developed countries, like Costa Rica and Panama, also have a higher percentage of visitors drinking their tap water.
Still worried? Stick to boiling water and using bottles when you drink and brush your teeth -- and avoid ice.
Another concern to consider before your trip is theft. Like many regions all over the world, pickpocketing is common in Central America -- particularly towards tourists (since visitors are often aloof when lost in a new place). Stay alert, be aware of your surroundings, and watch your bag at all times, especially when walking in high traffic areas and riding public transportation.
Women also report some harassment in many Central American countries, so it is best to avoid roaming alone, especially in dark, deserted areas. Finding a travel buddy and keeping valuables out of plain sight is also a good idea.