The best things to do in Central America

The Central American isthmus consists of seven countries, two expansive coastlines and more than 100 volcanoes. Add it all up and you’ve got one of the exciting regions in the world to explore.

Options for adventure travelers and nature enthusiasts are ubiquitous, and you’ll also find plenty of relaxed island getaways, magnificent Maya ruins and bustling cities. Whatever your travel preferences, Central America can satisfy them.

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a repeat customer, knowing where to start can be a challenge – but it’s also part of the fun. In this roundup of Central America’s best experiences, we’ll guide you on where to find monkeys, how to choose islands, which volcanoes to summit and who throws the best parties. ¡Vamos!

Island hop in Bocas Del Toro, Panama

With nine main islands and some 200 islets, this stunning archipelago looks like series of eye-catching postcards, and is unsurprisingly Panama’s most popular vacation spot. Its dockside hotels and restaurants, low-hanging palm trees and crystal-blue water have for many years attracted international travelers. Some have even refused to go home.

Activities of choice include pedaling a beach cruiser around, snorkeling among giant sea stars, surfing reef breaks, touring chocolate farms and feasting on delicious Caribbean fare. In the evenings, Latin rhythms and clinking glasses fill the air on backpacker-y Isla Colón.

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Meet wildlife on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

The wildest of the wild in Costa Rica, this national park on the country’s most secluded peninsula simply explodes with biodiversity and eye-popping ecosystems. In the same afternoon, you can traverse a gnarled, dripping rain forest, cross a waist-deep river and take lunch on a wilderness beach – and you’re all but guaranteed to encounter dangling monkeys, shy tapirs and squawking macaws. 

It’s usually intrepid types who venture out here, as the terrain is rugged and remote. But the trails are in good shape, and a guide is required (which is great, because getting lost would suck).

Hiker with panorama view of Lake Atitlán and volcano San Pedro and Toliman early in the morning from peak of volcano Atitlán, Guatemala
Visitors to magnificent Lake Atitlán often extend their trips by weeks – or even years © Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

Self-reflect at Guatemala’s Lago de Atitlán

Outsiders tend to fall in love with Central America’s deepest lake, extending their trips by weeks or even years – and for good reason. Ringed with lush hillsides, towering volcanoes and diverse communities, this crater lake and its aquamarine waters, a highlight of any Guatemala trip, offer an escape to a simpler way of living. 

On an Atitlán getaway, travelers can do it all: some learn Spanish, practice yoga and stay with a local family; others long-distance kayak, scale volcanoes and throw down with other backpackers in San Pedro La Laguna. Whatever you do here, take some time to relax and reflect by this glorious lake as the rustic fishing boats glide by. 

Explore Mayan ruins in Honduras’s Copán

Tucked into an idyllic river valley, these archeological ruins were home to a Maya civilization whose artisans could carve stone like few others. The sculptures here are particularly impressive – don’t miss the hieroglyphic stairway – and a day spent peering around these temples and the surrounding sites will make you feel like a time-traveler.

Plunge into Belizean waters

Undersea adventures are off the hook around the atolls of Belize, where snorkelers and divers glide over spectacular coral formations and encounter majestic marine life including reef sharks. At the world-famous Blue Hole, divers submerge more than 100 feet into a massive marine sinkhole. 

Reputable tour operators with great customer service and solid environmental credentials abound. And bold travelers seeking a highly personal and adventurous experience should consider a stay on castaway-esque island Long Caye, which is just minutes from the country’s most coveted underwater attractions. 

Market sellers on a lively Sunday market in front of the cathedral facade in the main square of Antigua, Guatemala
Lively markets take place among the cobblestones of Antigua, Central America’s colonial gem © Lucy Brown / loca4motion/Shutterstock

Explore Guatemala’s colonial gem, Antigua

Central America’s top colonial showpiece is an enchanting amalgam of cobblestone, crumbling ruins and elegant churches. To comply with its World Heritage listing, the former Guatemala capital hides all evidence of modernity behind traditional pastel facades, and its plazas and markets pulsate with local life. 

If you ever tire of wandering these charming streetscapes (which you won’t), you’re also well-placed to venture into the surrounding countryside, where traditional Maya communities, verdant coffee plantations and smoking volcanoes await. 

Road-trip through El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores

Flanked by wildflowers, this scenic 20-mile road through multi-hued colonial villages and undulating coffee plantations is a journey into the heart of El Salvador. It is best undertaken on weekends, when the cobbled streets of five main settlements come alive with local food festivals. The Feria Gastronómica in Juayúa is particularly delicious. 

Regardless of when you go, there will be ample opportunity to shop for artisanal crafts and sample the coffee. Not too far off the route, Los Chorros de Calera offers hiking and swimming near a series of waterfalls spilling from fractured cliffs.   

Feast on the Corn Islands’ Caribbean fare

Foodies who land in Central America simply cannot miss the lip-smacking Caribbean cuisine, and there’s no better place to sample it than on Nicaragua’s dreamy Corn Islands. We’re talking scrumptious lobster, whole fried snapper, heaping plates of coconut-y rice and beans, and (best of all) the rondón. Essentially the jambalaya of the Caribbean, this local favorite features sea bass or snapper, shellfish, tubers, plantains, heart of palm, plantains, peppers and a host of spices.

Local restaurants on Great Corn – the larger and busier of the two islands – serve this stew year-round. Be sure to give 24 hours notice for your order, though, as the ingredients must simmer all day in a spicy coconut broth. The islands also throw a festival dedicated to crab soup every August.

Move-and-shake in Panama City

We recommend staying in the historic district, Casco Viejo, whose restored colonial buildings now house boutique hotels, swank restaurants and rooftop bars. You’ve also got the crumbling ruins of Panama Viejo, the rollicking nightlife of Calle Uruguay and an abundance of casinos all over the city to keep you entertained. 

A short drive west, you can visit the world famous Panama Canal and its impressive lock system. Rainforest and beach destinations are also within striking distance.

Live it up in El Salvador’s Playa El Tunco

El Salvador’s most famous beach is a hard-partying black-sand paradise with killer beach breaks and a distinctive pig-shaped rock formation just offshore. (“Tunco” means pig.) Weekends are an absolute scene with both locals and tourists, and hangovers are best nursed with thin-crust pizza at Tunco Veloz

Other nearby beaches are much more chill, particularly the windswept wilderness of Barrio Santiago, where turtles hatch along the shore.

A man slides down the sooty side of a volcano at high speed in León, Nicaragua
Nicaragua is the only place in the world you can “volcano board” down a sooty mountain slope © PixieMe / Shutterstock

Volcano-board in León, Nicaragua

There is just one place in the world to “send it” down the sooty terrain of a volcano: Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro, just outside of León. The little-known sport essentially involves dressing up in an orange jumpsuit, a helmet and safety goggles and carrying sled-like equipment up over lava-baked rocks. Then, you hurl yourself down the sulfur-spewing cinder cone’s ashy flank. The idea is to go fast, but not so fast that you wreck. What’s not to love?

For the full experience, stay at the Bigfoot Hostel, a vibrant backpacker joint formerly owned by the inventor of volcano boarding. Go with one of their group tours and have a Toña beer once you’ve survived.

Learn to scuba dive in Utila, Honduras

If you’re looking for big experiences on a small budget, consider taking the plunge off Utila, one of the world’s least expensive places to get scuba-certified. The balmy, turquoise waters off this palm-flecked Caribbean isle simply teem with colorful coral and curious fish. Enormous whale sharks have been known to chill on the northern tip of the island all year round, and the tasty seafood and lively bar scene are nothing to scoff at, either.

A scuba diver seen in silhouette from below next to the hull of a boat by the underwater coral reefs in Utila, Honduras
Utila is one of the most economical places in the wold to get PADI-certified in scuba © Getty Images / WaterFrame RM

Surf Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast

Ever since Endless Summer II hit the big screen in 1994, surfers have been flocking to Central America’s Pacific Coast for its temperate sea and uber-consistent swells. The film featured Costa Rica’s Tamarindo, and certainly that beach is a surfer’s paradise. But just a few hours north in Nicaragua, things get a bit more adventurous and a lot more affordable. 

The former fishing village of San Juan del Sur is now Nicaragua’s jumping-off point for all things surf, but its waves are unremarkable when compared with the point breaks and beach breaks found in the secluded bays to the north and south. The hollow tubes rolling into Playa Maderas are world class, and the backpacker beach vibes are strong. 

A young adventurous man zip-lining through the cloud forest of Monteverde
Zip-line canopy tours were invented in Costa Rica – and as touristy as they’ve become, nothing thrills in quite the same way © Wollertz / Shutterstock

Zip-line through the Monteverde forest canopy

We know, we know: there’s nothing more touristy than strapping on a helmet and shimmying into a harness to zip around a Central American forest like some oversized hummingbird on a bender. But the rush is undeniable, and if you’ve never done it, you really need to. 

There is no shortage of zip-lines, particularly in Costa Rica, where the tourist attraction was invented. We are partial to forest flying in the adventure parks of Monteverde, where businesses have stepped things up with Tarzan swings, rappels through tree centers and treetop walkways. When you’re done, head to the Tree House Restaurant for a delicious passion-fruit smoothie.

Do nothing on Caye Caulker in Belize

Sometimes travel can feel a bit hectic. Rest assured that this will never happen on this blissed-out tropical dream island. Think sugar-white sand, warm azure waters and beach bars serving up fruity cocktails and pumping reggae tunes all day long. Nights are on the quiet side, which tends to draw a chilled out, international backpacker crowd and plenty of families, too.

For visitors who insist on doing stuff, there are plenty of opportunities for snorkeling around with turtles and small sharks, spying on manatees or kayaking to lesser-explored parts of the island. 

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