For many tourists, Central America is still one big question mark. Is it safe? Is it poor? How dangerous are the volcanoes in the Ring of Fire?
The truth be told, all of these questions are quite logical and relevant. However, there is a lot of unnecessary stigma around these places, largely unfounded in reality. Best Central American countries to visit have become much safer in the past decades and are always improving. Having said that, always use good reasoning no matter where you are, and you’ll have no troubles.
Bordered by two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, Central American countries boast immense natural beauty and unimaginable biodiversity. They are adventurer’s paradise, still feeling like there’s a lot to uncover. In our list of best Central American countries, we’ll focus on amazing natural features and activities mostly. However, don’t forget to visit a museum or two while you’re there, and try the local cuisine for it is divine.
Best Countries in Central America for Travelers
‘Rich Coast’ both figuratively and literally, Costa Rica takes the gold medal in many a competition among countries of Central America. The capital of this picturesque country, San José, is home to some of the happiest people in the entire world.
A lot of this happiness stems from their self-sustainability and pristine wonders of nature all around them. Moreover, they’re bent on keeping it that way, resulting in a spike in ecotourism in Costa Rica. Some of Central America’s finest natural features and about 5% of global biodiversity can be found right here. It’s not unusual then that travellers from around the world come to Costa Rica for this very reason, hoping for a chance to get the first-hand experience with at least some of the species that call this part of Central America their home. Ocelots, sloths, capuchins and squirrel monkeys are just some of the zounds of life forms that you might have the luck of coming across on your journey through Costa Rica. Always be mindful of potential harm to the local ecosystem and try to avoid being intrusive. Watch how locals treat their surroundings and you’ll have an excellent example to follow. Costa Rica produces 99% of its energy from green sources such as hydro plants, wind turbines and solar panels.
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Such amazing biodiversity comes from unusually varied terrain features and biomes. Among hundreds of documented volcanoes that occupy a decent portion of the region, five of them are considered active. These volcanoes are usually safe enough for adventurers to climb, and provide spectacular views of the surrounding area. Such high-risers also give way to some truly breathtaking waterfalls. Irazu and Arenal are most frequently visited volcanoes with the former one being an often-visited national park as well, while the latter has an amazing geothermal pool at its foothills. Geothermal pools are quite common here, and they’re often part of Costa Rica day trips.
Speaking of adventuring and climbing active volcanoes, there are other things you can do here that qualify as activities but aren’t as insane! People of Costa Rica are really big on surfing and it would be quite a shame that all those beautiful waters of the oceans go to waste. Grab a surfing board and head out to one of the prominent surfing spots such as Montezuma or Dominical. If you haven’t surfed before, or haven’t done so in a long time, it might be a good idea to brush up on the basics of surfing. There are other adventures you can embark on, such as zip lining and river rafting. Both will take you straight through the heart of the rainforest on an adrenaline-induced trip.
What used to be a country mainly orientated towards agriculture and working the land has long since embraced contemporary economic practices and all the benefits that come with it. In spite of that, Costa Rica still boasts some of the world’s best coffee and cocoa products. It’s quite common for travellers to visit some of the many plantations that cover this fine land and taste local brews. Tourists often report that chocolate made from Costa Rican cocoa tastes like heaven, and they’re not even a little wrong.
After you’re done savouring the local coffee and chocolate goodness, head out to Monteverde region. Here’ you’ll find out more about a very special biome called Cloud Forest. Its elevation and humidity combine to create a spectacular natural phenomenon, with forests that constantly appear to be riddled with fog.
Finally, Costa Rica does not lack institutions of high cultural and historical significance. Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art Design are our favourites, with more available for travellers to visit. With so many things to see and do, it’s no wonder why travellers consider Costa Rica to be one of the best Central American countries to visit.
Much like Costa Rica, the beautiful Central American country of Guatemala is very lucrative in terms of biodiversity. It’s not as well off as the aforementioned country, but it’s still one of the most attractive places to travellers.
Guatemala is by far one of the best places to visit in Central America if you’re interested in finding out more about Mayan civilization. Regardless of where you go or how closely you look, traces of their ancient culture crop up to create the image of people who are now all but gone in this part of Central America. They are a bare minority that makes their living by working on farms and agriculture is really all they need. Your first stop on your path to learning more about their great culture is visiting Chichi (short for Chichicastenango). In this little two, you can visit the Mayan market and bargain with them for better prices. Make sure to know Spanish before you do that though, as them not being fluent in English is an understatement.
After that, get a tour of the Museo de Mascaras Ceremoniales to get an even broader insight into their history and culture. The most Mayan place you’ll be able to visit though is of course Tikal. Both north and south of Guatemala foster remains of this ancient society, but Tikal, in particular, is located in the north. Visiting these ruins is a breathtaking expedition that is likely to etch itself, and quite vividly so, into your memory for the rest of your life. If you’re the kind of traveller that tries to avoid crowded places as much as possible, Tikal is the best spot for you.
After you’re done paying homage to the civilization long gone, dozens of options are still widely available. Maybe, you’d like to try Guatemalan coffee as well. It doesn’t fall behind Costa Rican brews. Not even a little. Before you know it, several cups of coffee will already have passed through you. It’s strong, it’s delicious, with earthy tones, in short – everything coffee needs to be. While you’re out in the wilderness, you might want to check one of the most recognizable places in all Guatemala – Lake Atitlan. This gorgeous lake is surrounded by mountain ranges and volcanoes, having itself been formed inside a volcanic crater. Around it, picturesque, indigenous villages dot the landscape, serving as an excellent staging ground for exploration of the deepest lake in Central America. Get someone to ferry you across the lake or go kayaking on your own. Either way, the amazing experience is guaranteed.
Like all the other countries of Central America, Guatemala is also caught in the Ring of Fire. Volcanoes are all but rarity in here, and where there are volcanoes, there’s also an adventure. And a lot of smoke and fire. And danger. However, climbing one of these brutes such as Acatenango rewards those persistent, brave and strong enough to endure its challenges with a visage of an active volcano. The surrounding area is not less impressive, not even a little. But we doubt you’ll be looking at anything else other than the volcano. With these kinds of activities though, you can never be too prepared. Always inform yourself about the potential hazards and look into recent volcano activity.
Another place of otherworldly beauty and turquoise waters is Semuc Champey. It is a pool of water so charming and magical that most tourists decide to spend most of their time available right here!
All of these places are well and good, and you’ll no doubt want to see and conquer them all. However, one problem that visitors to Guatemala often face is the lack of any decent transportation. Get ready to rattle around in an overcrowded shuttle bus to get anywhere.
If that isn’t your thing though and you know you couldn’t stand it, spend more time discovering the great places such as the capital of the country called Guatemala City, a shorthand for Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción. You can find some excellent museums here, as well as restaurants serving delicious local cuisine. However, most visitors opt for Antigua, which is a Spanish colonial city close to the capital. Its long and rich history permeates the air and combined with volcanoes in the background results in a spectacular experience.
Between Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south lies Nicaragua, a Central American paradise and adventuring haven.
You might have already decided where to go and what to do in Central America. Maybe, you’ve overlooked Nicaragua entirely in the process. That’s ok, we don’t blame you. For many years, this little gem remained undiscovered and overlooked, in part due to the proximity of such a bustling tourist hub that Costa Rica truly is. Nowadays, the number of tourists that visit Nicaragua annually has spiked, with constant increases to follow. So let’s see what it is that prompts people to visit this lovely country in Central America.
As we’ve already stated, it’s a hotspot for adventure and danger-seekers looking to test their physical fitness and courage. First thing first – surfing! If you’ve come to Nicaragua to fight the waves, you’re definitely in the right place. Visit Las Peñitas, a small fishing village starring down the mighty Pacific Ocean. Here you’ll be able to take a couple of lessons, which is always the best prelude to surfing. Waves can get quite nasty and you wouldn’t like finding yourself losing the battle against the ocean. Alternatively, you can go to San Juan del Sur which is equally relevant to the Nicaraguan surfing scene. This is where most people come to surf, so if you feel better with more people around you, this is the way to go.
On the other side of Nicaragua, in the Caribbean Sea, you’ll find even more water-based activities. The most prominent tourist destination on this side of the country is the Corn Island. The pristine, see-through waters around the island give way to underwater activities such as scuba diving, snorkelling or just some good old lazy swimming. Small Corn and Big Corn are the two islands that comprise the Corn Island, with the latter one being far more touristy than the other.
Boarding down Cerro Negro
There’s even more on the adventuring side! Nicaragua takes exploring the volcanoes to a whole new level. Instead of just climbing them, observing their fiery pits of hell and climbing down, you can do all that and then slide down the slopes of Cerro Negro. This young volcano is very active, giving another twist to this already deadly activity. It’s best you did this with a guided tour because it can get really dangerous. Boarding down a volcano’s gravelly slope can get way too intense really fast, so think this one through before you actually go ahead and do it.
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Just like Antigua in Guatemala, Granada is a city in Nicaragua that showcases Spanish colonial architecture, cobbled streets and colourful designs. Wander its illustrious streets, try some local cuisine, have a portion of Gallo Pinto and rest (at least for a bit). Because what awaits you right outside of Granada is nothing short of hell. Travellers often visit the active volcano called Masaya that bellows angrily right outside Granada. Climbing to the top will reveal a fiery chasm at its heart. Be aware that you shouldn’t linger here for longer than 10 minutes as poisonous gases rise from the volcano.
There are several other places worth the visit, and we’ll cover them only briefly. Lake Nicaragua is a gorgeous body of water that fosters Ometepe, an island comprised of two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas. Go kayaking to Ometepe, and then traverse it completely, hiking up to the volcanoes. Finally, go on a fishing trip to the Apoyo Lagoon and marvel at its simple, yet immense beauty.
Last but not the least important country on our list is Panama. Thousands of tourists arrive in Panama City each year, ready to pounce on every opportunity to experience this country to the fullest.
Quite obviously, the Panama Canal is one of the main attractions in the country. See where the great waterway between two oceans begins at Canal Expansion Observation Center in Colon on the Caribbean Sea. While you’re at it, grab something to eat in the famous Miraflores Restaurant. Since we’ve already started talking about food, we’ll mention that arroz con pollo and ceviche are the best things to have in Panama! This is a great way to see the largest source of income in Panama, all the while you’re having some local delicacies. The fact is that taxation of the waterway is the most important moneymaker in Panama, and most likely will be in years to come.
Tourism isn’t too far behind obviously. Droves of tourists arrive each year and head out in each direction. Panama’s unique position between North and South America provides the area with extensive biodiversity. This moment has been well-captured in Biomuseo, which captures the history of this isthmus and its rich flora and fauna. You’ll find a lot of interesting exhibits here, including some interactive ones, summing up to a wholesome, fun experience.
Among other reasons why Panama is one of the best Central American countries to visit is the capital itself. Panama City offers a wide variety of pastimes, from amazing bars and restaurants, all the way to museums and architectural marvels. In fact, there are so many things to see and do it’s best to discover it with the help of a tour guide.
At the moment, it’s not too safe to head south. The border between Panama and Columbia is controlled by paramilitary groups and drug cartels. Staying away from the south will result in a much more pleasant experience for you.
How About Central America?
After so many years of isolation, political strifes and instabilities, countries of Central America are finally open to tourists from around the world.
Most of these countries have gotten significantly safer, and it’s had a positive impact on tourism. As you can no doubt tell from our list, they are still dangerous in many other aspects, prompting visitors to be careful and selective about what they do and where they go. Central America can be an excellent holiday destination, but you will need good travel insurance. Always inspect the country you’re about to visit. Look for signs of potential danger from volcanoes and tropical diseases. Make sure to get proper vaccinations before travelling to rainforests and you’ll have a good time!