There’s more to Latin American tourism than just all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Spring Break in Cancun.
The entire region of Central America has such a natural beauty for anyone to enjoy without breaking the bank.
The region’s packed with gorgeous beaches, rich wildlife, tropical rainforests, ruins from some of the world’s earliest civilizations, and year-round summertime climates. What more could you want?
Let’s explore the best places to visit in Central America:
1. Tikal and Copan – Guatemala
These ancient cities of the Maya people are testimony to the rich civilization that dominated the region between 700 BC and 900 AD. While Maya ruins are scattered throughout the country, Tikal and Copan are the two major sites that remain intact.
The “Great Plaza” of Tikal is the most impressive structure, located centrally between ornate altars, ceremonial buildings, lavish dwellings, and the infamous ball court.
Fun fact: the ball games in ancient Maya times are thought to be the first sport throughout all of human history, dating back to 2500 BC. Archeologists have found ancient ball courts, like the one in Tikal, as far north as Arizona all the way down to Nicaragua and even in Cuba.
Though ancient native populations played the game for fun, it was also taken very seriously for ritual events and in disputes between communities (sounds kind of like soccer in modern-day Latin America). Under these circumstances, the captain of the losing team would often be executed or sacrificed.
2. Lake Atitlan – Guatemala
This lake formed as a result of a volcanic explosion 85,000 years ago that spread volcanic ash all the way up to Florida.
The pressure from the volcano’s magma forced the surface ground to collapse, forming a hollow circle that soon filled up with water.
Today, the breathtaking site is home to small quaint villages and is an ideal stopping point for any backpacker.
This location is more for relaxation and taking a breather from all the adventure than it is for partying.
You can take in the serene beauty of the lake and volcanos by kayaking, hiking, biking, jet skiing, swimming, boating, or taking a cultural tour through the surrounding indigenous villages.
3. Dominical – Costa Rica
This beach town is a surfer’s dream. With consistent ten-feet-high waves, hardly anyone does anything else.
But there are other options aside from taking surfing lessons from one of the countless surfing companies along the shore.
Dominical has gorgeous rainforests, waterfalls, and caves where you can go zip lining, horseback riding, hiking, enjoy a massage or even a yoga session.
You can also see whales 9 months out of the year. There are whale watching tours where you can see the only place in the Western Hemisphere where whales from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres meet.
This beach town is a perfect place to lay back in a hammock and relax off the beaten trail—since there are no paved roads, chain restaurants, or significant cultural sites here.
4. Corcovado – Costa Rica
National Geographic called Corcovado National Park the “most biologically intense place on Earth,” and they were definitely onto something.
It’s the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s national parks, with 103,290 acres of tropical rainforest, and home to 500 species of trees, 6,000 species of insects, 140 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, 116 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 40 species of fish.
There are also jaguars, sea turtles, sloths, and many species of monkeys.
So if you want to hike up your sleeves and explore the wildlife of the incredible Central American rainforests, you surely can’t miss Corcovado!
5. San Blas Islands – Panama
Lonely Planet named San Blas the #3 tropical paradise in the world in 2011. This heavenly place of 365 islands is exactly what you picture when you think tropical paradise: white sand, crystal-clear waters, palm trees, and isolation.
Thanks to the Guna indigenous group who owns this region, big business and commercialization hasn’t been allowed in.
They have preserved the natural environment in all of its glory.
You won’t find any concrete, sky scrapers, or even wifi in this part of Panama, and it is bliss if you’re really trying to escape from reality for a few days (or weeks or years…you might just want to move there).
All the islands are very accessible to each other, so you can hop from one to the other by boat and enjoy sun bathing, snorkeling, kayaking, or sailing.
The Guna people are also very friendly, and happily offer tours of their villages to tourists.
You can explore their peaceful way of life that seems like it’s stuck in time, walking through their bamboo houses and swinging hammocks, all tucked in between the rainforest, waterfalls, and impeccable beaches.
6. Boquete – Panama
Don’t forget to stop by this quiet mountain town deemed “The Land of Eternal Springtime.
” It contains the best known U.S. expat community in the world, so you can have fun and take a mental break from working on your Spanish skills.
Because of the many Americans in the area, you can find anything between hostels to luxury hotels with health spas.
In Boquete, you can go whitewater rafting, zip lining, rock climbing, enjoy the natural hot springs, go on an adventurous safari tour, visit the famous coffee plantations the region is known for, or visit the Baru Volcano, one of the only places in the world where you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean at the same time.
7. León – Nicaragua
Discover the thriving college town of León, one of Nicaragua’s oldest cities, and the country’s political and cultural center.
León remains one of Central American’s main attractions for students as backpackers, as the city is draped in Spanish colonial architecture and pulsates with museums, art centers, public murals, and historic churches.
Savor the authentic flavors of Nicaragua’s local favorites: fried cheese, plantains, and the quintessential rice and beans.
And at night, muster up the courage to try León’s famous salsa dance clubs.
8. Granada – Nicaragua
One of the country’s largest cities and situated along the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada offers travelers plenty of variety from site-seeing to activities.
Take a stroll through this historic city, filled with brightly colored buildings remnant of Spanish colonialism, and explore the buzzing markets selling local goods and handicrafts.
And head to the banks of Lake Nicaragua for horseback riding and ancient archaeological sites.
9. Ambergris Caye – Belize
In the only English-speaking country in Central America, tourists throughout the world can come to Belize and not have to stress over any language barrier.
In this dreamy island off the coast of Belize, relaxation is the modus operandi.
Swap out your slacks for shorts, turn in your professional-looking shoes for flip flops, and leave your stress back at home.
Ambergris Caye is the ultimate getaway for beach lovers looking to retreat from civilization.
Swim through the crystal-clear turquoise waters, bask under the warm Caribbean sun, and explore some of Belize’s exotic animals in the wildlife sanctuaries.
10. The Hummingbird Highway – Belize
At the foot of the Maya Mountain range, the Hummingbird Highway in Belize directs tourists through some of the most jaw-dropping views in Central America.
The 55-mile-long highway winds through Belize’s jungles, citrus orchards, and impeccably picturesque villages, with gorgeous scenery at every turn.
And the road is not to be travelled in one sitting, but rather tourists should consider stopping along the way.
Visit Cave’s Branch along the Highway for cave tubing, or stop at St.
Herman’s Cave, where you can explore the huge caverns and classic Mayan artifacts with a guide.
And for the final touch, take a dive into the Blue Hole, a 25ft-deep sapphire-blue swimming hole off the Hummingbird Highway.
11. Roatán – Honduras
The largest of the Bay Islands, Roatán is a prominent scuba diving destination in Central America.
Snorkelers and scuba divers flock from all over the globe to this spot in the Caribbean Sea, where the second-largest barrier reef in the world surrounds the island.
And for all those looking for their own slice of tropical paradise, Roatán features the region’s famous white sand beaches, turquoise waters, lush jungles, and exotic wildlife—without the mass tourism in the way.
Come relax in this Central American oasis, where pure bliss is just the natural state of mind.
12. Ruta de las Flores – El Salvador
Translated literally as “The Flower Route,” this beautiful trail through El Salvador is like meandering through the history of the country itself.
In a series of colonial and indigenous villages, La Ruta de las Flores captures the beautiful architecture and rich culture of the Salvadoran people.
Browse through local markets with handmade crafts, try El Salvador’s renowned coffee from the source, and relax for a lazy weekend with authentic Salvadoran cuisine.
If that’s too slow of a pace, you can also head to the Cordillera Apaneca, a volcanic mountain range with trails for mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking.
And scattered throughout the Apaneca are stunning waterfalls.
13. Antigua – Guatemala
Once the capital of the Spanish Empire in Central America (with Mexico City representing North America and Lima, Peru, and Buenos Aires, Argentina representing South America), the historic town of Antigua, Guatemala is a must-see destination for Central American travelers.
The enchanting Spanish architecture gives Antigua a quaint and romantic atmosphere.
Stroll through this beautiful, old town with historic landmarks dotted throughout.
Trek to Central Park, where you can lazily spend the day under the plush trees among the city’s monuments and fountains.
And for full panoramic views of Antigua, climb up to the Hill of the Cross and take in the vastness of the land.
14. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – Costa Rica
Located along the Tilarán mountain range in Costa Rica, this reserve is one of Costa Rica’s most coveted tourist destinations.
Around 400 species of birds, more than 100 species of mammals, 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 2,500 species of plants are all found at this mecca for biodiversity.
In order to fully experience nature at work, tourists can go ziplining, hiking, Sky Walking over suspension bridges, and take canopy tours over the tree tops at Monteverde.
In this majestic forest, you’re likely to come across wild pigs, moneys, porcupines, and many other wildlife species you may have never heard of.
15. Arenal Volcano – Costa Rica
Up until 2010, Arenal was the most active volcano in Costa Rica.
Its frequent, small eruptions displayed glorious shows of spewing lava for onlookers to admire.
Now in its dormant phase, the explosions are indefinitely on hold.
Even so, the area surrounding the Arenal provides an enchanting backdrop for any Central American traveler.
Together with the dormant Chato Volcano, the Arenal Volcano makes up the Arenal Volcano National Park, inclusive with breath-taking lakes, rivers, mountains, and rainforests.
Venture into nature for whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, ziplining, canopy tours, caving, and waterfall rappelling.
And when you’re ready to relax from the day’s adrenaline, soak in the park’s natural hot springs created by the volcanic geothermal activity.