The conquistadors settled the narrow bottleneck of territory between Mexico and Colombia earlier and more completely than they did the great landmasses of the north and south. Yet, Central America has yet to be fully discovered by British travellers. While Costa Rica’s national parks and beaches and the Mayan pyramids are firmly on the backpacker route, the region’s many other treasures are only now beginning to get the attention they deserve.
Few areas of the planet – including far bigger regions – pack in the degree of biodiversity and topographical variety found between the Darién Gap and Guatemala. The chain of steaming volcanoes and emerald-green mountains that snakes through the centre of the countries means that in a relatively short distance the land rises from its two littorals – on the Pacific and Caribbean – to heights in excess of 13,000ft.
The magical combination of sunshine, rain, altitude and shade provides dry, cloud and rainforest habitats ideal for ocelots, three-toed sloths, capuchin frogs, poison dart frogs, multi-coloured birds such as the keel-billed toucan and Montezuma’s oropendola (which produces a quite remarkable call), plus a mind-boggling variety of butterflies and moths, flora and ecosystems – as well as creating the conditions for the world’s best coffee and most of its bananas.
The volcanoes make for great hiking and mountain biking trails as well as the newfangled sport of volcano surfing. Central America also boasts highly Instagrammable beaches, beautiful colonial cities, grassy prairies (with their own cowboys, known as sabaneros, cabalgadores or vaqueros) and sweeping highlands.
Only 30 miles separate the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea in Panama. Even at the widest sections of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, you can easily visit both coasts during a week-long trip. Broadly speaking, the Pacific is more developed, thanks to navigable and fertile lowlands and Spanish settlements serviced by the galleys from Peru. Many major cities and capitals are close to it; Panama City sits on it. The west is popular with surfers and beach lovers and, increasingly, resort-builders. Along the Emerald Coast in Nicaragua and on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula you’ll find plenty of chic retreats designed for moneyed foreign holidaymakers. The Caribbean is very different, due to its sinuous coastline, many rivers and areas of swamp and marsh, most notably along the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua – the name (given to it by British seafarers) refers to the Miskito Sambu, Afro-Indigenous Americans who settled here (possibly after escaping from a slave ship).
Which Central American country gets the most tourists?
2016 Arrivals in millions
There are, though, many stretches of unspoilt sandy beach and lots of small islands and, most enticingly, the 560-mile long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Stretching from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula down to Honduras, it’s the second largest coral reef system in the world and easy to access, especially from Belize’s many cayes (low-lying islands).
Self-driving holidays are popular in Panama and Costa Rica, less so in busy El Salvador and mountainous Guatemala. The Panamerican Highway (route number 1) runs 2,566km (1,594 miles) from La Mesilla in Guatemala to Yaviza, close to the forests and swamps known as the Darién Gap – impassable except by intrepid motorcyclists and four-wheel-drive experts with portable bridges and specialist gear (the FCO advises against crossing it, as do the spiders and snakes). It’s likely to remain that way as part of Panama and the United States’ campaign to limit trafficking from Colombia.
Central America is hot and generally humid (see When to go, below) and you might want to break your overland drive or bus journey with a stay on or beside open water. In Guatemala, Atitlán, Izabal and Petén Itzá are big, beautiful lakes of cultural interest. At 3,191 square miles, Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in the region, with floating hotels and volcanic islands high above the shimmering surface. The most famous of all watery places is, of course, the Panama Canal. Many cruises pass through the three locks of this extraordinary watercourse; several companies offer partial transits, ideal for a day trip.
Central Americans are not a homogenous group. In Guatemala, significant indigenous communities still predominate in the highlands. Belize, a former British colony, has creole, Mayan mestizo and Garifuna communities. History has had an impact as much as the gene pool. Revolution in Nicaragua and armed conflict in El Salvador and Guatemala inform public discourse. Costa Rica’s no-army policy is seen as empowering or debilitating, depending on your politics. Panama has suffered American influence more than most countries.
But visitors receive a genial welcome in all these small countries – warmest perhaps in the places where there has been most strife.
Given all the above, it’s no surprise visitor numbers – from the UK as well as from other countries – are on the up. Tour operators, airlines and even credit card companies are reporting increasing interest in Central America. Costa Rica is established as a world-class adventure tourism destination. Guatemala is the most alluring heartland of the Mayan world. Panama is destined to be a major global trading and transport hub. Nicaragua is arguably the most happening country in the Americas in terms of rebranding its image and luxing up its hotels.
The demand is driving an increase in flight options. In May 2016, British Airways launched its first direct flight between London and San José, Costa Rica. From March this year, a new flight from Frankfurt with Lufthansa supplements other direct flights from Paris CDG (Air France), Frankfurt (Condor) and Zurich (Edelweiss).
BA’s sister airline, Iberia, flies to San José daily and also has non-stop flights to Panama City and to Guatemala City through to San Salvador. Later this year, a new flight to Managua via Guatemala will be launched. While long (11 hours-plus), the outward leg tends to be a day flight, taking advantage of the change of time zone.
Other entry points are the main US hubs, especially Miami, Cancun and Mexico City; you can also combine Central America with Cuba or South America.
The FCO advice for the region – which has above-average street crime rates – is to avoid run-down areas and unpopulated districts after dark, protect belongings in cities, and be alert to news of eruptions and tsunamis. The recent re-election of President Hernández in Honduras led to the removal of warnings about possible protests. Guatemala – following charges of government corruption and a coup in congress – “has been in a state of political crisis since late August 2017. Demonstrations in Guatemala City and other major towns are possible. You should remain cautious and avoid any demonstrations.” Panama’s Darién region should only be visited on an organised tour.
“Pura vida!” say the Ticos, as Costa Ricans like to call them¬selves. “Pure life!” Nicoya in Costa Rica is considered a global “blue zone” because of the longevity of its residents. But across the seven isthmian nations of Central America, life is somehow pure in so many of its expressions, from the teeming abundance of wildlife species, to the exuberance of forests and flora, to the zest for enjoyment and the sense of delight shared by Panamanian salsa dancers, Belizean drummers and Salvadorian surfers. Now’s the time to join them and get to know this small and spectacularly formed corner of the Western world.
Don’t miss: the canal and railway, Panama City old and new, Bocas del Toro
Panama has USPs that you won’t find elsewhere. The star attraction is the mighty, recently expanded Panama Canal, which passes through the San Lorenzo protected area and the Las Cruces and Soberanía national parks, as well as the wildlife-rich Gatun Lake. Take a cruise and then re-explore it on a wonderful 47.6-mile railway, on which building began a year after the 1849 California Gold Rush to provide the gold-seekers with the quickest way from the US eastern seaboard to San Francisco and the lodes.
Panama City is a thrusting, cosmopolitan capital. The canal was under American rule from 1904 until New Year’s Eve 1999, and Panamanians are conflicted in their assessment of this encounter. English is widely spoken. Baseball is bigger than football. Panama City is the most American-looking capital city of Latin America – Donald Trump recently sold his most lucrative overseas property, the 70-storey, sailboat-shaped Ocean Club resort, for $24.5 million.
So far, so yanqui. But its Casco Viejo – historic district – has the best-preserved Franco-Hispano-American colonial quarter outside New Orleans. Who knew? The Biomuseo, opened in 2014, showcases exhibits that celebrate Panama’s amazing biodiversity and explain the Great American Interchange: the period when the isthmus linked up two different sets of species.
What about the Scottish colony of “Caledonia” established on the Gulf of Darien in the 1690s? It’s hard, but not impossible, to visit. In fact, community tourism is on the rise across the indigenous wilds of the Caribbean coast. Also here are Spanish forts, Unesco-listed but crumbling Portobelo and the beautiful El Otro Lado hotel. Follow the coast along (where the Caribbean is west of the Pacific) to Bocas del Toro, a dreamy-looking inshore archipelago with a mini-capital established by the United Fruit Company.
Don’t miss: Arenal, Tortuguero national park, horseriding in Rincón de la Vieja, sloths.
“The Switzerland of Central America, Costa Rica has often been called – a libel on Switzerland.” So scribbled a grumpy Graham Greene, rum-guzzling amigo to Panama’s de facto dictator Omar Torrijos, who despised the stabler, army-bereft, pro-American nation on his northern border.
Costa Rica challenges this safe, even dull image by inviting its many travellers (2.9 million in 2016, the most of any Central American country, including 71,932 from the UK) to engage in adrenalin-fuelled adventure tourism in all its forms. Canopy walks, zip-lines, whitewater rivers, mountain biking circuits, hiking trails and horseback rides are not the “extras” in Costa Rica, but the main reason most people come here.
Reliable surf swells on the Pacific coast have turned the Nicoya Peninsula and several spots along the west coast south of Playa Hermosa into popular destinations for Americans. One of these, Manuel Antonio, is also the site of one of the country’s most popular national parks. With coastal forest and lots of beaches, it’s a habitat for sloths, monkeys, iguanas, basilisk lizards, birds, butterflies, dolphins and migrating whales.
If it’s your first visit, you could do worse than head to the northwest, to see the Arenal Volcano national park, bike or hike around its cone-shaped, dormant stratovolcano, bathe in its hot springs, tour the Monteverde cloud forests and then head to Rincón de la Vieja national park for a ride with the sabaneros (cowboys). Tortuguero national park, accessed via taxi-boat, is a great stopover on the Pacific side: the breeding ground of the green sea turtle it also protects manatees, river otters, many reptiles and amphibians, and 300 bird species.
If you want to get away from the crowds, there are 25 other national parks, many built around volcanoes and/or river systems, with cloud forest and rainforest. At 12,530ft, Cerro Chirripó is the highest mountain in Costa Rica – from the summit it’s possible to see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its wild terrain protects very high biodiversity and endemism.
After eruptions in April, August and October last year, the Poás national park is currently closed to visitors.
Don’t miss: Granada, León, Emerald Coast, Lake Nicaragua
Central America’s largest nation is waking up to its own potential. Between 1962 and 1990, Nicaragua saw a series of uprisings against the Somoza dictatorship and Reagan’s Contra mercenaries, resulting in the left-leaning Sandinistas taking power from 1979-1990; one-time rebel leader Daniel Ortega is the current president.
This turmoil has made the capital, Managua, into a sort of living museum of the revolution. Quainter León and Granada are the most popular cities among travellers. The former is the cultural and intellectual capital and has many colonial churches. The latter is its great rival, and while smaller, has a thriving gastronomic scene; restaurants such as Ciudad Lounge are cool without being blingy or pretentious.
A stay at a tranquil luxury resort on one of the islets near Granada – Jicaro Island Ecolodge is outstanding – or at one of the more homely high-altitude boutique properties on the island of Ometepe is memorable. You can swim in the lake, although be aware that there are freshwater bull sharks in the murky depths.
On the Pacific, both San Juan del Sur and the “Emerald Coast” between Tola and El Astillero are undergoing gentrification. On the latter, Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, owned by Nicaraguan billionaire Carlos Pellas, is the outstanding deluxe resort, but some of its neighbours, such as Aqua Wellness, are swanky, too. Pella’s newest project, Nekupe, is a rural hideaway at Nandaime, which opened in September 2016.
Don’t miss: Perquin, Suchitoto, Joya de Cerén
While it continually seeks to rebrand itself with American-style hotels and vaguely themed “routes” for drivers, the real draw of El Salvador is its gutsy people and its gritty history. During the 1979-1992 civil war, a lot of the key battles took place in the Oriente, the country’s south-east, and it’s to here you should come if you like military tourism. Perquin’s Museo de la Revolucion is an untidy but never boring collection of weapons, memorabilia, agitprop posters and photographs of guerrillas. At nearby El Mozote – site of a bloody massacre in 1981 that left as many as 1,200 civilians dead – is a moving wall of remembrance.
Once you’ve had your fill of “dark tourism”, head east to the picturesque, lakeside pueblo of Suchitoto, 30 miles north of (eminently skippable) capital San Salvador. Owned by a Franco-Salvadorian gay couple, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo is one of those dreamy old colonial mansions that make for the loveliest boutique hotels. El Salvador is small and it’s only another 40 miles to Unesco-listed Joya de Cerén, the country’s main Mayan site. Sometimes dubbed the “Pompeii of the Americas” it was covered in ash in AD 600 after the eruption of the Loma Caldera volcano.
As Colombian airline Avianca’s regional hub, San Salvador has daily flights to Spain (via Guatemala City) and good connections to the rest of Central, North and South America. One of the smaller countries, it’s easy to get everywhere by road (driver recommended), see four or five key sights in three days and continue elsewhere; there’s a very good boat link from La Unión to Potosí, Nicaragua, across the beautiful Gulf of Fonseca; see rutadelgolfo.com
Don’t miss: Copán, the birding, Pico Bonito, Lago Yoyoa
Often caricatured in shock-horror headlines – Gordon Ramsay even went there to score interviews with coke traffickers – Honduras is arguably the biggest surprise in the Americas. Sure, San Pedro Sula has a high murder rate, but it’s lower than Acapulco’s and only double that of St Louis, Missouri.
Anyway, why would anyone go there, when they can visit Copán, a Mayan site as impressive as any in Mexico or Guatemala, gorgeous beaches, Briton-free islands and birdwatching Edens?
Two hotels are destinations in their own right. Near to Copán, the Hacienda San Lucas is a 100-year-old, family-owned rural retreat with eight adobe-built rooms, lovely home cooking and beautiful artworks all around. It has a yoga pavilion and offers horseback rides, cooking classes and birding excursions.
If you want to take the latter to the next level, the Lodge at Pico Bonito, near La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast, is an extraordinary, full-service resort hotel. The rooms are rustic-palatial, the cuisine of the highest standard, and the bird life – which teems around you while you sip cocktails – is world-class.
Honduras’s largest lake, Lago de Yoyoa, is close to the Copán-La Ceiba road; stop by to ogle some more birds and perhaps do a gentle hike. Join the backpackers for a craft ale at the locally famous D&D Brewery.
Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands, 40 miles off the same coast, has been packing in Americans for years. Hardly the bravest of tourists, they fly in direct from Atlanta Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami to enjoy the white sand beaches and the diving and snorkelling on offer on the coral reef. Backpackers bed down at West End; but there are luxury lodges, golf courses and top-notch seafood restaurants here, too.
Don’t miss: Antigua, Tikal, Lake Atitlan
The most populated country in Central America, Guatemala is also its most culturally enthralling. Indigenous communities continue to play a major role, as witnessed in local clothing, food, fiestas and more than 20 languages spoken here, as well as Spanish.
Skip the congested, polluted capital, Guatemala City, and make your first stop Antigua Guatemala, the former capital (it was relocated for seismic reasons). Once the colonial HQ of the Capitanía General de Guatemala, it is a delightful, low-slung town with lovely civic buildings dating from the 16th-18th centuries. Several ochre-daubed palacios are now upmarket hotels such as El Convento and Casa Santo Domingo. The bars, cafés and eateries on the main plaza are always buzzing, there are some fine art galleries, a fun chocolate museum (with classes) and while its prettiness has made Antigua almost too popular, it’s the perfect base for trips to the west of the country.
Highlights in this region include Lake Atitlan, home to several ethnic groups; Chichicastenango – known for its colourful market and mystical native religions; and a handful of climbable volcanoes. Volcán de Agua, the impressive conical stratovolcano, looms over Antigua.
Many of Central America’s highest peaks are in Guatemala – including Volcán Tajumulco, the highest of all, close to the Mexican border. If you haven’t got the lungs or legs for a summit-challenge, coffee is grown on the lower reaches; visit a local hacienda and do a cupping session.
The most visited Mayan site outside Mexico is Tikal, in the tropical Petén region. Set amid dense jungle, with the tops of the pyramids visible above the treetops, it is extraordinarily beautiful. Monkeys, agoutis and ocellated turkeys roam around the ruins, and there are lawns and limestone causeways to facilitate an easy walking tour. Nearby is Yaxhá, another important archaeological site, Lake Petén Itzá and the Belize border.
Don’t miss: Caracol, Blancaneaux Lodge, diving, a Garifuna drumming session
As British Honduras from 1862 until 1973 (the last nine years as a self-governing colony), this tiny strip of swampy coast is a real oddball. English is spoken widely, along with Belizean Creole, Garifuna, Spanish and Mayan languages.
Urban attractions are few and far between. Belmopan, the capital, is dull. Belize City, the former capital, has a certain ramshackle charm and a good history museum and Anglican cathedral, built with British bricks by slaves. Dangriga is a poorly illuminated shanty city, but nearby Hopkins is a lovely strip of beach and if you’re stopping by, it’s worth catching a taxi (30 mins) to Dangriga’s Gulisi Garifuna Museum to learn about this unique Afro-American culture.
At some stage you’ll want to hop in a water-taxi to stay on one of the many cayes that lie along the edge of the Unesco-listed Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System – a transfer from the black and indigenous Third World to the white First World, with all that implies. There’s posh nosh, cocktail bars, watersports, boutique and blingy accommodation and, above all, some of the best scuba and snorkel diving in the world. The former can explore the wonders off the reef and the latter can get close to nurse sharks and stingrays. The Great Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau, is at Lighthouse reef, some 43 miles offshore.
The Mayan site at Caracol is impressive and only 90 mins by road from luxurious Blancaneaux Lodge, owned by Francis Ford Coppola – check out the propeller from Apocalypse Now used as a ceiling fan in the superb restaurant. Belize seems to have a cachet with A-list Hollywood folk; Leonardo DiCaprio is building an eco-resort project on Blackadore Caye, west of quaint but very developed Ambergris Caye. It’s currently in pre-construction phase – so watch this space in, say, 2020.
Unless you’re mad for diving, Belize is probably an add-on destination. It’s easy to combine with Tikal in Guatemala (dropping into the Mayan sites of Yaxhá and Xunantunich en route) and Yucatan in Mexico.