The slender isthmus that connects North and South America has intrigued travelers for centuries. Built upon a foundation of rain-forested volcanoes and cool coffee-growing mountains, girded with wave-crashed Pacific beaches and a jungled Caribbean shore, Central America was the heart of the Mayan Empire and home to beautiful Spanish Colonial cities. An even brighter future is being built upon its rejuvenated capitals thanks, in part, to tourism. You can be a part of it.
Defining Central America’s political boundaries can be contentious: The classic definition only includes the five member states of the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. We’ve chosen to include Panama and Belize, geographically, if not historically (or in Belize’s case, culturally), connected to the original five.
Most people visit Belize to snorkel and dive from more than 400 cayes (islands) scattered above the Belize Barrier Reef [POI]. Culturally and linguistically—this is the sole English-speaking nation in Central America—it is connected to the Caribbean archipelago, it boasts its own famous islands, including Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. But there are other fascinating attractions inland, including Actun Tunichil Muknal, Mayflower Bocawina National Park, and many magnificent Mayan ruins including Altun Ha and Caraco.
Even the most adventurous travelers sometimes skip tiny El Salvador, but those who make the journey will fall in love. The main draw is the beach, boasting world-class surf spots like La Libertad, El Tunco, Playa Sunzal and El Cuco. But head into the mountains, to the surprisingly livable capital city of San Salvador, pretty Ruta de las Flores, Spanish Colonial Suchitoto, and rebellious Perquín for a more authentic experience.
The sprawling Caribbean jungles and beaches of Honduras are filled with wonder, but are best known for the Bay Islands of Roatan, Utila, and Little French Key; as well as the massive Mayan ruins of Copán. Adventurous travelers will find so much more here, from the broad beaches at Tela, easily accessible La Tigra National Park, gorgeous Lago de Yojoa, and beyond.
Nicaragua is the region’s rising star, safe and still inexpensive. Begin by basing yourself in one of its two rival Spanish Colonial cities, Granada or Leon, or head to a beach town like bustling San Juan del Sur. From there you can visit the volcanic lake isle of Ometepe or the Corn Islands of the Caribbean, famed for their excellent diving. Adventurous souls can volcano board down Cerro Negro, visit the cool coffee-growing towns of the Segovia Mountains, or challenge themselves with a trek into Nicaragua’s almost untouristed Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. There is really no end to the exploration in Central America’s largest nation.
The most touristed country in Central America is Costa Rica, with good reason. Its natural wonders have been carefully conserved—some 27% of its incredibly biodiverse landscape is protected—and much of it is accessible, family friendly, and involves waterfalls, hot springs, and/or zip lines. From the Caribbean beaches of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca to Pacific strongholds of festive Jacó, bohemian Santa Teresa, pristine Manuel Antonio and wild Corcovado National Park, your sand and surf will come with more unadulterated nature than you believed was still possible. Costa Rica’s cool cloud-forested center has plenty to recommend it as well, including volcanic attractions like Poás and Rincón de la Vieja and the mountains of Monteverde. Whether you are a first-time backpacker or experienced trekker, you will love Costa Rica.
Though it is most famous for the strategically indispensable Panama Canal and glittering, modern Panama City, the nation of Panama is much more than its current economic boom. Catch a glimpse of its Spanish Colonial past in the Casco Viejo, or head to the Caribbean San Blas Islands of the Comarca Kuna Yala to better understand the nation’s indigenous present. Island lovers will also enjoy the Pearl Islands of the Pacific, or the Caribbean’s Archipelago Bocas del Toro, while those who prefer their adventures at altitude will fall in love with untrammeled Volcán Baru and the gardens of Boquete.
The best part about Central America is that all this diversity of destination is within a short flight, scenic ferry ride, or inexpensive bus trip, no matter which country or coastline you choose. Grab a hammock, some flip flops, and a sweater for the highlands, then decide where your journey will begin.
Central America lies well within the tropics, so the climate, very generally speaking, is warm and welcoming all year round. With a few caveats.There are dozens of microclimates, so you should check the temperatures in the regions that you plan to visit. You’ll want swimsuits and T-shirts for the humid tropical lowlands along the Caribbean Coast, as well as the hot, usually dry Pacific plains and beaches. The brisk, temperate highlands of the Western Highlands of Honduras, Nicaraguan Segovias, Costa Rican Central Valley, and Volcan Baru region of Panama can get downright chilly. And you’ll want a jacket, at least, to explore the premontane and cloud forests of Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Miramundo, El Salvador, where it’s even been known to snow once every decade or two.
There are two main seasons in Central America, verano, literally “summer,” or dry season, and invierno,”winter,” or rainy season. Dry season on the Pacific side runs from early December through April. Rainy season starts slowly in early May, with showers most afternoons through July. In August, rainfall starts getting heavier, and during September and October can impede travel plans with flooding, mud slides, washed-out bridges, and contaminated water supplies.
On the Caribbean side of the isthmus, however, the rainy season is almost reversed, with the heaviest rains September to February. It can rain at any time, however; the stretch of Atlantic Coastline running from Honduras’ Miskito Coast to northeastern Costa Rica is one of the wettest places in the world. If you’re traveling during rainy season, which is cooler, less crowded, and often cheaper, keep your schedule flexible! It might be pouring all day, every day, in the Osa Peninsula, but still sunny and dry in the mornings in Guanacaste …. and perhaps still full-on verano in El Salvador.
In September and October, allow extra time for travel, and consider avoiding regions with poor development and unpaved roads. Remember that water visibility is affected by heavy rains, so it’s best to schedule snorkeling and diving trips after a two or three rain-free days.
Note that hurricane season runs from June through mid-November, peaking August through October. Belize and Guatemala are generally the hardest hit by hurricanes, though Honduras and Nicaragua have also had their share of disasters over the years. El Salvador, Costa Rica, and especially Panama are far enough south that they tend to miss the brunt of most hurricanes, but as climate change increases, who knows. The upshot, no matter where you are, is that you should take hurricane warnings very seriously. Get out, or at least get to high ground, and please don’t be the tourist who decides to “ride out” that Class V monster barreling right toward your resort. The reason why you, as a foreigner, get special treatment during natural disasters is marketing one dead tourist means a huge loss in revenue for the country as a whole. So make it easy for them to rescue you, so they can devote their remaining precious resources to the general population.
Every country in Central America has its own holidays, which can be spectacular. Expect fireworks, parades, and parties on the central plaza for even the most minor saint day. Christmas is a big deal in every country, and many businesses close for a day or two. The five original Central American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—also celebrate their Independence Day, September 15, with parades and business closures.
The most important holiday in Central America, and the one that will affect your travel plans, is Semana Santa, the week before Easter (dates vary, usually in March or April). Beginning that Monday, businesses begin to close and everyone who can swing it starts heading for the beach, where room rates quadruple. Not that you’ll be able to get a room. By Thursday, inland cities are ghost towns, public transportation may shut down, and most businesses are closed until Easter Sunday, at least, when public transport also resumes its normal schedule. The following Monday, everyone is hungover and discussing the number of people who drunkenly drowned, and by Tuesday things are back to normal. Plan accordingly. Figure out where you want to be during Semana Santa, make reservations well in advance, and don’t count on anything running smoothing from Thursday on.
Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua are all on the Central Standard Time (UTC-06:00), while Panama uses Eastern Standard Time (UTC-05:00). Although Nicaragua flirted briefly, and disastrously, with Daylight Savings Time in the mid-2000s, currently no Central American countries are experimenting with that mess. Try to arrive well before 4pm Costa Rican time when using the smaller border crossings between Panama and Costa Rica, Sixaola/Guabito and especially the tiny crossing at La Unin/Ro Sereno. You don’t want to miss bank hours, when you can buy your entry stamp, and spend the night. Although Ro Sereno is lovely. Paso Canoas shouldn’t be a problem after hours.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $20 per person
$$$ => Tickets $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $75 for a double
$$ => Rooms $75-150 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$ => $10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $50 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $75 per person
$$ => Tickets $75-125 per person
$$$ => Tickets $125 per person
Spanish is the official language of six Central American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Belize, a British colony until 1981, uses English as its official language, though Spanish is widely spoken and understood. English is often spoken in the Afro-Caribbean communities along the Caribbean Coast, including the Bay Islands of Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. You’ll also be able to navigate most touristy destinations in Central America, particularly in Costa Rica, using English alone.
Even if you plan to stick to pricey resorts and guided tours, it’s worth investing in a Spanish phrasebook. They’re small, and it’s better to have one and not need it than the other way around. If you’re planning to take the road less traveled, consider signing up for a week of “travel Spanish” classes at one of the very inexpensive Spanish schools found ?all over the region. Antigua, Guatemala, is probably the cheapest.
In addition to Spanish and English, dozens of indigenous languages are still spoken, sometimes exclusively, in the more remote regions of Central America. About 300,000 people speak the various Mayan dialects, known collectively as Quiche, in the Northern Triangle. Miskito is spoken by some 180,000 Miskito Indians in northeastern Nicaragua and southeastern Honduras, collectively known as the Mosquitia or Mosquito [sic] Coast. Other languages include Kuna, spoken on the Caribbean Coast of Panama and Colombia, and Mayangna, spoken in central Nicaragua. It’s worth learning a few greetings at least if you plan to spend much time in those regions. Dictionaries and phrasebooks are available online.
Central America tends to be conservative, even more so than neighboring Mexico and many South American countries. Before immediately launching into business—your hotel room needs towels, for example—it’s ?always best to begin with a pleasant greeting, at least “good ?morning” (buenos dias) or “how are you today?” (Como estas hoy día?) Being rude or unpleasant won’t expedite anything, and in fact may mark you as a problem client, which could slow service down for the duration of your visit. Stay calm and keep smiling no matter what.If you speak Spanish, you’ll also notice that people in most of Central America use “usted” more often than in Spain or Mexico, even with children. It’s polite to do likewise. Wait for others to use the more familiar “tu” or “vos” before you do.
Views on bargaining vary from country to country. In Guatemala, for example, you’re almost expected to bargain for anything that doesn’t have a written price tag. Elsewhere in the region, haggling at street markets or for unmetered taxis is de rigueur, but it’s considered a bit tacky at established businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and most stores.
Both men and women will find that they are treated with more respect if they dress modestly. At tourist beaches, almost anything goes. (But please don’t sunbathe topless!) Locals appreciate it if you cover up a bit—and gentlemen, this definitely includes a shirt—when you leave the beach or go into restaurants. This also varies from country to country. Belize is a little more liberal with beachwear, Nicaragua much more conservative. Take your cues from others. In less touristed regions, women and men may swim almost fully clothed, in shorts and T-shirts. You may want to follow suit. Women will almost certainly be approached and/or harassed by local men. Dressing conservatively may help… no. No, it won’t. Nothing seems to help. A friendly rebuff is probably the best way to deal with it. Good luck.
Spanish is the official language of six Central American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Belize, a British colony until 1981, uses English as its official language, though Spanish is widely spoken and understood. English is ?often spoken in the Afro-Caribbean communities along the Caribbean Coast, including the Bay Islands of Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. You’ll also be able to navigate most touristy destinations in Central America, particularly in Costa Rica, using English alone.
Even if you plan to stick to pricey resorts and guided tours, if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s well worth investing in a Spanish phrasebook. If you want to take the road less traveled, consider signing up for a week of “travel Spanish” classes at one of the very inexpensive Spanish schools found in almost every Central American country. Antigua, Guatemala, is probably the cheapest.
In addition to Spanish and English, dozens of indigenous languages are still spoken, sometimes exclusively, in the more remote regions of Central America. About 300,000 people speak the various Mayan dialects, especially Quiche, while Miskito is spoken by 180,000 Miskito Indians in northeastern Nicaragua and southeastern Honduras, collectively known as the Mosquita or Mosquito [sic] Coast. Other prominent languages include Kuna, spoken on the Caribbean Coast of Panama and Colombia and Mayangna, spoken in central Nicaragua. It’s worth learning a few greetings.