The Americas are typically thought of in terms of North and South, with Canada and the US worth visiting on one end, and Brazil and Argentina on the other. Less attention is paid to the connecting tissue between the two, the thin isthmus that is Central America.
The home of ancient Mayan civilisations, spectacular nature reserves and culinary wonders, Central America is packed with incredible travel destinations.
While worries about security have hurt the region’s tourism sector in the past, its reputation has improved in recent years
While worries about security have hurt the region’s tourism sector in the past, its reputation has improved in recent years, with eco-tourism booming across the subcontinent. Favourable exchange rates also mean food and accommodation are easily accessible at any budget, allowing foreigners to make the most of their visit.
Stretching from Guatemala in the north to Panama in the south, there is no shortage of things to do or places to see. Business Destinations counts down the top 10 sights to see in Central America.
Hummingbird Highway, Belize
No road trip through Central America would be complete without a drive along Hummingbird Highway. It’s one of the four major highways in Belize, and the only one that cuts through the mountains, exposing unspoilt jungle landscapes and plenty of citrus orchards.
Driving straight through would take around two hours, but the sights along the way shouldn’t be missed. Blue Hole National Park offers beautiful jungle walks and a dip in the eponymous Blue Hole, a natural pool of cold water where hikers can cool off. Visitors can also admire the rock formations and Mayan ceremonial chambers inside St Herman’s Cave, one of the most popular caves in Belize.
Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador
Ruta de las Flores, which translates to The Route of Flowers, is a 36km road that winds through El Salvador’s Cordillera Apaneca mountain range. It gets its name from the dramatic and colourful flowers that cover the hillsides between October and February. The road is dotted with tiny picturesque villages, many of which feature colourfully painted murals, woodcarvings and textiles sold on the streets.
For coffee connoisseurs, the coffee farm in the town of Ataco provides tours showing how beans are cultivated and gives travellers the chance to taste some of the best (and freshest) coffee in the world. Hikers also delight in the jungle trails and waterfalls that freckle the landscape around the route.
Tikal showcases the awe-inspiring size and power of the Mayan civilisation. Located deep in the Guatemalan jungle, Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of the most important cities in Mayan civilisation. A political, economic and military powerhouse, it dominated much of the region around it for hundreds of years.
Its main landmark is a 470-metre-tall pyramid, an imposing reminder of the long list of dynastic rulers that reigned over the city during its 800-year history. The centrepiece of the ruins is the Great Plaza, a large expanse flanked by two huge temple pyramids that are surrounded by smaller palaces and terraces.
León is perhaps the most historically rich city in Central America, and one of the earliest colonised cities on the continent. Founded in 1524 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, colonial architecture features prominently all over town, particularly in its churches, one of which is the largest cathedral in Central America. Behind the cathedral, visitors can find a market of cheap and delicious street food, where entire meals can be bought for less than $5.
León has always been home to poets, artists, authors and revolutionaries. It is also unique in that Nicaragua’s political history is written into the very streets of the city. Bullet holes from the Nicaraguan Revolution, which deposed the dictatorial Somoza dynasty, still riddle the walls of León.
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America, was formed out of a massive volcanic crater and is one of the most impressive sights on the subcontinent. The lake is surrounded by small Mayan villages, as well as three colossal volcanoes: Atitlán, San Pedro and Tolimán.
Tourists will not feel out of place as visitors from around the world make the trip to the lake to view the volcanoes, scuba dive, kayak on the lake and take day trips to the small villages on the lake’s outskirts. Getting from place to place is easy to do by boat; trips typically cost no more than $4.
Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
One of nature’s most peculiar and awe-inspiring sights, Ometepe Island consists of two volcanoes rising out of the Lake of Nicaragua, connected by a thin strip of land. The volcano to the south, Maderas, is extinct and covered in cloud forest, whereas Concepción, the northern volcano, is still active. The island was long considered sacred to indigenous peoples who viewed it as a promised land.
Ometepe has a number of hotels and eco-lodges to stay at, with prices for guesthouses as low as $50 a night. Hiking trails line the volcanoes, meaning nature lovers can revel in the island’s abundance of wildlife.
The crown jewel of Honduras’ Bay Islands, Roatán is truly paradisiacal. Located at the southern tip of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world, Roatán is one of the best destinations in the world for snorkelers and scuba divers. A typical day can consist of a scuba diving class, a ride on a glass-bottom boat, a short hike and dancing in the evening, all punctuated with delicious local food.
Far removed from the violence that may dissuade tourists from visiting mainland Honduras, Roatán has a laid-back Caribbean vibe and doesn’t separate tourists from the locals as some other islands do. Between the white sand beaches, sapphire waters, buzzing nightlife and luxurious hotels, Roatán is perfect for those wanting to do everything or nothing at all.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
Perhaps the most famous cloud forest in the world, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is spread over 35,000 acres of pristine rainforest and named after the nearby town of Monteverde. It is home to 2.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, with 10 percent of flora being unique to the forest. Thick fog at the upper canopy condenses on leaves and continually drips onto the plants below, creating an atmosphere in which the abundance of life beneath can flourish.
Within the forest live 2,500 plant species – including the largest number of orchid species in a single area – 100 species of mammal and 400 kinds of bird. Visitors walk through the canopy via bridges suspended hundreds of feet in the air.
Panama City, Panama
The Panamanian capital is a wonder of riches for travellers looking for a modern city with deep historical roots. As one of the financial and trade capitals of the world, the Panama City skyline is a vision of glass skyscrapers. By contrast, across town are the ruins of Panama Viejo (Old Panama), the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas.
An important feature of the city is the fabled Panama Canal, which, while not overwhelming to look at, remains one of the most impressive feats of engineering in the world. A visit to the Teatro Nacional, an intimate but opulently decorated four-tier theatre with great acoustics, is also a must.
Copán Ruins, Honduras
Located in the north of Honduras near the Guatemalan border, Copán is one of the most impressive relics of the ancient Mayan civilisation. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was home to scientists, astronomers and mathematicians between the fifth and ninth centuries. As a result, it boasts some of the most important and mysterious remains of Mayan culture. The craftsmanship that went into the temples, hieroglyphs, altars and stelae (sculptured pillars carved out of stone) is far beyond that of most other Mesoamerican ruins.
Once done exploring the ruins, visitors can go to nearby Macaw Mountain, a bird park and natural reserve teeming with colourful tropical birds. There are plenty of places to pick up local artisanal crafts along the way.