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Best Places To Visit In Central America: 12 Must-Visit Destinations You Shouldn’t Miss

Nestled in one of the most biodiverse locations on the planet, with paradise-like beaches with warm transparent water, delicious coffee grown in volcanic soil, one of the most beautiful birds in the world(the quetzal), towns with year-round spring-like climate, affordable healthcare, world-class diving, unique volcanoes, exuberant rainforests and amazing bird-watching opportunities, Central America has beautiful things to discover for the adventurous traveler.

Here Are The 12 Best Places To Visit In Central America:

1. Panama City, Panama:

Lush rainforests, attractive Caribbean and Pacific Ocean beaches, modern buildings, a historic Old Town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a waterfront boulevard with amazing city skyline views, hiking trails where you can witness a unique biodiversity in of the most biodiverse locations of the planet, and of course the Panama Canal – Panama City has great things to experience.

Even though in many of the best things to do in Panama City, you do have to pay for, in several of these things that Panama City has to offer, quite a few are for free, which is great.

Definitely, if you are on a budget make sure not to miss any of the following as you won’t regret getting to experience some of the world’s best biodiversity, bird-watching, and great sights in this country in Central America for free.

Cinta Costera, Panama City.

2. Boquete, Panama:

Alto Boquete, Panama

Besides the pristine Caribbean beaches of Panama and the city itself, Boquete is the best place to visit in the country. Considering the year-round pleasant climate that has tourists moving here for retirement, beautiful nature, unique bird-watching opportunities, relatively safe environment, delicious coffee-tasting opportunities(as this is Panama’s main coffee region) and you can easily see why this place ends up in magazines such as International Living.

3. San Blas, Panama:

San Blas, Panama

The pure, unadulterated, pristine beauty of the Caribbean just a few hours away from Panama City. Get to experience the beauty of Caribbean beaches without even leaving Central America.

The San Blas Islands archipelago consists of more than 300 islands of various sizes in the Caribbean coast of Panama, scattered in an area of around 100 miles. They are easily accessible from Panama City and are most often visited as a day trip from the city.

Once you are there, you can hop from island to island and get to know each different island, paddle-board, eat recently-captured seafood and visit the amazing natural pools where starfish live. Getting to see starfish in their natural habitat, laying on the seafloor through the transparent water is an amazing experience. Some people charter a boat through an agency and do the exploring of the virgin beaches themselves.

There are several ways to get to the islands (by plane, a 4×4 vehicle and a water taxi, or in your own sailboat) but the preferred way by Panama City locals is by 4×4 vehicle and a water taxi, which you book through a tour agency in the city. The tour agencies in the city handle everything including the transportation to the islands, and the accommodation if you choose to sleep on the islands.

4. El Tunco, El Salvador:

El Tunco, El Salvador

When on the lookout for places to see in Central America and traveling through El Salvador one can not afford to miss out on the beach at El Tunco. Many travelers overlook El Salvador due to the high crime rate but when visiting El Tunco you can spend time here at ease without worries about crime.

Located just one hour from San Salvador this quaint beach town is not only one of the most affordable destinations for travelers to El Salvador but it is also one of the most chilled. El Tunco stands for ‘the pig’ and gets its name from the gigantic rock that stands in the ocean that resembles a porky pig.

Aside from the blistering heat and humidity, the beach itself is known for its black sand and should be a highlight on any El Salvador backpacking itinerary that includes surfing as here there are some of the best waves in Central America. For those starting out, or trying surfing for the first time, you can get lessons for around $20USD.

The town truly feels hippy and along with other low cost Salvadoran goods and services on offer you can find coconuts, Pupusas (the national dish of El Salvador), and even get fresh healthy meals for as little as $5USD.

All in all, when on the lookout for a more rustic beach experience with some vibrant nightlife options (including cocktails and coconuts) be sure to add this popular beach town to your list of Places To Visit In Central America.”

5. Antigua, Guatemala:

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua de Guatemala is one of the true gems of Central America.  It’s a small former colonial town with beautiful architecture. The symbol of the city is the picturesque yellow arch, Santa Catalina Arch.

Although earthquakes have toppled many of the Spanish churches over the years, several remain. One of the best is the well-preserved Iglesia de la Merced.  Another highlight is the Casa Santo Domingo, a former convent that was destroyed in an earthquake.  Today, the remains have been converted into a luxury hotel.  This is a great place to stay, but you can still visit the historic ruins and the small museum there without staying as a guest.

The center of town is the Parque Central (Central Park), the town square, which is a great place to sit and watch the world go by.

There are plenty of other things to do.  Learn how chocolate is made – and make it yourself from cocoa beans – at the Choco Museo. Then head out of town into the surrounding cocoa and coffee plantations or the neighboring villages to buy homemade chocolate, see more colorful churches, and buy handwoven fabrics from the local artisans.

Antigua is surrounded by several active volcanos, and you can see them smoking throughout the day and night.  You can venture into the hills above a coffee plantation and take a zipline over a gorge, with a perfectly conical volcano framed in the background.  Or take a day trip to an active volcano, hike up to steaming lava fields, and melt marshmallows on the warm lava flow.

Back in town, there is a lively market where you can pick up souvenirs and fresh produce.  Several places in town offer cooking classes where you buy fresh ingredients, learn to make traditional Guatemalan dishes, and then enjoy the incredible home-cooked meal that you made.

The best time to visit Antigua de Guatemala is November – April in the dry season.

There are so many incredible things to see and do in Antigua that you will never want to leave!

6. La Fortuna, Costa Rica:

La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a Central American location that is on many people’s bucket list. However, Costa Rica is huge, and you might not have enough time to explore it all. But one place you absolutely should not miss is La Fortuna, in the north of the country.
La Fortuna Costa Rica is an adventure enthusiast’s dream with so many different activities to experience. Not only that, but the magnificent Arenal volcano creates a natural backdrop that will enhance pretty much every activity you will do there. There are so many outdoor ventures to choose from, you could easily spend 3-4 days here alone, or even longer if you’re particularly adventurous.
Hike one of the trails up the Arenal volcano or take a walk around nature rich Lake Arenal. Be on the look out for the unique wildlife native to Costa Rica such as sloths and the white-faced capuchin monkeys.
One of the best things to do in La Fortuna Costa Rica is the rainforest to zip line within the Arenal national park. Experience 12 canopy wires that zoom you through the jungle terrain or try your hand at the Tarzan swing. If you’re a little more daring, there are also many waterfalls and canyons to abseil.
While La Fortuna is an adventure haven, it is also a brilliant place to relax in the natural hot springs that stream from the volcano. Bali Springs is one of the most notorious, but there are several to enjoy in the region.
Best of all La Fortuna is a popular backpacker stop and there are ample bars and restaurants around the central square, so this location is perfect for solo travellers, as well as group tours.

7. Caye Caulker, Belize:

Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker in Belize is one of the best places to visit in Central America.  This island is the perfect destination if you want to relax for a few days, and it’s also a great place if you’re planning on exploring the Belize Barrier Reef.

One of the best things to do on Caye Caulker is to walk around the island. The village is full of colourful houses, and if you take the time to explore, you will discover lots of small restaurants, fruit shops and smoothie bars.

If you get tired, head to the Split. A tornado separated Caye Caulker into two parts, and the Split is the small channel between them. Here, you can find a bar and lots of chairs to relax in. The Split is a great place to meet other travellers, but it’s also nice to just relax and enjoy the sun.

If you get hot, you can jump into the water, where you can even find umbrellas and tables.

While Caye Caulker does not have a public beach, you can always catch a ferry to Koko King. This human-made beach is open to everyone, as long as they meet a minimum spending requirement for food and drinks. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas here to enjoy your day at the beach even more.

Caye Caulker is close to the Belize Barrier Reef, and you can join many snorkelling or diving tours from here. If you have a few days, this is also a great place to learn to dive and get scuba certified.

More experienced divers have the option to dive the Blue Hole, and everyone can join a sightseeing flight to see this natural wonder from above.

To get to Caye Caulker, you have to catch a ferry from Belize City. Ferries leave regularly, and you can book your tickets online in advance.

The best time to visit is from January to April when you can expect blue skies and lots of sunshine.

8. San Ignacio, Belize:

San Ignacio, Belize
San Ignacio is the town in the Cayo District of western Belize minutes away from the border with Guatemala. One of the top places in Belize for backpackers and budget travelers with excellent restaurants and nightlife, San Ignacio offers a close proximity to many eco-adventures and a taste of authentic Belize that is often missing in many touristy places along the Caribbean coast.
Whether you want to tour famous Mayan ruins such as Xunantunich, Cahal Pech or Caracol, explore the caves, do zip lining, or wild life watching – the list of San Ignacio adventures is endless.
One of the best things to do near San Ignacio is visiting the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves (most commonly known as ATM caves).
Profiled by the National Geographic, ATM caves offer the Indiana Jones kind of experience as visitors have a chance to swim in the caves, learn about ancient Mayan rituals that were performed here thousands of years ago and see the remains on the Mayan pottery. Cameras are strictly prohibited at ATM caves, so make sure to leave your photo and video gear at home.
Continue your adventures by kayaking on the Makal River, swimming in Rio on Pools or birdwatching to have the ultimate adventure.
San Ignacio might be a small town but it takes at least 5-7 days to explore everything that it has to offer. It also the starting point for trips to Tikal in Guatemala, one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Central America.
Many tours can be purchased at companies along the Main Street in San Ignacio and local hotels are glad to recommend your companies and knowledgeable guides.

9. Ambergris Caye, Belize:

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Ambergris Caye is one of the most visited islands in Belize. Home to the beach town of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye is a family-friendly place to visit with a relaxed atmosphere and lots of things to do.

Snorkeling and scuba diving are perhaps the most popular activities in San Pedro and Ambergris Caye.The island is home to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which covers approximately 3 square miles of protected coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves. There is also an area of the reserve known as Shark Ray Alley, where you can swim with nurse sharks and stingrays in the wild.

Even if you prefer not to get in the ocean, there are plenty of great hotels and resorts on the island that offer everything from luxury accommodations to hostel lodging with a party vibe. It truly has something for every type of traveler.

Getting to Ambergris Caye requires either a ferry or a short plane ride from the mainland of Belize. From the island you can also take a water taxi over to Caye Caulker or book an excursion to the Great Blue Hole, a massive underwater sinkhole off the coast of Belize widely known as one of the most famous scuba diving spots in the world.

The island of Ambergris Caye is relatively small. It is roughly 25 miles long and only half a mile wide. For this reason, people don’t drive cars on the island. Instead, you can rent a golf cart to get around and explore the island.

Be sure to grab a meal at the Truck Stop, an entertainment hub similar to a food truck park where all the restaurants are made from shipping containers. You’ll find plenty of variety from authentic Belizean cuisine to pizza and ice cream. With a fun atmosphere, live music at night, and outdoor games, you may even want to eat at the Truck Stop more than once!

10. Lake Atitlán, Guatemala:

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Located just a few hours west of Guatemala City and Antigua, the beautiful Lake Atitlan is an unforgettable destination in Central America, and easily one of the region’s most beautiful destinations.

Surrounded by volcanoes and diverse landscape, this lake is surrounded by several quaint and beautiful small towns, all with their own attractions and attitudes, which travelers can easily spend several days exploring. Lake Atitlan is increasingly attracting travelers, expats, and is even becoming a hub for digital nomads in Latin America for its low cost of living, incredible scenery, and the diversity of things to see and do.

The main attraction of lake Atitlan is the lake itself – rimmed with volcanoes, it is truly a stunning destination. These volcanoes, especially Volcán San Pedro, also make for a variety of fantastic hikes in the area, including plenty of places to discover waterfalls, take excursions on ATVs through the hills and countryside, and more.

To explore the many towns located along the lake (don’t miss San Pedro, San Marcos, and the hippie center of Panajachel), catch the speedboats that buzz across the lake like small ferries.

Visitors to the area often make the trip from Lake Atitlan to the Chichicastenango market, an indigenous market about two hours away, also in the Guatemalan highlands and an easy day trip from Lake Atitlan.

On Thursdays and Sundays, the market at Chichicastenango becomes one of the best places in Latin America to learn about indigenous textiles, weaving, and art, as locals from around the region come to sell everything from traditional indigenous clothing to paintings, baskets, artwork, and more.

11. San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua:

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur is without a doubt one of the top tourist destinations in Nicaragua. Famous for amazing surf, there’s actually plenty of things to do in San Juan del Sur to keep you busy for quite some time. In fact, many people love San Juan del Sur so much that they actually move there, and you’ll meet plenty of ex-pats around town when you visit. 

Nestled right on the coast, San Juan del Sur is all about the ocean. Get out on a boat, enjoy a beach day, and of course, watch a fiery sunset. Heading to the main beach in town in the evening is super popular and you’ll find plenty of food stands set up here each night. Watch the sunset with a cheap meal – a great way to end the day!

Of course, you can’t come to San Juan del Sur and not surf! The surrounding beaches offer waves perfect for all levels of surfer. If you’re a beginner you can do lessons or even join one of the surf camps in town. For the more advanced surfer, just grab a board and jump on a shuttle bus from town to one of the surf beaches. Playa Hermosa is a crowd favorite and only a few minutes from San Juan del Sur. 

12. Monteverde, Costa Rica:

Monteverde, Costa Rica

The Monteverde Reserve belongs to the most beautiful places in Costa Rica and is a no. 1 place to visit for anyone who’s interested in the cloud forests. This type of forest can only be spotted at a few places in Costa Rica. It’s located at a higher altitude and thus provides a nice escape from the otherwise omnipresent heat.

Cloud forests are typically cool and humid and wonderfully lush. Moss is abundant and the vegetation simply prospers.

At Monteverde, you can enjoy several hiking trails that’ll lead you through the forest. Don’t miss out on seeing some viewpoints too, especially La Ventana. A wide view will suddenly open and you’ll be able to observe a continental divide, meaning the water from hills around goes to the Pacific Ocean on one side and to the Atlantic on the other.

Like all over Costa Rica, here too you can observe various types of animals, especially birds – including the colorful (and rare) quetzal. However, if you want to make sure you’ll definitely see a few birds, get the paid guide.

But it’s not only about hiking in Monteverde Reserve. You can also enjoy with an added dose of adrenaline – in an area of Monteverde known as La Selvatura. Walking on suspended bridges hanging in all heights including high above the treetops is a must. For the more adrenaline-prone, go for the canopy tours – a series of 18 ziplines. The experience is incredible and if you love ziplines, there’s hardly a better place in the world for it.

You can stay in the nearby town of Monteverde and if you’re not renting a car, get one of the local tours sold all over the town. Santa Elena Resort Hostel is a nice budget accommodation option.

Photo of author

Jose

Jose is a travel blogger currently based in Panama City, Panama. He holds a B.A. from the University of Louisville and his biggest passion in life is loving Jesus above everything else.

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