Around San José
Over the years, as San José’s urban sprawl has crawled up the hillsides of the Central Valley, the boundary lines have blurred between the heart of the city and the villages that encircle it. Here you will find a little bit of everything: from crowded slums filled with immigrant workers to stylish residential neighborhoods where modernist houses hide behind 3m-high walls.
The highland rainforests are the heart of Chiriquí Province – from the rugged mountains of Parque Internacional La Amistad to the misty hills of Boquete, this is the only spot in Panama where you might need a sweater. While Panamanians relish the chill, you’ll appreciate locals’ laid-back hospitality and the astounding natural beauty throughout the region.
Alta & Baja Verapaz
Hwy 14 (also marked Hwy 17) leaves Hwy 9 at El Rancho, 84km from Guatemala City. It heads west through a dry, desertlike lowland area, then turns north and starts climbing up into the forested hills. After 47km, at the junction called La Cumbre Santa Elena, Hwy 17 to Salamá divides from Hwy 14 for Cobán.
The archipelago’s largest and most developed island is home to the provincial capital of Bocas del Toro. Starting in the mid-1990s, foreign investors flooded the island, creating new hotels, restaurants and condos while infrastructure for water, trash and sewage lagged far behind.
This is a very different Guatemala – a lush and sultry landscape dotted with palm trees and inhabited by international sailors (around the yachtie haven of Río Dulce and the working port of Puerto Barrios) and one of the country's lesser-known ethnic groups, the Garífuna (around Lívingston).
The Pacific Slope
Separated from the highlands by a chain of volcanoes, the flatlands that run down to the Pacific are universally known as La Costa. It's a sultry region – hot and wet or hot and dry, depending on the time of year – with rich volcanic soil good for growing coffee, palm-oil seeds and sugarcane.
Panamá Province has a rich history of pirates, plunder and pearls. Although the most populated province in the country, Panamá can be as big or as small as you want it to be. Tranquil rainforests and sizzling beach scenes are yours to explore and the comforts of the capital are never more than an hour away.
To Corcovado Via Puerto Jiménez
The first of two principal overland routes to Parque Nacional Corcovado, the Puerto Jiménez route on the eastern side of the peninsula is much more ‘developed.’ Of course, as this is Osa, development doesn't amount to much more than a single, devastatingly potholed road and a sprinkling of villages along the coast of Golfo Dulce.
Mal País & Santa Teresa
Get ready for tasty waves, creative kitchens and babes in board shorts and bikinis, because the southwestern corner of Península de Nicoya has all that and more. Which is why it's become one of Costa Rica's most life-affirming destinations. Here, the sea is alive with wildlife and is almost perfect when it comes to shape, color and temperature.
Quepos to Uvita
South of Quepos, the well-trodden central Pacific tourist trail begins to taper off, evoking the feel of the Costa Rica of yesteryear – surf shacks and empty beaches, roadside ceviche vendors and a little more space. Intrepid travelers can have their pick of any number of deserted beaches and great surf spots.
Puerto Viejo to Punta Uva
A 13km road winds east from Puerto Viejo, through rows of coconut palms, alongside coastal lodges and through lush lowland rainforest before coming to a dead end at the sleepy town of Manzanillo. The road was paved for the first time in 2003, dramatically shortening the amount of time it took to drive or cycle the route.