Top 10 stops for Central America first-timers

The green cufflinks between North and South America, these seven compact countries would be easy to skip on a map. Yet they represent a complex web of cultures, ancient ruins, tropical wildlife and adventure.

For starters, try climbing lava-gurgling volcanoes with perfect cones that poke above the cloud line. Rambling jungle walks lead past Maya pyramids, through the dark canopy where pumas, sloths, howler monkeys and quetzals live. Surfing towns link the Pacific shoreline dot to dot, where waves rush gold-sand beaches. Diving is dirt cheap, and certification programs can lead even beginners before sea turtles and nurse sharks in a maze of coral reefs.

Beyond the beaches, there are hidden Maya, Kuna and Miskito villages, haciendas turned language schools and the cobbled streets of beautiful Spanish-colonial towns, where vendors push squeaky carts of fresh corn or shaved ice.

1. Tikal, Guatemala

Certainly the most striking feature of Tikal is its steep-sided temples, rising to heights of more than 44 meters. But Tikal is different from Copán, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and most other great Mayan sites, because it is fairly deep in the jungle. Its many plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, its temples uncovered and partially restored, but as you walk from one building to another you pass beneath the dense canopy of rainforest. Rich, loamy aromas of earth and vegetation, a peaceful air, and animal noises contribute to an experience not offered by other Mayan sites.

2. Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala

Nineteenth-century traveler and chronicler John L Stephens, writing in Incidents of Travel in Central America, called Lago de Atitlán 'the most magnificent spectacle we ever saw,' and he'd been around a bit. Today even seasoned travelers marvel at the lake's rippling expanse and the villages that tumble down from green hills to its shores. Fishermen in rustic craft ply the lake's aquamarine surface, while indigenous women in multi-colored outfits do their washing by the banks where trees burst into bloom. Fertile hills dot the landscape, and over everything loom the volcanoes, permeating the entire area with a mysterious beauty.

3. The Hummingbird Highway, Belize

Passing through jungle and citrus orchard as it skirts the northern edges of the Maya Mountain range, Belize’s Hummingbird Highway offers a near constant procession of postcard-perfect vistas. There are also plenty of reasons to stop along the way, chief among these being a visit to Cave’s Branch for cave tubing and St Herman's Cave, where, with a guide, you can explore its huge caverns and classic Maya ceremonial chambers containing calcified skeletons and artifacts. There’s also the Blue Hole, a 25ft-deep sapphire-blue swimming hole inside a 328ft-wide cenote that was formed when the roof caved in on one of the Sibun River's underground tributaries.

4. Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

The wildflower of El Salvadoran tourism is a 36km-long winding trip through brightly colored colonial towns famed for lazy weekends of gastronomy and gallery-hopping, as well as more adventurous pursuits like mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking to hidden waterfalls scattered throughout the glorious Cordillera Apaneca. Home to the country’s first coffee plantations, some of its finest indigenous artesans and a world-famous weekly food festival, the ‘Flower Route’ anticipates El Salvador’s return to the traveler’s map.

5. Bay Islands, Honduras

Honduras’s Bay Islands move to a lyrical reggae beat and offer some of the best diving and snorkeling in Central America. Perched on the southern terminus of the Mesoamerican Reef – the second largest barrier reef in the world – this is a water-lovers dream, with amazing reef systems and enough marine life to keep divers and snorkelers busy for days on end. Backpackers and indie travelers will love the sand streets and cheap accommodations of Utila, while mainstream Roatán – the most visited of the islands – appeals to an older crowd, families and folks looking for a bit more on the creature-comfort scale.

6. Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Isla de Ometepe’s twin volcanic peaks, rising up out of Lago de Nicaragua have captured the imagination of everyone from pre-colonial Aztec descendents (who thought they’d found the Promised Land) to Mark Twain (who waxed lyrical about it in his book Travels with Mr Brown) to the surprisingly few travelers who make it out here. The island’s fertile volcanic soil, clean waters, wide beaches, wildlife population, archaeological sites and dramatic profile landed it on the 2006 shortlist for the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World (though it did not make the final cut).

7. León, Nicaragua

A hotbed of intellectualism, revolution and independence, the city has played host to some of Nicaragua’s most important political and artistic moments. Buzzing with energy and, at times, drop dead gorgeous (in a crumbling colonial kind of way), León is a city of awe-inspiring churches and cathedrals, fabulous art collections, stunning streetscapes, cosmopolitan eateries and all-week, walk-everywhere happening nightlife. Not as polished as its age-old rival Granada, many people love it precisely for its rough, exciting edges.

8. Monteverde & Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Strung between two lovingly preserved cloud forests is this slim corridor of civilization, which consists of the Tico village of Santa Elena and the Quaker settlement of Monteverde. A 1983 feature article in National Geographic described this unique landscape and subsequently billed the area as the place to view one of Central America's most famous birds - the resplendent quetzal. Since then, the cloud forests near Monteverde and Santa Elena have become Costa Rica's premier destination for everyone from budget backpackers to well-heeled retirees. Indeed, this is a place where you can be inspired about the possibility of a world where organic farming and alternative energy sources help to salvage the fine mess we've made of the planet.

9. Arenal Route, Costa Rica

If you’ve got a little time, take the road from Ciudad Quesada to the Arenal area - you are in for one beautiful ride. With the backdrop of Volcán Platanar behind you, the road winding through this green, river-rich agrarian region passes through prosperous, quaint towns bright with bougainvillea. In front of you, if the weather cooperates, the smoking peak of Arenal will loom in the distance. Past La Fortuna, the paved road  hugs the north bank of Laguna de Arenal. On either side of the road, up the green slope and down on the lake side, turnouts and driveways for lovely inns, kooky ersatz Austrian mini-villages, hip coffee houses and eccentric galleries appear invitingly like pictures in a pop-up book.  Heading back around the western edge of the lake, you’ll pass through the lakeside Nuevo Arenal and down to the pleasant mountain town of Tilarán before descending back toward the Interamericana.

10. Panama City

The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is both a gateway to the country’s natural riches and a vibrant destination in its own right. A hub of international banking and trade, Panama City sports a sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers reminiscent of Miami. The colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo is a dilapidated peninsula with ruins and cobbled streets reminiscent of old Havana. After the city elite fled to live in skyscrapers, decades passed with Casco Viejo crumbling on the edge of the sea. Recently, artists and small businesses are moving back in and renovations are abundant. With luxury lofts, cafes and the hottest nightspots arriving, the Casco is approaching full-swing revival.