With cerulean seas and verdant forests, magnificent Maya ruins and smoking volcanoes, Central America is like a tropical fairy tale – except all of it is real.
Central America's seven countries plus Mexico's Yucatán and Chiapas states equal 300-plus volcanoes, two expansive tropical coasts and one giant adventure playground. Paddle deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe, or explore the remains of coastal Spanish forts. Zip through rainforest canopies, swim alongside sea turtles or trek to sublime cloud-forest vistas. Everywhere you go, you'll be accompanied by a wild cast of characters: a resplendent quetzal on the highland trail; an unruly troop of howler monkeys swinging through the canopy; and an unexpected, breaching whale right beside the ferry. Your adventures are limited only by your will.
The Maya civilizations sprawled from Mexico to Honduras, leaving behind ruins in five present-day countries – four in Central America – where visitors can still step back and connect with an ancient and mysterious past. Explore the lost temples of Tikal, see jaguars carved to life at Copán, and ascend the pyramid at Caracol. Discover a culture that harks back 4000 years – the greatest pre-Columbian civilization – and still persists today.
Central America may take up less space than Texas, but its rich mix of people and cultures has created a diverse and dynamic society. With more than 20 Maya languages spoken, Guatemala is the region's indigenous heartland. The Spanish left their mark throughout with gorgeous colonial plazas, fervent beauty contests and silent hours of siesta. African culture permeates the Caribbean coast, from the Congo rebel traditions to lip-smacking rondón seafood gumbo. And the last century brought the rest of the world – Asians, Europeans, North Americans – along with a coat of modernity that dressed up Panama City into a contemporary capital.
With chilled-out Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Central America is perched between the best of both beach worlds. From deserted playas to full-moon parties, this tiny region can deliver just about any sun-soaked experience that your inner beach bum desires. What's more, there's that magnificent, mysterious world that begins at the water's edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in Honduras, snorkeling the world's second-largest coral reef in Belize, getting stoked on Costa Rica's world-class surf breaks, or setting sail among Panama's virgin isles. Hello, paradise.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Central America.
Notable BuildingTeatro Nacional
On the southern side of the Plaza de la Cultura resides the Teatro Nacional, San José’s most revered building. Constructed in 1897, it features a columned neoclassical facade flanked by statues of Beethoven and famous 17th-century Spanish dramatist Calderón de la Barca. The lavish marble lobby and auditorium are lined with paintings depicting various facets of 19th-century life. History When construction began in the late 19th century, the President of Costa Rica was determined to create a lavish and impressive building that was worthy of the moniker 'National Theater'. However, the population of Costa Rica was quite low – San Jose alone had only around 20,000 residents – and cost was a major consideration. President José Joaquín Rodríguez Zeledón's solution to this problem was to place a tax on coffee, the main export of the country at the time. The construction was fraught with problems until an Italian engineer was brought in to oversee the entire project and guide it to success. The theater's most famous painting is Alegoría al café y el banano, an idyllic canvas showing coffee and banana harvests. The painting was produced in Italy and shipped to Costa Rica for installation in the theater, and the image was reproduced on the old ₡5 note (now out of circulation). It seems clear that the painter never witnessed a banana harvest because of the way the man in the center is awkwardly grasping a bunch (actual banana workers hoist the stems onto their shoulders). Performances and tours Costa Rica’s most important theater stages plays, dance, opera, classical concerts, Latin American music and other major events. The main season runs from March to November, but there are performances throughout the year. The hourly tours here are fantastic – guests are regaled with stories of the art, architecture and people behind Costa Rica's crown jewel of the performing arts. The best part is a peek into otherwise off-limits areas, such as the Smoking Room, which features famous paintings, lavish antique furnishings and ornate gold trim. Tours are offered every hour on the hour in Spanish and English, to a maximum of 30 people. Children under 12 are free. Alma de Cafe One of the most beautiful cafes in the city, this spot evokes early 20th-century Vienna. It's a perfect place to sip a cappuccino, enjoy a crepe or quiche and take in the lovely ceiling frescoes and rotating art exhibitions. The coffee concoctions – such as the chocolate alma de cafe, spiked with cinnamon and clove – are an excellent midday indulgence. Once you're finished soaking up all the culture within the theater, you can easily join one of the city walking tours that start from the cafe.
GardensLa Paz Waterfall Gardens
This polished storybook garden complex just east of Volcán Poás offers the most easily digestible cultural experience in the Central Valley and is the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica. Set aside at least two hours to experience the gardens, but you could easily spend an entire day exploring the natural wonders on offer. Guided tours are available to book and there are several bars and restaurants available on site for when you've grown tired of feeding the birds and want to indulge yourself. What can you see there? Guests walk 2 miles (3.5km) of well-maintained trails to five jaw-droppingly scenic waterfalls, and can also wander around zoo-like displays including a butterfly conservatory, get up close to hummingbirds and hand-feed toucans. Tour a serpentarium and ranarium (frog garden), witness wild cats eating meals, and explore the lush rainforest populated by monkeys and sloths. Can you stay at the gardens? Feel like you've stepped into a fairy tale at this over-the-top lodge, with its exquisite villas boasting majestic valley views, fireplaces, private decks with Jacuzzis, and huge bathrooms with waterfall showers. Guests get free access to the gardens. This highly imaginative setting, with its multiple pools and interactive animal experiences (toucan and hummingbird feeding), will have kids over the moon; it's an ideal spot for families. Disappointingly, breakfast is not included in the pricey room rate (add an extra $20/12 for adult/child). Transport La Paz Waterfall Gardens is 45 minutes from San Jose airport and is perfectly located for a day trip from San Jose if you're basing yourself there. It's nestled between two national parks – Parque Nacional Volcán Poás and Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo – that provide no end of wildlife and photo opportunities if you'd prefer to extend your stay in the area.
National ParkParque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Featuring lush jungle, picture-perfect beaches and craggy headlands, this tiny park (1680 acres/680 hectares) absolutely brims with wildlife (and often visiting humans). As you wander its lovely trails, you'll catch a glimpse of dangling sloths, squawking toucans and playful monkeys, and stumble on breathtaking views of the sea and nearby islands. To beat the crowds and maximize wildlife sightings, arrive early and make the most of the beach in the afternoon. The beaches and trails inside the park close at 4pm but you can still access the public beach outside the park after this time if you haven't had enough fun in the sun. How much does it cost? Adult tickets are $18 and kids under 12 are admitted for just $5.65. You can only purchase your tickets online, so get them the afternoon before and walk straight in the following day. The park is open every day except Tuesday. Guided tours are also available to book online. Dos and don'ts Non-alcoholic drinks are permitted but single-use plastics are not (this applies to bags too). Taking any kind of food into Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is forbidden. There is a small kiosk within the park if you fancy a snack but that's all. No pets are allowed in the park.
At the northwestern end of Cahuita, Playa Negra is a long, black-sand beach flying the bandera azul ecológica, a flag that indicates that the beach is kept to the highest ecological standard. It's rarely crowded, so you can stretch out and relax as the Caribbean Sea laps at your feet. Swimming and surfing This is undoubtedly Cahuita’s top spot for swimming due to the clean, calm water. However, when the swells are big, this place also has a good beach break for newbie surfers. It's an excellent option for those intimidated by the more popular surf locations; kids and adults alike can try out their surf skills in peace. Accommodation Cahuita is just a 5 minute drive away or a 20 minute walk if you'd prefer to stretch your legs. The town has a great selection of hotels and guesthouses on offer in both the bustling center and the quieter northern end of town close to Playa Negra. If you're journeying between Playa Negra and the center at night, it's best to cycle (with lights) or take a taxi, especially if traveling alone. Food and drink Cahuita offers some of the best Caribbean fare around, along with some surprisingly delicious Italian and French cuisine. There are good options closer to the beach, too.
Off a dirt road marked by Punta Uva Dive Center is a quiet, idyllic cove that could double for a scene in the film The Beach. When the water is calm, it makes an excellent spot for swimming. There is a cluster of fantastic restaurants nearby when you've worked up an appetite splashing around in the Caribbean Sea. Surfing and snorkeling There are usually a couple of locals renting out surfboards on the sand, and the reef to the right of the cove is excellent for snorkeling and surfing (but not at the same time!). When the waves are up, this spot creates a forgiving peeling right-hand wave that's suitable for intermediates. How do I get there? Punta Uva is just 5 miles (8.5km) from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and is easily accessible by bike, car or bus.
MonasteryIglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo
Founded by Dominican friars in 1542, Santo Domingo became the biggest and richest monastery in Antigua. Following three 18th-century earthquakes, the buildings were pillaged for construction material. The site was acquired as a private residence in 1970 by a North American archaeologist, who performed extensive excavations before it was taken over by the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel. The archaeological zone has been innovatively restored as a 'cultural route.'
Archaeological SiteEl Mirador
Buried within the furthest reaches of the Petén jungle, just 7km south of the Mexican border, the Late Preclassic metropolis at El Mirador contains one of the largest clusters of buildings of any single Maya site, among them the biggest pyramid ever built in the Maya world. Ongoing excavations have only scratched the surface, so many are still hidden beneath the jungle.
VolcanoParque Nacional Volcán Masaya
Described by the Spaniards as the gates of hell, the craters that comprise Volcán Masaya National Park are the most easily accessible active volcanoes in the country. The two volcanoes at the park, Masaya and Nindirí, together comprise five craters. Of these, Cráter Santiago is still very active and bubbling with red-hot lava. The park entrance is just 7km from Masaya on the Managua highway and most tour operators in Granada run evening trips to the crater.
The Classic Maya sites of Yaxhá, Nakum and El Naranjo form a triangle that is the basis for a national park covering more than 37,000 hectares and bordering the Parque Nacional Tikal to the west. Yaxhá, the most visited of the trio, stands on a hill between two sizable lakes, Lago Yaxhá and Lago Sacnab.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Central America.