Must see attractions in Central America

  • Top ChoiceSights in San José

    Teatro 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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Parque Nacional Volcán Poás

    La 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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio & Around

    Parque 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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Cahuita

    Playa Negra

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita and Punta Uva

    Punta Uva

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Antigua

    Iglesia 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.'

  • Top ChoiceSights in Masaya & Los Pueblos Blancos

    Parque 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.

  • Sights in El Petén

    Yaxhá

    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.

  • Sights in Panama Canal

    Miraflores Visitors Center

    The easiest way to visit the Panama Canal is to head to the Miraflores Visitors Center, just outside Panama City. This modern center features a four-floor interactive museum that looks at the canal's history, operations, expansion and ecology, an instructive 15-minute film and several viewing platforms, including the main one on the 4th floor with panoramic views of canal transits (the best times are from 9am to 11am and from 3pm to 5pm when transits are more frequent).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Ambergris Caye

    Hol Chan Marine Reserve

    At the southern tip of Ambergris, the 6.5-sq-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve is probably Belize's most oft-visited diving and snorkeling site. It offers spectacular coral formations, plus a rich abundance and diversity of marine life – not to mention its proximity to the cays. Hol Chan is Maya for 'Little Channel,' which refers to a natural break in the reef known as Hol Chan Cut. The channel walls are covered with colorful corals, which support an amazing variety of fish life, including moray eels and black groupers.

  • Sights in Lamanai

    Lamanai

    Perhaps the most fascinating Maya site in Northern Belize, Lamanai lies 24 miles south of Orange Walk Town up the New River (or 36 miles by unpaved road). The ruins are known both for their impressive architecture and marvelous setting, surrounded by dense jungle overlooking the New River Lagoon. Climbing to the top of the 125ft High Temple to gaze out across the vast jungle canopy is an awe-inspiring experience that is not to be missed.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Copán Ruinas

    Copán Archaeological Site Ruins

    One of the most important of all Maya civilizations lived, prospered, then mysteriously crumbled around the Copán archaeological ruins, a Unesco World Heritage Site. During the Classic period (AD 250–900), the city at Copán Ruinas culturally dominated the region. The architecture is not as grand as that across the border in Tikal, but the city produced remarkable sculptures and hieroglyphics, and these days you'll often be virtually alone at the site, which makes it all the more haunting.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Panajachel

    Reserva Natural Atitlán

    A former coffee plantation being reclaimed by natural vegetation, this reserve is 200m past the Hotel Atitlán on the northern outskirts of town. It makes a good outing on foot or bicycle. You can leisurely walk the main trail in an hour: it leads up over swing bridges to a waterfall, then down to a platform for viewing local spider monkeys.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Panama City

    BioMuseo

    Celebrating Panama as the land bridge that has permitted astonishing biodiversity in the region, this world-class museum is a visual feast. Exhibits tell the story of Panama's rich biodiversity through engaging, oversized visuals, examining human presence throughout time, how the Atlantic and Pacific evolved differently, and the interconnectedness of all species. A more abstract than literal approach creates a fresh view. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who created the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), designed this landmark museum of crumpled multicolor forms.

  • Sights in Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre

    Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas

    A scientific research center within the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre, Scarlet Macaw Biological Station offers wildlife-watching/archaeology tours and the chance to tag along with researchers as they monitor macaws and butterflies. Overlooking the broad lazy river, it's a splendidly isolated spot and there is comfortable, ecofriendly accommodations in several thatched-roof houses.

  • Sights in Bocas del Toro Town

    Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden

    One of the joys of visiting Bocas is touring the 'Monkey Farm' botanical garden a couple of kilometers northwest of the center. Painstakingly carved out of 10 hectares of secondary rainforest over almost two decades, it contains hundreds of species of local and imported trees and ornamental plants, and is teeming with wildlife.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Southern Costa Rica & Península de Osa

    Parque Nacional Isla del Coco

    Around 500km southwest of the Costa Rica mainland, Isla del Coco is a natural wonder that teems with wildlife, including the largest schools of hammerhead sharks on the planet. For that reason, divers descend from all corners, often venturing out on liveaboard trips with companies like Aggressor and Undersea Hunter. There's also some fascinating pirate history here, and apparently some buried treasure.

  • Sights in Veraguas Province

    Parque Nacional Coiba

    This national marine park contains Panama's largest island, the 503-sq-km Isla de Coiba, as well as astounding biodiversity; more than two dozen species of dolphin and whale have been identified, including humpback, killer and sperm whales. Several species of crocodile and turtle, and 15 species of snake roam the island as well as myriad birdlife. Santa Catalina is the best place to base yourself if you're interested in reaching the park.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chichicastenango

    Market

    Some villagers still walk for hours carrying their wares to reach Chichi's market, one of Guatemala's largest and a highlight of many people's trips to the country. It's a rich mix of the traditional and the tourist, where local women shopping for a new huipile rub shoulders with travelers looking for a textile souvenir. Sunday is the busier of the two market days, when Spanish school students and weekenders from Guatemala City descend en masse on Chichi.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Semuc Champey & Around

    Semuc Champey

    Semuc Champey is famed for its great natural limestone bridge, 300m long, on top of which is a stepped series of pools with cool, flowing river water good for swimming. Though this bit of paradise is difficult to reach, the beauty of its setting and the turquoise perfection of the pools make it arguably the loveliest spot in the country.