Offering two dramatic and diverse coastlines, Central America lures all types of water lovers with its Pacific swells and Caribbean reef. Meanwhile, the inland terrain is studded with mountains and volcanoes begging for exploration, the tropical rainforests are rich with birds and wildlife, and raging rivers crisscross the region. Adventure awaits!
Central America’s dense forests, steaming volcanoes and abundant wildlife make for great hiking. The terrain ranges from cloud forests and rainforests to tropical dry forest, including river trails and palm-lined beaches.
Most tourist-oriented parks and reserves offer ample trails that are well maintained and well marked, most of which do not require a guide. Longer-distance hikers can take their pick from several popular, multi-day treks. If you really want to get off the beaten track, you can do that, too (though you'll definitely want to hire a guide).
In the rainforest (and the cloud forest, for that matter), hiking trails can be muddy. Throughout the region, trails are maintained to varying degrees. They may be reinforced with concrete blocks or wooden supports, but the mud prevails. Trails are obviously firmer and easier to navigate during the dry season, which is when travelers should plan their hiking trips (late December to April).
Belize The jungly terrain and low-lying mountains are studded with Maya ruins. The best places to hike include Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (aka the 'jaguar reserve') and Mountain Pine Ridge.
El Salvador Explore the tropical mountain forests of Parque Nacional El Imposible.
Panama Roam the coffee-scented hills around Volcán Barú, in the Chiriquí highlands.
Remember to play it safe on the trails:
- Bring plenty of water, extra snacks, sunblock and insect repellent.
- Be sure to inform somebody (ie a park ranger) where you're going before you set out.
- Always be cautious of insects, snakes and other wildlife.
Surf's up, all across Central America. This sport's popularity is on the rise, with many places offering week-long surf camps, hourly lessons and board rentals.
Costa Rica has the most developed scene and, arguably, the most and biggest waves. But El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and even Guatemala have up-and-coming surfing scenes. The waves might not be 'world-class' – at least not all of them – but they're pretty darn good. Plus, there are fewer surfers in these lesser-known spots, so you may have the breaks all to yourself.
Costa Rica Famous for Salsa Brava at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and the three-minute left at Pavones (for experts only!). But the surf is also phenomenal up and down the Pacific coast, including Playa Grande (and all the beaches around Tamarindo), Santa Teresa and Mal País, and further south at Dominical.
Guatemala Surfing is not as big here as it is further south, but there is a scene growing up near El Paredón, with dedicated surf lodges, classes and board rentals.
The surf season varies throughout the region – but there's always a wave to ride somewhere.
El Salvador Along the south-facing coastline, the months from May to August bring the biggest swells, but they also bring massive amounts of rain. Seasoned surfers claim that the tail end of the dry season (late March and early April) offers the best of both worlds, with still-glorious weather and the first southern swells.
Nicaragua The Pacific coast here sees the biggest waves from April to June, thanks to southern swells and offshore winds. The surf is dependable anytime between March and November, though. Again, the rain starts in May, so be prepared.
Costa Rica & Panama These two countries are among a select group of destinations where you can surf two oceans in one day. In both countries, the Caribbean surf season lasts from November to April, with an additional mini season in June and July. You can't really escape the rain on this coast.
On the Pacific side, in Costa Rica, the most consistent surf comes from the southwest between late May and August. Panama's Pacific coast peaks from April to June, with offshore winds and consistent southwesterly swells. In both cases, the surfing is reliably good anytime between February and August. Again, expect more rain (but fewer crowds) starting in May.
Diving & Snorkeling
The Caribbean coast of Central America includes miles and miles of nearly unbroken barrier reef, making this one of the world's superlative spots for diving and snorkeling. Life under the sea is dramatic and diverse, from the fantastic coral formations and the kaleidoscopic fish that feed there to the massive (and sometimes menacing) creatures lurking in deeper waters. Mexico, Belize and Honduras offer world-class underwater viewing, but there are also snorkeling and diving opportunities further south.
The Pacific coast is also rich with life. There is no reef, but there's still plenty to see, especially from October to February when conditions are normally clearer. There are recommended dive sites near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, as well as Playa del Coco, Quepos and Bahía Drake in Costa Rica.
Aside from the two great bodies of blue, Central America has some intriguing opportunities for inland diving. Mexico offers otherworldly dives in cenotes (freshwater limestone sinkholes); check out some options reachable from Tulum. How about diving in a crater lake? You can do it at the Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua. In Guatemala, you can go high-altitude diving at Lago de Atitlán.
No matter where you intend to dive, don't forget your license. Equipment (for diving or snorkeling) is widely available for rent.
Feature: Safety Guidelines for Diving
Before scuba diving, free diving or snorkeling, carefully consider the following points to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience:
- If diving, you'll need a current diving certification card from a recognized scuba-diving instructional agency.
- Be sure you are healthy and feel comfortable diving.
- Obtain reliable information about physical and environmental conditions at the dive site (eg from a reputable local dive operator).
- Be aware of local laws, regulations and etiquette relating to marine life and the environment.
- Dive only at sites within your realm of experience; engage the services of a competent, professionally trained dive instructor or dive master.
- Be aware that underwater conditions vary significantly depending on region, season, and even from one site to another.
Best Diving & Snorkeling (Caribbean)
Belize The dive-snorkel hub is the Northern Cays, from where you can access the Blue Hole and the barrier reef. The reef is protected here, so even snorkeling requires a licensed guide. Hopkins or Placencia can serve as a base for the central reef. Snorkel right off the beach at Tobacco Caye.
Honduras The Bay Islands are known for the low cost of open-water certification and Roatán's diving is pretty spectacular. It's only off Utila that you can see whale sharks, though.
Nicaragua Little Corn Island offers an atmospheric location and varied dive sites, including underwater caves and the occasional hammerhead shark.
Costa Rica It doesn't really compare to the sites further north, but you can snorkel or dive all along the southern Caribbean coast in Costa Rica. Conditions are highly variable.
Central America offers some of the best white-water rafting in the tropics, including in Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and especially Costa Rica. The Central American rivers offer everything from frothing Class IV white water to easy Class II floats. Most rivers can be run year-round, though more rain brings higher waters.
Guatemala The Río Cahabón in Las Verapaces is equal parts adrenaline rush and luscious nature, with excellent trips offered by ADETES.
Honduras Sublime scenery and prolific birdlife along Class III rapids will give you a charge on the Río Cangrejal, near La Ceiba.
Panama Cruise through narrow canyons and past hidden waterfalls on the Ríos Chiriquí and Chiriquí Viejo, near Boquete.
The unexpected appearance of a toucan, howler monkey or sloth will surely be a highlight of your trip. Central America is rife with opportunities to spot these kinds of creatures in the wild, thanks to an extensive system of protected areas throughout the region. Often, the best sightings occur when you're not really looking – perhaps in your hotel's garden or on the roadside in a remote area. In short: keep your eyes peeled.
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to watch for wildlife activity anywhere.
Mexico Howlers are commonly sighted along the Mexico–Guatemala border. Celestún is a great place to see colonies of flamingos, as well as other bird species and crocodiles.
Guatemala You can go whale-watching in Monterrico. There's also a slim chance of seeing manatees (and a very good chance of seeing other wildlife) around Refugio Bocas del Plochic. An early-morning bird hike at Tikal enhances the magic of that place.
Belize The black howler monkey lives only in Belize and is practically guaranteed to be seen at the Community Baboon Sanctuary. Go to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary for possible jaguar sightings, as well as for tapirs, black howlers and 290 species of bird.
Nicaragua Take a boat down the jungly Río San Juan to spot sneaky monkeys, sunbathing caimans and prolific birdlife.
Costa Rica Corcovado is the ultimate wildlife-watching destination, where you can spot four species of New World monkeys, the endangered Baird's tapir, kinkajous, sloths, and more. The canals of Tortuguero and the lazy rivers around Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí are also teeming with animals.
Panama Sign up for a boat tour to see some of the 381 bird species and 120 mammal species on Isla Barro Colorado. Alternatively, visit the rainforest of Parque Nacional Soberanía, which is easy to access and brimming with wildlife.
Feature: The Big Five for Birders
The birdlife is rich all around the region, but of course the species vary widely depending on the habitat. Some highlights and where to spot them:
Great green macaw Valle de Sarapiquí (Costa Rica)
Harpy eagle Nests around the Reserva Natural Punta Patiño in the Darién (Panama)
Sea turtles nest on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Central America. During the nesting seasons, travelers can witness various species of turtle returning to their natal beaches to lay their eggs, sometimes in great numbers. It's a truly awe-inspiring experience to watch something that feels at once grandly cosmic and incredibly intimate. Top spots for turtles include Playa Ostional, near Sámara, and Tortuguero in Costa Rica, Isla Cañas in Panama and La Flor in Nicaragua.
Many shops rent bicycles for casual local exploration, but there are only a few options for cycling tours or other long-distance riding or mountain biking in the region.
Mexico In San Cristóbal de las Casas, sign up for Jaguar Adventours bicycle tours to nearby Maya villages and other intriguing destinations.
Guatemala Several outfits in Antigua offer mountain-biking trips in the surrounding hills, from half-day to week-long tours.
Costa Rica The Arenal area is a mountain-biking hot spot, with a wide variety of tours and rental offered by Bike Arenal. If you can bring your own bike, Vuelta al Lago is an awesome annual two-day ride around Lago de Arenal.
Nicaragua Local operator Nica on Pedals offers challenging mountain-biking routes and adrenaline-packed day trips from Managua and beyond.