Southern Sampler: Sea, City & Countryside
- 1 Week
Not everybody gets ample vacation time, and Central America is tough to squeeze into a week. But for those hungry for a three-in-one trip involving some beach bumming, countryside and a splash of colonial character, here’s one way it can be done.
Touch down into Panama’s top tourist draw, the Bocas del Toro archipelago, where you can shimmy through the emerald-green Caribbean all day and devour fresh seafood and potent cocktails all night. After a couple of days of snorkeling and island exploration, hop a plane to Costa Rica’s Central Valley.
Forget the gritty capital and instead immerse yourself in the verdant highlands that surround it, opting either for the storybook Valle de Orosi and its delicious coffee, or the strawberry-studded hills of Poás and its fussy, namesake volcano. A stay at Peace Lodge, with its wonderful animal rescue project, will introduce you to the country’s fauna and some epic waterfalls.
Another short plane ride away is Nicaragua's capital city (skip this too), which is just an hour from the colonial gem of Granada. Here you can stroll down postcard-perfect cobblestone streets lined with magnificent churches, or cruise around Lake Nicaragua's islets.
Northern Loop: Guatemala, Mexico and Belize
- 2 Weeks
Rich in culture and coastline, this route loops through many of the region’s northern highlights, including Maya ruins, reef snorkeling and jungle cruising.
From Guatemala City, head straight to colonial Antigua, fitting in a volcano climb and perhaps a crash course in Spanish. At Lago de Atitlán go for a few days of hiking and swimming in the new-age magnet San Marcos La Laguna. Then continue on to Chichicastenango to see the famous Maya market.
Venture north to Mexico on a Chiapas loop, exploring the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and nearby Maya villages, as well as the jungle-set Maya ruins at Palenque. Make your way back to Guatemala and Tikal, the mother of all Maya sites.
Bus east to Belize, stopping to go river tubing or caving outside hilly San Ignacio, before splashing into the Caribbean – and the barrier reef near either Hopkins or Caye Caulker. From Punta Gorda, catch a lancha (small motorboat) to Lívingston, starting point for a serious jungle river cruise to Río Dulce. From there, hop one of the frequent buses back to Guatemala City.
The Center of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras
- 2 Weeks
This route explores the less-traveled, less-expensive and altogether lesser known countries of Central America, taking in two coastlines and a wealth of spectacular scenery in between.
From Guatemala City, journey east over the El Salvador border to Tacuba, start of the Ruta de las Flores, replete with hiking trails and food festivals. From Sonsonate, turn south toward La Costa del Bálsamo for a few days of riding waves and catching rays in La Libertad. Stop in San Salvador to sample the country’s best nightlife, before continuing east to Playa El Cuco for a cool and quirky (and eco-conscious) stay at La Tortuga Verde resort.
Turn north and cross into Honduras, heading toward Lago de Yojoa to search for quetzals in the cloud forest. Continue north to La Ceiba, the jumping-off point for the region’s star diving destination – the Bay Islands. Utila offers the chance to spot enormous whale sharks suspended in the silent waters of the big blue.
It’s time now to head back to Guatemala, but not before stopping in the cobblestone town of Copán Ruinas, which offers river-tubing trips, horseback rides over mountains, and its namesake ruins.
Southern Loop: Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua
- 2 Weeks
From volcano climbs to barefoot beach towns, southern Central America offers equal parts adventure and R&R. The green giant, Costa Rica, is flanked by two vibrant countries with colonial character and off-the-beaten-path allure.
Cross the Panamanian border and hop on a boat to the sugar-sand beaches of Bocas del Toro. After a few days in paradise, turn south to the cool cloud forests around Boquete, where you can slog up Volcán Barú for 360-degree views, including both coasts.
Back in Costa Rica, stop off in freewheeling Dominical for a surf and a yoga session, then cut over to the Pacific coast to explore the monkey-crowded trails and picture-perfect beaches in Manuel Antonio.
Continue up the Interamericana and into Nicaragua. Test the surf and swing in a hammock in laid-back San Juan del Sur, then rest up for your next adventure on Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic island in a sea-sized lake. Follow up with a trip to admire the colonial architecture in Granada, before heading on to Managua to grab a direct bus back to San José.
Pacific Coast: El Salvador to Panama
- 4 Weeks
This sinuous coastline has something to suit everyone, from insatiable surfers to dedicated beach bums. Inland there are coffee farms, cloud forests and even more diverse landscapes. Let your spirit soar on this itinerary that takes in four countries, countless monster curls and infinite adventure.
In El Salvador and Nicaragua, peak surf season is March to December, while further south it's February to March.
Arrive in San Salvador and beam to La Costa del Bálsamo, home to world-class surf breaks; Playas El Zonte and Sunzal offer reasonable seaside digs and lessons for budding boarders. When you need a break from the waves, take a detour to the Ruta de las Flores, where you can hike to hidden waterfalls and discover the region's culinary delights.
Moving east, cross the border(s) to Nicaragua. Stop in offbeat Léon for a dose of art and eclecticism. From Managua, catch a shuttle to San Juan del Sur, a chilled-out town ringed by beaches with big waves. You're also within striking distance of Isla de Ometepe, an island packed with opportunities for adventure.
Continue south to Liberia, Costa Rica and veer west to hit some surf spots on the Península de Nicoya. Playa Grande is a long, pristine stretch of sand, where you can catch waves by day and spy on nesting turtles at night. Hardy souls should brave the bumpy ride to the southern tip of the peninsula, where Mal País and Santa Teresa offer some of the best breaks in the region. The gorgeous beach and easygoing vibe are beacons for surfers, yogis and free spirits of all types. Nearby Cabo Blanco was Costa Rica's first nationally protected nature reserve – it's still worth a day trip.
Take a shortcut to the mainland with a ferry to Puntarenas. Hardcore surfers should keep heading south to meet the wicked waves of Dominical. Alternatively, an inland jaunt to Monteverde offers cooler temperatures, canopy tours and the magic of the cloud forest.
Continue east to Panama. If you missed Monteverde, take a detour to Boquete, another mountain town with cool air and strong coffee. Otherwise, make your way to Santa Catalina, which claims Hawaii-style waves. From Santiago, you can grab a bus to Panama City or David for your homeward journey.
Caribbean Coast: Mexico to Nicaragua
- 4 Weeks
Explore the 'other side' of Central America – where Spanish is heard less than English or Kriol, and Latin beats give way to reggae rhythms and Garifuna drumming. This east-coast route shows off the rich cultural blend and wild natural scenery that make the Caribbean unique.
Fly into Cancún, maybe hit up a salsa club, and start working your way south. Your first stop is Tulum, an impressive Maya ruin set on prime beachfront property. Next, head south to Mahahual to snorkel the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere.
From Chetumal, catch a boat to chilled-out, budget-friendly Caye Caulker, Belize for some days of sunning, swimming and snorkeling. Return to the mainland via Belize City, perhaps sneaking in a side-trip to the Belize Zoo. If you're up for some more island-hopping, catch the bus to Dangriga, from where you can get a boat to Tobacco Caye. Here you can snorkel right off the shore, and there are plenty of hammocks to go around afterward. Hopkins is also a laid-back Garifuna town with a beach, if you prefer to stay on the mainland.
You'll save yourself some time and hassle if you can catch the weekly boat from Placencia direct to Puerto Cortés, Honduras. Otherwise, continue south through Toledo to Punta Gorda to catch a more frequent boat to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Then take a minibus to the Honduras border at Corinto.
Buses run to La Ceiba, via San Pedro Sula. Along this coastline, there are countless attractions that are unique to this region, including river-rafting on the Río Cangrejal and visiting the Garifuna village of Sambo Creek. The Bay Islands are an absolute must for divers (or would-be divers).
And now, you have reached the final frontier: the Moskitia. This huge expanse of untamed wilderness is inhabited in only a few isolated places. If you're curious, consider signing up for a tour to the Moskitia (available in La Ceiba) – there are few roads there and plenty of crime.
You've come pretty much as far as you can go. (There is a border crossing into Nicaragua at Leimus, but it's a pretty serious slog through jungle – on both sides of the line.) It's time to board the bus to Tegucigalpa to travel onwards, leaving behind the fierce and fascinating Caribbean coast.