Looking for diverse landscapes and rich culture? Add the best places to visit in Central America to your next trip planning session. Adventure seekers flock to this stunning region for paradise islands, volcanoes, and colorful biodiversity. Delve into indigenous cultures and colonial heritage or kick back under a palm tree on a white sand beach.
From vibrant cities like Antigua, Guatemala, and Panama City, Panama, to the lush scenery of Monteverde, Costa Rica, or the coastal charms of Nicaragua and El Salvador, Central America is a treasure chest of enviable travel destinations. Here, you’ll find endless opportunities to tick off items on your nature bucket list. Dive into the rich marine life of Little Corn Island and Ambergris Caye. Or spot exotic birds and monkeys in the canopies of Costa Rica.
Ready to jump into the unknown? Get your bearings with this guide to the most exciting travel destinations in Central America!
Must-see Central American travel destinations
Spend endless hours delving into the old capital of Guatemala. Antigua, Guatemala, is a cobblestoned delight. The city’s UNESCO World Heritage status has preserved its colonial past. Take in old ruins, a rainbow of restored buildings, and pretty bell towers against the backdrop of the Acatenango volcano.
Jump straight into Guatemalan culture at the Mercado de Artenasias. A rollercoaster for the senses, the scent of mango, spices, and fresh tortillas hangs in the air. Shop for produce and handmade goods among the chatter of Spanish negotiations and mariachi bands.
Antigua has over 30 churches, convents, and monasteries. A series of earthquakes left many destroyed. Some were restored to their former glory but others are untouched. Bring out your inner Indiana Jones as you wander through the eerie but beautiful ruins.
Get your vacation photos at the iconic Santa Catalina Arch, an elaborate yellow archway with pastel buildings crawling with history. Or, climb up Cerro de la Cruz for the best views of Antigua; it’s a great way to acclimatize if you’re thinking of hiking the volcanoes.
Many travelers use Antigua as a base to explore the rest of Guatemala. Hike the Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes or take day trips to the Chichicastenango market and the Mayan ruins of Iximche.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Want to be in the heart of the jungle? Monteverde, Costa Rica, is a dream for nature lovers. Monteverde means green mountain in Spanish, a fitting name for the endless green rainforests hanging in the mist.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is one of the world’s most unique habitats. Around 400 species of birds, 1,200 species of amphibians, and 100 different mammals call this ecosystem home.
Spot monkeys, sloths, and exotic birds across towering suspension bridges. For a true taste of the rainforest, take the night tour to immerse yourself in the sounds of nocturnal animals under the stars.
The popularity of Monteverde Cloud Forest attracts hordes of tourists. For a quieter experience, visit Santa Elena Cloud Forest. The lush greenery gives wildlife more places to hide, so it’s great if you want a challenge.
Keep your eyes peeled for jaguars, pumas, and spider monkeys amongst the trees. Adrenaline seekers will love the rush of the zipline tour in Santa Elena Cloud Forest, allowing you to combine nature spotting with exhilaration.
There’s more to Monteverde than fascinating wildlife, too. Take a coffee, chocolate, or sugar cane tour to learn about the production of some of your favorite treats.
Panama City, Panama
Combine nature and skyscrapers in Panama City. The capital city of Panama and the largest city in Central America, bustling Panama City sits at the heart of the tropics. Fabulous nightlife, idyllic day trips, and stunning beaches offer something for every type of traveler.
Panama City offers a wonderful blend of the old and new. Even if you only have 24 hours in Panama City, explore the charming Casco Viejo for colorful architecture, pretty plazas, and a great foodie scene.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses some of the top tourist attractions in Panama City, including the stunning Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama City and some of the city’s top museums. Uncover the history of the Panama Canal at the Museo de Canal and marvel at traditional textiles at the Museo de Mola.
Plunge into the hub of the world’s shipping industry. The iconic Panama Canal is one of the world’s seven modern wonders. A great achievement of engineering, it’s a must-visit on any Panama travel itinerary.
Most visitors checking out the Panama Canal head to the Miraflores Locks. The immense gates weigh the same as 300 elephants. Watch as the impressive ships slide through with seamless precision.
After checking out the locks, make furry friends at Monkey Island. You’ll be able to see four different species of monkeys in their natural habitat. If you haven’t already had your nature fix, combine this with a visit to the Sloth Sanctuary.
Little Corn Island, Nicaragua
Dreaming of the Caribbean before the tidal wave of tourists and five-star resorts? Visit Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. The small island sits 50 miles off the Nicaraguan coast, creating a remote island paradise. Untouched beaches, palm trees, and no cars allowed make Little Corn Island the best place to completely unplug.
With just over one square mile to explore, spend your days hiking the diverse coastline alongside coconut and mango trees. The taste of mango and coconut bread will forever remind you of this slice of paradise.
Laze on pristine beaches or try out snorkeling. It’s easy to spot tropical fish, dolphins, and eagle rays. Many scuba divers dive Little Corn to scope out its outstanding marine life. Although the island is small, tropical reefs and the chance to dive with hammerhead sharks make it an unforgettable diving experience.
A trip to Little Corn Island is a chance to embrace ultimate relaxation. Indulge in a beachside massage or try out yoga in the jungle.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Take a tropical break in Ambergris Caye, Belize. Belize’s largest island is the most popular for visitors in the country. With the perfect blend of modern tourism and island charm, Ambergris Caye gives you an authentic experience without sacrificing your creature comforts.
The island is a network of colorful houses, sandy roads, and pretty peers. Explore Ambergris Caye by bicycle or golf cart and stop to wave at friendly locals as you pass. Dinners will be a dreamy haze of sunsets, fresh lobster, and one too many glasses of rum punch.
Ambergris Caye is half a mile from the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. A dream for snorkelers and scuba divers, this underwater metropolis is bustling with life.
Spot sharks, rays, and manatees while visiting Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. On every diver’s bucket list, the infamous Great Blue Hole is a vast sinkhole reaching depths of 480 feet. Book a diving trip or see it from above via a private plane.
Take a boat over to neighboring Caye Caulker. Ambergris Caye’s laid-back cousin is less developed and popular with curious travelers seeking relaxed island vibes. Spend an afternoon here and embrace the island’s motto of ‘go slow.’
Roatan, Honduras, is the largest of the Bay Islands. The 48-mile-long island is a utopia for divers and snorkelers. Almost its entire coastline is guarded with vibrant coral reefs. A fantasy land of reefs and abandoned shipwrecks, spend hours getting lost in Roatan’s underwater worlds. Explore the turquoise waters for sea turtles, whale sharks, and pods of squid.
Swim with bottlenose dolphins at Antony’s Key or try out ziplining at the Monkey Trail Canopy. Make friends with sloths and monkeys as you whizz over the lush forests. West Bay Beach is one of the most beautiful Caribbean beaches in the world. The idyllic stretch of white sand meets every cliché of your tropical island dreams.
Spend afternoons hanging out at the West End. The pedestrianized streets are home to top restaurants, nightlife, and dive shops. Kick back at sunset in the buzzing Sundowners Beach Bar. Enjoy the live music and a beer from the Roatan Brewing Company.
Foodies will be in paradise with trips to the Roatan Rum Company and the Roatan Chocolate Factory. Grab a cinnamon roll from the Sandy Buns Bakery, or try baleadas and fish tacos from one of the colorful food trucks.
El Tunco, El Salvador
For surfing, nightlife, and black sand beaches, head to El Tunco, El Salvador. The small series of colorful streets in this beachside town pack in a surprising amount of life. Vivid street murals, boho boutiques, and lively bars of El Tunco attract beach bums and surfers from around the world.
Surfing in El Tunco is a rite of passage. Experienced instructors will take you to the surfing town’s best spots for your ability. If the thundering tides are too intimidating, sit back on the beach and watch the experts.
For land-based action, hike the valley above El Tunco to the Tamanique Waterfalls. The network of cliffs and falls can be challenging but you can hire guides to help. Adrenaline seekers should try out the thrilling cliff-jumping spots.
To get into the heart of El Salvador culture, take a trip along Ruta de las Flores. The series of charming colonial towns offer distinctive architecture and traditions.
While staying in El Turco, be sure to book a day trip to the Santa Ana Volcano for some of the most beautiful views in the country. El Salvador’s highest volcano is still active, with a steaming crater lake at the summit.
Travel through the green forests of Cerro Verde National Park and ascend to cloud-level panoramas stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Rolling hills and volcanic silhouettes surround vast shades of blue and green. Pretty towns and villages are sprinkled along Lake Atitlan, all with their own distinct personalities and clientele.
Base yourself in one area and take day trips to soak up all the different atmospheres around Lake Atitlan. The developed Panajachel offers great shopping and transport links to the surrounding towns. Stay in the traditional Mayan town of Santa Cruz for steep winding lanes built into the hills. San Marco attracts hippies searching for spiritual treatments, while backpackers head to San Pedro for good food and lively lakeside parties.
A stay in Lake Atitlan is full of variety. Try out waterside activities like paddleboarding and paragliding or hike the surrounding volcanoes and mountains.
Sink into Lake Atitlan’s spiritual side with yoga classes and crystal healing. Or soak up the culture of the charming towns and shop for traditional handcrafted goods.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
Get your island fix at Bocas del Toro, Panama. The archipelago is a collection of seven main islands off the coast of Panama.
Nicknamed ‘the Galapagos of the Caribbean,’ Bocas del Toro is celebrated for its rich biodiversity and fantastic marine life. On land, Bocas del Toro’s beautiful mix of Caribbean, Latino, and local indigenous cultures provide a rich and vibrant experience.
Most people stay on the largest island of Isla Colon and take boat trips to the smaller islands for the remote beaches and scuba diving. The lively area is full of shops, restaurants, and bars to keep you entertained in the evening.
Colorful wooden houses and white sands border the crystal-clear seas. There are plenty of hotels on the island but stay on an overwater bungalow or jungle cabin for a true Caribbean escape.
A popular day trip is the island of Boca del Drago. Tranquil waters and seafood restaurants offer the ultimate chill-out day. Spot starfish spread across the ocean floor at Starfish Beach, or take a boat past the thick canopies of Bird Island.
Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Relax on the lakeside of Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. At the center of Lake Nicaragua, two volcanoes formed the largest freshwater island in the world. Once Nicaragua’s best-kept secret, visitors now flock to Ometepe for nature, archaeology, and fascinating culture.
Hike challenging trails to Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas, or take an ATV to the idyllic San Ramon Waterfalls. If you’re struggling with the heat, take a beach day in the breezy San Juan Del Sur area or cool off in the natural stone pools of El Ojo De Agua. With a botanical garden and rope swing, you’ll feel like you found a secret oasis in the middle of the jungle.
The Reserva Charco Verde is a tropical dry forest with black sand beaches. The lagoon features views of the towering Volcan Maderas. Ask the locals about the eerie myths and legends surrounding the lagoon.
Discover the culture of Ometepe Island by motorbike. Cruise through the back streets of Altagracia and Moyogalpa to find authentic food and friendly locals.
Get stuck into the island’s history at the Finca Magdalena Petroglyph Trail or the Museo El Ceibo. Foodies should head to El Pital to learn about chocolate production in the area and try some tasty homemade treats.
Arenal, Costa Rica
Find all the action of Central America in Arenal, Costa Rica. The iconic Arenal Volcano is a surreal sight, reaching from dense forest into the clouds.
The adventure capital of Costa Rica, Arenal is one of the best places to visit in Central America for its outdoor activities and the unbelievable scenery surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park. As expected from Costa Rica, Arenal packs in plenty of hiking, biking, suspension bridges, and ziplining over the trees.
Exquisite hotels in the area blend seamlessly with the rainforest and even have on-site hot springs. Lounge in the plunge pool at Amor Arenal to the sounds of frogs and birdsong. Or wander the hot pools of the botanical gardens at Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa.
The waterfalls in Arenal are majestic. White streams shoot over flourishing greenery into black pools below. Hike to the 200-foot La Fortuna or test yourself with white water rafting on the Toro River.
If the stunning landscape above ground isn’t enough for you, venture into the Venado Caves. The 20 million-year-old limestone network hides stalactites, a waterfall, and an underground river.
How to get to Central America
Central America is home to several major international airports. The most common gateways to the region for international travelers are:
- Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City, Panama
- Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in San Jose, Costa Rica
- El Salvador International Airport (SAL) in San Salvador, El Salvador
From these airports, you can find direct flights from several major cities in the United States, Canada, and other countries in Latin America. Common gateways to Central America from North America include Miami, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington DC, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, and Toronto.