Top 20 Places to Visit in Central America (2022)

by | Jul 6, 2022 | Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Travel

You’ve made the decision to travel to Central America. Now the question is where to go. What places should you add to your Central America itinerary? In this post, I’m going to share with you the top 20 places to visit in Central America for those who love culture, history, food, architecture, nature, wildlife, tropical islands, and a bit of adventure. I spent a year traveling and living in the region and these are my 20 favorite places.

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Countries in Central America

map of Central America
Map of Central America map with country borders

There are 7 countries in Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

What about Mexico?

Is Mexico Part of Central America?

Some people consider Mexico as part of Central America. I decided not to include it here. If I had included it, this list would be 50 places to visit in Central America and half of them would be in Mexico. I’ll write a whole separate blog post on places to visit in Mexico.

Criteria for making a list of best places in Central America

This list of best places to visit in Central America is based on my I spent a year traveling and living in Central America. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes. What I like might not be what you like, or maybe it is. I’m into culture, history, food, architecture, wildlife, and nature. I love beaches, small villages, as well as big cities.

If you’re into the same things I am, then I think you’ll find this list useful in planning your own trip to Central America.

1. San Ignacio, Belize

San Ignacio.

Ever heard of it?

Most people haven’t.

But I guarantee that your time here will be one of the most unforgettable experiences during your trip through Central America.

A small city near the Guatemalan border, San Ignacio makes an excellent base for exploring the many natural and historic wonders of the Cayo District of Belize. Ancient Maya ruins, beautiful pine forests, lush jungle, mysterious caves.

people swimming through a cave on the ATM tour in San Ignacio, Belize
Actun Tunichil Muknal with Maya Walk Tours

The highlight of San Ignacio (and perhaps all of Central America) is the adventurous tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre. Better than any ride at Disneyland, the cave requires you to swim through pools of water and climb over and up rocks and past stalactites and stalagmites for an hour until you come to a huge open chamber. The ground of the chamber is covered in pottery shards and the remains of the sacrificed victims of the ancient Maya. Cool, huh?

The area is also home to 3 unique Mayan ruins: Caracol, Xunantunich, and Cahal Pech.

There are even more caves, rivers, jungles, and forests to explore, making San Ignacio one of the best places in Central America to visit.

Travel Tips for San Ignacio

Top things to do in San Ignacio

Where to stay in San Ignacio

2. Caye Caulker, Belize

The idyllic island of Caye Caulker is one of those places where you originally plan to stay 2 or 3 days but end up staying 5 or 6.

a beach with palm trees and kayaks in Caye Caulker Belize
Palms and beach at Caye Caulker island, Belize

Why don’t people want to leave? It’s all about the super chill vibe that the island has that makes you forget all about your troubles. There are no cars or motorcycles, the sun is almost always shining, people are friendly, the food (especially, the lobster) is delicious, and the snorkeling and diving are the best in Central America.

If you’ve got time to spare on your Central America travels, then make sure not to miss Caye Caulker.

Travel Tips for Caye Caulker

Top things to do in Caye Caulker

Where to stay in Caye Caulker

3. Antigua, Guatemala

Hands down Antigua is my favorite place to visit in Central America. It has a bit of something for every kind of traveler: culture, history, food, nature, and adventure. You could easily stay here a week and not run out of things to do.

Santa Catalina Arch at night in Antigua, Guatemala in Central America
Santa Catalina Arch

Antigua was the third capital of Guatemala until an earthquake destroyed the city in 1773, forcing the government and citizens to abandon it and start over in Guatemala City. Luckily for us, the remaining colonial-era buildings and ruins were not bulldozed. After reconstruction and lots of love and dedication, the city was revived.

Today Antigua is a stunningly beautiful city. Streets paved with cobblestones and lined with colorful adobe buildings. All of it is surrounded by mountains, including 3 volcanoes. One volcano, El Fuego, is still erupting every 20 minutes. At night you can sometimes see the lava flowing down the mountain.

Travel Tips for Antigua

Top things to do in Antigua

  • Do the overnight hike to the summit of Volcano Acatenango and El Fuego
  • Take a walking tour of the historic center
  • Visit the ruins of Antigua
  • For a complete list of 32 things to do, visit my Antigua travel guide

Where to stay in Antigua

For a list of the best hotels and hostels, visit my guide to Where to Stay in Antigua

4. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Like Antigua, Lake Atitlan has got a bit of everything for every kind of traveler: culture, history, art, nature, and adventure.

Plus, it’s just stunningly beautiful.

Lake Atitlan and two volcanoes at sunrise
Sunrise from Santa Cruz Village on Lake Atitlan

The lake is surrounded by hills and 3 volcanoes and the shore of the lake is dotted with villages. Each village has its own unique character.

Panajachel is the transportation hub. For getting to know the local Maya culture, visit Santiago Atitlan. San Juan is for those looking for art and handicrafts. For the best views of the volcanoes, stay in Jaibalito or Santa Cruz. San Marcos is the place to go for yoga, meditation, and holistic therapies. If you want to party all night and sleep all day, stay in San Pedro.

You can stay in one village and visit the others by boat. During the day, there are many things to do. Besides exploring the villages, you can kayak, do stand-up paddle boarding, and hike up a volcano.

Travel Tips for Lake Atitlan

Top things to do in Lake Atitlan

  • Study Spanish at one of the many language schools around the lake
  • Visit the home of Saint Maximon in Santiago
  • Hike Indian Nose to watch the sunrise
  • Shop for handicrafts and art in San Juan
  • Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard
  • Do a yoga retreat in San Marcos

Where to stay in Lake Atitlan

Budget: Hotel Utz Jay (Panajachel) or Casa Ahau (San Marcos)

Mid-range: La Casa del Mundo Hotel (Jaibalito) or Atitlan Sunset Lodge (Santa Cruz)

Upper-range: Hotel Villas Balam Ya (Panajachel) and Anzan Atitlan (San Marcos)

5. Flores and Tikal, Guatemala

Every itinerary to Guatemala should include a visit to the ancient Maya ruins of Tikal. Probably one of the top 3 greatest archaeological ruins in Central America.

a temple at Maya ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
ruins of Tikal

Tikal was one of the 2 most powerful states during the Maya Classical period. During its height of glory, the leaders built some of the most awe-inspiring temples in the Maya world. After Tikal’s collapse, the jungle-covered up its temples and pyramids for centuries. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that archaeologists began excavating and restoring them. Now they are one of the top places to visit in Central America.

Most tourists base themselves in the municipality of Flores and do Tikal as a day trip. The city is an interesting place in its own right. Situated on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza, Flores is connected to the mainland and its sister city of Santa Elena by a causeway.

The small island is charming but with a touch of scruffiness. There are streets of cobblestones, a promenade that rings the island, colorful buildings, some beautiful sunsets, and loads of travel agencies, hotels, and restaurants.

Tikal is not the only thing to do here. There are other ancient ruins like Uxuactun and Yaxha. Kayaking or taking a boat tour of the lake is also popular. A visit to Jorge’s Rope Swing is a fun way to spend your afternoon as well.

But for the more adventurous traveler, the piece-de-resistance is the 5-day/80-km jungle hike to El Mirador ruins and back.

Travel tips for Flores and Tikal

Top things to do in Flores and Tikal

  • Watch the sunrise at Tikal
  • Go on the El Mirador hike
  • Kayak around the lake, stopping at Jorge’s Rope Swing or Playa Chechenal
  • For views of the lake, visit Mirador de Canek

Where to stay near Tikal

6. Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Chichicastenango is a must-stop on a trip through Central America if you’re looking to learn more about the indigenous people of Guatemala. It was the cultural highlight of my trip to Guatemala.

people sitting on the front steps of Iglesia Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango
Iglesia de Santo Tomas

Situated amongst the mountains of the Guatemalan Highlands, the city is famous for its Sunday (and Thursday) markets. The Maya population from around the Highlands flock to the market to sell their wares, buy fruits, vegetables, and everyday items, and worship at the local churches.

Meanwhile, tourists come to shop for souvenirs, take in the Maya culture, photograph the colorful cemetery and vegetable market, and experience the folk religions of Guatemala.

Chichicastenango is definitely one of the most unique places to visit in Central America.

Travel Tips for Chichicastenango

Top Things to Do in Chichicastenango

Where to stay in Chichicastenango

Check on Airbnb for affordable places to stay or stay around Lake Atitlan and visit on a day trip.

7.  Copan, Honduras

Nestled in a stunning river valley and surrounded by hills covered in pine trees are the charming city of Copan Ruinas and the nearby ancient Maya ruins of Copan.

an ancient Maya statue in front of a staircase covered in Maya writing in Copan, Honduras in Central America
The Hieroglyphic Stairway at the ruins of Copan

Many travelers to Central America wonder if the ruins are worth it?

As someone who’s visited over 20 Maya ruins in Central America, Copan is in my top 5 archaeological sites. While you’ll see magnificent temples and pyramids at Tikal and Chichen Itza, at Copan you’ll see the most beautiful works of art in the Maya world.

There is more to do and see in Copan than just old stones. There’s a fabulous bird sanctuary, natural hot springs, and horseback riding tours through the sun-flower-covered hills.

Travel Tips for Copan

Top places to visit in Copan

  • Copan ruins
  • Learn about the Maya fertility rites at the Los Sapos ruins
  • Macaw Mountain Bird Park
  • Luna Jaguar Hot Springs
  • Horseback riding in the mountains outside of Copan

Where to stay in Copan

8. Lake Yajoa, Honduras

Lake Yajoa is another one of those places in Central America where you plan to stay for 2 or 3 days and end up staying for 5 or even 7 days. It’s so relaxing and beautiful that you just don’t want to leave.

Pulhapanzak Waterfalls near Lake Yajoa, one of the best places to visit in Central America
Pulhapanzak Waterfalls

Located about 2 hours from San Pedro Sula, the lake and the surrounding area are home to a plethora of birds, hiking trails, and waterfalls.

It’s also where you’ll find one of the best hostels in Central America: D&D Brewery, a hostel/hotel that is also just like the name suggests a brewery. This will probably be the best beer you’ll drink in Central America. And the food (blueberry pancakes!) is pretty darn good too!

The highlight of Lake Yajoa is the lake itself. Take a kayak out on the lake and paddle along the marshes spotting the birds popping up and flying away.

The other draw is the waterfalls. The view is spectacular. But what’s even cooler is that you can actually walk behind the falls. One of the scariest things I’ve done in Central America.

Honduras has a reputation for being unsafe, but Lake Yajoa and the surrounding towns I found to be as safe as they get.

Definitely don’t overlook this off-the-beaten-path place in Honduras.

Travel Tips for Lake Yajoa

Top things to do at Lake Yajoa

  • Rent a kayak and paddle around the lake
  • Visit Pulhapanzak Waterfalls
  • Go hiking and/or bird watching at Parque Nacional Cerro Azul

Where to stay at Lake Yajoa

D&D Brewery has everything from dorm rooms to inexpensive private rooms for $20 as well as mid-range and luxury cabins. Book your accommodations on the D&D website.

9. Bay Islands, Honduras (Roatan or Utila)

If you’re looking for an affordable snorkeling and scuba diving destination, then the Bay Islands are the place to be. Along the coast of the islands is the world’s second-largest barrier reef teeming with some of the most diverse sea life on the planet.

people walking down West Bay end at sunset, one of the best places to visit in Central America
West Bay Beach on Roatan

There are 3 Bay Islands and 5 smaller islands. Most tourists just visit either Roatan or Utila.  

Roatan is the bigger of the two islands. It’s more developed and attracts a more diverse crowd from cruise shippers to independent budget travelers.

Roatan has better beaches than Utila. The best beach is at West Bay—a nice long white sandy beach next to crystal clear calm waters. Rent a lounge chair for the price of a drink and spend the day doing absolutely nothing. Don’t leave too soon as the sunsets in West Bay are spectacular.

Utila is known for its whale sharks and cheap diving courses. It’s smaller and less developed than Roatan. There’s basically one town around a bay and the rest is just wilderness.

Travel tips for the Bay Islands

Top things to do in the Bay Islands

  • Scuba dive
  • Snorkel
  • Lie on the beach and do nothing
  • Visit Victor’s Monkey and Sloth Sanctuary
  • Do a day tour to Little French Key

Where to stay in Roatan

Budget: Roatan Backpackers Hostel or Hotel Chillies

Middle: Mr. Tucan Hotel

Luxury: Ibagari Boutique Hotel

10. Ruta de las Flores (Route of Flowers), El Salvador

Located near the border with Guatemala, Ruta de las Flores is El Salvador’s #1 tourist destination.

a view of green hills and valley under a blue sky along the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador

The Route of Flowers is a road that winds its way through the Apaneca Mountain Range. Along the route are a series of charming villages with cobblestoned streets, hills cloaked in coffee fields, volcanoes topped with craters filled of sulfur green water, waterfalls with pools to take a dip in, and hiking trails that take you to picturesque lagoons.

The three most popular villages to visit are Juayua, Apaneca, and Ataco.

With its fair share of affordable accommodations, Juayua is a popular place for backpackers. It has a lively central plaza and a popular food fair on Sundays.

a street lined with vendors and colorful adobe buildings in Juayua, El Salvador
a street in Juayua

Apaneca is another charming but less touristy village. It’s got the typical streets paved in cobblestoned streets, and colonial-era adobe buildings. You’ll also find a food court serving delicious local dishes, a beautiful white-washed church in the central plaza, a fun maze, hiking trails to lagoons, and a coffee plantation you can visit.

In my opinion, Ataco is the real gem. It’s a village filled with colorful murals depicting local culture, artisanal markets, colonial-era adobe buildings, trendy restaurants, and cool cafes where you can enjoy Salvadoran coffee.

Travel Tips for the Ruta de las Flores

  • Spend a few days along the Route staying in either Juayua or Ataco or both.
  • You can easily get around by public bus (Bus #249), but if you’re short on time, you can hire a car and driver or rent a car.
  • Where are the flowers? Yeah, don’t expect them. I was there and didn’t see any even though other bloggers say that February is the month to see them.

Things to do along the Ruta de las Flores

  • Fill up on some delicious local food at the weekend Food Festival in Juayua
  • Experience El Salvadoran coffee with a visit to a coffee farm and one of the lovely cafes
  • Check out the murals in Ataco
  • Visit Ruta de las Seite Cascadas

Where to stay on the Ruta de las Flores

Budget: Hostal Dona Mercedes

Middle: Hotel Casa Pino

Luxury: Casa Degraciela Hotel Boutique

11. Santa Ana and the Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador

Santa Ana is the second largest city in El Salvador. It’s safe, smaller, and easier to get around than the capital city of San Salvador. But it’s not overly touristy so you can get a sense of the local culture. Walk around the old part of the city. Hang out in the central plaza watching the locals.

people sitting in the Plaza Mayor in Santa Ana, El Salvador

Probably the main reason for visiting Santa Ana is that it’s a great place to base yourself for exploring the best destinations in El Salvador.

The #1 thing to do while in Santa Ana is to climb Santa Ana Volcano. At the top is a beautiful crater lake.

crater lake at the top of Volcano Santa Ana, one of the best places to visit in Central America
Santa Ana Volcano

You can also do the Ruta de las Flores from Santa Ana on a day trip.

That’s not all! There is a waterfall that’s also hot springs, a lake formed out of a volcano, and ancient Maya ruins.

Travel Tips for Santa Ana

  • You can hire a car, driver, and guide to climb Santa Ana for US$20 or do it on your own with public transportation
  • Explore the old part of Santa Ana. Observe the people—everyone in the city is selling something
  • There is no one central bus station but instead several stations throughout the city. It’s hard then knowing where to catch your bus. If you ask several people, you’ll get multiple answers.

Top Things to Do in Santa Ana

  • Hike to the top of Santa Ana Volcano
  • Visit the villages of the Ruta de las Flores
  • Go swimming at Salto de Malacatiupan
  • Check out Lago de Coatepeque

Where to stay in Santa Ana

Budget: Hostal Casa Verde or Velvet Hostal (Superb!!!!)

Middle: Hostal Las Puertas

Luxury: Remfort Hotel

12. Ometepe, Nicaragua

Ometepe is another one of those places in Central America that are hard to leave. I planned to stay for 3 days and ended up staying 10. One of many reasons is that you get a really good deal on accommodations on the island.

sunset on a lake with a volcano in the background
sunset on Ometepe

Looking at the island on a map, it’s already picturesque. In person, it’s even better.

The island is in the shape of a barbell. On each end of the barbell are 2 volcanoes. Both make for rewarding albeit difficult hikes.

But if you’re not that ambitious, that’s ok too. You can just as well while away your day lying in a hammock or eating chocolate, bird watching.

The highlight of my trip to Ometepe was kayaking and wildlife spotting on the lake and the Rio Isliatan.

The other fun and adventurous thing to do is to rent a scooter or ATV and drive around the island. The roads are relatively flat, traffic is little, and roads are in good shape, making it an excellent place for first-timers to try out a scooter. 

End at least one of your days by watching one of Omotepe’s colorful sunsets.

Travel Tips for Ometepe

Top things to do in Ometepe

  • Rent a scooter or ATV and drive around the island
  • Kayak along Rio Isliatan
  • Swim at the natural swimming hole of Ojo de Agua Ometepe

Where to stay in Ometepe

*So many good deals on accommodations on Ometepe that you’ve got a wealth of choices.

Budget: Finca Mystica (dorms) (Merida) or Rosa’s Lake Cabin (Merida) or El Pital (Balgue)

Middle: Finca Mystica  or Xalli Beach House (Altagracia)

Luxury: Ananda Guesthouse (Balgue) or Hotel San Juan Ometepe (Altagracia)

13. Granada, Nicaragua

Founded in 1524, Granada is one of the oldest cities in Central America. It is also one of my favorite. Wander around its cobblestoned streets and you’ll understand why.

the rooftops and church of Granada
a view of Granada from Iglesia La Merced

Compared to Antigua, it’s less Americanized and less touristy. Yet just like Antigua, the city has got its fill of colorful colonial buildings with red-tiled roofs, hip restaurants and cafes, old baroque churches, and bustling markets.

Begin your visit to Granada by just exploring the city on foot. Get lost if you can. Hit the central market, the Plaza Mayor, and end your afternoon with a visit to the Convent and Museum of San Francisco.

If you’re not exhausted after a day of sightseeing, head out in the evening to look inside the cauldron of the active Volcano Masayo.

Volcano Masaya
Volcano Masaya

Set aside one day for a kayaking tour of the 365 islands that make up Isletas de Granada and another day along the trails up Volcano Mombacho.

For those who want to explore the culture and food of Nicaragua, take a chocolate workshop at the Chocolate Museum.

Finally, one of the highlights of Nicaragua is an overnight stay at one of the lakeside lodges along the shores of Laguna de Apoyo.

Granada is one of the best places in Central America for those who love culture and history.

Travel tips for Granada

Top things to do in Granada

  • Visit Volcano Masaya
  • Kayak around Isletas de Granada
  • Learn how to make chocolate at the Chocolate Museum
  • Spend the night at Lago de Apoyo

Where to stay in Granada

Budget: Hostel de Boca en Boca or El Arca de Noe (Very Good!) or Casa Brickell

Middle: Hotel con Corazon or Hotel La Polvora

Luxury: Hotel Boutique Adela (Superb!!!!) or Casa Bubu Guesthouse

14. Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Just when you think that there are no more undeveloped tropical paradises left on this planet, you stumble upon the Corn Islands. Located on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, the Corn Islands consist of two islands: Big Corn and Little Corn.

a beach with palm trees
Otto Beach on Little Corn Island

Big Corn is more developed but has more of a local flare. It also has the best beach in Central America.

Little Corn, on the other hand, is an undeveloped gem. There are no cars or motorcycles on the island. People travel by foot along windy pathways through the jungle. No ATMs or banks. No stress. Just a nice mellow Caribbean vibe.

A simple private bungalow right on the beach can be had for only $20.

a beach with lounge chairs but no people
Arenas Beach on Big Corn Island

There’s not much to do on the Corn Islands. And that is NOT a bad thing AT ALL. Basically, you can spend your days as you would in any other island paradise: lying on the beach, reading a book in a hammock, swimming, snorkeling, and diving in its turquoise waters, or chowing down on some fresh tropical fruit and seafood.

Travel Tips for Corn Islands

Top things to do on the Corn Islands

  • Soaking up the sunny rays while lazing on Otto Beach
  • Diving or snorkeling
  • Planning for ways to never leave the island

Where to stay in the Corn Islands

Budget: Carlito’s Place (Little Corn) or Grace’s Cool Spot (Little Corn)

Middle: Ocean View (Big Corn)

Luxury: Yemaya Reefs (Little Corn) or Little Corn Beach and Bungalow (Little Corn) or Arena Beach Hotel (Big Corn)

15. Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

If you’re looking for a place where you can easily see wildlife without hiring an expensive guide, go to Manuel Antonio. The coastal area boasts Costa Rica’s smallest but most popular park: Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. Yes, that probably means the park is more crowded than others. But there’s a reason people come and why you should as well.

looking down from a cliff on a cove with a white sandy beach at Manuel Antonio Park
Manuel Antonio National Park

The park was the only place I was able to see 2 different types of monkeys: howler and for the first time, capuchin. The capuchins weren’t just high up in the tree either. They were right in front of me along a trail.

I also saw sloths without a guide, a task that you’ll find almost impossible to accomplish in Costa Rica.

a three-fingered sloth

You’ll find that you can see scarlet macaws just about anywhere around Manuel Antonio.

Travel Tips for Manuel Antonio

  • Getting to the park in Manuel Antonio and the hotels and hostels along the way is a piece of cake. There’s a bus that travels the route frequently. You can download this app onto your phone. The app shows you where the buses are in real-time.
  • The park limits the number of visitors coming in at one time, so you need to buy your tickets ahead of time from the park website. You also need to indicate your arrival time.
  • The park is closed on Tuesdays!
  • The official Costa Rica Tourism website has up-to-date info on the country’s entry requirements.

What to do in Manuel Antonio

  • Visit Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio – bring your bathing suit!
  • Do a mangrove and ocean paddle boarding/kayaking tour
  • Go river rafting on the Rio Savegre

Where to stay in Manuel Antonio

Budget: Casa Quepos (superb!) or Hostel Plinio

Middle: Peace of Paradise or Guest House Pura Vida

Luxury: Costa Verde or Santa Juana Lodge and Nature Reserve

16. Corcovado  and Drake Bay, Costa Rica

For something more wild and undeveloped in Costa Rica, head to Drake Bay, where you’ll find the country’s most remote and I think best park, Corcovado National Park.

sunset over Drake Bay in Costa Rica
Sunset over Drake Bay

Getting to the Bay is half the fun (NOT). After a bus ride to Serpia, you’ll need to take an hour-long and often very wet boat ride to Drake Bay town or wherever your lodging is. There’s no dock, so you’ll need to wade through water to get to shore. Or you can simply fly in if you have the cash.

For convenience, you can stay in the small town of Drake (also known as Agujitas). A more rugged and adventurous alternative is to stay outside of town in a lodge or hostel under the canopy of the rainforest where you’ll be greeted each morning by the howls of monkeys and in the afternoon by the squawking of macaws.

The primary reason to come to Corcovado is to spot wildlife.

This supposedly is the only place in Costa Rica where you’ll find all 4 of the country’s primates: the howler, spider, capuchin, and the endangered and very cute Central American squirrel monkey. I only saw the last three of these.

But you can very easily see another endangered animal, Baird’s tapir.

Baird's tapir at Corcovado National Park
Baird’s Tapir in Corcovado National Park

The park overall is “home to a staggering 370 species of birds, 140 species of mammals, and thousands of insect species” (Lonely Planet Costa Rica).

Travel tips for Corcovado

  • There are no ATMs in Drake Bay so bring cash and boat drivers do not take $100 bills.
  • The boat from Sierpe to Drake Bay leaves at 4:00 pm. Arrange with your accommodations to pick you up when you arrive in Drake Bay or your lodgings
  • The official Costa Rica Tourism website has up-to-date info on the country’s entry requirements.

Top things to do in Corcovado

Where to stay in Corcovado

Budget: Corcovado and Drake Inn (Superb for solo traveler!!!)

Middle: Hotel Finca Maresia or Bella Vista Corcovado or Life for Life Hostel

Luxury: Drake Bay Greenleaf

17. Monteverde, Costa Rica

After traveling in sweltering Central America for a few weeks or months, arriving in Monteverde is like an ice-cold glass of water on a hot day. Located at a higher elevation, Monteverde has a more temperate climate, unlike the rest of Costa Rica and its neighbor Nicaragua. It can sometimes get downright cold in the evenings.

a red hanging bridge in a forest
Hanging Bridge at Selvatura Adventure Park

The weather is not the only reason to go to Monteverde, though. First, the green and lush mountains are stunningly beautiful.

Second, there’s the wildlife-filled cloud forest, an experience completely different from a rainforest that must be experienced to understand.

Third, it’s the home of one of the most beautiful birds in the world: the Quetzal. The chance to see this green, red and blue bird is an unforgettable moment.

a quetzal bird sitting on a tree branch
Male of resplendent quetzal sits on the tree branch in the forest of Monteverde National Park, Costa Rica

Fourth, it’s got some of the best ziplining in the world.

Travel Tips for Monteverde

  • Join a guided tour in order to spot the quetzal and wildlife in general
  • If coming from Nicaragua, don’t try to get to Monteverde on the same day. Stay overnight in Liberia and then make your way to Monteverde. It takes a long time and buses are infrequent.
  • The official Costa Rica Tourism website has up-to-date info on the country’s entry requirements.

Top things to do in Monteverde

  • Visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest
  • Join a bird-watching tour at Corre Cancha Reserve
  • Go ziplining

Where to stay in Monteverde

Budget: Hostel Cattleya or Hakuna Matata Guesthouse

Middle: Los Pinos Lodge and Garden or Casa Jungle Monteverde

Luxury: Koora Hotel or Chira Glamping Monteverde

18. Puerto Viejo and the Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so many beach destinations to choose from. However, my favorite is the laid-back Caribbean Coast around Puerto Viejo. This tropical paradise is another place you find yourself lingering in longer than planned. It’s got a friendly and laid-back Caribbean vibe that is contagious.

a long, palm-fringed beach devoid of people
Punta Uva Beach

The coast includes a series of small towns interspersed with palm-fringed crescent beaches. Starting in Cahuita and ending in Manzanillo, pick your base or two to settle down in and explore the area. You can rent a bike, take the public bus, or rent a car to get around.

Most of the beaches in the area are ideal for surfing. But Punta Uva has a pretty good beach for swimming.

But sand and sun are not all that the area has to offer the traveler. There are 2 parks filled with wildlife, Cahuita and Manzanillo. The former has the added bonus of being free (donation is expected), making it by far the cheapest park in Costa Rica.

a spider monkey sitting on a tree at Cahuita National Park in Costa Rica
a spider monkey in Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica, Central America

For those who love food and wildlife, take a chocolate tour at a cacao farm at Caribeans Chocolate and Coffee. The tour goes through a jungle brimming with sloths, monkeys, frogs, and toucans.

Finally, you can visit Jaguar Rescue Center. This fabulous place rescues and rehabilitates injured animals before releasing them back into the wild. Another

Travel tips for Puerto Viejo

  • Buses leave San Jose from the MEPE Bus Station and take 5 to 6 hours to get to Puerto Viejo.
  • Bus schedules never seem to be accurate. They change frequently, so double and triple ask multiple people about departure times
  • The official Costa Rica Tourism website has up-to-date info on the country’s entry requirements.

Top things to do in Puerto Viejo

Where to stay in Puerto Viejo

Budget: Casa Moabi (Superb!!!!) or Pagalu Hostel

Middle: Bungalows Ache Cahuita (Cahuita – Superb!!!!) or Colina Secreta

Luxury: Casa Viva Lodge or Awa Beach Boutique Hotel

19. Bocas del Toro, Panama

The most popular travel destination in Panama is the group of islands known as Bocas del Toro. Situated on the Atlantic side of the country, Bocas del Toro is actually the name of the province that includes sections of the mainland, five main islands (Isla Colon, Isla Carenero, Isla Solarte, Isla San Cristobal, and Isla Bastimentos), loads of smaller uninhabited ones, and a marine park.

a starfish in the water along a beach in Bocas del Toro, one of the best places to visit in Central America
Beach in bocas del toro, Panama, Central America

The islands have that typical Caribbean laid-back vibe that travelers easily fall prey to. Bocas also has a more varied population than most other Central American islands. It’s a mix of Latinos, West Indies, Blacks, the Ngobe-Bugle, and gringos.

The main town of Isla Colon, Boca Town, is the provincial capital. This is the budget backpacker party haven. There are quieter albeit more expensive lodgings in the more secluded areas of the archipelago.

There are loads of things to do here besides lazing away your day in the sun. You’ve got the usual surfing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. But there’s also a cacao farm that chocolate offers tours.

The islands are also teeming with wildlife from sloths to howler monkeys to manatees. The islands are also where turtles come to hatch their eggs on the beaches.

Travel Tips for Bocas del Toro

  • You can take a bus from Panama City to Almirante and then take a ferry to the islands
  • Don’t drink the water directly from the faucet in the Archipelago
  • Check Panama’s official tourism website for the most up-to-date entry requirements.

Top things to do in Bocas del Toro

  • Explore Isla Boca by bike or ATV
  • Take a chocolate farm tour
  • Visit indigenous communities
  • Learn to surf

Where to stay

Budget: Bambuda Lodge (dorms – $29) or Tesoro Escondido Ecolodge Cabinas (private – $52)

Middle: Mosana Reef Garden B&B ($65) or Saigon Bay Bed and Breakfast ($75) or Barrbra BnB Over The Sea ($75)

Luxury: Dolphin Bay Hideaway or La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm

20. Panama City, Panama

When you look at a photo of Panama City, you often see a skyline of sparkling skyscrapers. So, the last thing you associate the city with is history, culture, and nature. Yes, it is true that the city is Central America’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan. However, Panama City is overflowing with travel opportunities for those who seek history, culture, great food, beaches, and wildlife.

Beautiful sunset on Avenida Central in Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) of Panama City. The bluish building on the right is the Hotel Central and towering over the composition one of the spires of Santa Maria La Antigua, the Panamanian Metropolitan Cathedral.
Avenida Central in Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) of Panama City.

In Casco Viejo, Panama City has one of Central America’s most fascinating historic neighborhoods. It’s filled with restored colonial buildings and cobblestoned streets, hip bars and clubs, trendy restaurants, and cafes.

Right in the city is Parque Natural Metropolitano, where you can find a remarkable range of wildlife from monkeys to sloths to white-tail deer. An hour and a half by bus is the tropical rainforest of Parque Nacional Soberania with over 500 bird species.

An hour and a half ferry ride from the city are 39 tropical islands called Archipielago de las Perlas with white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters.

Of course, the highlight of any trip to Panama City is the engineering marvel, the Panama Canal Zone.

Travel tips for Panama City

  • The best time to visit is December to mid-March when the city gets the least amount of rain
  • Check Panama’s official tourism website for the most up-to-date entry requirements.

Top things to do in Panama City

  • Wander the streets of Casco Viejo
  • Visit the ruins of Panama Viejo
  • Explore Parque Natural Metropolitano
  • Eat seafood at Mercado de Mariscos
  • Spot wildlife at Parque Nacional Soberania
  • Relax on one of the islands in Archipielago de las Perlas

Where to stay in Panama City

Budget: Magnolia Inn (dorms) or Bodhi Panama City (private – $34)

Middle: Nomada Container Hotel (Marbella) or The Balboa Inn

Luxury: La Concordia Boutique Hotel or American Trade Hotel

What places in Central America are missing?

I didn’t include some popular places in Central America.

Where’s San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua and El Tunco in El Salvador?

Both of those places are surfing destinations. I visited them, but I found them boring and expensive. I don’t surf. If you don’t surf, there’s no reason to go. I like to swim, but the beaches aren’t good for swimming.

You left off La Fortuna in Costa Rica.

Yep, I did.

Leaving La Fortuna off this list of best places in Central America was a hard one.

I’ve been there. It’s very pretty,

The volcano is nice.

The parks are nice but expensive.

The waterfall is nice, but there are better ones in Central America. Plus, it’s also expensive!

The natural hot springs were cool.

I did a really cool sloth park with a guide.

In the end, I left it off because it just wasn’t that unique or special compared to other places on this list. My biggest complaint, though, is that it’s expensive and hard to get around if you don’t have a car. You need to use Uber or a taxi, but they’re often unavailable or they don’t want to pick you up.

What’s next after Central America?

After you’re trip through Central America, why not head on over to Mexico? It’s easy to cross the border from Guatemala or Belize. You’ve got the states of Chiapas, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo right there.

If you’re in Guatemala, you can easily take a shuttle from Flores to Palenque or from Lake Atitlan to San Cristobal de las Casas.

For Belize, you can easily get to Bacalar in Quintano Roo and up to Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

From Panama, lots of travelers take a 3-day sailing trip from the San Blas Islands to Colombia.

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20 Most Insanely Amazing Places to Visit in Central America
20 Most Insanely Beautiful Places to Visit in Central America

13 Comments

  1. Certainly saved some for my visit to Central America!

    Reply
  2. So many GREAT places to visit in Central America! I really loved Roatan, but would love to visit more of these!

    Reply
  3. This is a fantastic list – I want to do ALL of these. The water caves and the Santa Ana volcano are my two top items.

    Reply
  4. I hadn’t thought much about Central America – I think I always thought it was South America! Thanks for the inspiration, I am adding them to my bucket list. Would 6 months be a good length to travel South and Central America?

    Reply
    • Yes, 6 months would work for both. You won’t see it all, but you’ll see a lot of the best parts.

      Reply
  5. What a fantastic post! Central America is on my list to explore next year so this was perfect timing & really helpful for me. I want to pack now! Thank you, love all these recommendations.

    Reply
    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, definitely go to Central America. It’s beautiful, there’s lots to see, the people are friendly, and it’s safer than you think.

      Reply
  6. So many awesome places to see in Central America. So far I have not been to any country in Central America. If I had to choose just one place from your list could be Lake Yajoa, Honduras. It looks incredible and I would love to spend some time there. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  7. We have only had small taste tests of countries in Central America. So it was great to get your personal input on some of the best places to visit in Central America. Belize has been on our list for some time so we would definitely look at San Ignacio and Caye Cauker for water sports. Guatemala looks far more interesting than I expected. And Honduras now means more than just Roatan! Costa Rica looks like it will take many trips to enjoy it all. Thanks for showing me more of Central American. Keeping this post!

    Reply
  8. I have traveled twice to Costa Rica but I need to add these other countries for future trips. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  9. I have never been to America, but I loved reading your post. I loved how you have included travel tips for each of the places.

    Reply
  10. Hola! Having visited Mexico and Guatemala, I plan to visit El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in December this year.

    Like you, I travel solo starting in 2000, had been to 59 countries. Your blog about crossing the border from El Salvador to Nicaragua and this one are interesting and very helpful for planning my upcoming trips. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much! I’m glad that you found the blog interesting and helpful. I’ll be adding lots more posts on Central America in the coming months.

      Reply

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About the Bamboo Traveler

The Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel & digital nomad blog, dedicated to helping women over 40 travel the world safely, cheaply, and comfortably. Whether you’re going for a one, two- or three-week vacation, exploring the world as a digital nomad, or staying home and discovering the world from the comfort and safety of your home, you’ll find loads of information to help inspire and inform you in your wanderings.

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