Central America is famous for its lakes, volcanoes, and natural beauty – but you might not be aware of it. Despite an incredibly diverse and rich culture, history, and incredible beauty, Central America is left off many travelers’ itineraries.
In this ultimate guide to the best places to visit in Central America, we share the places your money will take you further, and where you’re bound to find incredible travel experiences in this overlooked region.
Plus, we’re sharing first-hand travel tips for connecting with locals, getting the most for your money, and staying safe while traveling Central America.
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What Countries Are in Central America?
Central America consists of seven countries, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The region is considered part of the North American continent, with Mexico, the USA, and Canada to its north.
Costa Rica and Panama have been popular travel destinations for many years, but the other countries often get overlooked. Countries in Central America all use Spanish as the official language, except Belize, where English is the official language.
You’ll also find indigenous languages used in many communities, especially in Guatemala and southern Mexico.
This narrow isthmus connects South America to the rest of North America and enjoys hundreds of miles of pristine Pacific and Caribbean coastline.
Read More: Costa Rica Travel: A Beginner’s Guide
Is Central America Safe for Tourists?
Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras are all CA-4 countries, meaning they are signatories of the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement. This means they have a free mobility agreement meaning their citizens can move freely across borders without restrictions.
Upon entry, most travelers receive a 90-day tourist visa to visit all four countries. These are the cheapest and most affordable countries to visit in the region.
These four countries have also suffered the most in recent history, dogged by violence and civil unrest. However, the region now enjoys relative peace and harmony and is a superb travel destination.
Backpackers and savvy travelers have been coming to these countries for years without problems. Like most places, you must be sensible and stick to the tourist path. Most crime in this region is gang-on-gang violence, and tourists are typically not targeted.
When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Central America?
The peak season for visiting the best places in Central America coincides with the region’s dry season, from December to April. Visiting during this time gives you the best chance of avoiding the rain and improving hiking and sightseeing.
While visitors will see some price increase during these high-season months, they are usually minimal in most places. Because most parts of Central America aren’t overtouristed, you’ll enjoy relatively low prices throughout the year and won’t feel that most places are swamped with tourists.
10 Best Places to Visit in Central America
Central America has many great places to visit, making it difficult to narrow down to a top 10. Use this list to get started as you plan your dream vacation! This non-exhaustive list provides a great mix of places to visit in Central America, plus activities and destinations to inspire your trip.
1. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Lake Atitlan sits inside a volcanic crater, the deepest lake in Central America. Surrounded by three large volcanoes, it is a magical destination and an easy choice as one of Central America’s best places to visit.
A popular destination in Latin America for digital nomads, you’ll find long-term travelers that make this area home for months on end, alongside backpackers, traveling families, and luxury travelers. It’s a fascinating mix and with something for every type of traveler.
The pace here is slower and more chilled out in the southwestern highlands than in nearby Antigua and Guatemala City. The lake is home to 11 unique towns dotted around its shores. You can easily spend a week exploring all the Lake Atitlan Towns.
Due to the altitude, the weather is pleasant all year round, with average temperatures in the mid-70sF. Hop aboard lanchas (small, local motorboats) on the water and ride in tuk-tuks to get around on land.
One of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is the Indian Nose Sunrise Hike. Rise early and hike for an hour to see the true beauty of Lake Atitlan. You can also enjoy affordable, delicious traditional Guatemalan foods or international food at the lake’s variety of markets, restaurants, and cafes.
2. Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala is a Spanish colonial town and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only one hour from the international airport in Guatemala City, Antigua is often the first stop on any visit to Guatemala.
There are many things to do in Antigua, Guatemala. Start with a walk around town and admire the buildings and architecture. Some lovingly restored, others crumbling and paint peeling, all adding to the town’s atmospheric feeling. There are many cute cafes and restaurants here, often with delightful garden courtyards hidden behind the crumbling façade.
One of the best things to do in Antigua is the 2-day hike to Volcan Acatenango. Acatenango is a dormant volcano, but the highlight is seeing the active Volcán de Fuego (or ‘Volcano of Fire’) erupting just a short distance away.
Volcán de Fuego erupts every 30 minutes, throwing hot red lava into the sky. The hike allows you to enjoy this phenomenon up close to base camp and early the following day as you hike to the summit. Hiking Acatenango is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you do not want to miss.
Read More: 10 Most Impressive Volcanoes in Guatemala
3. Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National Park is a true paradise found on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, not just in Central America. It is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Central America.
The unspoiled beach is breathtaking, bordered by lush forest and palm trees stretching as far as the eye can see. As well as the beach, Manuel Antonio has several walking trails through the rainforest, offering plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting.
You will see squirrel monkeys hanging in the trees. It’s fascinating watching them play together in their natural habitat. Also, look out for the white-faced capuchin, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys.
You’ll even see two- and three-toed sloths hugging the tree trunks if you’re lucky. If you see a group of people stretching their necks and looking into the trees, they’ve likely spotted one of these fascinating shy creatures.
4. Isla de Ometepe Nicaragua
Isla de Ometepe (Ometepe Island) is an island consisting of two volcanoes rising perfectly from Lake Nicaragua. Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America, and Ometepe Island is the perfect getaway. Isla de Ometepe is one of the unique places to visit in Central America.
A favorite activity here is hiring a scooter and exploring the island at your own pace. Enjoy hiking to waterfalls, swimming in natural springs at Ojo de Agua, or hiking the active volcano Concepcion for the brave.
5. Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Bocas del Toro, known more simply as Bocas, is an archipelago in the northwest of Panama, very close to the border with Costa Rica.
Located in the Caribbean Sea and covered by lush rainforest, this is the place to relax on gorgeous beaches by day and go crazy partying at night. Bocas del Toro is a tropical paradise like nowhere else in Panama.
On Isla Colón, the archipelago’s main island, you can visit the famous Starfish Beach and enjoy the white sands and calm waters with a backdrop of palm trees. Oh yes, and plenty of starfish too. Go early to beat the crowds.
In the evening, it’s time to party. Put your dancing shoes on and join the infamous Filthy Friday pub crawl. If this isn’t your scene, there are plenty of more chill bars and restaurants to enjoy a quieter drink, and endless things to do in Bocas del Toro, day or night.
Read More: 16 Best Things To Do in Panama City, Panama
6. Panama City, Panama
Panama City is like no other place in Central America. Full of skyscrapers, it is a modern metropolis in a region dotted with small, low-rise cities.
If you want to savor the old-time flavor, the best area to stay in Panama City is Casco Viejo (Old Town). Away from the skyscrapers, this is where you can experience more culture and colonial architecture.
One of the best things to do in Panama City is to hire a bike for a day. It costs only $12 and allows great city exploration. Head to Amador Causeway and Cinta Costera 3 for amazing views of the Panama skyline.
Visit the Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market) to eat with the locals. Several restaurants here offer excellent food and drink at friendly prices in large outdoor, covered settings. TV screens also show major sporting events.
7. León, Nicaragua
León, Nicaragua is one of Central America’s least touristy towns. Instead of trinket shops, expect fantastic markets and friendly locals.
León is a city with rich history and culture. You can find traces of its revolutionary history all around town. Previously the country’s capital, León is considered the intellectual center of Nicaragua.
There are many great things to do in Leon. However, the most unique activity is volcano boarding: ascend the 45 minutes to the summit of Cerro Negro and take in the spectacular views before heading down the sandy sides on a sled. Getting down is much faster as you grab your board and surf down the side of the volcano.
Volcano boarding is the top activity in town and costs as little as $30 for a half-day adventure. It’s one of the best and most unique activities to do in Central America.
8. Lake Yojoa, Honduras
Honduras is one of the least visited countries in Central America but has some hidden gems to explore. Lake Yojoa is in the northwestern part of the country, easily accessible between the capital Tegucigalpa and the central transit hub of San Pedro Sula.
Bordered by steep mountains, this is the largest lake in Honduras and a popular tourist destination with locals.
Drifting around in a kayak is a great way to explore the lake. Rent Kayaks for as little as $3 for half a day. Other lake activities include jet skiing, fishing, and bird spotting.
Close to Lake Yojoa is one of the most visited attractions in the country, Pulhapanzak Waterfall. Witness rainbows form right before you as the water rushes to the river below.
9. Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Volcan Arenal is one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica, with abundant natural attractions and adventure activities available. When visiting Arenal, La Fortuna makes an excellent base to stay.
It’s a busy little town with many good accommodation options, making it the perfect base to explore Arenal Volcano National Park and other sights in the area.
Admire the spectacular Arenal Volcano from afar and then get up close and walk amongst the lava flows on one of the walking trails within the park. The trails are quite flat and suitable for most people.
After hiking, you can soak up waterfalls, fly on zip lines, and canopy walk through the jungle. There are plenty of things to do in Arenal to keep you busy for quite a few days.
Arenal is also home to several volcanic thermal hot springs. What better way to relax those muscles after a day of exploring?
Read More: 12 Best Beaches in Costa Rica
10. Tikal, Guatemala
The Tikal Ruins in Guatemala are another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tikal National Park is one of the best examples of an ancient Mayan city, and the area is vast, covering 57 hectares.
Tikal is one of the best places to visit in Central America and Guatemala. It is an ancient Mayan city dating back to the 6th Century BC and found in the jungles of Northern Guatemala. People usually visit on a day tour from nearby Flores.
Tikal is not the most accessible place to reach, but this makes it all the more worthwhile when you do. Visit the Great Plaza, the Temple of the Jaguar, and enjoy the abundant wildlife.
You’ll see capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and coatis. Don’t forget to spend time in Flores too, a lovely little town with plenty of things to do.
How Much to Budget for Central America?
If you are on a backpacker budget, you can travel cheaply in Central America, spending no more than $40 per day. This budget will require staying in dorm rooms, eating street food and cheaper restaurants, and using public transport.
With a daily budget of $50-$60 per day, you can travel in a bit more luxury. This budget will allow a private hotel room and more restaurant meals rather than street food.
This makes Central America much more affordable than traveling costs in North America or Europe. If you’re looking for a great deal on your next holiday, head to this unforgettable corner of the world region – you’ll have an easy time navigating the best places to visit in Central America even on a tiny budget.
Central America Cheap Travel Tips
If you are a budget traveler or want to save money on your trip, use public transport to travel around Central America. In the CA-4 countries, ‘Chicken Buses’ are king.
Chicken Buses are old USA school buses, often repainted in bright, loud colors, with more lights than your Christmas tree. They are a very economical way to travel between destinations.
Roaming charges can quickly spiral when traveling abroad. When you arrive at your destination, buy a local SIM card and add some data and minutes. Local SIMS are cheap, keep you connected, and save you from worrying about racking up expensive bills while on the road.
To save money on food, avoid big-name restaurants aimed at tourists. Eat locally at smaller places and markets – the food is often tastier and cheaper.
In most Central American countries, cash is king, especially if you shop in smaller establishments. Find a bank card that doesn’t charge for overseas ATM withdrawals and usage. Some good examples are Starling Bank (UK) and Charles Schwab Debit Card in the USA.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.