Are you planning a trip and looking for the best places to visit in Central America? We’ve got you covered! We have spent over a year traveling Central America. There are so many beautiful places in Central America it is hard to narrow it done.
There is something for everyone in Central America. Are you looking for a beach vacation? Outdoor adventures? Chase waterfalls? Hiking? Try local foods? Experience new cultures?
If you only have time for a one-week vacation, we suggest picking one country and visiting a max of two places within that country. You don’t want to try and cram too much into one vacation because then you don’t really get to experience a place.
Best time to Visit Central America
Central America is a breathtaking destination every month of the year. However, it’s essential to consider the weather, rainfall, and busy tourist season before deciding which month you want to visit.
Most travelers would agree that the dry season is the best time of year to visit Central America. The dry season generally starts in December and ends in mid-April. You can expect clear skies and pleasant temperatures during this time, ideal for sightseeing, hiking, or beach-going. On the other hand, this is also the peak season for tourists, which equates to large crowds and expensive accommodation.
The summer and fall months can be wet and humid, making it almost impossible to enjoy the plethora of outdoor activities Central America is famous for. However, the landscape is at its most stunning due to the lush green forests. The wet season is also the off-season for tourists, which is excellent for budget travelers or anyone looking to escape the crowds.
Best Travel Insurance
Before getting on that plane, make sure you have travel insurance. It is always better to have it than need it. We’ve been traveling the world for over ten years and have tried numerous different travel insurance companies. Our favorite is SafetyWing.
For our first few years, we were spending a fortune, but now finally, there is an affordable travel insurance option. For the past three years, we have been exclusively using SafetyWing. Their insurance plans are affordable. You can add dates, buy family plans, and more. Click here to view plans and rates.
For an upcoming trip we have that is two months long. Our rate is $90 per adult, and the children under 10 are free, so it is $180 for our family of 4! Most people just need a one-week policy. One week would cost us $12 per adult. This is $12 well spent.
You can check all the benefits online here and review your plan documents. Here is a quick rundown of what is covered by SafetyWing Travel insurance:
- Coverage if you are in an accident or get sick while outside of your home country and need medical assistance
- $250,000 max limit on medical with a $250 deductible
- $50 co-pay for urgent care (not subject to deductible)
- $1,000 emergency dental coverage (not subject to deductible)
- $100,000 emergency medical evacuation (not subject to deductible)
- $$5,000 trip interruption (not subject deductible)
- $100 a day after a 12-hour day
- Lost checked luggage $500 per item (no subject to deductible)
They even have plans that include travel within the US. Most other companies do not have any coverage plans that include US travel.
1. Arenal, Costa Rica
As one of the ten most active volcanos in the world, the Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most recognizable landmarks. Towering 5,458 feet above lush forests and green jungles, Arenal can be seen from practically every angle in the Alajuela province. In 1968, Arenal erupted and destroyed the small village of Tabacón. Although its last major eruption was in 1998, it has been considered dormant since 2010.
While it’s not possible to get close to the volcano, there are several hiking trails that take you through the forests and dried lava fields. The Sendero Las Coladas is a popular 1.3-mile hiking trail that goes through lava rocks and boasts unobstructed views of Arenal.
Other activities near the volcano include canyoning, river rafting, and horseback riding. If you’re interested in something more low-key, there are also several hot springs and geothermal pools heated by Arenal. One of our favorites is checking out the nearby waterfalls like La Fortuna Waterfall pictured above. Go early, and you can have it to yourself as we did. Some of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica are nearby.
2. Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
For some of the best waves in Costa Rica, head to the beautiful Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Viejo. Surfing is one of the most popular activities here, and the giant swells at Playa Cocles, Playa Grande Manzanillo, and Playa Negra are world-renowned for their almost-perfect surfing conditions. Salsa Brava is arguably the most famous beach in town, although it’s advised that only expert surfers should tackle its powerful waves.
But Puerto Viejo is more than just a surfer’s paradise. The white-sand beaches and turquoise waters attract locals and visitors eager to seek out a bit of sun and relaxation. It’s also worth spending time in the small town center. With a mix of Caribbean, Latino, and even indigenous cultures, Puerto Viejo is a warm and welcoming destination for anyone who visits.
3. Lago Atitlan, Guatemala
Located in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range, Lago Atitlan is a must-see attraction during your trip to Guatemala. At over 750 feet deep, it’s Central America’s deepest lake and easily one of the most stunning lakes in the world.
Hike to the top of La Nariz for spectacular views over the lake, or go for a refreshing swim at the Reserva Natural del Cerra Tzankujil. Thrill-seekers will have plenty of adventure opportunities, as it’s possible to go cliff jumping directly into the blue lake.
If you venture to the small villages on the perimeter of the lake, you’ll notice many of them still follow the traditional Mayan way of life. These communities still wear traditional dress, and some of them still worship Mayan deities. You can support these local communities by shopping at the handicraft market in Chichicastenango, eating at the student training restaurant in Santa Cruz La Laguna, or purchasing handmade chocolates in San Marcos.
4. Antigua, Guatemala
The preserved Spanish-Baroque town of Antigua is arguably one of the highlights of Guatemala. The UNESCO World Heritage site is dominated by brightly colored houses, colonial churches, and century-old monuments. The city was founded in 1524 and has survived earthquakes, volcanic mudslides, and even Spanish rule, making it one of the most historic towns to visit in the country.
The most iconic landmark in Antigua is the Arco de Santa Catalina. This historic yellow arch was built in the late 1600s and remains the symbol of the town. Other attractions in Antigua include the Iglesia de La Merced, the Church of San Francisco, and the Convent o de las Capuchinas.
If you’re up for the challenge, consider taking a day trip to the Pacaya Volcano, one hour from Antigua. The hiking trails around the volcano are relatively easy, even for a beginner or intermediate hikers. Not only will you be rewarded with amazing views, but you’ll also have the chance to roast marshmallows over the lava rocks!
5. Placencia, Belize
Placencia is located on the Caribbean coast of Belize and is considered by many to be one of the country’s most stunning tropical retreats. This once tiny fishing village has blossomed to become a popular tourist destination, known for its vast stretch of sandy beach and abundance of outdoor activities. There are several gorgeous beaches in Belize, but Placencia is our favorite.
Snorkeling, kayaking, and salt-water fly fishing are just a handful of activities you can participate in during your visit. Scuba diving is also extremely popular in Placencia due to its proximity to the Southern Belize Barrier Reef. With colorful corals, beautiful rays, and gentle whale sharks, diving in Placencia is one of the best things to do in Central America.
6. Caye Caulker, Belize
For laid-back island vibes, head to the quaint island of Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker is the definition of paradise with swaying palm trees, crystal clear blue waters, and white sugar sand beaches. Although the island is relatively small (it only takes about an hour to walk from one end to the other), there’s no shortage of fun and relaxing activities to take part in.
Snorkelers and divers are spoiled by Caye Caulker’s location near the Southern Belize Barrier Reef. The tranquil waters and bright corals are home to a variety of turtles, sharks, and of course, tropical fish. If you’re looking for some relaxation, you can spend your days sunbathing on The Split, a long stretch of beach that has become the most happening spot on the island.
If you can get vacation time for a few more days, we highly suggest seven to ten nights. Here is our seven to ten nights in Belize guide, where we would go, and for how long. We love Belize!
7. Copan, Honduras
Step back in time with a visit to the Copan ruins in Honduras. This ancient Mayan city was occupied for more than two thousand years and was even the capital of the Mesoamerican kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries. The population of the city started to decline shortly after, and Copan remained abandoned until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Now, Copan is a 250-acre site filled with stone temples, large plazas, and awe-inspiring pyramids. One of the most spectacular ruins is The Hieroglyphic Stairway, consisting of 1,260 intricately carved hieroglyphic symbols. Copan is also known for its preserved carved stelae – or stone columns – which can be found dotted throughout the archaeological site.
8. Utila, Honduras
Although Utila might be one of Honduras’ smallest islands, it packs a big punch when it comes to beauty. Despite the island being only eight miles long, it’s home to two beaches, dozens of hotels and hostels, and plenty of restaurants and beach bars. Most of the village life congregates around Utila Town, as the majority of the island remains untouched and inaccessible by roads.
Life on the island of Utila operates at a much slower pace. The most popular activities include hanging out on the beach or swimming. Utila is also a great destination for scuba diving, as there are plenty of cheap dive shops located in town. If you’re lucky, you might even get the opportunity to see whale sharks during your underwater adventure.
9. Bocas del Toro, Panama
The charming tourist town of Bocas del Toro is located on Colon Island, part of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago of Panama. With picturesque beaches, sparkling blue water, and dense jungles, Bocas del Toro is the ideal destination for a budget-friendly vacation escape.
There is a strong backpacker vibe on the island; you’ll find many hostels, surf shops, and cafes lining the piers and beaches. At night, Bocas del Toro becomes a vibrant nightlife spot, with tons of bars and restaurants open late into the night.
As with most small islands, Bocas del Toro is the best place to visit for relaxation. Although it’s possible to spend the day out on the water, most travelers come to enjoy the spectacular island views and immaculate beaches.
10. Leon, Nicaragua
As Nicaragua’s second-largest city, Leon is a bustling destination filled with history and culture. Most notable are the meticulously preserved colonial buildings and churches. There are more colonial churches and cathedrals in Leon than in any other city in Nicaragua.
Leon Cathedral is the biggest cathedral in Central America. It’s worth climbing up to the roof for sweeping views of the city and surrounding volcanos. One of the oldest churches in Leon is the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava. Unlike the other churches in the city (which are ornate and lavish), Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava has more of a rural, indigenous feel.
The art galleries in Leon are also worth visiting. Fundacion Ortiz and Centro de Arte Fundacion are two museums featuring prominent Central American and Nicaraguan masterpieces.
11. Monteverde, Costa Rica
One of the best destinations for an ecotourism vacation is in the mountainous community of Monteverde. In total, there are seven ecological life zones in Monteverde and the surrounding areas alone. For this reason, it’s considered by many to be one of the Seven Wonders of Costa Rica.
Most travelers visit Monteverde to explore the 26,000 acres of cloud forest at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is home to 2,500 types of plants, 100 species of mammals, and 400 species of birds. Ecologically, the park contains six ecological zones and is comprised of 90% virgin forest.
The neighboring Bosque Eterno de los Ninos conservation area is another must-see nature preserve in Monteverde. With over 50,000 acres of nature preserve forests, it’s the largest protected conservation area in the area.
Related Article: Things to do in Costa Rica
12. San Blas Islands, Panama
Island hoppers are spoiled for choice when it comes to the picturesque San Blas Islands. This archipelago is comprised of 365 different islands, 49 of which are inhabited by indigenous Guna people. The majority of the islands have remained untouched by mass tourism, making them an ideal place for travelers interested in ecotourism and outdoor adventure.
Carti Sugtupu, El Porvenir, and Cayos Limones are just three of the most scenic places to visit in San Blas. Here, the Guna people live as they did centuries ago. They fish for food, chop trees for materials, and craft textiles and dresses.
If you want to make the most of your trip around the islands, it’s recommended to rent or hire a sailboat. This is the easiest (and most relaxing) way to explore the beautiful San Blas Islands.
13. Ometepe, Nicaragua
Emerging from the Lake of Nicaragua is the island of Ometepe. The entire island was created by two volcanos, giving it a unique hourglass shape. Covering more than 170 square miles, Ometepe is the largest volcanic lake island in the world. Due to the fertile soil from the volcanos, Ometepe is also known as one of the agriculture epicenters of Nicaragua.
Tourists travel from all over the world to visit this remote island. Between hiking, paragliding, kayaking, and even volcano climbing opportunities, Ometepe has an exhilarating experience for every type of traveler.
It’s also believed to be a sacred place; you’ll find dozens of petroglyphs and carved basalt rock idols dotted all over the island. The cultural and historical impact of these ancient artifacts makes Ometepe one of the most fascinating places in Central America for travelers to explore.