By Anna Maria Espsäter | February 2016 | 6 minute read
The compact region of Central America offers a vast array of experiences, a mix of culture and scenery and the chance to visit several countries in one trip. Here is a summary of the magnificent seven:
Belize: Formerly British Honduras, Belize is squeezed in between Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea and gained independence only in 1981. The country has a great mix of cultural heritage (British, Spanish, Maya and Afro-Caribbean) and natural assets including Maya ruins, spectacular barrier reef and lush jungles. As the Central American country with the closest ties to the UK, there’s hardly any language barrier. Highlights include eco-lodge stays, diving and snorkelling the Belize cays, and jungle treks and wildlife watching.
Guatemala: Of the Central American nations, Guatemala is arguably the most colourful and, despite decades of past conflict, it has a peaceful vibe. The country is blessed with Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, while inland it is dominated by steep volcanoes, abundant jungle and picturesque Maya villages, the latter particularly well-known for their vibrant textiles. Guatemala is home to several of the region’s must-sees: the Maya ruins of Tikal and the Spanish colonial gem, and former capital, Antigua.
Honduras: Best known for its Caribbean coastline – and for good reason – Honduras is a watersports lover’s dream, both for the coast and the offshore Bay Islands. All are superb places to dive, snorkel and windsurf. Despite some bad press over the years involving a few violent incidents, the majority of visitors experience no problems. Away from the coast, the Maya ruins at Copán are a main draw, as are the national parks and protected areas covering cloud and tropical forests, mangroves and marine life.
El Salvador: It may be the smallest of the seven nations but El Salvador still manages to pack in plenty: a Pacific coastline well-known and loved by surfers, volcanoes complete with crystal-clear lakes, colonial architecture and the Maya ruins of Tazumal, to name a few of the highlights on offer. Remembering its not-so-long-ago war-torn past, El Salvador also has some unusual activities and sights, such as a reconstructed guerrilla camp with ex-guerrilla guides, giving an insight into its fraught but interesting history.
Nicaragua: One of the most varied destinations in Central America, Nicaragua is dominated by the large freshwater Lake Nicaragua, home to several scenic islands. These include Ometepe, with its two iconic volcanoes. The Spanish left behind several colonial cities – the best known being Granáda and Leon. The Caribbean and Pacific coasts offer contrasting experiences, from tiny fishing villages along the Caribbean to smooth surfing hubs on the Pacific. Eco-tourism is increasingly popular.
Costa Rica: Undoubtedly the best-known country with the most developed tourism infrastructure, Costa Rica remains a favourite in the region. There’s outstanding wildlife viewing to be enjoyed and the national parks draw increasing numbers of visitors year on year. There’s a firm focus on sustainability and eco-tourism with second-to-none eco-lodges and wildlife guides. The beaches on both coasts are popular, and interesting activities include coffee finca stays and extreme canopy tours.
Panama: Obviously best known for the canal connecting the Pacific and the Caribbean, Panama has rather more to offer visitors than first meets the eye. Most people take a peek at the aforementioned waterway, but Panama is also known for its ‘Napa valley of coffee’, Boquete. Panama City is home to the 17th century old town, Casco Viejo, while the 378 islands of San Blas, along the Caribbean coast, offer not just beach experiences but also the chance to experience indigenous culture.