White sand beaches, hidden waterfalls, jungle adventures, and volcano hikes – when it comes to visiting Central America, you’re in for a treat!
Whether you’re a first-time traveler looking for all the best vacation amenities or an experienced backpacker, Central America has plenty of options for everyone.
With close proximity to the US, warm weather, and cheap cost, Central America is starting to attract more attention and visitors than ever before!
But Central America spans over 7 countries so planning a trip and choosing a few of the top highlights to see can be a bit tricky – which is why we’ve done all the hard work for you in this post!
After spending 4 months traveling through Central America, here are 10 unbelievable places that we suggest as a MUST for any Central America traveler:
- Caye Caulker Island – Belize
- Tikal Ruins – Guatemala
- Semuc Champey – Guatemala
- Lake Atitlán – Guatemala
- Santa Ana Volcano – El Salvador
- Volcan de Conchagua – El Salvador
- Rio Celeste Waterfall – Costa Rica
- Nauyaca Falls – Costa Rica
- Ometepe Island – Nicaragua
- Bocas Del Toro – Panama
Caye Caulker Island – Belize
Belize, a small but lively Caribbean country, is known for some of the best snorkeling and diving sites in the world. It’s no wonder that Belize is pretty much at the top of every Central America traveler’s bucket list.
There are tons of incredible vacation spots available along the Belize coast, but one that stands out the most is Caye Caulker, a tiny island in the northern part of Belize. Besides pristine snorkeling sites and incredible sea adventures, Caye Caulker is also known for its relaxing island vibes and certainly lives up to its popular slogan “Go Slow”.
To get to Caye Caulker island visitors have to hop on a short boat ride from Belize City. Once you get to Caye Caulker, you’ll be pretty much cut off from the rest of the world but with beautiful beaches, lots of sunshine, and cheap rum drinks, it’s not such a bad deal after all.
A trip to Caye Caulker wouldn’t be complete without spending one full day playing in the ocean. An all-day snorkeling tour from Caye Caulker costs around 150 Belize Dollars ($75 USD) per person and we highly recommend going with the Raggamuffin Tour Company, one that was highly recommended to us by just about everyone. We booked a tour with Raggamuffin directly at their office located along the main road on Caye Caulker, but during the busy season, you may want to check their availability ahead of time.
The Ragamuffin Tour staff is super fun plus they took us out to all the top snorkeling sites where we got to swim with giant sea turtles, sharks, and tons of other sea life. And did I mention the unlimited rum drinks on the way back?
If you’re looking for something a bit more low-key, The Silk Caye island is the chiller version of Caye Caulker. Silk Caye is mostly a snorkeling destination with less of a party scene. If you score an early tour to Silk Caye island as we did, you might even be the only person there! We loved the Silk Caye snorkeling tour because we got to swim around giant herds of sharks, eagle rays and even spotted a few octopuses.
A day tour to Silk Caye Island can be arranged from Placencia and costs around 130 Belize Dollars ($65 USD) per person.
Tikal Ruins – Guatemala
We’ve visited a good share of ruins and temples during our travels in Central America, yet nothing compares to the scale and grandness of the incredible Tikal ruins in Guatemala.
Tikal Ruins is one of the largest and oldest of Mayan archeological sites, dating back to 1000 BC. As the capital of the Mayan kingdom, the Tikal complex consists of around 3000 different buildings, although much of Tikal still remains buried underground and only about 30% of the ruins have been excavated.
These ruins are located deep in the Guatemalan rainforest and just walking around the Tikal site is an incredible jungle adventure itself. As you walk through narrow jungle paths you’re likely to spot howler monkeys in the trees and coati, little raccoon-like animals, darting through the forest.
The Tikal pyramids are very different from other ruins that we have previously visited in the surrounding areas. While most ancient ruins were built low and flat, the Tikal pyramids stand narrow and tall hovering high above the tree line. There are a few stairs created through the site where visitors can climb up and see the ruins from the distance – quite the sight,
Visiting these ruins truly feels like a scene from Indiana Jones come alive. Just bring your best Indy hat along (and plenty of mosquito repellant) and for 150 Guatemalan Quetzales ($20 USD) you too can go searching for hidden archeological sites in the jungle.
If you don’t have your own rental car, you can also arrange a day tour to Tikal from Flores, the closest town where most visitors stay at. For more info on this tour see here.
Semuc Champey – Guatemala
You can’t really claim that you’ve traveled to Central America unless you’ve visited the stunning Semuc Champey r
Located in the midst of a remote Guatemalan jungle, the Semuc Champey river is known for its pristine blue color and limestone swimming pools but getting to Semuc Champey is no easy task! Getting there requires driving or taking a few different buses through bumpy Guatemalan mountain roads and arranging a ride on a truck from Lanquin, the closest town to Semuc Champey that offers accommodations and lodging.
Although Semuc Champey is difficult to access, it’s worth the extra sweat and effort. The Semuc Champey Park is pretty vast and you should plan to spend a full day there. From swimming in different pools to river tubing, hiking to an overlook, or cave exploration, there’s plenty to do for everyone.
You can visit Semuc Champey on your own,
This entire area has one of the best traveling scenes that we’ve seen in Central America and Lanquin completely caters to the Semuc Champey tourism. One of the best parts about this region is all the cute (and cheap) lodging options in the area.
If you’re looking for a cool place to stay, we highly recommend the Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin. It’s worth it to visit it just for the day, even if you’re not staying there. With an excellent location overlooking mountains and the jungle, the Zephyr lodge is a young party hostel that comes with all the cool things – fun vibes, an infinity pool, an outdoor hot tub, and more abs on people than I could count (just
But with fair warning, the Zephyr Lodge is also a bit of a party hostel so if you’re looking for something a bit quieter, check out El Hostal Lanquín. This cozy little lodge is known for its sweet owner that will go above and beyond to make your stay comfortable and relaxing.
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Lake Atitlán – Guatemala
We’ve heard plenty of times from other travelers that once you get to Lake Atitlán, you’ll never want to leave. Now we can vouch for ourselves that this statement is 100% true. During our trip through Central America, we spent over a month at Lake Atitlán and could have stuck around even longer!
For those traveling through Central America, Lake Atitlán is a great place to relax and recharge. The little towns around Lake Atitlán are packed with international visitors and offer everything and anything one may need, including some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world!
Although the towns around Lake Atitlán are connected by land, the most efficient way to get around is by hopping on a quick 30-minute boat ride. But these boats only run from 11 am to 6 pm so depending on what type of activities you are looking to do during your time at Atitlán, it’s best to choose your “home base” wisely.
San Pedro is sort of a fun party town and also one of the most popular places for international backpackers to stay at. San Marcos is more of a chill hippie town known for yoga studios, organic restaurants, and relaxing retreats. We ended up staying at Panajachel – this is where most of the local tourists come to stay and has more of a “traditional” feel to it with cute markets and local food options.
If you’re only planning on stopping by Lake Atitlán for a few days, a hike to the Indian Nose near San Pedro is an activity that you shouldn’t miss. This overlook is very popular for sunrises when visitors can see the sun slowly rise over Atitlán illuminating the lake and 7 different volcanoes in the distance.
For those interested in the Indian Nose hike, you must arrange a tour guide in San Pedro the day before. The hike passes through private land but tour agencies have permission to use a section of the trail for sunrise hikes.
If you head down towards the main dock in San Pedro, you will find a variety of local tour agencies offering the sunrise hike tour. We found a little hut with the cheapest option right by the dock that cost us 80 Guatemalan Quetzales ($10 USD) per person and included a ride to the trailhead and back, a guide, and coffee during the sunrise.
For more epic places to visit in Guatemala, check out our Guatemala post here!
Santa Ana Volcano – El Salvador
El Salvador is often one of the most overlooked countries in Central America. But if you know where to go, there are plenty of amazing places to explore in El Salvador for traveling. One of those destinations includes visiting the Santa Ana volcano.
Hiking to the top of the Santa Ana Volcano was one of my favorite experiences during our time in Central America. Hiking this volcano can only be done once a day as a group so you don’t have a choice but to join a few other hundred hikers on this adventure. This was my first time hiking a volcano in a mob of 300 people (literally) but it was quite fun keeping up with the pace and motivating each other as we scrambled and raced for the top.
We were up at the top in no time and got to spend an hour walking around the volcano ridge peeking inside the volcano crater as it boiled and spewed out neon green-colored sulfur before a cloud of fog rolled in and we had to head back down.
Most people that travel to El Salvador stay around one of the beach towns that are known for the incredible surf but a tour of the Santa Ana volcano can be arranged from just about anywhere. During our time in El Salvador, we stayed on El Tunco beach and signed up with Tunco Life tour agency to hike the Santa Ana volcano for the day.
Pssst. Browse all the best Airbnb deals in El Tunco here!
El Tunco tour agency is owned and run by Salvatore, a local from El Salvador dedicated to showcasing a different side of this beautiful country to its travelers. He picked us up from our hotel, arranged everything for us, and made sure everyone was having a good time during the Santa Ana volcano hike.
We’ve hiked a few volcanoes since our time in El Salvador, but none have been as colorful as the Santa Ana volcano. The entire tour is about 8 hours long but it’s totally worth the time and effort to see this incredible natural marvel.
Volcan de Conchagua – El Salvador
If you’re looking for something to do in Central America that’s a bit unusual and “off the beaten path”, you’ll really enjoy a trip to the Volcan De Conchagua in El Salvador. Conchagua is a volcano that is quite popular for the panoramic views that it offers of the surrounding area from its top, especially the Gulf of Fonseca bay that borders three countries – Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador itself.
The most popular place to see the fusion of these three Central America countries is from the Espíritu de la Montaña viewpoint which directly translates to mean “The Spirit Of The Mountain”. This location is privatively owned but has been turned into a beautiful eco-camp by the owner Luis who has built a beautiful wooden platform where visitors can watch colorful sunrises, sunsets, and even camp overlooking the Fonseca bay and the neighboring islands.
Due to the poor road conditions driving in a personal car to this overlook is not recommended but a ride in a truck can be arranged with Luis twice a day from the nearby town of La Union for $5 USD. The ride to the viewpoint itself is quite adventurous zig-zagging up steep mountain roads while holding onto assistance ropes in the back of an old truck. And if you’re wondering, it’s totally acceptable for adults to yell “
If you have some camping gear, you can even pitch up a tent and camp right along the wooden platform overlooking the ocean. We ended up doing the sunset visit from 3-7 pm and left right as it was getting dark but we heard that the sunrises from this location are simply stunning. Just remember to bring plenty of food and warm clothing – although El Salvador is a hot tropical destination, the nights up at the volcano top can get really cold.
Rio Celeste Waterfall – Costa Rica
For those who love the sun, surf, and jungle adventures, Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world for just that. Even after everyone told us how incredible Costa Rica is, it still took us by surprise.
Of all of the countries that we visited in Central America, Costa Rica offers some of the best hotels, restaurants, and amenities for international visitors making it a top vacation destination for couples and families. While lounging by a pool in a jungle eco-lodge is certainly one relaxing way to spend a vacation living the “Pura Vida” life in Costa Rica, make sure to leave some room for a jungle adventure or two.
Along with zip lining, rafting, and animal sightseeing, Costa Rica is home to some of the most beautiful waterfall hikes in the world. When it comes to Costa Rica you DO want to go chasing those waterfalls, you won’t regret it (Sorry, TLC!).
One of the most popular waterfall hikes that visitors can do in Costa Rica is the Rio Celeste trail. This moderate yet straightforward hike leads through a magical forest in the Tenorio Volcano National Park and ends at Rio Celeste waterfall. Add 250+ stairs into the mix and this will land you at the base of the Rio Celeste lagoon where you will be able to see the insanely blue waterfall color up close.
The entrance fee to the Rio Celeste waterfall is $12 USD per person and while you certainly don’t need a guide to do it, there are tours that you can arrange from La Fortuna like this one
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Nauyaca Falls – Costa Rica
There certainly is no shortage of jungle adventures to do in Costa Rica. Nauyaca Falls is another wonderful waterfall hike that we highly recommend for any Costa Rica traveler. Compared to the Rio Celeste trail, the Nauyaca Falls hike is a bit more challenging and leads deep into the Costa Rica jungle where it ends at the majestic two-tiered Nauyaca waterfall.
The Nauyaca trail is where we spotted most of the wildlife during our time in Costa Rica. As we wandered through the jungle in search of the waterfall, we were accompanied & followed by a group of capuchin monkeys, a few macaw birds, and even spotted a sloth lounging on a tree branch.
After an hour of battling challenging hills through the Costa Rica rainforest, we arrived at the gorgeous Nauyaca Falls and immediately jumped in for a refreshing swim in the lower pool. From there you can also hike up to see the soaring upper-tier waterfall measuring around 150 feet in height.
The cost to hike the Nauyaca falls is around $8 USD per person and for an extra fee, you can also arrange a horseback riding tour or a truck that will take you closer to the waterfall. We chose to pass on the tours – this just trail was just too beautiful and we really enjoyed the hike through the jungle almost as much as the waterfall itself.
Ometepe Island – Nicaragua
Nicaragua is still one of those Central American countries that people don’t know much about. It seems that when it comes to Nicaragua, the only stories that make it on the news are ones about national conflicts and social unrest.
For the longest time, the only people that dared to venture into Nicaragua were beach bums, yogis, and adrenaline-seeking surfers. And while Nicaragua comes with its own set of internal and government issues, there is so much more to this beautiful country and plenty of places to explore for the curious traveler.
One of the best places to visit in Nicaragua is Ometepe Island, a tropical volcano island in the middle of Lago Cocibolca. This is the place to go to relax on the beach as pretty sunsets color the sky and escape reality (at least for a few days). Whatever else may be going on in the world doesn’t seem to reach the shores of the serene life on Ometepe Island.
The entire Ometepe Island is very small and can be driven in a day or two but you could spend a week exploring this beautiful island and not see it all. Grab a kayak to Monkey Island, swim in crystal clear natural springs at Ojo De Agua, or hike a waterfall in the jungle – there are plenty of awesome outdoor adventures to do at Ometepe Island for everyone.
To get on the Ometepe Island visitors have to hop on a ferry from the San Jorge port, but this ferry only costs $1.50. As one of the cheapest countries in Central America, a trip to Nicaragua comes at a bargain price.
Bocas Del Toro – Panama
With perfect weather, remote beaches, and ocean breeze, Bocas Del Toro is a little slice of paradise on Earth.
Bocas Del Toro is a province consisting of beautiful tropical islands in northern Panama where visitors can snorkel in crystal clear waters, lounge on white sand beaches, and purchase tropical drinks from wooden shacks that are made just a bit too strong.
Similar to Caye Caulker Island in Belize, Bocas Del Toro’s culture and lifestyle revolve around living the chill Caribbean island life. Inviting restaurants, colorful drinks, laughter,
This gorgeous little island cluster is also known for stargazing, but not the type that you would expect. While its pristine beaches attract travelers from all over the world, the main star here is…well, errr the starfish.
Located an hour’s bus ride away from the main city hub on Colón Island, The Starfish Beach is where visitors can see giant red starfish scattered along its shorelines.
While there is plenty to do around Colón, for $30 USD visitors can also hop on a local boat tour and visit some of the neighboring islands that are still quite wild and untouched, just like much of the rest of Central America.
For the adventurous traveler, there are plenty of unique and fun things to do in Central America!
With the exception of Costa Rica, much of Central America still has a worldwide perception as a rough place, but in reality, Central America is filled with cute tourist towns and lots of major attractions that are perfectly safe for international visitors. We have personally visited all of the above-mentioned locations and never had any issues during our 4-month-long road trip through Central America.
Are any of these destinations on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments below!
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