Central America travel guide

Central America travel guide


2 minute summary

Don’t you love the word 'isthmus'? Defined as "a strip of land with sea on either side, linking two larger areas of land", this is what Central America evokes for many people. The bit that links North and South America. A little dismissive to say the least. In anatomy, however, an isthmus is a vital connecting tissue or organ. And nature is never dismissive. Such as the respiratory system provided by Costa Rica's Monteverde cloud forests. Or the beating heart of Nicaragua and Guatemala's voluptuously volcanic landscapes.
Indigenous culture flows through the veins too, from Panama’s Embera to Mexico’s 60 indigenous groups. And, with the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other, water is an omnipresent life force where marine life thrives, such as the whales of Baja or turtles of Costa Rica’s eponymous Tortuguero National Park. And of course, just about everywhere, there is beach bliss. Happy Isthmus everyone.
Central America is...

at peace. No coups, no revolutions, no guerillas. Albeit still with issues, but not ones related to civil war anymore, thankfully.
 
Central America isn't...

Costa Rica on the cheap. Each country has its riches, from indigenous peoples to coral reefs, to voluptuous volcanoes. And everywhere, beaches.
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If you'd like to chat about Central America or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
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What we rate & what we don't


RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL’S BEST & WORST

Underrated

Guatemala Mexico’s national parks Culture in Costa Rica Nicaragua

Guatemala

Guatemala is just gorgeous. Culture vultures will swoop in on the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Topoxte and Yaxha. The colonial period is captured perfectly in city of Antigua (Easter here is stunning). And for nature lovers, hiking through cloud forest-covered volcanic slopes in the Zunil mountains is verging on ethereal. As is Lake Atitlan, enveloped by volcanoes and indigenous lands. Guatemala also has Pacific surfdoms and Caribbean coves. Told you. Gorgeous.

Mexico’s national parks

Most holidays in Mexico follow the cultural circuit, but it also boasts 67 national parks. Although, mistakenly, they don’t actually boast about them. Archipiélago Espíritu Santo NP on the Baja Peninsula is famous for the whales, Mexico City’s stunning Desierto de los Leones NP famous for not really being a desert, but rich, ancient oak forest, and Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl Zoquiapan NP is sheer volcanic virtuosity.

Culture in Costa Rica

Don’t keep your head in the cloud forests all the time, but take time to absorb the people and culture of Costa Rica. Because this country has been so beautifully preserved thanks to its people. From the Creole-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans of the Caribbean, to the Bribri of the Talamanca Mountains, they’re all well worth getting to know.

Nicaragua

This country has been reborn since the 1960-70’s revolutionary years, and yet is still unknown territory for tourists. Touching two seas, it has the Caribbean in the east and Pacific in the west, with jungles and volcanoes in between. Think luscious, lava and littoral and you got it. And loving too – because Nicaraguans have warm, open hearts, homes and boy do they love to party.

Rated

Wildlife Mayan Trail Cycling Indigenous cultures

Wildlife

Costa Rica is top of wildlife lovers’ wishlists, its rain and cloud forests, surf and sands home to turtles, quetzals, howler monkeys, sloths, caiman and dolphins. Wildlife doesn’t stop for borders though. Belize is bursting with beauty, with the world’s second largest coral reef. Nicaragua boasts jaguar, monkeys and nearly 700 species of birds. And for whales, Mexico’s Baja is bliss. Each country has a wild side.

Mayan Trail

A 2,400km trail around the great pyramids, palaces and ancient principalities from Mayan civilisation, which dominated Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Many are UNESCO sites and, although you can’t fit them all in, most tourists visit Mexico, Belize and Guatemala’s finest, as that works geographically. Or start in southern Guatemala, taking in Honduras and El Salvador Mayan marvels next door.

Cycling

See the isthmian idylls from a saddle, with small group holiday experts to guide you from coast to coast in Costa Rica, for example, taking in Pacific, volcanic, rainforest and Caribbean landscapes en route. Or two weeks will take you on a slow, sensuous journey through Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. And bikes are big in Central America so, particularly in remote areas, you are welcomed like family members.

Indigenous cultures

Ancient cultures are awesome but there are so many contemporary indigenous cultures, with incredible histories and lifestyles too, so do incorporate visits to these communities if they are open to tourists. Which many are. Such as the Bribri of the Costa Rica, the Guatemalan Mayans and no less than 60 indigenous groups in Mexico, the most prolific being Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and Mixtec.

Overrated

Cruise liners Busy US holidays Cancún Eco everything

Cruise liners

We are not a big fan of the giant floating hotels, with their dodgy environmental records and roll on roll off attitude to tourism. Feb-mid April is peak season for cruise ships in Central America, which frequent the big ports of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, so stay clear of these places and head off the beaten path to support grassroots tourism instead.

Busy US holidays

The honeypots of Costa Rica, Mexico and Belize in particular (the only English speaking country in Central America), pack out during US public holidays. Because they are the nearest stop for sunshine and so, rightly, they make for a wonderful quick escape – especially as Americans have relatively little vacation time in contrast with Europeans. So it’s a good time to check out other Central American options if you want to avoid crowds.

Cancún

Mexico’s answer to all inclusive, all concrete, all wrong. Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, it has given this region a yucky reputation, and yet there are so many businesses and organisations that are doing the responsible and resplendent thing on Yucatan. You just have to fly in and keep going, cycling, hiking or swimming, to discover the world beyond the resorts.

Eco everything

Costa Rica and Mexico are eco experts, the former having protected its habitats way ahead of others and the latter the birthplace of ecotourism, led by Mexican environmentalist, Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in 1983. However, beware of bandwagon bounders, calling themselves ‘eco’ just because they are rural, remote or just a tad rustic – with no connection with community or culture. This Central America travel guide shows you the bigger picture.

Food, shopping & people


DISCOVER CENTRAL AMERICA LIKE A LOCAL

Eating & drinking in Central America


In Costa Rica, casado is a set lunch in local restaurants, usually consisting of gallo pinto, plantain and salad – plus beef, fish or pork.
Nicaraguan fare is a revelation, from its salsa criolla sauces, Güirilas tortillas to its famous Flor de de Caña rum.
Belizean falmaau means fish with
coconut milk.
Food trails and gastro tours are big in
Mexico, with taco trails, market tours,
and yummy Yucatan seafood at every turn.

Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine has been listed by UNESCO as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Who needs Michelin, when you have that status for your food?

People & language


Learning some Spanish, however sparse, is a must in Central America, as it is the national language everywhere, except Belize, where it's English. Indigenous languages are also spoken in rural areas; Mexico alone has 60 indigenous groups. In Costa Rica people are known as ticos. Most are a blend of European and native roots, but indigenous people number around 60,000. And the Caribbean coast is jammin’ with Afro-Caribbean and Creole culture.
In Costa Rica the ubiquitous greeting “Pura vida” also means "good". So if asked “¿como estas?” You can reply “¡pura vida, gracias!
If nothing else, just practise “hola”, “adios” and “gracias”.
Spanish newbies learn “quiero” (“I want”) when asking for something in a shop or restaurant. But go for “quisiera” instead – it’s more polite.

Gifts & shopping


In Costa Rica head to the town of Sarchi for all things artisan, especially woodwork.

Fair Trade coffee from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras is a great gift. Buy Nicaraguan Flora de Cana rum to spice it up too.

Choco Guate Maya in Guatemala is a top chocolate, with top ethics.

Handcrafted hammocks made by deaf workers at the Café de Sonrisas in Leon, Nicaragua are the business. They ship worldwide too.

For textiles, Guatemala is the only place to go.

Fast facts



We started our Mexican trip at the massive pyramids of Teotihuacan. It felt like being handed a glass of champagne when you board a plane; you know immediately that you’re in for a classy ride.

How much does it cost?


Prices vary of course, with Panama, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico being more expensive. But here are some general guidelines.
  • Bunch of bananas = £1.30
  • Flora de Cana rum and coke = £1.50
  • Bottle of local beer = 65p - £1
  • Admission to most national parks = £5
  • Lunch in a Nicaraguan ‘cafetin’ = £2
  • Average lunch in Costa Rica = £4 - £5.50
Photo credits: [Volcan Izalco, El Salvador: Raúl Arias] [Guatemala: John Pavelka] [Whale: Boss Tweed] [Costa Rican culture: Steve Jurvetson] [Volcán Momotombo: Jorge Mejía peralta] [White-faced capuchin: thejaan] [Cycling: tommy chheng] [Indigenous cultures: Corrado Scropetta] [Cruise: Woody Hibbard] [Crowded beach: amanderson2] [Cancún: Melanie Feuerer] [Cabin: Brian] [Flor de Caña: Adam Baker] [Wooden bowls: Gail Frederick] [Bananas: Mauren Veras]
Written by Catherine Mack
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