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Central America is one of the most exciting places to travel in the world. This tiny region really has it all including world-class beaches, iconic volcanoes, and vibrant culture.
But with so much to offer, it can be hard to know where the best places to visit in Central America are.
For that reason, I’ve written this blog. After spending a few months exploring Central America thoroughly, I’ve chosen the 21 best places to visit. These are the most unique and famous attractions in Central America that are sure to impress any traveler!
Note: I did not include Mexico on this list (some consider Mexico to be part of Central America and some do not.) For simplicity’s sake, I’ve focused on the 7 main countries that make up Central America. If you want more info on traveling to Mexico, we have that too!
Where are the Best Places to Visit in Central America?
This blog includes 21 specific destinations in Central America that I think every tourist should check out! The map above shows where exactly each destination sits geographically.
To me, it also shows a very clear travel route for those looking to plan their Central America itinerary! And just in case that’s what you’re looking for, I’ve written this blog in order so that someone traveling by land from Panama all the way to Belize!
Best Places to Visit in Panama
1. San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are at the top of most people’s Central America bucket-list. This group of tiny islands off the Caribbean Coast of Panama makes for the perfect island-hopping adventure! In fact, many people travel by boat from Colombia to Panama via the San Blas Islands.
However, you can also just go on a trip to the islands from Panama and return back to Panama. Tours from Panama City are also available. Just be sure to book a multi-day tour as you’re going to fall in love with island life and wish you never had to leave!
2. Panama City
Panama City is the most modern city in Central America. With skyscrapers and luxury hotels as far as the eye can see, Panama City looks almost like a cross between Miami and Las Vegas. Spoil yourself and stay in one of Panama City’s most luxurious hotels on the strip for an extra special experience.
There is also a range of different things to do in Panama City, with my favorites being visiting the Panama Canal and just exploring the old part of town. Also, walk the Amador Causeway and enjoy dinner with a sunset over the ocean – it’s beautiful!
3. Bocas del Toro
Ah, Bocas! The tiny island on Panama’s Caribbean coast is famous for diving and snorkeling, incredible nightlife, and beaches! This tiny island is littered with backpacker hostels and small guesthouses but also presents a super relaxed vibe with few roads, and small speed boats being the only method of transport to get there.
There are lots of different things to do in Bocas del Toro, which is why so many spend so long there. You could easily spend a week at Bocas exploring different beaches, going to other islands, partying the night away, and of course, eating as much seafood as you want!
For people traveling Central America by land, Bocas is often their last stop in Panama on their way to Costa Rica. From Bocas, you can easily cross the Panama and Costa Rica border by land and make your way straight to Puerto Viejo.
Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica
4. Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo is a small town on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. With lush jungle, amazing beaches, a wildlife rescue center, and vibrant nightlife, Puerto Viejo is easily one of the best places to visit in Central America.
Puerto Viejo is one of those destinations where you could easily spend weeks. There are tons of things to do in Puerto Viejo, however, simply relaxing at the beach can easily take up most of your time.
Whatever you do, be sure to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center. This non-profit organization rescues animals from the area and you can do a tour there that supports their efforts. If you’re lucky, you might see a jaguar or baby sloths (like I did!)
5. Cahuita National Park
Only 20 minutes from Puerto Viejo is Cahuita National Park. Here, you can walk a trail through the park along the coast and enjoy beautiful views of the coast and jungle.
When we last visited Cahuita National Park we saw tons of wildlife too (which is what the park is most famous for!) We saw Howler monkeys, a snake, a tarantula, and even coatis! With so many opportunities to see wildlife, this beautiful park is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
You can visit the park on your own, but for the best chance of spotting wildlife, it’s best to book a guided tour. Guides carry binoculars and are pros at finding all of the unique wildlife in the park.
6. San Jose
San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica, and although not a beach destination, it is still worthwhile to visit. The huge range of things to do in San Jose makes exploring this city exciting and interesting! Drink craft beer, explore museums, join a city tour – you can definitely keep yourself busy for a few days in San Jose.
San Jose also has a large international airport which makes it a great place to start or end your travels in Central America.
7. Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a unique destination in Central America. Located in central Costa Rica, Monteverde is the country’s most famous cloud forest showcasing a misty jungle and a huge variety of wildlife.
Santa Elena is the name of the town closest to Monteverde Cloud Forest, and from here, you can actually explore a couple of different cloud forests in the area. The higher altitude of Santa Elena presents cooler temperatures and a nice escape from the typically hot beach towns in Costa Rica.
You can visit Monteverde and Santa Elena on a day trip from destinations such as San Jose. Or, if you have time, I suggest spending a couple of nights in the area. Hotel El Bosque is the cutest boutique hotel located only a few minutes from Monteverde. It is a peaceful nature retreat that I highly recommend!
8. Arenal National Park
Arenal Volcano is a must-see destination in Central America and it makes up the majority of Arenal National Park. Arenal Volcano is considered one of the world’s most beautiful volcanos with its perfectly symmetrical cone shape.
At Arenal National Park you can walk the many hiking trails to enjoy views of the volcano, or even go to waterfalls such as La Fortuna. You can also join zip-lining tours or relax in natural hot springs (with volcano views of course!)
To visit Arenal Volcano, you can choose to either spend a couple of nights in the very small town of La Fortuna (my recommendation since there are lots of things to do in La Fortuna) or visit on a day trip from San Jose. Either way, you’ll love this beautiful landscape and it’ll likely be one of your favorite places in Central America too!
Best Places to Visit in Nicaragua
9. San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is a picturesque beach town, and easily one of the most popular places for tourists to visit in Central America. As Nicaragua’s prime beach destination, luxury travelers, backpackers, and travelers in between all visit San Juan with hopes of living their best beach life.
Surfing in San Juan del Sur is one of the most popular activities. Beginners can take cheap surf lessons here or even join a multi-day surf camp (like we did!) Or advanced surfers can just head straight out, catching waves at different nearby beaches every single day.
But besides surfing, there are a few other fun things you can do in San Juan del Sur including hikes, parties, and so much more!
It’s honestly one of my personal favorite places in Central America, and somewhere I will definitely be returning to for an extended amount of time one day in the future!
Related read: We’ve been traveling pretty much non-stop for 3 years now. Find out how we afford long-term travel in our blog article!
10. Isla de Ometepe (Ometepe Island)
Another top destination in Nicaragua is the stunning Ometepe Island. This island is actually located smack dab in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of a large lake! Ometepe Island is actually made of two volcanos, and the towns on the island are spread out around the perimeter of the volcanos.
There are lots of different towns and villages around the island, and therefore, choosing where to stay in Ometepe can be a little challenging. My top choice though is the small village of Balgue, where you stay at the eco-conscious Totoco Eco-lodge.
Balgue is located nearly in the middle of Ometepe Island and makes for the perfect base for exploring all of the different things to do on Ometepe. Rent a motorbike and explore waterfalls, natural swimming pools, beaches, cafes, and of course, sunset lookouts! If you dare, hike to the summit of one of the volcanos!
Granada is the most vibrant city in Nicaragua, and as such, one of the top places to visit in Central America! Located in central Nicaragua, Granada offers a range of both natural and cultural experiences for tourists to enjoy.
My personal favorite out of all of the different things to do in Granada was visiting the Masaya Volcano. Seeing molten lava in person from the top of the volcano’s crater was a once in a lifetime experience!
Just on the outskirts of Granada, you’ll find another one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua, Apoyo Lagoon. Stay at Paradiso Hostel or Laguna Beach Club for a peaceful escape from the city for a couple of days while enjoying the large crater lake.
Leon is likely Nicaragua’s most underrated city. People often skip it, and those who do visit, usually only stay for a day or two to do the famous volcano boarding. Sure, volcano boarding in Leon is an absolute blast (and you should do it), but there are a few other worthwhile things to do in Leon too!
Check out the Basilica Cathedral and walk on the roof! The views from up there are very cool, plus, just walking on a cathedral’s roof is pretty neat in itself.
Be sure to also go to the local market and eat lots of food! Leon has plenty of local restaurants, cafes, and pubs that you’re sure to enjoy.
Travel tip: After Leon, you can choose to visit Honduras or just go straight to El Salvador. Read our blog about getting from Nicaragua to El Salvador for all of the info!
Best Place to Visit in Honduras
Honduras is the least visited country in Central America. In fact, many travelers skip Honduras completely. With that said, Roatan has an international airport and you could easily fly there for a few days to experience one of the nicest islands in the Caribbean!
Roatan, Honduras is one of the best beach destinations in Central America. Located on the Caribbean Coast, Roatan is an island off Honduras’ northern coast that boasts crystal clear waters, amazing hotels, and restaurants, as well as incredible snorkeling and diving opportunities.
There are some all-inclusive resorts on Roatan that make for a great place to spoil yourself for a few days. Or for budget travelers, affordable guesthouses and hostels are also available.
Roatan is best reached by air. You can book direct flights to Roatan from various other places in Central America, making it a great little trip within your Central America travels!
Best Places to Visit in El Salvador
14. El Tunco
Heading into El Salvador from Honduras or Nicaragua, El Tunco is often where travelers first stop. While El Salvador is rumored to be unsafe and challenging to travel around, this couldn’t be further from the truth in the town of El Tunco. It’s a bustling tourist town complete with ex-pats who’ve called this place home for years.
In El Tunco you’ll find lots of amazing places to stay and things to do. Go surfing (it’s one of the best surf destinations in Central America), or simply just relax at the beach. This seaside town offers plenty of amazing restaurants to eat with views of the ocean, and its cobblestoned streets are filled with unique boutique shops and cafes.
15. Ruta de las Flores
After El Tunco, the next most popular tourist destination in El Salvador is the Ruta de las Flores. This name directly translates into “Road of the Flowers”- which is exactly what it is! The Ruta de las Flores is actually a small region in central El Salvador that consists of a handful of friendly and vibrant towns.
These towns are connected by one road which is famous for having blooming flowers all around it every spring. Seeing the flowers is the reason the area became famous, but it isn’t the only reason to visit today.
The town of Juayua stole my heart. Their weekend food market was to die for offering more food than I could possibly consume, and vibrant parades seemed to never end. From here, I was able to hike to waterfalls and stay at wonderful little guest houses.
Of course, there are other towns to explore on the Ruta de las Flores, and you can simply catch the local chicken bus to get from one town to the next (and check out the flowers along the way!) Concepción de Ataco and Apaneca are a couple of my other favorite towns and well worth a visit!
16. Santa Ana Volcano
As we make our way out of El Salvador towards Guatemala, there is one last stop that you definitely don’t want to miss. Santa Ana Volcano is one of Central America’s most gorgeous volcanos, and you can easily hike to the summit and back down in just a day!
Located in Cerro Verde National Park, Santa Ana Volcano is best accessed on a day trip from the city of Santa Ana. For this reason, you’ll likely need to book two nights in Santa Ana in order to spend a full day hiking Santa Ana Volcano. Otherwise, you can visit Santa Ana Volcano on a guided day trip from El Tunco or San Salvador.
Although somewhat steep, hiking to the top of Santa Ana promises amazing views of the surrounding landscapes as well as views into the blue lake of the volcano’s crater. One word of advice though, be sure to hike on a clear day as when there’s cloud cover, you might not see a thing!
Best Places to Visit in Guatemala
17. Acatenango Volcano
If you have time for only one hike while you’re in Central America, make it the hike up Acatenango Volcano! From the top of Acatenango Volcano, you can clearly watch Fuego Volcano erupt every couple of minutes. – it’s amazing to see!
Camping on Acatenango Volcano was a highlight of my Central America trip, and a must-do experience if you ask me! So, be sure to include it in your Guatemala itinerary!
18. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular places to visit in Central America. This huge lake is nestled between volcanoes and surrounded by the most vibrant little towns you could imagine.
There are a ton of fun things to do in Lake Atitlan including hiking, yoga, kayaking in the lake, and so much more. Be sure to visit a few local restaurants, shop at the markets, and take in the stunning views as much as you can!
The only problem with visiting Lake Atitlan is deciding where to stay. With so many towns to choose from, it’s hard to know where to stay in Lake Atitlan. With that said, most tourists base themselves in San Maros, San Pedro, or Panajachel and explore the other towns on day trips.
19. Semuc Champey
Located in Guatemala, Semuc Champey is a national park that features the most amazing blue pools and waterfalls. Seriously, the water is bright turquoise and it’s stunning.
At Semuc Champey you can simply swim in the pools and relax. But don’t spend all of your time there, be sure to walk up to the viewpoint too! From a couple of hundred meters above, you get a unique vantage point to enjoy this natural attraction.
For something a little more exciting, join a caving tour in Semuc Champey!
Alternatively, you can stay in the small town of Lanquin which is located only about 40 minutes from Semuc Champey. Lanquin is tiny, but there are a few good hotels including Guayaha, and El Retiro is a good option for backpackers.
Tikal is one of the most impressive ancient ruins you can visit in Central America. Located in Guatemala not far from the Mexico border, Tikal is a Mayan ruin site that features five huge temples. One temple is actually 65 meters tall and is believed to be the tallest Mayan temple!
One of the things I like most about visiting Tikal is that in comparison to many other ruins around Central America and Mexico, it is not very busy. You can explore the ruins by walking through the jungle without seeing many other people around at all. In fact, you’ll likely spot wildlife including monkeys and toucans!
The best way to visit Tikal is on a guided day trip from the city of Flores. I recommend spending at least 2 nights there in order to enjoy all of the other things to do in Flores. This way, you can also do a sunrise tour to Tikal, which is the best time for views, peace and quiet, as well as spotting wildlife!
Best Place to Visit in Belize
While there are a few interesting places to visit in Belize, in this blog I’ve chosen to write about just one – Caye Caulker. It is the most popular destination in Belize and where most travelers visit.
21. Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker was my last stop in Central America before crossing the border to Tulum, Mexico. This tiny island is often the place travelers visit in Belize. It’s a sandy island with little to no roads, where the main method of transport is walking. You’ll find people cooking up lobster on BBQs lining the streets, friendly street dogs, bumping bars and restaurants, and possibly the friendliest locals you could ever meet.
Caye Caulker is somewhat like a dream and going on a dive trip here is world-class. In fact, this is the island on which you can access the famous Great Blue Hole. Alternatively, snorkel trips on Caye Calker are very popular.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the island life here and feel as though you never want to leave. Somewhere between the crystal clear waters and an endless supply of cocktails and seafood, Caye Calker becomes one of the best places to visit in all of Central America!
Before you go…
Thanks for reading my blog and I hope it helped you nail down some must-visit destinations in Central America for your upcoming trip. Of course, if you need more detailed info, then keep browsing around our blog – we have dozens of in-depth guides to the best places to visit in Central America.
But for now, check out a couple of these related blogs below, they are a great place to start:
Enjoy exploring Central America!