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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!
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 could hit all of these stops!
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!
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 lists and we’d go as far as to say that they’re among the most beautiful islands in the world!
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!
Particularly, this 4-Day/3-Night Tour in San Blas is an awesome tour that includes round-trip transport from Panama and all meals. Each night there you will get to stay on a different island, how cool! You also get to tour and snorkel around the Cayos Limones (Lemon Keys Islands). It costs $559 USD per person.
For a shorter yet more affordable option you could consider this 2-Day/1 Night Tour in a private cabin for $189 USD.
Related Read: Heading to Colombia? Read all about our favorite things to do and see in all of Colombia before you go!
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!
What I love about city tours of Panama City is that many of them include a visit to the Panama Canal so they are a great value because you don’t need to book two separate tours or figure out how to navigate the city on your own. I recommend this exact tour because it is private, has very good reviews, lasts 4-5 hours, and only costs $66 USD!
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!
One of the most popular tours you can do from the Bocas is this full-day snorkeling tour where you can see dolphins at Dolphin Bay, go snorkeling around the Zapatilla Island or relax on the white sand beaches, try and find sloths on Sloth Island, and at the end of the afternoon partake in a fresh plate of seafood for lunch (not included). It costs $67 USD and lasts 7 hours.
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, such as going white water rafting, learning how to surf, or simply relaxing at the beach can easily take up most of your time.
Something particularly unique to the region is the culture of the Bribri community which you can learn about on this chocolate tour. After learning about how the indigenous people live you will get to watch the chocolate-making process and visit a nearby waterfall. Sounds like the perfect afternoon to me!
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.
If you specifically want to see sloths up close this Sloths Lovers Tour gives you the best odds to do just that! Your guide will teach you about the region and animals as you make your way through the jungle. It costs $105 USD and also includes your transport.
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!
Whether you decide to drink craft beer, explore museums, or join a city tour – you can definitely keep yourself busy for a few days in San Jose.
One of my personal favorite ways to enjoy a big city is to try all of the local food on a food tour or cooking class! You have to eat anyways so mind as well try some new things or learn how to cook some of the country’s most popular dishes!
On this Bites and Sights Tour you’ll shop for ingredients at the local market, taste and learn how to cook different dishes, and learn about the culture. If you’re more of a night owl you could do the Dinner with Wines & Cocktails Class that includes a 3-course meal and two drinks of choice.
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. This tour from San Jose will have you hiking bridges, looking for wildlife such as the wild monkeys, and learning about interesting areas in the forest. It’s a super slow-paced and relaxing tour that costs $179 USD and is a 13-hour full-day tour.
If you are more of a high-strung person you can get your adrenaline rush by going zip-lining instead!
Or, if you have time, I suggest spending a couple of nights in the area. El Sol Monteverde is a cute and colorful 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!)
This hot springs tour from San Jose is exceptional! Prices start at $150 USD each but you get to select one of three different hot springs in the area based on your budget. Your guide will also take you to check out the historic town of Sarchi!
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!
Related Read: From Costa Rica, you can easily cross the border to Nicaragua.
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.
This 2-hour surf lesson only costs $40 USD. You will spend 30 minutes practicing on the beach before hopping in the water where you will spend the rest of your time. Who knows, you might just surprise yourself at how quickly you will progress by the end of it!
But besides surfing, there are a few other fun things you can do in San Juan del Sur including going ATVing, hikes, horseback riding, 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 5 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 in an off-the-grid location where you will hear the sounds of birds and howler monkeys. It also has a fantastic outdoor pool and a delicious restaurant!
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 or an ATV 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! On this $50 USD tour, you’ll see some of the best views of Nicaragua Lake and the rest of the island from the top of Concepción Volcano! It is not an easy hike as you might expect from just looking at the volcano because it’s a straight-up climb on rough terrain.
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!
Going on the night tour is the only way I recommend doing it because the lava glows at night and it is such an incredible contrast! Plus, having a guide who will transport you to and from the volcano is very convenient.
On the flip side, the city of Granada has its own lures, from exploring the old colonial city to learning how to make chocolate to learning Spanish at one of the many Spanish schools there is something for everyone!
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 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 definitely join a tour like this one to do it. After trekking up to the top of Cerro Negro Volcano and taking in the amazing views before hopping on your sandboard and zooming down the edge!
However, 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.
If you want a more curated experience this food tour is only $12 USD and you get to try traditional fruits, drinks, sweets, and hot dishes!
Alternatively, if you are more interested in fine spirits, Leon is known for its rum! You can try some of the best rum in the world and learn the production process on this tour for $61 USD. At the end, you will also get to spend two hours at the Chorotega Nicarao Museum.
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.
This snorkeling adventure tour goes to three different stops around the island including a shipwreck, a starfish habitat, and a coral garden. You’ll be out on the water for 3 hours and it costs $115 USD. It’s definitely a must-do when on Roatan!
There’s also a bunch of exhilarating activities you can do on land too! Zip through the jungle on a buggy tour, go zip lining, look for sloths in the eco-park, and more!
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 at with views of the ocean, and its cobblestoned streets are filled with unique boutique shops and cafes.
It’s also a great starting place to join a day tour to explore the Santa Ana Volcano, which is the highest volcano in the country! The views are spectacular and on this tour, you’ll get to climb to the top at your own pace.
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!
If you aren’t looking to head this way you can also hop on a full-day tour out of San Salvador! There are all different types but this Ruta de las Flores Tour visits 4 unique colonial towns where you will be shown indigenous villages, markets, street food, and street art. In addition, you also stop at a coffee farm before heading back to San Salvador!
It’s a great value, priced at just $99 USD for a 9-hour tour.
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. This tour from San Salvador starts hiking in the early part of the day for the best chance of having clear views. After the treacherous hike, you can rest and enjoy the provided Salvadoran lunch. It costs $70 USD per person.
Although somewhat steep, hiking to the top of Santa Ana promises amazing views of the surrounding landscapes as well as views of 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!
The hike up Acatenango is usually done over two days on a guided tour where you spend the night camped up there. Tours depart from Antigua, Guatemala, and are really affordable.
We did the classic 2 Day 1 Night Tour for $89 USD which included transport, an English-speaking guide, free rental gear (including a backpack, warm clothes, sleeping bag, and more), coffee and tea, wine, breakfast the day of the tour, lunch, dinner, and breakfast the last day.
You’ll spend the night in a tent already set up on the mountain (very important) and have a base camp with fire and shelter. The views from this campsite are spectacular!
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, visiting the different villages 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! There are full-day or multi-day tours that depart from the bigger cities including Guatemala City, Antigua, and Coban.
There are a few places to stay in the jungle very close to Semuc Champey such as Utopia Eco Hostel and El Portal De Champey. Both of these are places to relax, disconnect, and enjoy nature.
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 (213 feet) 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 like this one to Tikal, which is the best time for views, peace and quiet, and spotting wildlife! It costs $88 USD and includes lunch.
Best Places 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 a 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.
This Snorkeling at Hol Chan Tour is the best one you can do, just look at the incredible reviews! It stops at 6 different sites around the reserve. You have great chances to see eagle rays, manatees turtles, and even nurse sharks (harmless).
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!
Travel Insurance is more important than ever right now!
If you’re traveling during these uncertain times, be sure that you have travel insurance!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance when we are going on longer trips. They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $42 USD per 4 weeks!) and even have coverage in case you get that dreaded c-word. The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!)
It’s safe to say that travel insurance has saved us thousands over the years!
Thanks for reading!
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:
Sunday 25th of September 2022
I’ve really enjoyed reading your blogs! Thanks for all of the helpful insights. We’ll be travelling for 4 weeks in April for my husband’s 40th and I thought we had our travel narrowed down but after reading your blogs we’re completely torn on 3 different travel itineraries! We love hiking, exploring, swimming and snorkeling. Could we trouble you to let us know which 1 of the 3 itineraries you would choose for this?
A. Costa Rica, Nicaragua & Honduras B. Guatemala, Belize & Mexico C. Jamaica, Cuba & Mexico
Thanks again so much!
From 2 very happy readers, Rachel & Daniel
Wednesday 5th of October 2022
This is a very hard choice. So many experiences in each country. My top three are Guatemala, Mexico and Costa Rica, so none of your itineraries hit my top spots.
My top choice would be A based on what you want to do. If you want, you could add in a short trip to Antigua, Guatemala, to do the Acatenango volcano Hike. It's one of the top experiences I have ever done!
I hope this helps Daniel