If you’re looking for a travel destination that offers something for everyone, we recommend looking at Central America. This region is often overlooked in favor of flashier destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean, and that’s just another reason to love it.
Central America boasts pristine beaches and tropical climates, as well as ancient history and magnificent volcanoes. Not to mention a warm, welcoming culture and the chance to have a truly outstanding cup of coffee.
For North American travelers, there’s the added bonus of proximity. Many voyages to Central America conveniently embark from ports like San Diego, Los Angeles, or Miami, making travel a breeze.
With unique, immersive itineraries calling on countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, the perfect way to explore Central America is onboard an Azamara cruise. Inject a little excitement into your winter travel plans and join us! To help inspire your travel planning, we’re highlighting seven of the best things to do in beautiful Central America.
1. Cruise the Panama Canal.
Traversing the Panama Canal is a bucket list experience. It’s one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering and is best appreciated by ship. The canal runs 80km from Colón on the Atlantic side to Panama City on the Pacific side. Three sets of double locks, a huge manmade lake, scenery of mountains and rainforests make it an unforgettable trip.
When the Canal opened in 1914, it saw annual traffic of about 1,000 ships. Today, more than 14,000 ships cross through the canal annually. The trip takes about six to eight hours. As you cruise, sit back with a cocktail and contemplate the immense undertaking of the project and its effect on modern travel. Prior to the Panama Canal, ships had to travel south around Cape Horn to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—a trip that would take much longer than eight hours!
Our Panama Canal cruises call on other popular Caribbean, Mexican, and Central American ports like Havana, Cabo San Lucas, and San Juan del Sur. That means in addition to checking “cruise the Panama Canal” off your bucket list, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy all that the surrounding area has to offer.
2. Soar high and dive deep.
A trip to Central America can take you to new highs—or lows, depending on your preferences.
Central America is home to some of the most stunning, lush rainforests in the world. There are many ways to explore them, but nothing is as unforgettable an experience as soaring above them on a zip-line.
Did you know that the majority of rainforest animals live in the upper canopy? That means gliding through the jungle on a zip-line offers a unique chance to spot wildlife and gain an appreciation for the environment that you won’t get from ground level. Zip-lining rainforest canopy tours are available in several ports, including San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
While much of Central America’s wildlife lives in the upper canopy of the rainforest, a whole other ecosystem exists beneath the surface of the ocean. The waters surrounding Central America are perfect for diving and snorkeling. Belize is particularly well known for its incredible diving opportunities, while the Isla of Tortuga near Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and Playa Los Cobanos in El Salvador are also popular.
3. Get up close and personal with Costa Rica’s wildlife.
Beyond zip-lining and scuba diving, there are other ways to get up close and personal with the incredible wildlife of Central America. Animal lovers are in for a treat when they visit the port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica.
If you’re interested in marine life, visiting the Puntarenas Marine Park in Costa Rica is a must. The impressive aquarium features an exhibit that recreates the remote and diverse marine environment of the Isla de Coco. You’ll get to see some of the most beautiful Pacific marine life at the aquarium, like sharks, manta rays and turtles.
If you prefer to see animals in their natural habitat, an Eco Jungle Cruise might be for you. You’re guaranteed to spot crocodiles and basilisk lizards along the Tarcoles River in Carara National Park. The park is also a prime location for bird watching—keep your eyes peeled for colorful Scarlet Macaws.
Just outside Puntarenas, the Monteverde Cloud Forest is home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 2,500 species of plants. It’s one of only a few habitats that support six species of the cat family—jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis all reside within the cloud forest. The forest gets its name thanks to a constant fog at the canopy level, and the moisture it creates allows for such incredible biodiversity.
4. Treat your taste buds to an adventure.
Central America may not be the first destination that comes to mind when thinking about travel for foodies, but make no mistake—there’s plenty for gourmands to enjoy during a voyage here. Central American cuisine varies from country to country and has Native American, African, European, and even Asian influences.
In Costa Rica, try the staple dish of Gallo Pinto—rice and black beans with a popular sauce called Salsa Lizano. However, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, rice and beans differs. There, it’s prepared with coconut milk, chilies, and red beans. Costa Rican cuisine tends to be mild in flavor and heavily uses fresh fruit and vegetables.
In Guatemala, tamales are a local specialty. There are countless variations of Guatemalan tamales, from the filling, to the type of dough, to what the tamale itself is wrapped in. Guatemalan cuisine is heavily influenced by Spanish and Mayan cultures, and has some similarities to neighboring Mexican cuisine.
Panamanian cuisine is particularly diverse, thanks to the country’s unique location as a bridge between North and South America. Seafood like crab and lobster are popular, as well as tropical fruits and corn.
Coffee lovers in particular will enjoy visiting Central America, where some of the world’s top coffee producers are located. Central American coffee can vary among growing regions, but the beans are generally known for being well balanced and not too acidic or bitter. Central American coffee often has fruit, nut, and cocoa flavors. Tour a local plantation to learn more about the process of growing and roasting beans.
5. Explore ancient history
Central America has a long and fascinating history. The cultural area of Mesoamerica is one of only six areas in the entire world where ancient civilization rose independently. That area includes modern day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.
Beginning around 7,000 BC there is evidence of agricultural villages in Mesoamerica. Then, during what’s known as the Formative Period, cultural traits such as mythology and religion, a numeric system, a complex calendar, sporting, and a distinct architectural style developed. The subsequent Preclassic Period saw the evolution of more complex governments among the Maya people and the development of the first Mesoamerican writing systems. Beginning in the 16th century Mesopotamian culture was ended by the Spanish conquest and indigenous peoples were subjected to colonial rule. However, many ancient ruins remain today and aspects of Mesopotamian cultural heritage and language have survived amongst the area’s indigenous peoples.
When calling on Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala, you can visit the nearby Mayan ruins of Quiriguá. The UNESCO World Heritage Site spans 1.2 square miles and is known for its impressive stelae. These massive, upright stone slabs bearing inscriptions were common amongst the Maya, but are particularly impressive at Quiriguá. The stelaes of Quiriguá are larger than most, were crafted from tougher stone unique to the area, and feature 3D carvings of Quiriguá rulers. You may wonder why the noses of the carvings have all been broken off. Mesoamerican culture supposed that monuments were filled with the living power of the people they represented, and that the soul of a person inhabited the nose. Thus, breaking off the nose of the monument symbolized the killing of the monument when a city had been abandoned.
To learn more about ancient Mesopotamian culture, history buffs should visit the Museum of Belize in Belize City. Browsing the museum’s extensive collection of Mayan artifacts that span a history of nearly 3,000 years will shed further light on the magnificence and mystery of the culture.
Further north, a visit to Cozumel, Mexico, brings the opportunity to visit Chichén Itza. It’s the most famous of the Yucatan area’s ancient Mayan sites and incredibly well preserved. It dates back to the Late Classic through early Postclassic Periods and a variety of ancient architectural styles are exhibited at the site. Chichén Itza was one of the largest Maya cities, but most of the architecture is clustered in the center of the site. The most famous structure at Chichén Itza is El Castillo, a 98-foot tall step-pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulcan.
6. Relax on pristine beaches.
If your ideal vacation includes a little time spent lounging on the beach, Central America is for you.
In Puntarenas, Costa Rica, you can take a catamaran to Isla Tortuga where white sand beaches, palm trees, and sparkling, azure waters await. It’s the perfect place to bask in the warm sun and read a book on the beach, rousing only to go for a refreshing swim or leisurely kayak trip.
Nicaragua is home to some incredible beaches, particularly in the area surrounding San Juan del Sur. Skip the unimpressive town beach and visit one of the many beautiful beaches on the outskirts of town, instead. Playa Maderas is popular with surfers, but is just as much fun for people watching. Relax on the beach or at one of the waterfront restaurants and watch as surfers hang ten. If you prefer calm waters for swimming, head to Playa Majagual or Playa Marsella. Or, check out the amenities at Playa Hermosa—the popular beach boasts showers, restrooms, beach volleyball, hammocks, horseback riding, and more.
7. Hike amongst volcanoes and lakes.
Do you prefer an active vacation to a leisurely one? Good news: Central America is still for you! Its terrain of rainforests, mountains, volcanoes, and lakes provide ample opportunity for active adventures like hiking.
Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe is one of the best places for a hike. Isla de Ometepe is the largest island in the massive Lake Nicaragua and it’s home to not one, but two volcanoes. As if that’s not alluring enough, it gets better—a well-marked trail will lead hikers to the San Ramón waterfall. The gushing 131-foot waterfall is well worth the walk. Hikers can opt to follow a three-kilometer trail each way, or take a car for the first two kilometers. Fair warning, though—the last kilometer is the narrowest and rockiest part of the hike. Wear appropriate footwear, bring plenty of water, and take your own fitness level into consideration before embarking on this adventure.
Another must-visit destination for outdoor adventurers and nature lovers is the Guatemala highlands. This area of volcanoes, farmland, Maya archaeological sites, and coffee plantations lies between the Petén lowlands to the north and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south. The region’s marvelous Lake Atitlán adds to the splendor of the scenery. Whether you hike, or just visit to take in the incredible views, the highlands will not disappoint.
We have many upcoming voyages calling on Central America and the Panama Canal, including a country-intensive voyage to Costa Rica in early 2018, our December 2018 Warn Breezes itinerary, a January 2019 Panama Canal cruise, and this December 2019 voyage.