Cerulean seas, fertile forests, tranquil islands, sun-drenched beaches, colonial cities and a rich cultural heritage dating back thousands of years, the isthmus of Central America has all the right elements for an unforgettable adventure. Whether it’s getting involved in adventure activities on Ometepe Island or Lake Atitlan or admiring the man-made marvels of Tikal or the Panama Canal, it has a bit of everything. Not sure where to start? Our pick of the top seven sights to see in Central America will have you headed in the right direction.
The ancient city of Tikal, the ceremonial centre of the Mayan civilisation, lies within 575 square kilometres of lush tropical rainforest in northern Guatemala. The Mayans were certainly renowned for their architectural achievements, and this is nowhere more evident than in Tikal. The site encompasses thousands of buildings, some of which - including those of the Great Plaza at the epicentre - tower above the surrounding jungle. Tread softly for the best chance of seeing wildlife such as toucans, howler monkeys, agoutis and ocellated turkeys.
Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
Ometepe means ‘two mountains’ in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of Nicaragua, and refers to the twin volcanic peaks which emerge from Lake Nicaragua, and, connected by a narrow isthmus, form the island. Across its 276 square kilometres are volcanoes, lakes, beaches and pristine forest just calling out to be explored, either on foot, on horseback, by bike or by kayak – or you might choose to simply chill out at its lodges and beaches.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Monteverde (literally “green mountain”) is world famous for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, 36,000 acres of lush, verdant cloud forest. As you would expect from Costa Rica, it’s breathtakingly bio-diverse, home to more than 100 species of mammal, 500 species of bird, 1,200 species of amphibian and reptile, 420 species of orchid and 200 species of fern across six ecological zones. No wonder it’s one of the world’s premier ecotourism destinations.
Copán Ruinas, Honduras
Copán in western Honduras was once of the great centres of Mayan civilisation, and although the architecture isn’t as grand as at sites like Tikal or Mexico’s Chichen Itza, what impresses here is the intricately crafted sculptures and hieroglyphics that remain remarkably intact. The site is located in a fertile river valley and nestled among green rolling hills, making it a pleasant place to walk around and with plenty to explore in the surrounding area.
Great Blue Hole, Belize
The Great Blue Hole is a massive underwater sinkhole found just 100 kilometres off the coast of Belize. Measuring more than 300m across and 125m deep, researchers believe it’s the largest sea hole in the world. It was made famous in 1971 by the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, who named it one of his top 10 dive sites in the world, but it was Ned Middleton who gave it its name in his 1988 book ‘Ten Years Underwater’, “Great Blue Hole” referring to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Central America’s deepest lake was formed by a volcanic eruption 84,000 years ago. Today it is one of Guatemala’s main attractions. Surrounded by three volcanoes and several towns and villages, each being a refuge for different types of traveller from backpackers to hippies, the lake itself is idyllic. Spend a little time here, either taking a boat out onto the water, a dive beneath the surface, or paragliding above it all, and you’ll understand why Alexander von Humbodt called it “the most beautiful lake in the world”, while Aldous Huxley said that “It really is too much of a good thing.”
Panama Canal, Panama
Panama is perhaps most famous for the Panama Canal, one of the world's greatest engineering feats, which stretches for 80km and cuts through a narrow section of the Isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This allows some 14,000 ships per year to pass between the oceans without having to circumvent the entire continent of South America. It's so vital to global trade that traditionally ships around the world have been built with the dimensions of the canal's original locks in mind.
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