Keel-Billed Toucan in the Rainforest of Belize

Jungles, Beaches, and Ruins: The Appeal of Central America Tours

Transoceanic travel might be more popular than ever nowadays, but don’t underestimate the appeal of exploring countries a little closer to home. Just to the south of the United States, there are countries inviting you to visit on Central America tours, tempting you with long beaches, sunny climates, and affordable prices.

Central America is covered in jungle and home to some of the happiest people in the world. It’s affordable, it’s comfortable, and it’s eco-friendly. There’s no reason not to delve into its jungle landscapes and explore their natural, cultural, and historical treasures.

These countries are familiar to most everyone in North America – heck, they’re a part of North America! – but they might too often get overlooked in favour of destinations across the sea. We’re here to redirect your attention and ask you to consider a Central American vacation in your near future.

The Reefs and Jungles of Belize

Belize rarely jumps to the top of the list when considering Central America, but it has all the hallmarks of a great vacation spot. Beyond the large swathes of rainforest and the long Caribbean coastline, Belize is also home to the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It’s a place where you can explore the rainforest from the comfort of an eco-lodge or spend your time snorkelling through the waters of the Caribbean, admiring the colourful tropical fish, and hoping to spot a green sea turtle.

National parks run across the country, so you have plenty of spots where you can head on wildlife safaris. On these jungle hikes, you’ll see tropical birds and might even spot animals like jaguars and Baird’s tapirs. You’ll also find plenty of old Mayan ruins in the country, especially in the Cayo District and in the country’s far south.

Aerial view of Tobacco Caye in Belize Barrier Reef, Belize
Aerial view of Tobacco Caye in Belize Barrier Reef

Happy and Eco-Friendly Costa Rica

If you’re searching for the world’s leader in eco-travel, on Central America tours, look no further than Costa Rica. Costa Rica is ground zero for ethical journeys into the jungle and stays at sustainable eco-lodges. The country was pioneering sustainable tourism and farm-to-table food practices long before they became trendy in Canada and the United States. It’s also a fascinating destination beyond its dedication to moral travel.

Sloth, three toe juvenile or baby in mango tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Three-toe juvenile sloth

Culturally, Costa Ricans are among the happiest people on the planet; you’ll have a hard time finding people more generous or satisfied with their daily lives. As for geography, the country is largely a combination of volcanoes and jungle. You can happily spend your time in Costa Rica exploring the landscape and coastline of Manuel Antonio National Park, hiking through the jungle hoping to see macaws, toucans, and ever-lovable sloths, and then swimming through the ocean or heading on a scuba diving adventure to explore a coral reef. Other spots you’ll want to explore are Arenal Volcano, the country’s most famous volcano, and the cloud forest of Monteverde.

Arenal Volcano is still active, with around 40 eruptions a day on average, but it’s extremely safe and a great place to explore by hiking, horseback riding, or mountain biking. The Monteverde Cloud Forest is one of Central and South America’s greatest sites: a high-altitude rainforest that’s wreathed in clouds, where you can pass through vapours and mists as you hike over its summits. You may also want to explore Tortuguero National Park, which is known for its sea turtle breeding grounds and high humidity.

View of Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
View of Arenal Volcano

Incredible Architecture in Guatemala

Guatemala is the most diverse country in Central America and offers plenty of opportunity for jungle adventure on Central America tours, much like its neighbours. It’s also home to some of the best architecture on the continent, with a variety of Spanish ruins and old cities left over from the colonial era. In the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Antigua, you’ll find Spanish Baroque architecture in a city set between mountains. The Cathedral of San Jose is a particular highlight of Antigua.

Tikal is the country’s other masterpiece. This ruin is one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in the world and was once a mighty city with 100,000 people living in it. Today, the site is constantly in the process of discovery, with around 3,000 structures already uncovered and many more in the process of excavation. If you’re on a Guatemala vacation, you should also explore the red-roofed and cobblestoned town of Chichicastenango and the picturesque vacation spot, Lake Atitlan.

Tikal Mayan Ruins and Temples, Guatemala
Tikal Mayan ruins and temples

The Hidden Wonders of Honduras and El Salvador

Honduras and El Salvador often get the short end of the stick when discussing Central America. Plagued with some awful gang violence over the past decades (and still home to some spots you should avoid), these countries are nevertheless vibrant destinations that reward Globetrotters who want to head off the beaten track.

Honduras is one of the most affordable countries you can visit on Central America tours. The Mayan archaeological site of Copan is the most popular attraction in the country. The ruins date back over 1,000 years and are renowned for their intricate carvings and hieroglyphs. Honduras also has the Bay Islands, a collection of stunning islands on the Caribbean that are perfect bases to explore the Belize Barrier Reef.

Carved detail of Mayan Ruins at Copan Archaeological Site, Honduras
Carved detail of Mayan Ruins at Copan Archaeological Site, Honduras

El Salvador is similarly inexpensive and known for its lack of crowds. It’s the smallest country in the region and has plenty of dark-sand beaches, rainforests, and surfing spots that should appeal to anyone wanting to explore a tropical environment. While the capital of San Salvador is densely populated, you’ll be free of crowds most anywhere else you go to in the country. If you want to experience the best of El Salvador’s nature, head to Volcanoes National Park, also known as Cerro Verde National Park, to traverse three stunning volcanoes and head through bird sanctuaries.

Cerro Verde volcano (left) and Izalco volcano (right) at Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador
Cerro Verde volcano (left) and Izalco volcano (right) at Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador

The Popularity of Mexico

It should go without saying that you’ll find a lot to like about a Mexican vacation. The country has great food, kind people, and plenty of tourism infrastructure that’ll accommodate you no matter which part of the country you visit on Central America tours. Mexico is massive and boasts as much natural diversity as you’re likely to find in a country. It has jungle and volcanoes in some stretches while desert fills other large swathes of the country. Gorgeous coastline surrounds the country on both sides, with long beaches perfect for sun-tanning and lagoons that invite you for a swim.

Mexico City is a world metropolis where you can discover the country’s culture and enjoy colonial architecture and other leftovers from Spanish colonial times. However, Mexico’s highlights are by no means limited to the capital. In particular, the Yucatan Peninsula captures the country’s appeal.

Old Basilica of Guadalupe with Mexico City skyline in Background, Mexico
Old Basilica of Guadalupe with Mexico City skyline in background, Mexico

In one sense, the peninsula is all about the resort experience, especially on the coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Massive resorts line the beaches and the local infrastructure is built to accommodate the large numbers of tourists who visit from the United States, Canada, and Europe. However, the peninsula is also significant for its Mayan ruins. Chichen Itza is arguably the most famous archaeological site in North America and is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Its central pyramid is a masterwork of ancient design and attracts over two million visitors a year. Other Mayan ruins on the Yucatan include Tulum and Uxmal, which are both worth visiting.

Chichen Itza archaeological site, Mexico
Chichen Itza archaeological site, Mexico

Likable Nicaragua

Although Nicaragua is underdeveloped compared to its neighbours, it’s thoroughly likable, with gracious locals and an exciting blend of beaches, volcanoes, and colonial cities. As the country touches both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, you get to experience the best of both waterways here – both the powerful surfs on the west coast and the sunny idyll beaches on the east.

Nicaragua is a great country to visit on Central America tours to satisfy your craving for adventure. You can hike through rainforests, surf down the side of a volcano, and canoe alongside crocodiles. For the best surfing breaks, head to San Juan del Sur, which is said to have one of the five best surfing beaches in the world. However, if you are looking to explore some urban centres, you should head to Granada, as it has the best-preserved colonial buildings and offers the most comfortable infrastructure for tourists.

Aerial view of colonial town of Granada in Nicaragua
Aerial view of the colonial town of Granada in Nicaragua

Panama, the Country of the Canal

Panama will always be known for the incredible Panama Canal that bisects the country and provides easy passage between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The canal itself is a destination in its own right, with the Gatun Locks and Miraflores Locks attracting tourists who want to learn about the construction of the canal and see how it works for themselves. However, the country is more than the canal.

Ship crossing Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks, Panama City, Panama
Ship crossing Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks, Panama City, Panama

This is a country where you can traverse through rainforests and meet friendly people most anywhere you go. You can explore forest draped in cloud at the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest or stay in a cushy resort in the Gamboa Rainforest. You can visit cosmopolitan Panama City, which is home to the first subway system in Central America and resembles Miami with its coastal skyscrapers. You can surf in the Pacific Ocean on one side of the country and explore jungled national parks near the Caribbean. There’s a lot to do here, and with close proximity to Colombia, it’s a great jumping off point for a larger South America vacation.

Avenida Balboa at Dusk in Panama City, Panama
Avenida Balboa at dusk in Panama City, Panama

There’s so much to explore in Central America that it’s a shame it often gets overlooked in favour of more distant locations. Don’t make the same mistake! If you want to search for sloths and toucans in the jungle, surf some of the best breaks of the Pacific, stroll through cobble-stoned colonial streets, survey Mayan ruins, and relax on some of the world’s sunniest beaches, head on Central America tours. Exciting yet friendly, exotic yet accessible, Central America has something for every kind of Globetrotter.

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Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom

Globetrotting Editor - You might say that Aren was destined to become a Globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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