Lonely Planet’s top 10 spots in Central America
A traveller takes in the sites of the Mayan pyramids of Tikal, Guatamala. (Greg Johnston/LPI)
The green links between North and South America, these seven compact countries would be easy to skip on a map. Yet they represent a complex web of cultures, ancient ruins, tropical wildlife and adventure.
For starters, try climbing lava-gurgling volcanoes, with perfect cones that poke above the cloud line. Rambling jungle walks lead past Mayan pyramids, through the dark canopy where pumas, sloths, howler monkeys and quetzals live. Surfing towns line the Pacific shoreline, where waves rush gold-sand beaches. Diving is dirt cheap, and certification programs can lead even beginners to see sea turtles and nurse sharks in a maze of coral reefs.
Beyond the beaches, there are hidden Maya, Kuna and Miskito villages, haciendas turned language schools and the cobbled streets of beautiful Spanish-colonial towns, where vendors push squeaky carts of fresh corn or shaved ice.
1. Tikal, Guatemala
Certainly the most striking feature of Tikal is its steep-sided temples, rising to heights of more than 44 meters. But Tikal is different from Copán, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and most other great Mayan sites, because it is fairly deep in the jungle. Its many plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, its temples are uncovered and partially restored, but as you walk from one building to another you pass beneath the dense canopy of rainforest. Rich, loamy aromas of earth and vegetation, a peaceful air and animal noises contribute to an experience not offered by other Mayan sites.
2. Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala
Nineteenth-century traveller and chronicler John L Stephens, writing in Incidents of Travel in Central America, called Lago de Atitlán "the most magnificent spectacle we ever saw", and he had been around a bit. Today even seasoned travellers marvel at the lake's rippling expanse and the villages that tumble down from green hills to its shores. Fishermen in rustic crafts ply the lake's aquamarine surface, while indigenous women in multi-coloured outfits do their washing by the banks where trees burst into bloom. Fertile hills dot the landscape, and over everything loom the volcanoes, permeating the entire area with a mysterious beauty.
3. The Hummingbird Highway, Belize
Passing through jungle and citrus orchards as it skirts the northern edges of the Maya Mountain range, Belize's Hummingbird Highway offers a near constant procession of postcard-perfect vistas. There are also plenty of reasons to stop along the way, chief among these being a visit to Cave's Branch for cave tubing and St Herman's Cave, where, with a guide, you can explore its huge caverns and classic Maya ceremonial chambers containing calcified skeletons and artefacts. There iss also the Blue Hole, a 25-foot-deep sapphire-blue swimming hole inside a 328-foot-wide cenote that was formed when the roof caved in on one of the Sibun River's underground tributaries.
4. Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador
The wildflower of El Salvadoran tourism is a 36km-long winding trip through brightly coloured colonial towns famed for lazy weekends of gastronomy and gallery-hopping, as well as more adventurous pursuits like mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking to hidden waterfalls scattered throughout the glorious Cordillera Apaneca. Home to the country's first coffee plantations, some of its finest indigenous artisans and a world-famous weekly food festival, the "Flower Route" anticipates El Salvador's return to the traveller's map.
5. Bay Islands, Honduras
Honduras's Bay Islands move to a lyrical reggae beat and offer some of the best diving and snorkelling in Central America. Perched on the southern terminus of the Mesoamerican Reef - the second largest barrier reef in the world - this is a water-lovers dream, with amazing reef systems and enough marine life to keep divers and snorkelers busy for days on end. Backpackers and indie travellers will love the sand streets and cheap accommodations of Utila, while mainstream Roatán - the most visited of the islands - appeals to an older crowd, families and folks looking for a bit more on the creature-comfort scale.