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6. Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
Isla de Ometepe's twin volcanic peaks, rising up out of Lago de Nicaragua, have captured the imagination of everyone from pre-colonial Aztec descendents (who thought they had found the Promised Land) to Mark Twain (who waxed lyrical about it in his book Travels with Mr Brown) to the surprisingly few travellers who make it out here. The island's fertile volcanic soil, clean waters, wide beaches, wildlife population, archaeological sites and dramatic profile landed it on the 2006 shortlist for the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World (though it did not make the final cut; www.new7wonders.com/en/).

7. León, Nicaragua
A hotbed of intellectualism, revolution and independence, the city has played host to some of Nicaragua's most important political and artistic moments. Buzzing with energy and, at times, drop dead gorgeous (in a crumbling colonial kind of way), León is a city of awe-inspiring churches and cathedrals, fabulous art collections, stunning streetscapes, cosmopolitan eateries and all-week, walk-everywhere happening nightlife. Not as polished as its age-old rival Granada, many people love it precisely for its rough, exciting edges.

8. Monteverde & Santa Elena, Costa Rica
This slim corridor of civilization, which consists of the Tico village of Santa Elena and the Quaker settlement of Monteverde, is strung between two lovingly preserved cloud forests. A 1983 feature article in National Geographic described this unique landscape, and subsequently billed the area as the place to view one of Central America's most famous birds - the resplendent quetzal. Since then, the cloud forests near Monteverde and Santa Elena have become Costa Rica's premier destination for everyone from budget backpackers to well-heeled retirees. Indeed, this is a place where you can be inspired about the possibility of a world where organic farming and alternative energy sources help to salvage the fine mess we have made of the planet.

9. Arenal Route, Costa Rica
If you have a little time, take the road from Ciudad Quesada to the Arenal area - you are in for one beautiful ride. With the backdrop of Volcán Platanar behind you, the road winding through this green, river-rich agrarian region passes through prosperous, quaint towns bright with bougainvillea. In front of you, if the weather cooperates, the smoking peak of Arenal will loom in the distance. Past La Fortuna, the paved road hugs the north bank of Laguna de Arenal. On either side of the road, up the green slope and down on the lake side, turnouts and driveways for lovely inns, kooky ersatz Austrian mini-villages, hip coffee houses and eccentric galleries appear invitingly like pictures in a pop-up book.  Heading back around the western edge of the lake, you will pass through the lakeside Nuevo Arenal and down to the pleasant mountain town of Tilarán before descending back toward the Interamericana.

10. Panama City
The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is both a gateway to the country's natural riches and a vibrant destination in its own right. A hub of international banking and trade, Panama City sports a sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers reminiscent of Miami. The colonial neighbourhood of Casco Viejo is a dilapidated peninsula with ruins and cobbled streets reminiscent of old Havana. After the city elite fled to live in skyscrapers, decades passed with Casco Viejo crumbling on the edge of the sea. Recently, artists and small businesses are moving back in and renovations are abundant. With luxury lofts, cafes and the hottest nightspots arriving, the Casco is approaching full-swing revival.

 

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© 2010 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Top 10 spots in Central America’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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