From Towering Volcanoes and Rainforests to Beautiful Beaches.
It’s hard to find a place to start when talking about adventures and the most amazing spot in Central America. Luxury Living’s “Best of Paradise” series heads to that less traveled part of the Americas between Mexico and Columbia.
For starters, try climbing lava spuing volcanoes, with perfect cones piercing the cloud line above. Endless adventures include jungle walks that wind past Mayan pyramids near the worlds only Jaguar preserve. Wildlife abounds with spider and howler monkeys, sloths, quetzals and birds taken from Fruit Loop boxes. Cool surfing towns line the Pacific shoreline, where waves rush gold-sand beaches. Diving and fishing here is some of the best in the world, from Blue Holes to the world’s second largest coral reef.
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. Central America offers the best of paradise for those who like a road less traveled.
It’s no coincidence that Francis Ford Coppola built his third resort and jungle lodge here. It is one of the most amazing sites in the world, outside the great pyramids of Egypt. Certainly the most striking feature of Tikal is its steep stone temples, rising to heights of more than 120ft. But Tikal is different from Copàn, Chichén Itzá or most other great Mayan sites, because it is deep in the jungle. As you hike towards the towering temples and turn the corner to see the first pyramid, it’s so surreal that these temples, former gifts to the gods, play tricks on your eyes. 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 rainforest canopy. Rich, loamy aromas of earth and vegetation, a peaceful air and animal noises contribute to an experience not offered by other Mayan sites.
Belize’s Coral Reef
From this comparatively pristine vantage point, it’s easy to see why naturalist Charles Darwin declared this necklace of mangroves, seagrass and submerged coral, stretching more than 150 miles off the Belize coast, “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.”
With over 200 individual Cayes (small islands) a few days of sailing around each mini paradise is like nothing else in the Western Hemisphere. Belize also has one of the most diverse reef ecosystems in the world, the Barrier Reef itself which grows along the edge of the continental shelf, separated from the mainland by the lagoon; and three offshore atolls (Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe Atoll and Glovers Reef). The presence of atolls is unusual, as a matter of fact only two others exist, in the world. And of course, these tiny jewels and amazingly clear water make for some of the best scuba diving on the planet.
Lake Atitlán and Antigua, Guatemala
Nineteenth-century traveler 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 to and seen a lot.. Today even seasoned travelers, some call it the Lake Tahoe of Central America, 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-colored 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.
Antigua Guatemala, may be the most outstanding and best-preserved colonial city in Spanish America. Tourists visit Antigua Guatemala every year from around the world to enjoy its natural beauty and historic monuments. The Spanish Colonial style is evident in every part of the town: its houses, churches, squares, parks and ruins, also in its traditions and folklore as well. Antigua is a city of charm and color where you can see and buy an overwhelming variety of attractive, handmade products that honor the traditions of generations of artisans. It happens to be one of the favorite stops in Central America for heads of state including Bill Clinton.
Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
This national park on Costa Rica’s south coast looks just like a picture postcard. Every color is cranked up to full saturation, from the stingingly aqua colored water to the lime-green forest, with perfect strips of pale sand stretching between. Manuel Antonio has four beaches in total: Playita, Espadilla, Manuel Antonio, and Escondido. Take a hike along the narrow, sandy bridge to Punta Cathedral for unforgettable Pacific views. Stroll down one of the park’s several walking trails, and you might spy coatimundis, ocelots, sloths, monkeys (possibly even the endangered squirrel monkey), caiman, anteaters, along with birds of every shape and color imaginable. The offshore coral reefs bustle with marine life, including dolphins and whales – book a day trip out to Cano Island for some prime scuba diving. Manuel Antonio is so pristine, you’d think it was entirely removed from society all together.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
This little jewel on the Pacific Coast and only 20 minutes from the Costa Rican border, San Juan del Sur is a quaint surfing town and fishing village that shouldn’t be missed. Nicaragua is becoming a world-renowned surf destination and San Juan del Sur has become its hotspot with much smaller crowds as compared to Costa Rica and Mexico. It’s among Nicaragua’s best and most accessible beaches, it offers the same white-sand, excellent surfing and sunny, dry resort weather as Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, an hour south, where folks like Madonna shack up at the Four Seasons. In San Juan del Sur, be sure to have a drink at the Pelican Eyes Resort perched on the side of a hill with amazing views of town and the Pacific. Oh, and make sure you go at sunset.
With an average of 300+ days per year of offshore winds attributed to the proximity of Lake Nicaragua, day trips to volcanoes, cigar plantations and one of the oldest cities in the Americas, Granada, a charming colonial town, makes this entire area an easy pick among our “Best of Paradise”.
Stann Creek District and 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. At times you’ll feel like you’re headed to Jurassic Park. 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 artifacts. There is 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.
Just 30 minutes from the end of the Hummingbird Highway you’ll find the very cool village of Placencia to the south. It’s well worth the drive. Not only does it play host to the best beach in Belize and Francis Ford Coppola’s famed Turtle Inn, but also it has some great shops and galleries along the world’s smallest main street, according to the Guinness Book of World records.
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 travelers 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.
Bay Islands, Honduras
Honduras’s Bay Islands move to a lyrical reggae beat and offer some of the best diving and snorkeling in Central America. Perched on the southern terminus of the Mesoamerican Reef – the second largest barrier reef in the world – this is a water-lover’s dream, with amazing reef systems and enough marine life to keep divers and snorkelers busy for days on end. Backpackers and beach bums will love the vibe, 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.
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. 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. Don’t miss some of the many unique spa experiences in the area, too.
Panama City, Panama
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. And of course we all know about the canal and its history so you have to go watch the huge ships seemingly walk across the land. The colonial neighborhood 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 Casco is making a run for ‘the’ sexiest part of Panama City.