So you’ve heard a lot of your friends talking about Costa Rica and Belize and other destinations in Central America, and you want to see these places for yourself. You’ve heard about the ziplining and the beaches and the jungles and it all sounds amazing! Sign me up! But these are still developing countries and you have some reservations. There’s nothing worse than expecting the fun and safe trip to Costa Rica that your friend told you about, but then ending up in dumpy and dangerous San Salvador. The countries in Central America vary greatly in how developed they are and how amenable they are to tourists.
I’ve traveled to almost every country in Central America (all the safe ones!) and I actually lived in Guatemala for a few months (more on that here). So I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned and give you everything you need to know! This is the breakdown of what each country in Central America is like and which you should visit on your next vacation…
Central America breakdown:
You’ve heard about Costa Rica from friends, it’s adventurous and fun and they bend over backwards to make it a friendly destination for tourists. You won’t get much by way of local culture, since that’s been muted in favor of the adventure sport scene. But it’s safe, just about everyone speaks English, and it’s comfortable by the standards you’re accustomed to. It’s also the most expensive place to visit in Central America. Come here if you want to go ziplining through the jungle, feel safe, and be surrounded by English-speakers. Read more about it here!
Belize is best known for its islands off the coast. If you go too far inland you’ll find extreme poverty, and in fact this is a region where a lot of charity mission trips will go to help out. That’s how I got to know Belize at first, and they do need a lot of help. But off the coast are some truly spectacular beaches, which you can visit for very little expense. Consider Ambergris Caye, the biggest beach destination in Belize, or Caye Caulker, an island so small you could walk its perimeter before lunch. Either way, expect to find conch shells lining the beach, lots of opportunities to snorkel or scuba, and an irresistible laid-back vibe. Come here for a dreamy beach vacation when you don’t want to splurge on a Caribbean island. Read more about it here!
The up-and-coming tourist destination, Nicaragua is slated to be the next Costa Rica. It’s got all the adventure sports and outdoors adventures you could want for, set to a landscape of jungles and mountains and beaches. It’s cheaper than Costa Rica, and has something no other country can claim…volcano boarding! It’s totally worth it for that alone! Come here if you have some Spanish skills, are looking for an adventure, and want to save on your budget. Read more about it here!
Guatemala is even further behind on the tourist scene, so I wouldn’t recommend visiting unless you’ve taken at least some beginner Spanish lessons. It may not be built up yet but it’s still safe and entirely wonderful. In Guatemala, go visit the ancient temples at Tikal, the iconic Lake Atitlan with twin volcanoes framing the sunset each night, and the colonial town of Antigua where you can get some of the world’s greatest chocolate and coffee. Come here if you like to be on the cutting edge of travel destinations, don’t mind roughing it a little (I’m looking at you, backpackers!), and love good food! Read more about it here!
Panama draws an interesting crowd, and it’s a country quite unlike all of its Central American neighbors. Panama is wealthy from the Panama Canal taxes that it collects, so the capital city is filled with skyscrapers and top name brands and all the glitz and glam of NYC. Outside of the capital there are jungles and beaches to explore. More so than any other country nearby, Panama is friendly to older travelers because it has a more established tourist scene. Come here if you want to see the Panama Canal, want a comfortable experience, and like to see the history where you go. Read more about it here!
The only place in Honduras you should be going is Roatan or some other scuba diving haven. The mainland is not safe, and that’s why I haven’t traveled here. The scuba on the islands is great though, and you have lots of options to choose from that can get you certified in one trip! Come to the islands of Honduras if you’re a scuba diving junkie or a newbie to scuba looking to learn.
Don’t go to El Salvador. It’s just not safe. It’s rife with drug-related violence, political unrest, and a severe lack of police and safety monitoring. I really wish this wasn’t the case because I have family there that I would LOVE to visit. But even they tell me not to come. Hopefully things settle down there soon and it becomes a destination we can visit with some peace of mind. But until then, you’re best to visit all the other wonderful destinations in Central America instead!
While Mexico isn’t part of Central America proper (it’s part of North America), a lot of people consider it part of that region because of its similarities. So I’ll include it here! Mexico is an enormous country and very diverse. Go to Cancun if you want parties at resorts on the beach, Mexico City for a booming metropolis with loads of great food, Oaxaca City for a colorful laid-back town, Puerto Escondido for a hidden surfers paradise, etc. It’s best to avoid border towns, as these are the most dangerous areas. You’ll want to research each region of Mexico you’re considering, but in general, come here for amazing food and a dose of sunshine. Read more about it here!
Good luck planning your trip to Central America, I’m sure you’re going to have an awesome time! Have you been to Central America before? Which country do you want to visit?
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