Are you planning on going backpacking in Central America or travelling in Central America? Or perhaps you’re planning a solo travel adventure and you’re looking for the best things to do in Central America?
Well, my friend, this is the blog post for you! This is the ultimate Central America bucket list, including things to do in every country in Central America. Seven countries, two stunning coastlines, over 100 volcanoes and the traditional Mayan culture make this one of the best places to visit in the world. A big claim I know, but having spent some time here, I mean it.
Central America is home to such a variety of landscapes, and there are so many things to do in Central America to suit every taste. From volcano hikes such to surf towns, from dense jungles to exploring UNESCO world heritage sites and Mayan ruins, this stretch of land linking North America and South America is not going to disappoint! Whether you’re looking for the best things to do in Costa Rica, the best things to do in Guatemala, or the best things to do in Nicaragua, Panama, Belize, El Salvador or Honduras, you’re not going to be short of places to visit in Central America by the end of this post.
Get your pen and paper at the ready, by the end of this post you’re going to know the best things to do in Central America, the best places to visit in Central America and the best adventures to add to your Central America bucket list.
Blog posts you might find useful include…
Where is Central America? Which countries are in Central America?
Central America is a region of the Americas that stretches between North America and South America. In terms of continents, it’s in North America, bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
The region of Central America is made up of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Most countries in the region speak Spanish due to their history as Spanish colonies, with the exception of Belize, where the official language is English (it was a British colony).
The best things to do and see in Central America...
1. Do a volcano hike in Central America.
- Acatenango in Guatemala: A guide to the Acatenango volcano hike, Guatemala
- San Pedro volcano / Pacaya volcano, near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
- Chato, Arenal Volcano National Park, in Costa Rica: Top tips for visiting Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
- Baru volcano, Panama
- Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
- Concepcion Volcano, Nicaragua
- Boqueron Volcano, El Salvador
2. Learn about Mayan history and culture at the many Mayan Ruins in Central America
The Maya people were one of the most advanced and civilised ancient societies. Mayan settlements are dated at roughly 2000 BC, although most of the ruins were built from 250-900 AD. By the 10th century most Mayan cities were mysteriously abandoned, and since then archeologists have discovered the stunning architecture of the stone ruins, as well as an elaborate hieroglyphic language and calendar system.
One of the best things to do in Central America is to visit some of the many ancient Mayan ruins that are throughout Central America and learn more about the history and culture. Everyone knows about Chichen Itza, one of the best places to visit in Mexico, but there are so many more Mayan ruins to visit in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, which was the centre of Mayan civilisation.
Some of the best Mayan ruins in Central America include:
- Tikal (the most powerful Mayan city)
- Quiriguá (famous for stelae with incricate inscriptions and artwork)
- Uaxactun (the pyramids align with the sun)
- El Mirador (the tallest pyramid in Central America)
See more of the best things to see in Guatemala here.
- Cahal Pech (the oldest ruins in Belize)
- Caracol (the largest ruins in Belize)
- Tazumal (some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in El Salvador)
- Joya de Cerén (the “Pompeii of the Americas”, well-preserved having been buried under volcanic ash!)
- Copán (major political centre with the most accurate Mayan solar calendar)
3. Dive the Great Blue Hole in Belize
Diving at the Great Blue Hole is one of the best things to do in Central America, never mind one of the top things to do in Belize! It’s located about 43 miles off the coast of Belize, along the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, and you’ll likely need to book a tour to visit.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 (along with six other areas on Belize’s barrier reef), this is one of the best places to go diving in Central America. Expect to see stalactites, coral fringe, underwater tunnels, caverns and rock formations, as well as marine wildlife!
4. Try surfing on the Pacific Coast at sunset
If you’re a water lover and you are looking for the best things to do in Central America, add surfing to your bucket list now! With warm water, uncrowded beaches and stunning sunsets, the Pacific Coast is definitely worth a visit. There are thousands of surf towns in Central America, but some of the best include…
- El Paredon, Guatemala. Check out my full guide here.
- El Tunco, El Salvador
- San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
- Santa Teresa. Costa Rica. Check out my full guide here.
- Santa Catalina, Panama
Not up for surfing in Central America? Make sure you still get the chance to enjoy golden hour and watch the sun turn the sky from bright blue to beautiful shades of red, orange and pink, with a cocktail of your choice!
5. Wander the backstreets of Antigua, Guatemala
Spending a few days sightseeing in the colonial town of Antigua is one of the best things to do in Central America! Antigua was the capital of colonial Guatemala, but the capital because Guatemala City in 1773 after a huge earthquake. You can still see some of the pre-earthquake architecture when you visit, such as the Ruins of the Church of Candelaria, the Ruins of Santa Rosa, and Capuchins Monastery!
If you’re looking at learning more about Guatemala’s colonial past, make sure that you don’t miss Santa Catarina Arch, Iglesia de la Merced, and Cerro De La Cruz, a stunning hilltop viewpoint. Other fun things to do in Antigua include shopping at the local market, visiting the Chocolate Museum, taking a picnic to Central Park, and getting lost in the backstreets of this stunning city.
Check out all the best things to do in Antigua in this blog post.
6. Visit a coffee plantation for some of the best coffee you'll ever have
One of the most popular drinks in the world, there’s got to be something special about coffee. Millions of us drink a lot of it every day! Did you know that Costa Rica alone exports about 1% of the world’s coffee every year?! Or that Honduras is the world’s fifth largest coffee producer by volume, and Guatemala the tenth?!
One of the best things to do in Central America is to visit a coffee plantation, learn about how coffee is grown and try some of the best coffee in the world! In Central America there is rich soil, consistent rainfall, and favorable climates, so the coffee beans produced here are of impeccable taste and quality. Some of the best places for a coffee tour in Central America include:
- Matagalpa, Nicaragua
- Boquete region, Panama
- Copán, Honduras
- Costa Rica‘s Central Valley
- Antigua, Guatemala
- Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
7. Buy Mayan handicrafts at Chichicastenango in Guatemala, Central America's largest local market.
This is one that you absolutely cannot miss off your list of best places to visit in Central America. About 1.5 hours from Lake Atitlan you’ll find the largest Indigenous market in Central America – Chichicastenango Market.
Diving into the Mayan culture and adventuring through this colourful explosion of a market is a truly unique experience and one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
I was lucky enough to experience it through Original Travel with a local, experienced tour guide. I’d forgotten how amazing it is to explore with a guide… but my guide Felix reminded me. The richness added from absorbing the wisdom of someone that knows the Mayan rituals and history so thoroughly, means you get to connect with Guatemala and their colourful culture on a much deeper level.
With this 2-day Original Travel experience I:
- witnessed the market being set up the night before
- dined at the best local restaurants, chosen by the guide
- experienced a traditional Mayan ceremony blessing with the Mayan Pope – Tata Chuan
- Had a morning tour of all that the Chichicastenango market has to offer
- Walked up and through the pine forest for a bird’s eye view of the market town and famous colourful cemetery
- Explored and tried on the indigenous masks and costumes used in special celebrations
- Had a bilingual guide which allowed me to connect deeper with the locals and immerse myself in their wisdom and way of life.
Explore all of Original Travels Guatemala experiences and holidays here.
Note: Chichicastenango Market is only open on Thursdays and Sundays. Arrive early, keep your bag closed and spend a few hours here wandering around the outdoor market, trying local food, buying fresh produce, and marvelling at the Mayan woven handicrafts.
8. Learn Spanish
Wherever you are in Central America (with the exception of Belize), you’ll find knowing even a little Spanish will help you get by and connect with the locals. There are classes everywhere in Central America, and they’re fairly cheap!
Another way to learn Spanish on the road is to download the Duolingo app – it definitely helped me! See more useful travel apps here.
Some basic phrases to get you started…
- Hola = Hello
- Adiós = Goodbye
- Por favor = Please
- Gracias = Thank you
- Lo siento = Sorry
- Sí = Yes
- No = No
- Disculpe = Excuse me
- ¿Dónde está …. ? = Where is …. ?
- Yo no comprendo = I do not understand
- ¿Habla inglés? = Do you speak English?
- Quisiera … = I would like…
- ¿Cuánto cuesta? = How much does it cost?
9. Go island hopping in Panama
If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, one of the best places to visit in Central America is Guna Yala / the San Blas islands in Panama. Think picture-perfect postcard scenes: beaches lined with palm trees, covered in white sand and turquoise water…
Maintained and protected by the indigineous people, this is unlikely to be a luxury trip (unless you’re booking onto an expensive Catamaran tour). You’ll dive deep into the local customs and way of life if you choose to book with the indigenous community here.
10. Volcano-board down Cerro Negro in León, Nicaragua
If there’s something that’s absolutely got to go on your Central America bucket list, it’s volcano boarding in Nicaragua! And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – think snowboarding or tobogganing, but down a volcano. The terrain of the volcano makes it easy to slide down and a once in a lifetime experience!
11. Zip-line through the Monteverde forest canopy in Costa Rica
This one is the longest zipline in Costa Rica, totalling 5220 ft (1590m). It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Central America.
Experience the Monteverde Cloud Forest with a twist on this epic canopy tour. The experience includes a total of 10 ziplines, a hammock bridge, one rappel, and one ride on the mega Tarzan swing. Get your kit on and fly high in the clouds for a unique persepective.
Book your ziplining experience here.
12. Road trip through the "Ruta de las Flores" in El Salvador
If you love a road trip, then the Ruta de las Flores has to be on your Central America bucket list! Named after the wildflowers that grow at the side of the road (at their best from November to February), Ruta de Las Flores is 20-mile route that winds through colourful colonial towns and coffee plantations, as well as being able to stop at weekend markets and waterfalls. The five main towns on the Ruta de Las flores are Salcoatitán, Nahuizalco, Apaneca, Ataco and Juayua.
Don’t want to drive? You can get buses to/from each place. And don’t worry, there is plenty of accommodation in each of the towns, too.
13. Try cave tubing in Belize
Cave tubing is definitely a unique experience and one of the best things to do in Central America! Relax as you float down the Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch River through the caves, whilst also learning about the ancient Mayan history. Check out the experience here.
14. Try snorkelling in the crystal clear waters of the Bay Islands, Honduras
Just 60 kilometres off the coast of Honduras lie the Bay Islands, one of the best places to visit in Central America. The crystal clear waters here make it one of the best places in Central America for snorkelling and diving! It’s an archipelago of three islands, Guanaja, Roatán and Utila, and they’re an absolutely paradise for anyone who loves warm water, tropical fish, and relaxing on the white sand.
15. Enjoy the waters and community of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Located in southwestern Guatemala and in the central highlands at about 5128 feet (1563 metres) above sea level, you’ll find Lake Atitlan with its iconic volcanic skyline, visible from almost any of the 12 towns that sit on its shores. It’s not just one of the best places to visit in Guatemala but I’d put it high on the list of best places to visit in Central America, too.
Lake Atitlan in particular has been an important Mayan spiritual centre for more than 2,000 years now and is considered by many as the ‘womb’ of the earth. Lake Atitlan is widely believed to be a portal to the sacred underworld and for that reason, it’s a very special land to visit.
Before I travelled to Guatemala, I had no idea just how rich in culture and vibrant this land is. My time in Lake Atitlan was wonderfully thick with ancient wisdom and knowledge and it was such an honour to meet with the people that are carrying the legacy of the Mayan rituals and way of life here.
Want to know more? See all of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan here.
16. Get an adrenaline rush in the Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua
One of the best places to visit in Central America if you don’t want somewhere that’s inundated with tourists in the Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua. Relatively undiscovered (it was only discovered as a tourist destination in the early 2000s), it’s also one of the oldest rock formations in Central America and popular with locals. If you’re looking for an adrenanline rush, make sure you book onto one of the Somoto Canyon tours to make the most of your experience!
17. Hike Puerta del Diablo in El Salvador
Puerta del Diablo, Devil’s Door, has a dark past, but it’s a hike with stunning panoramas that can now be enjoyed. Devil’s Door is a rock formation made of two tall boulders, forming a window out over the beautiful El Salvadoran landscape. Follow the winding path and you’ll be able to see the indigenous town Panchimalco, Lake Ilopango, San Vicente volcano and the Pacific Ocean. It’s also one of the best places to visit in Central America for climbing, zip lining, caving and rappelling, too!
18. Marvel at the biodiversity in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras
Looking for eco-friendly things to do in Central America? Book onto a sustainable tour of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. This UNESCO World Heritage site on the Mosquito Coast is one of the few remaining tropical rainforests in Central America and is unfortunately on the danger list. Allow an experienced guide to safely show you through the mangroves, pine savannah, grasslands and costal laggons as you keep an eye out for an abundance of wildlife and biodiversity, such as howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, giant leatherback turtles, toucans, and tapirs.
19. Swim in Montezuma Falls in Costa Rica.
About 16km of dusty off-road tracks away lies one of Costa Rica’s most popular day trips – Montezuma Falls. Hire an ATV and go explore this gorgeous beach town and waterfalls (there are 3 on different levels).
You can cool off after your hike in the cool waters of Montezuma Falls and even enjoy a picnic – if you manage to plan ahead!
If you’re visiting Montezuma Falls, one of the best places to visit in Central America, make sure you bring shoes with grip, a decent camera and cash for the entrance fee, and keep an eye out for all the amazing wildlife on the hike!
This is one of the best things to do whilst you’re in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, so make sure you don’t miss it!
20. Explore the Casco Viejo in Panama City.
Panama City is one of the best cities to visit in Central America, and the Old Quarter, Casco Viejo, is a UNESCO-protected district well worth visiting. Here you can marvel at the stunning architecture and panoramas, explore the Panama Canal, try Geisha coffee (the world’s most expensive coffee), enjoy the party scene, and more!
In your opinion, what are the best things to do in Central America?
Where are your favourite places to visit in Central America? Anything you’d add to this Central America bucket list?
Love as always and happy adventuring…
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