This time last year, I was flying back to America after four months spent in one of my favorite pockets of planet earth: Central America. Over the course of five different trips, I’ve now been lucky enough to visit each of the seven countries making up this sub-continent — some of them multiple times! A rough calculation reveals I’ve dedicated over six months to the region. This part of the world captivates me and should I ever decide I need a change of pace from calling Thailand my home base, you better believe I’ll be headed to one of the destinations below.
Just remember — what’s tops for me might be a flop for you, and vice versa! But here are the picks of one sun-chasing, beach-bumming, Vitamin D-addicted travel blogger. Want to read more about each destination? Just click the linked-to name for all posts in that category…
Tops: Panama City, Panama
Could I be any more obsessed with this metropolis? The eight days I spent here in the Casco Viejo quarter of Panama City had me straight up looking at apartment listings. I loved the crumbling charm of the old quarter (hello, charming bars and gorgeous skyline views!), the modern amenities of the shiny downtown district (hello, fancy movie theaters and Thai restaurants!), and the city’s seemingly endless list of things to do, see and eat. Be right back, I think I need to check on some flights…
Flops: La Ceiba, Honduras
Actually, La Ceiba isn’t so bad if you head for the hills — technically not the city itself but the charming river lodges that dot the Rio Cangrejal. The city center itself is a dump, and, if you listen to the locals, crawling with danger around every corner. Just cross your fingers you don’t get stuck here coming to or from The Bay Islands.
Tops: Granada, Nicaragua
Endearing little Granada is a beloved by backpackers everywhere for its charming colonial core, inviting cafes, and beautiful weather. The one major downside? Granada is home to the absolute worst street harassment I’ve experienced anywhere in the world, an aspect of it that almost turned me off the city entirely.
Flops: San Jose, Costa Rica
I have to admit I feel really guilty saying anything bad about San Jose, a city where I did a student exchange in high school and was hosted by one of the kindest, warmest families in all of Central America! But the truth is we spent most of our time escaping the city, and there’s little here to entire your average traveler. Costa Rica is an absolutely fantastic country — San Jose just isn’t it’s biggest draw.
Tops: Guatemala City, Guatemala
This ranking might be the biggest surprise on the list — Guatemala City gets little love from travelers, but I was lucky enough to experience it alongside some temporary locals who showed me the absolute best side of the funky, artistic community that calls Zona Cuatro home. I didn’t want to leave!
Tops Honorable Mentions: León, Nicaragua / Antigua, Guatemala
Tops: Boquete, Panama
Rainbows, waterfalls, and lush rolling hills — Boquete is a lush spot to slow down and break up the journey between Panama’s two coasts. I loved discovering the winding mountain town by motorbike, horseback, and my own two feet.
Tops: Copan, Honduras
A super charming teeny town in the hills of Honduras, perfect for a short visit to the Copan Ruins, a phenomenal macaw rescue, and natural hot springs. The only issue? Copan‘s annoyingly unconnected to other major tourism destinations in the region.
Flops: Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Admitting so is akin to committing travel hearsay, but I was completely underwhelmed by Lanquin, Guatemala. Perhaps it had just been overhyped, perhaps it all felt overly scripted after my spontaneous adventures in nearby Rio Dulce, or perhaps there was a tarantula in my dorm room — or, ya know, all of the above. I planned to stay several nights around Semuc Champey, but ended up leaving early — something that almost never happens.
Tops: Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Technically more under the category of “volcanoes” than “mountains,” I found Lake Atitlán to be the most captivating destination in Guatemala. Ringed by tiny towns each with their own distinct personality, you could easily spend a few weeks getting lost on the this high altitude, low key lake.
Tops: San Ignacio, Belize
The second smallest country in Central America may be mostly coastline, but stunning San Ignacio is a reminder that there’s more to Belize than just beach. Gorgeous Mayan ruins, adrenaline-fueled jungle trips and opportunities for yoga classes, spa treatments, local cooking classes and more make San Ignacio a must-do.
Tops Honorable Mentions: El Valle, Panama / Flores, Guatemala
Tops: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Of all the beautiful beaches I’ve encountered in Central America, San Juan del Sur captured my heart and imagination the strongest. I spent two and a half weeks here doing yoga, taste testing mojitos, hanging on the beach, and making a mockery of the sport of surfing. San Juan is infamous for its weekly Sunday Funday bar crawl, but don’t forget to stick around the rest of the week.
Tops: El Cuco and El Tunco, El Salvador
Often overlooked by travelers, El Salvador still qualifies as a hidden gem. Sister surf towns El Cuco and El Tunco complement each other perfectly — microscopic El Cuco has an end-of-the-world, last beach on earth kind of feel, while tiny El Tunco has just the right amount of buzz.
Tops Honorable Mentions: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica / Monterrico, Guatemala / Hopkins, Belize
I’ll be honest — I didn’t meet a beach town in Central America that I didn’t like! Spots like Santa Catalina, Panama and Livingston, Guatemala had me a little less starry-eyed than the above, but I can’t say anything super negative about my time there.
Top: Bocas del Toro, Panama
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro has a certain magic about it — the islands have the jaw dropping beauty of the Caribbean with the very palatable prices of Central America, and each little spit of sand has its own distinct personality. My ten days here were full of diving, partying, beach hopping, bike riding, acro-yogaing, and all the other things paradise dreams are made of.
Flop: Ambergris Caye, Belize
I tried — I really tried — to like Belize’s tourism powerhouse. But in my eyes, Ambergris Caye paled in comparison to neighboring isle Caye Caulker, which stole my heart from the moment I stepped on the sand. Ambergris Caye may be a great choice for luxury or family travelers, but backpackers and those with a more bohemian lean will feel right at home on Caye Caulker, pictured below.
Tops: Isla de Coiba, Panama
Haven’t heard of Isla de Coiba? You’re not alone. Yet the former-prison-colony-turned-National-Park is surrounded by waters that draw advanced divers from all over the world. Scuba shops here guarantee shark sighting or give you your money back — and I saw plenty on my four day camping and diving trip here, including the elusive whale shark.
Tops Honorable Mentions: Caye Caulker, Belize / Utila, Honduras / Roatan, Honduras
There are still so many places I have left in Central America to see, and so many I’m already itching to return to. I’ve yet to hit up the Corn Islands in Nicaragua, the San Blas Islands in Panama, the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica… the list goes on, and I have a feeling this is a corner of the world I’ll never be done exploring. Is there anywhere I missed and need to make happen next time? Let me know in the — I want to hear your favorites!