Guatemala is just gorgeous. Culture vultures will swoop in on the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Topoxte and Yaxha. The colonial period is captured perfectly in city of Antigua (Easter here is stunning). And for nature lovers, hiking through cloud forest-covered volcanic slopes in the Zunil mountains is verging on ethereal. As is Lake Atitlan, enveloped by volcanoes and indigenous lands. Guatemala also has Pacific surfdoms and Caribbean coves. Told you. Gorgeous.
Most vacations in Mexico follow the cultural circuit, but it also boasts 67 national parks. Although, mistakenly, they don’t actually boast about them. Archipiélago Espíritu Santo NP on the Baja Peninsula is famous for the whales, Mexico City’s stunning Desierto de los Leones NP famous for not really being a desert, but rich, ancient oak forest, and Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl Zoquiapan NP is sheer volcanic virtuosity.
Don’t keep your head in the cloud forests all the time, but take time to absorb the people and culture of Costa Rica. Because this country has been so beautifully preserved thanks to its people. From the Creole-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans of the Caribbean, to the Bribri of the Talamanca Mountains, they’re all well worth getting to know.
This country has been reborn since the 1960-70’s revolutionary years, and yet is still unknown territory for tourists. Touching two seas, it has the Caribbean in the east and Pacific in the west, with jungles and volcanoes in between. Think luscious, lava and littoral and you got it. And loving too – because Nicaraguans have warm, open hearts, homes and boy do they love to party.
Costa Rica is top of wildlife lovers’ wishlists, its rain and cloud forests, surf and sands home to turtles, quetzals, howler monkeys, sloths, caiman and dolphins. Wildlife doesn’t stop for borders though. Belize is bursting with beauty, with the world’s second largest coral reef. Nicaragua boasts jaguar, monkeys and nearly 700 species of birds. And for whales, Mexico’s Baja is bliss. Each country has a wild side.
A 2,400km trail around the great pyramids, palaces and ancient principalities from Mayan civilisation, which dominated Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Many are UNESCO sites and, although you can’t fit them all in, most tourists visit Mexico, Belize and Guatemala’s finest, as that works geographically. Or start in southern Guatemala, taking in Honduras and El Salvador Mayan marvels next door.
See the isthmian idylls from a saddle, with small group vacation experts to guide you from coast to coast in Costa Rica, for example, taking in Pacific, volcanic, rainforest and Caribbean landscapes en route. Or two weeks will take you on a slow, sensuous journey through Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. And bikes are big in Central America so, particularly in remote areas, you are welcomed like family members.
Ancient cultures are awesome but there are so many contemporary indigenous cultures, with incredible histories and lifestyles too, so do incorporate visits to these communities if they are open to tourists. Which many are. Such as the Bribri of the Costa Rica, the Guatemalan Mayans and no less than 60 indigenous groups in Mexico, the most prolific being Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and Mixtec.
We are not a big fan of the giant floating hotels, with their dodgy environmental records and roll on roll off attitude to tourism. Feb-mid April is peak season for cruise ships in Central America, which frequent the big ports of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, so stay clear of these places and head off the beaten path to support grassroots tourism instead.
The honeypots of Costa Rica, Mexico and Belize in particular (the only English speaking country in Central America), pack out during US public vacations. Because they are the nearest stop for sunshine and so, rightly, they make for a wonderful quick escape – especially as Americans have relatively little vacation time in contrast with Europeans. So it’s a good time to check out other Central American options if you want to avoid crowds.
Mexico’s answer to all inclusive, all concrete, all wrong. Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, it has given this region a yucky reputation, and yet there are so many businesses and organisations that are doing the responsible and resplendent thing on Yucatan. You just have to fly in and keep going, cycling, hiking or swimming, to discover the world beyond the resorts.
Costa Rica and Mexico are eco experts, the former having protected its habitats way ahead of others and the latter the birthplace of ecotourism, led by Mexican environmentalist, Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in 1983. However, beware of bandwagon bounders, calling themselves ‘eco’ just because they are rural, remote or just a tad rustic – with no connection with community or culture. This Central America travel guide shows you the bigger picture.