Central America itineraries

It’s confusing. Central America is considered part of the North American continent, and yet it doesn’t strictly include Mexico. But at Responsible Travel, we know that people wanting to plan a Central America itinerary are talking about the beautiful bit in the middle. The bit that is neither North nor South. The bit that is never far from a beach. The bit that is fiery and frisky, and still fantastically, undiscovered by tourism. With the exception of Costa Rica, which sussed out wildlife tourism long ago, but doesn’t shout about its cultural gems. Or Mexico, which sussed out cultural tourism long ago, but doesn’t shout about its natural gems. Or Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama, which don’t shout at all. Which is where our Central America itineraries come in.

1. Belize

Caribbean, cayes, culture, coral reef and chocolate. And, with jungle lining the shores of this small country, just 290km long and 110km wide, you pretty much have heaven on a stick. It is the only country in Central America with English as the official language, so US public vacations are busy. The ocean, however, is just for you and its myriad marine marvels, with Belize boasting plenty of marine conservation vacations.
Costa Rica

2. Costa Rica

Way ahead in terms of tourism as it became a leader in environmental and, consequently, wildlife vacations, Costa Rica is also, of course, obscenely beautiful. The ecosystems, wildlife, activities and level of development vary massively across tiny areas, so selecting what you want to see is essential. A wonderful family vacation too, from turtles in Tortuguero NP to rafting on the white water rafting on the Pacuare River.
Arenal Volcano

3. Arenal Volcano

The most famous of Costa Rica’s 16 volcanoes is still just about active, though spitting and coughing is more likely than lava flowing these days. Around it lies Arenal National Park, a maze of nature trails and suspended walkways, so that visitors can wonder at the bevy of beautiful birds, howler monkeys, waterfalls and lava fields. And there is always a hot spring bath waiting at the bottom of a volcano.
Tortuguero National Park

4. Tortuguero National Park

Costa Rica's gem is way out there, not only in terms of transport, as it is only accessible by plane or boat, but also in terms of wildlife and other natural wonders. From the green turtles, after which the park is named, to the otters, howler monkeys, manatees and sloths that inhabit the mangroves, rivers and lagoons along its Caribbean forest-lined coast. Tortuguero is not only way out there. It’s another world.
El Salvador

5. El Salvador

A tiny country with a huge history, and still very tourist free. Meaning that the stunning Bosque El Imposible NP or Montecristo Cloud Forest, for example, are almost empty. The volcanic region of San Miguel is beginning to erupt with ecotourism, while the Mayan sites of Tazumal, San Andrés and Joya de Cerén still feel timeless. La Ruta de Las Flores trail through colonial towns and coffee plantations is the classic but charming tourist highway.

6. Guatemala

Guatemala is just gorgeous. End of. Mayan archaeology abounds at famous Tikal, Topoxte and Yaxha ruins. The colonial period is captured perfectly in city of Antigua (Easter here is stunning). For those who want nature over culture, trek through cloud forest up to volcanic peaks. Lake Atitlan, enveloped by volcanoes and indigenous lands is close to ethereal. And yes, Pacific beaches await too.

7. Honduras

Although one of the largest Central American countries, it still suffers from extreme poverty in many places, meaning that tourism infrastructure is thinner on the ground. Most vacations are usually thrown into a mix with Guatemala, Nicaragua or Belize, enabling you to take in the cultural highlights of Copan’s copious Mayan ruins, the natural gems of UNESCO-rated Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve or the aquamarine archipelago, Bay Islands.

8. Mexico

Mexico boasts 67 national parks, yet many vacations focus on culture over nature. Culture vultures adore Puebla, but the backdrop of the Sierra Madre beckons beautifully. Mooch around Mayan magnificence on the Yucatan peninsula (look beyond Chichen Itza which packs out), but also enjoy a margarita sunset in Playa Del Carmen. Oh, and the food. Oaxaca is a UNESCO Site just for that. Who needs Michelin, when you have Mexico?
Grey whales in Baja

9. Grey whales in Baja

It’s a cetacean carnival off Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula early February to end of April, with 3,000km of coastal habitats taken over by dolphins, blue, sperm whales and orcas. Most magically, almost every grey whale in existence gathers around four particular mangrove lagoons here, where you can camp almost voyeuristically as they breed and birth. A tour de force in nature’s theatre.

10. Nicaragua

The largest country in Central America touches two seas: Caribbean in the east, and Pacific in the west, with jungles and volcanoes in between. Think luscious, lava and littoral and you got it. For lava, go hiking up Cerro Negro, just 45km from the elegant, colonial city of Leon. For lush, head to mountainous Matagalpa region or Bosawas Biosphere Reserve rainforest. And for littoral, surf the Pacific or snorkel among Caribbean coral.

11. Panama

After coups, corruption, canal controversies and dictators, Panama has a turbulent history and, although you can add it onto a Costa Rica trip easily, many don’t. Missing out on exquisite birdwatching in the cloud forests of the Boquete Highlands, or snorkelling around the San Blas archipelago, home to the indigenous Kuna people. Or Chagres NP, also home to the Embera people. All we are saying is, give Panama a chance.
Overland tours

12. Overland tours

You can actually do six countries in three weeks, traversing volcanoes and jungles, coastlines and coral reefs, exploring Mayan marvels, rafting rivers, and seeing wildlife wonders of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. And that is just one example. Cycling through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama is another popular route, something you can do in two weeks when traveling with a group vacation expert. Self-drive tailor made vacations are also excellent for Central America.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Central America or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Central America sample itineraries

Costa Rica activity & nature itinerary
San José > Pacuare River > Arenal Volcano > Rincon de la Vieja > Monteverde > North Pacific coast > San José

Central America cycling vacation

Nicaragua: Granada > Lake Nicaragua > Pueblos Blancos > San Juan del Sur > Lake Nicaragua > Costa Rica: Bijagua valley > Lake Arenal > La Fortuna > Arenal Volcano > Cahuita on Caribbean coast > Panama: Bocas del toro islands > Pan-Am Highway > Panama City > Panama Canal.

Belize and Guatemala adventure vacation

Belize City > Guatemala: Flores > Tikal > Lake Petén Itzá > Belize: Xunantunich Mayan ruins > Mayan caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal > 3 day guided canoe trip on Old Belize River > San Ignacio > Hopkins > Caye Caulker > Hol Chan Marine Reserve > Blue Hole National Park.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: DeLoyd Huenink] [Belize: fritzcat] [Costa Rica: kansasphoto] [Costa Rica - Arenal: Justin Jensen] [Costa Rica - Tortuguero NP: bertconcepts] [El Salvador: Raúl Arias] [Guatemala: Katie Hawrysh] [Honduras: Lauri Väin] [Mexico: lucico] [Mexico - Whales: apasciuto] [Nicaragua: Graeme Churchard] [Panama: Rylee Isitt] [Overland tours: Nick Taylor]