A thin isthmus of land connecting the North America continent to South America, the belt of countries comprising Central America may not look like much on a map, but their rainforests teem with all manner of wildlife, housed within mist-shrouded volcanoes, cloud forests, and pristine sandy beaches. This is a great region to catch a glimpse of classic Central American wildlife like sloths, pumas, tapirs and anteaters, as well as hundreds of species of colourful birds like the exotic quetzal.
The region is also peppered with extensive ruins of ancient Mayan civilisations.
Belize, the only country in the region with English as its official language. It may be small, but there’s plenty to do in and out of the water.
Diving & Snorkelling
The Belize Barrier Reef is the largest and most intact reef system in the Northern Hemisphere, with scuba diving opportunities that include walls, pinnacles, reef flats, as well as caves and tunnels; the most famous is Great Blue Hole, a large sinkhole popular with divers. At the Hol Chan Marine Reserve you can swim with large numbers of nurse sharks and stingrays.
Inland, the network of national parks offer a safe haven for wildlife, from cutter ants to the Baird’s tapir (the national animal), as well as the keel-billed toucan (the national bird). Within the parks, you can opt for hiking excursions, zip-lines, and horseback-riding, and try to spot its variety of monkeys, peccaries, coatimundis, and several species of wild cats, along with over 500 species of birds.
Some of the best places in the world to spot jaguars are the Rio Bravo Conservation Area (home to La Milpa, one of Belize’s largest Mayan sites) and Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s only jaguar sanctuary.
Belize is also riddled with ancient cave systems. The Cayo district is where you can tube or canoe through dark river systems – a highlight is the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave which houses pre- classical Mayan culture featuring skeletal remains of about 14 human sacrifices.
Guatemala offers some superb natural scenery, comprising lush canyons, dramatic volcanoes and their caldera lakes, underground cave systems, swimming holes, and rainforests lined with stunning trekking routes.
There are plenty of scenic parks where wildlife spotting is secondary. Characterised by numerous caves you can explore, the cloud forest of the Verapaces is home to the Biotopo de Quetzal, where hiking routes cover the endangered habitat of the quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird. Within the same region is the iconic Semuc Champey, a collection of tiered turquoise pools atop a limestone bridge set within the deep jungle which is home to several monkey species.
The Laguna Lachuá National Park houses a turquoise karstic lake surrounded by a forest housing half of all mammals in the country. In the lush canyons of the Río Dulce, you can spot wildlife – from birds to manatees – on kayak trips.
The Petén region in the north is a veritable Mayan paradise, home to the famous ruins at Tikal; and as the lung of the region, it’s also a biodiverse area divided into several national parks.
Further south of the country is Lago de Atitlán, a lake with three submerged volcanoes, popular for kayaking trips to its Mayan villages.
El Salvador is a world-class surfing destination, as well as a hotbed of Mayan culture surrounded by lush forests and volcanoes.
Parque Nacional Los Volcanes is home to three volcanoes, one of which is the iconic Santa Ana with a beautiful turquoise lake and views from the top of the two neighbouring volcanoes, Izalco and Cerro Verde.
El Boqueron National Park is nestled on the San Salvador volcano, where you can walk along the crater rim trail for views of the deep crater.
El Salvador teems with birdlife, which can be best spotted at the four national parks. Parque Nacional Montecristo is a cloud forest with dozens of orchid species and numerous rare birds such as toucans, quetzals, and striped owls. Parque Nacional El Imposible offers an incredibly diverse terrain which host 275 bird species, a variety of butterflies and 100 mammal species.
Jiquilisco Bay is the largest mangrove estuary in El Salvador; its numerous bays, canals, sandy beaches, islands, forests and freshwater lagoons are home to birds such as herons and seagulls, as well as Hawksbill turtles.
Intrepid travellers will find that Honduras is a fascinating place with a lot to offer, from pristine dive sites to cloud forests and extensive Mayan ruins at Copán (which includes an acropolis and several temples).
Diving & Snorkelling
The Bay Islands are the country’s main attraction thanks to the clear waters that are part of the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Teeming with fish, coral, sponges, rays, sea turtles and even whale sharks, spectacular diving and snorkelling draw visitors to the three islands of Roatán, Utila and Guanaja.
Located near San Pedro Sula, the Cusuco National Park is home to classic Central American wildlife like jaguars, peccaries, tropical birds like the quetzal, as well as golden-coloured jewel scarabs and a huge variety of amphibians and reptiles. It’s not a well-known park, but there are guided tours.
At Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, the varied terrain of rainforests and beaches are home to plenty of wildlife, in addition to an archaeological site with petroglyphs. Excursions often include cultural tours with indigenous communities.
Nicaragua boasts a landscape of volcanoes and lakes, cloud forests, surf beaches, and coffee country, in addition to colonial cities like Granada and León.
A great variety of volcanoes line the country from north to south, some with smoking craters, while others are filled with tranquil crater lakes you can swim in.
A number of them are open to hikers, including Masaya (a smoking crater with several trails through the surrounding reserve), San Cristobal (the highest active volcano in Nicaragua at 1,725m), and the smoking Conception which overlooks Granada and Lake Nicaragua.
The Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve is a network of rivers flanked by virgin rainforest and is home to more species of trees, birds and insects than the whole of Europe. Home to everything from poison dart frogs to pumas and manatees, rainforest hikes, birdwatching, river kayaking and sport fishing (for huge local tarpon) can be explored with indigenous guides. You can also spot wildlife from boat trips (in a panga) along the Rio San Juan river.
A good jumping off point for visiting coffee, tobacco and cattle farms in the area, Matagalpa is in Nicaragua’s central mountain region, an ideal place for hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife watching in the cloud forest.
Costa Rica’s established tourism infrastructure means that you can spot wildlife in the cloud forests one day, hike an active volcano or zipline through the forest canopy the next, and end by relaxing on a beach.
With 27 national parks, hiking is the best way to explore these ecosystems. Some parks offer canopy tours, where you can either pull yourself along suspended cables to a series of treetop platforms, zipline across the jungle, or walk along suspension bridges. Sluiced by plentiful rivers, you can also observe wildlife on boating trips.
The Tortuguero Conservation Area is especially famous for sea turtle nesting, while the canals house manatees and otters, as well as tapir, puma, ocelots, jaguarundi and the three-toed sloth. The tiny Manuel Antonio National Park has beautiful beaches and hiking trails dotted with coves, and its forest is home to both two- and three-toed sloths, and a variety of monkeys (howler, squirrel and capuchin).
Corcovado National Park, the last original tract of tropical rainforest in Central America, is home to Costa Rica’s largest scarlet macaw colony, along with tapirs, the giant anteater and the harpy eagle. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is renowned for its amphibians and reptiles, especially the Golden Toad (which disappeared in 1989).
Poas Volcano National Park is home to thick forests, as well as one of Costa Rica’s largest and most active volcanoes, where you can see smoking craters, explosive geysers, and rich flora and fauna. At Barra Honda National Park, the enormous limestone caves feature ancient formations and rare reptiles like the blind salamander.
As a natural bridge that connects North and South America, Panama is home to wildlife from both continents.
The cloud forest of Boquete is an ideal base to explore the most famous trail in Panama: the Quetzal Trail. This 4-5 hour, one-way hike – crossing bridges and cloud forests – is ideal for spotting the rare Resplendent Quetzal with its incredible blue plume, along with other unique local species. For a challenge, you can climb Panama’s highest peak of Volcan Baru. At the base of this volcano are a number of thermal springs, where you can soak in the waters right next to the Caldera River.
A top birding site is the Pipeline Road, a well-maintained path through the rainforest of Soberanía National Park where you can spot up to 300 species in a single day, including falcons, hummingbirds, and aquatic birds, along with monkeys, sloths, frogs and capybaras.
Darién province is not a place to be taken lightly (due to the presence of guerillas and traffickers), although the rich biome of Darién National Park contains many critically-endangered species, from the Bush Dog to the Central American Tapir, in addition to over 530 birds and undocumented wildlife.