Central America has it all.

Made up of seven countries located between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it’s renowned for its outdoor tourism possibilities and its unique wildlife and biodiversity.

With an enticing mixture of rich cultures, mesmerising ruins from an ancient civilisation, stunning beaches, deep-green jungles, lively cities and mouth-watering food, Central America should definitely be on your bucket list.

In this beginner’s guide to Central America, I’ll share a little more about this magical region, as well as some places you should definitely consider if it’s your first time.

A Beginner’s Guide to Central America

Central America is a narrow strip of land that joins North and South America. It’s comprised of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

Even though Central America is a small region, each country comes with its own unique sites and activities. Possibly one of the most noteworthy attractions of Central America is the Mayan civilisation, which used to stretch from southeastern Mexico through Guatemala and Belize, and even all the way to the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. It was a civilisation that left behind not only jaw-dropping ruins and pyramids, but also a rich history, culture and numerous discoveries.

Head to Belize and Honduras for some seriously amazing beaches with calypso waters and to take your pick from a range of island-hopping cruises. If this doesn’t sound like you and you’re more into outdoor and wildlife adventures, choose Costa Rica and it’s unbelievable biodiversity. Panama offers the region’s most cosmopolitan city and a chance to check out the famous Panama Canal.

Outdoor Adventures

With 300-plus volcanoes and two long, beautiful tropical coasts, it doesn’t get better than this for outdoor enthusiasts. You can paddle deep into indigenous territories in a canoe, explore the Spanish forts and colonial cities, swim with sea turtles or even trek a volcano. Why stop there? You’ll also have the chance to witness unique wildlife, such as the majestic Quetzal bird or howler monkeys.


Explore the history-packed Maya territory, a culture that dates back 4,000 years and the greatest pre-Columbian civilisation that still exists today. Marvel at the lost temples and ancient sites of Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle and Palenque in Mexico, the oceanside town of Tulum, and of course, visit Chichén Itzá, one of the world’s great wonders.


Accomodation in a hostel in Central America ranges between $6 – $18 for a shared room, while a private bed will cost you between $18 – $37 for a single or double bed with a private bathroom. In Costa Rica and Panama, particularly Panama City, you will pay the higher end of that range, with the lower end being more common in cheaper countries like El Salvador.

Safety and Borders

There are many misconceptions about Central America’s safety. The truth is, much progress has been made in the region and it’s generally safe. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take precautions. Cities, especially San Pedro Sula in Honduras and San Salvador in El Salvador can be more dangerous, and when travelling through the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, be cautious. Only take registered taxis, refrain from walking around alone at night and keep your valuables safely hidden, just as you would in any country.

When it comes to getting from country to country, the cheapest way is by bus. But don’t think you’ll encounter hassle-free borders: think long queues, lots of checkpoints and tonnes of bureaucracy. A bit of patience and some snacks will go a long way when getting through the borders. Bear in mind that each country will have their own fees and regulations when it comes to entering and exiting (some may ask you to provide printed proof of funds). These regulations may be subject to change – so checking the requirements beforehand is crucial.

If you’d prefer to let someone else worry about these issues, a group tour could be a good option for you.

Highlights of Central America

Looking for some specifics on the locations you must see? Here are seven of my personal favourites:

Caracol, Belize

Caracol is the largest known Mayan archaeological site in Belize. The main pyramid here, Caana, is 41m high – the tallest man-made structure in the country.

Tikal, Guatemala

One of the most impressive ancient Mayan ceremonial cities, located in the middle of a lively tropical jungle, Tikal is a place to witness amazing temples and wildlife.

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Transport yourself back in time to the colonial Spanish era by visiting Casco Viejo, which is now UNESCO-listed.

Antigua, Guatemala

A beautiful colonial city, Antigua offers nightlife, restaurants, coffee shops and lots of hostels.

The Barrier Reef, Belize:

This is the second longest barrier reef in the world and a World Heritage Site, featuring incredible marine life and stunning coral reefs, perfect for divers and snorkelers.

The Blue Hole, Belize

The famous Blue Hole is a near-perfect circular hole, where the water is almost motionless, which means visibility is great. It’s an amazing spot for diving.

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

You can surf down a Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua – just board down its graveled slopes and have the time of your life.

Your Adventure Awaits!

Central America is an amazing destination, filled with endless adventure possibilities, unique wildlife, mesmerising beaches and an array of historical sites. Its generous weather and the proximity from one country to the next also make it fairly easy to travel around to all the spots you’re interested in during one big trip. Enjoy!

Photos for A Beginner’s Guide to Central America courtesy of G Adventures.