From beautiful colonial cities and ancient Mayan sites to volcanoes, vast lakes and tropical beaches, Central America has it all. Whilst Mexico and Cuba might be more well known to tourists, there are plenty of hidden gems that can easily be discovered. Here is a selection of seven stunning sites among the region’s many rich pickings.
1. Tikal, Guatemala
This magnificent Mayan complex of pyramidal temples, causeways, plazas and public buildings was inhabited for more than 1,000 years before being abandoned in the 10th century. Now, the Unesco-listed ruins of this vast, once-vibrant city, discovered in the heart of Tikal National Park, near Flores, are surrounded by lush green jungle. Here, you can hear the calls of howler monkeys as colourful toucans and parrots fly overhead.
2. Cayo District, Belize
Home to howler monkeys and armadillos, as well as an array of birdlife, Belize’s Cayo District is dotted with seldom visited Mayan sites, including Caracol. Neatr the Guatemalan border, the sub-tropical forests and mountains are ideal for exploring by bike, horse back on on foot.
3. Ometepe, Nicaragua
The largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake anywhere in the world, this sliver of paradise is formed from two volcanic peaks connected by a low isthmus, creating an hourglass shape. First inhabited about 4,000 years ago, human traces are to be found in the ancient petroglyphs (carved stone panels) and stone idols scattered on the northern slopes of the Maderas volcano.
4. Sendero de los Quetzales, Panama
Sendero de los Quetzales – or Quetzals Trail – is said to be the first made by the indigenous inhabitants of this region. The easy hiking trail runs from Boquete to Cerro Punta through cloud forest and crossing Volcan Baru: a dormant volcano standing 3,475 metres tall and Panama’s highest point. The climate here is refreshingly cooler than the lowlands and the lush vine-strewn forest teems with birdlife, including, of course, the resplendent quetzal (pictured).
5. Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Found on the remote north Caribbean coast, this isolated national park – all lush rainforest, long beaches, swamps and lagoons – is only accessible by boat or floatplane. Inland, jaguars and cougars stalk the forest, monkeys and sloths swing through the canopy, and toucans and hawks flit about in the sky. On the beaches, green turtles lay their eggs under a waning moon between July and September.
6. Viñales Valley, Cuba
Located in Cuba’s western reaches, this idyllic, fascinating landscape comprises fertile valleys dotted with palm trees and peculiar mogote hills – rounded limestone outcrops. Tobacco and other crops are cultivated at the bottom of the valley, using oxen and other traditional agricultural techniques – a far cry from the ‘modern’ face of the country on display in Havana.
7. Copper Canyon, Mexico
Passing through dramatic mountain scenery, the Chihuahua Pacific railway – more commonly called El Chepe – is one of the world’s most incredible train journeys. Passing through the Copper Canyon, a series of spectacular forested and rugged canyons, the train climbs from El Fuerte to Barrancas and back down to Chihuahua (or vice versa). Views from Barrancas are breathtaking and an overnight stop is highly recommended to take advantage of all the walking opportunities.
Katie Cosstick is the PR Manager at Cox & Kings.