January 26, 2016 4 min read
Some people head to Central America for the beaches and warm weather. Others arrive to visit the colonial towns and soak in the history. But lesser known are Central America’s natural wonders. Between the rough coastline, odd geological formations, and a string of volcanoes from north to south, you’ll find plenty to explore in this region’s great outdoors.
Semuc Champey, GuatemalaLocated in the dead center of the country near Lanquín, Semuc Champey is a series of limestone geological foundations that create above-ground waterfalls an below-ground caves. To best experience this natural wonder, hike the mountains to the viewpoint before descending into the emerald-green pools, which look straight out of a fairy tale. Finish your day with a swim through the nearby caves, a candle in your hand providing the only light.
Semuc Champey isn’t the easiest place to visit—the easiest option is to take an eight-hour shuttle from Antigua or Flores, as there’s no airport nearby, and the final descent into Lanquín takes you along some steep mountain passes. But this natural wonder is absolutely worth the journey.
Belize Barrier Reef, BelizeIf you’re looking for outstanding underwater life, look no further than the Belize Barrier Reef. A UNESCO World Heritage Site that runs from the north of the country to the south, you’ll find some of the best diving and snorkeling in Latin America here. Want to swim with sharks and sting rays, dive the Blue Hole, or just snorkel and see some beautiful fish? All are great options!
To best experience the reef, base yourself along the coast and take day trips. Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye are the two most popular sites in Central America. Here you’ll find plenty of resorts and guesthouses, restaurants and bars, and snorkeling day trips galore. Caye Caulker is smaller and much quieter than Ambergris Caye. Alternatively, head south to the even sleepier town of Placencia.
Ometepe, NicaraguaNicaragua is a land of volcanoes—whether you dream of hiking up them, passing the clouds, taking a bus journey to the top for views, or sliding down them in a bright orange jumpsuit, there’s a volcano with your name on it.
But one unique place is Ometepe, an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua formed by two volcanoes connected by an isthmus. Black sand beaches can be found on the east coast near Santa Cruz. In the dead center you’ll find the Ojo de Agua, a swimming hole that the locals believe holds curative powers. As for the volcanoes, you can admire them from a kayak on the lake or climb to the top. Volcán Concepción, on the west of the island, is the most intense hike with outstanding views from the top.
To get the most out of your stay, base yourself in Merída, in the southwest of the island, for beautiful sunset views over the lake.
San Blas Islands, PanamaAdrift in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama, you’ll find hundreds of islands that belong on a screensaver or calendar. These islands feature sugary-white sand, delicate palm trees, and you’ll even find the occasional deserted island with nothing but a few trees sticking out into the air. Don’t miss getting to know the indigenous Kuna people and their beautiful crafts.
The San Blas islands are protected, but you’ll find many tours and independent agencies offering trips here. Alternately, many sailing journeys from Panama to Colombia stop in the San Blas Islands en route.
A Note on Safety
Generally speaking, Central America is a very safe place to visit if you use common sense. That said, crime does occasionally happen and petty theft can be an issue, particularly in cities and while in transit. Here are ways to protect yourself and your valuables:
Don’t flaunt your wealth.Jewelry, watches, and designer accessories send the message that you’re traveling with a lot of money. Be careful how often you take out your smartphone or high-end camera.
Keep your valuables on you while in transit. Buses are the most popular way to travel in Central America. Whether you’re taking a chicken bus or a luxury shuttle, keep your valuables in a small bag and keep them on your person at all times.
Invest in a portable safe. Pacsafe carries portable safes like the Travelsafe 12L. These are great options for locking up your valuables in your guesthouse, which adds another layer of security beyond locked doors. Lock it to a pipe or the sturdiest furniture in your room.
Be careful in cities after dark. Many places in Central America are safe to walk around alone at night, but women may face street harassment after dark in some cities, including Antigua, Guatemala, and León, Nicaragua. Do your research in advance and talk to your guesthouse staff if you have questions.
At age 26, I quit my job to travel the world alone. I spent six fantastic months in Southeast Asia and turned my travel blog into a full-time business. Today, I travel full-time, going anywhere that sounds wacky or beautiful or interesting. My goal is to show YOU how you can travel the world on your own—easily, safely, and adventurously.
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