5 Unmissable attractions in Central America
1. The twin-peaked volcanic island of Ometepe, Nicaragua
Image via Josh Ferry Woodard
In the middle of Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater basin, lies the tropical paradise of Ometepe. Formed of two smoky volcanic cones, the island has a mystical beauty.
Local legend states that two star-crossed lovers from rival tribes, a prince named Nagrando and a young lady called Ometepetl, resolved to slit their wrists in order to avoid persecution for their illegitimate love. This Romeo and Juliet-esque saga ends with an awesome electric storm of lightning, shooting stars and meteors, which caused the breasts of Ometepetl to morph into two huge volcanoes: Concepción and Maderas.
The island is blessed with many treasures—ancient petroglyphs, hidden waterfalls, caiman mangroves, emerald pools, stone carvings and dense jungles—but the two volcanic peaks are undoubtedly the crowning jewels.
Concepción is a punishing beast of 1,610 metres. To reach the active crater you first need to hike 1,000 metres through a humid rainforest, home to tropical butterflies, colourful parrots and raucous howler monkeys. Once you leave the forest it’s a gruelling 600-metre slog up a loose grey gravel trail. Thick cloud cover limits vision to a couple of arm spans and squalling winds lend the final ascent an apocalyptic atmosphere.
At 1,394 metres, the verdant volcanic mountain of Maderas is slightly less testing. Coffee and tobacco plantations surround the lower parts of the hill, while rainforest covers much of the path to the freshwater crater lagoon at the top.
2. Colonial architecture of Antigua, Guatemala
Image via Guatemalan Adventure
The welcoming city of Antigua is all pebbled roads, crumbling colonial churches, jazzed-up American school buses, bright patterned textiles and—as is often the case in this magnificent continent—volcanic peaks in the distance.
For more than 200 years Antigua served as the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala, an area encompassing most of present-day Central America. Despite suffering numerous devastating earthquakes between the 16th and 18th centuries, the city retains its colonial charm with a number of Spanish Baroque buildings and a pastel colour palette.
The Central Park, replete with Bologna-inspired mermaid water fountains, shady green trees, cheeky shoe-shine boys and grinning Guatemalan weave traders, is adjacent to the grand arches of the Captain General Palace. Once the headquarters of the Spanish colony—where El Capitán would plan military manoeuvres spanning the length and breadth of the continent—the majestic building now houses the Guatemala Institute of Tourism and the Regional Governor’s office.
A stroll through Antigua’s pretty streets, stopping occasionally for a cup of world-renowned local coffee, is a real treat.
3. Tropical rainforests of Pico Bonito, Honduras
Image via Pico Bonito
Located around 30 minutes from the Caribbean coastal town of La Ceiba, the Pico Bonito National Park is a 414-square-mile mountain range covered in luscious cloud forest.
The energising blue waters of the River Cangrejal flow through the impossibly beautiful park, flanked by smooth grey boulders that resemble piles of broken dinosaur bones. The river is famed for its dramatic white water rafting but there are also gentle pools for bathing.
Exotic creatures, such as jaguars, armadillos, toucans, and puma, stalk the sloped rainforest floor, which is covered in crunchy dry leaves, cooling clear streams and earthy pebbles. Butterflies sip nectar from rotting fruits and pungent floral aromas linger in the thick humid air.
Green dominates the jungle. But flickers of pink, blue and yellow are easy to spot in the shrubs or in the canopies.
Hypnotic views of Honduras in all its glory are found beside the 60-metre River Zacate waterfall. The crystal clear waves of the Caribbean glisten in the distance, connected to the green forest by the snaking path of the River Cangrejal and its dinosaur bone border. In the foreground a frothy stream plunges down the cliff. You can hear the weight of the water—and occasionally make out a rainbow as the sun shines through it.
4. Snorkelling off Caye Caulker, Belize
Image via Bottom Time Dive Shop
One mantra rules all others on the island of Caye Caulker: GO SLOW.
It’s delivered like an order to newcomers and is found all over the five-mile wide island: painted on walls, traffic signs, t-shirts and building sites. And it’s a way of life that is entirely appropriate to this sweltering island paradise of wooden beach shacks, seafood grills, sandy paths and turquoise waters.
Start the day, slowly, with a freshly baked cinnamon bun, flick through a chapter or two on a hammock in the shade of a palm tree. Dip your feet in the Caribbean and then make your way onto a sailboat headed, slowly, towards the world’s second largest barrier reef.
Reggae beats blend with calming splashes of ocean foam. Salty aromas merge with hints of seafood curry and citrusy shrimp ceviche being prepared on deck. Blinding light shines across the surface of the coruscating cerulean waves.
Once anchored, snorkelers can expect to get up close and personal with frenzies of harmless nurse sharks, schools of angelfish and snapper, smiling stingrays, aloof turtles and majestic manatees.
Crimson rom ponch is sipped, slowly, on the sail back to the shores of de key in time for a sunbathing session, a barbecue and a glassy fire-opal sunset that gives way to a relaxed evening of glorious stargazing.
5. Mayan pyramids of Tikal, Guatemala
Image via Josh Ferry Woodard
Hidden within the dense vegetation of a two million hectare jungle, Tikal is one of the most important ruin sites of the Mayan civilisation. Pyramids, temples, palaces, ceremonial platforms and ball courts rise above the treetops: mountains of grey limestone floating in an endless sea of greens.
Inhabited between the sixth century BC and the tenth century AD, the lost city tells of the cultural evolution of the Maya from hunter-gatherers to a society of complex farming systems, elaborate religious ceremonies and advanced scientific discovery.
Nobody knows for sure what happened to the Mayan civilization—theorists point to overpopulation, agrarian failure or meteorological drought—but the fall of Tikal around 900AD left the ancient complex deserted.
Seventy-metre-high pyramids, where royal dynasties were buried and sacrificial ceremonies were once held, became the domain of jaguar, puma, crested eagles and spider monkeys.
From the top of Temple IV, Tikal’s tallest, the vastness of the surrounding biosphere becomes apparent. The panorama turns orange, then pink, then grey, as the sun sets in the distance. All that’s left is the deep greens of the forest.