Below are some of the major travel highlights for Central America Explorer. For more in-depth attractions of each country on this route, click on the country names below or select a route to see the highlights on this section of the journey. Click on the icons below to focus on specific types of features (click again to return to all).
|In-depth highlights: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama|
Highlights of Granada - Panama
Granada is Nicaragua's oldest and most atmospheric and charming colonial city. Founded in 1524, the city is located on the north-west shore of Lake Nicaragua at the foot of Mombacho volcano. Its historic centre is a compact area centred around the main plaza and the lakefront characterised by colonial and neoclassical architecture, tree-lined streets and horse-drawn carriages riding through the town. The nearby market town of Masaya is famous for its handicrafts where you can buy a range of products including baskets, carvings, masks, marimbas, embroidered clothes and tapestries. It's possible to drive almost to the lip of the crater of the nearby Masaya Volcano in the National Park to see the bubbling lava, smoke and sulphur gases as well as the magnificent views of the region's volcanic landscape.
Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua is the world's largest freshwater island comprising two volcanoes connected by an isthmus, Concepcion Volcano, an almost perfect cone shape at 1610 metres and Madera Volcano at 1340 metres. The island is a beautiful natural spot which has much to explore. There are ancient stone statues and petroglyphs made by the Chorotega people on Volcan Madera, which can be hiked for superb views. The forested island is home to many species of birds and other animals such as howler monkey and green parrot which can be spotted on walks. There are also numerous isolated black sand beaches around the volcanoes to relax on and swim from. Other options include horse riding or relaxing in the coldwater springs at Ojos de Agua.
León was founded in 1525 and was the colonial capital until 1857. The city is considered the intellectual and progressive centre of Nicaragua. The cathedral here is one of the largest in Central America, designed by Guatemalan architect Diego José de Porres Esquivel which reflects a transition from Baroque to Neoclassical architecture. It is characterised by its abundance of natural light and the rich ornamentation of the Sanctuary's vault. Elsewhere the town's Spanish colonial buildings, narrow streets and arched colonnades lend León an elegant and atmospheric air. Close to León, the Cerro Negro volcano can be hiked.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: León Cathedral
|Parque Nacional Volcan Poas|
The Parque Nacional Volcan Poas, north of the capital San Jose, is home to the Poas Volcano whose crater is the world's second largest at 1.5km across and 300m deep. Set at an altitude of 2,708 metres, the smoking volcano is still very active and rises majestically from the tropical rainforest of the park. The park contains many trails to explore the dwarf cloud forest landscape and wildlife which includes the Poas squirrel, the hummingbird and the clay-coloured robin, Costa Rica’s national bird.
|Pacuare and Reventazon River Rafting|
Costa Rica offers many opportunities for adventure activities including white water rafting on the Pacuare and Reventazon Rivers. The river drops 1,000 metres from the Cordillera Central to the plains of the Caribbean, meaning many stretches of white water rapids to enjoy. Rapids are mostly Grade III. On the gentler sections there's plenty of scenery to enjoy with the verdant rainforest, waterfalls and wildlife including toucans, kingfishers, iguanas and bright green “Jesus Christ” lizards.
The Arenal Volcano is Costa Rica's most active, having erupted in 1968 after laying dormant for 400 years. The volcano is a perfect cone which rises 1,633 metres above sea level. It is covered on one side by vegetation while the other side is barren with old lava flows visible. You can hike to the lava fields and observe the fumaroles that spit out steam and red-hot lava. From a base at the small town of La Fortuna, there's much else to explore in the area including the thermal baths heated by the volcano, the La Fortuna Waterfall which has pools to swim in, the Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve as well as white-water rafting, waterfall canyoneering, horse riding, mountain biking.
|Montverde Cloud Forest|
The Montverde Cloud Forest Reserve was originally created by North American Quakers in the 1950s and is now amongst the most important natural environments in the country. Covering just 100 km², Montverde encompasses six different life zones and an incredible diversity of plant and animal species. There are over 400 bird species including the Resplendent Quetzal, the ancient holy bird of the Mayans, the bare-necked umbrella bird, the blue-crowned motmot, the emerald toucanet and the three- wattled bellbird, as well as over 100 species of mammals, 120 species of amphibians and reptiles and an estimated 2,500 species of plants. The reserve can be explored through forest trails, on the Skywalk - suspension bridges and platforms that allow you to explore the canopy, or for the adventurous by zip line through the canopy. There are also night walks to see nocturnal species such as porcupines, toucans, owls, agoutis, coati mundis and snakes.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Area de Conservación Guanacaste
|Manuel Antonio National Park|
Manuel Antonio National Park is located south-west of San Jose on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. The park comprises extensive stretches of long, white beaches, mangrove swamps and evergreen forests that grow right up to the shore. Over 100 mammal species and almost 200 bird species are resident in the park. These include Capuchin white-faced monkeys, coatimundi, sloth, iguana and the rare red-backed squirrel monkey. The park and wildlife can be explored through numerous forest trails and canopy tours after which you can relax on the idyllic beaches and watch the stunning sunset over the Pacific.
Boquete is a laid back mountain town that offers some serious adrenaline pumping activities. There's white water rafting through some pristine natural landscapes and forest canopy adventures that take the ropes and ladders once used by scientists to study the forest and allow you to 'fly' through the treetop canopy. At a more relaxed pace, there's the opportunity for hiking in the surrounding region and the chance to visit a local coffee plantation.
The settlement at Panama City was founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedrarías Dávila, the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It served as a conduit for the gold and silver plundered by the Spanish in Peru to be transferred by land across the isthmus before being shipped to Europe. The oldest part of town is Panama Viejo, destroyed by fire in 1672, and now a public park with impressive ruins of the cathedral, town hall and various churches and houses. Its replacement, the Historic District of Panama, is an impressive and atmospheric Spanish colonial city with pastel coloured houses, mansions, the plaza and the ramparts which afford views of the 'Bridge of the Americas' and the skyscrapers of the modern town. A site of note is the Salón Bolívar, the venue for the unsuccessful attempt made by Simon Bolivar in 1826 to establish a multinational continental congress.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and Historic District of Panamá
Panama is famous worldwide for the canal which traverses the country and connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Completed in 1914 after 34 years construction, the canal is 55km long and takes 30-40 ships a day. There are three locks from where you can view the vessels passing through the canal and being lifted and raised/lowered- Miraflores Lock on the Pacific side close to Panama , Pedro Miguel Lock near Gamboa and Gatun Lock near the Caribbean coast. There is also the chance to cross the 'Bridge of the Americas' which crosses over the canal.