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 Mexico City - Panama
Mexico City, known locally as Distrito Federal of DF, is the country's capital and one of the world's largest and most densely populated cities. Home to over 18 million people, it is a bustling and chaotic city that mixes ancient Aztec ruins, colonial architecture and a vibrant and modern culture. The city was built by the Spanish on the foundations of the great Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. The ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor, dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, can be seen today near the city's main square, the Zocalo. The vast Zocalo is also home to the city's magnificent cathedral and the 16th century Palacio National, with its stunning Baroque architecture and murals of Diego Rivera. The National Museum of Anthropology is another of the city's must-sees with its excellent collection of exhibits of Mexico's pre-Hispanic cultures which include Olmec carvings, Toltec heads and an impressive ethnology display. The city also offers opportunities to experience Mexico's diverse sporting culture, which includes bullfighting, football at one of the city's many stadia and the unique Mexican wrestling spectacle of Lucha Libre.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco
|Archaeological Site of Teotihuacan|
The holy city of Teotihuacan ('the place where the gods were created') is situated 48 km north-east of Mexico City and is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Mexico as well as one of the most spectacular in the country and even the world. It was built between the 1st and 7th centuries AD and is thought to be Mexico's largest ancient city and capital to the biggest pre-Hispanic empire. At its peak it was home to over 100,000 people but had been abandoned long before the Spanish invasion which saved it from destruction. Teotihuacan contains two huge and spectacular pyramids, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the former of which is the third largest in the world after Cheops in Egypt and the overgrown Cholula near Mexico City. You can climb up part of the Pyramid of the Moon to get a great vista down the eerily-named Avenue of the Dead, lined with numerous smaller structures. The climb up the full 250 steps of the Pyramid of the Sun gives a superb panoramic view of the whole site and surrounding countryside.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan
|Historic Town of Oaxaca|
The city of Oaxaca is an attractive, laid back colonial town that has excellent shopping opportunities for Mexican handicrafts and is a base for exploring the nearby Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban. The historic part of the city is centred around the Zocalo, or main plaza, a pedestrianised area with trees and colonnaded buildings containing many bars and restaurants, providing a lively atmosphere at night with street vendors, entertainers and musicians. There are a number of impressive churches in the town such as the cathedral, the church of La Soledad and the church of Santo Domingo.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán
|Archaeological Site of Monte Albán|
The archaeological site at Monte Alban was created by the Zapotec civilisation between 200BC and 900AD and is the most complete Zapotec site in Mexico today. It is an extraordinary site in a spectacular setting, located on a purposefully flattened and sculptured hilltop overlooking the valley of Oaxaca some 400 metres below. The remains of numerous pyramids and temples surround the huge central plaza, in addition to the pelota (ball court) and many bas reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. The site shows influences from other civilisations, including Teotihuacan to the north and the Mayans to the south. The Regional Museum in Oaxaca contains many treasures found at Monte Alban.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán
|Mayan City of Palenque|
One of the most picturesque and impressive of all the Mayan sites, Palenque is one of Mexico's prime attractions. Several spectacular structures are set in a beautiful location deep in the rainforest of southern Mexico. Rediscovered in the 19th century, only a fraction of the site has been studied and excavated and its possible to walk through the jungle trees over the crumbling remains of other buildings and wonder what remains to be discovered. Palenque flourished as a Mayan city state for 600 years between the 4th and 10th centuries but reached it height during the reigns of Pakal and Chan-Bahlum in the 7th century when its most impressive buildings were constructed. Central to Palenque are the various buildings of the Palacio, built on an artificial mound, and including the four-storey renovated watchtower, unique in Mayan architecture. The Temple of the Inscriptions is perhaps the most impressive structure, a 25 metre high pyramid which contains inscriptions detailing Palenque's history and was the site where the burial tomb of Pakal and his jade death mask was found. Unfortunately its not permitted to climb the Temple, but the nearby Temple of the Cross can be climbed to give super panoramic vistas of the entire site.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque
|San Cristobal de las Casas|
San Cristobal de las Casas is probably the most charming and picturesque colonial town in Mexico. Set amidst the mountains of the state of Chiapas, San Cristobal combines beautiful colonial architecture with a strong Indian culture from Chiapas's many indigenous groups. The atmospheric town is perfect for laid back exploring of its old churches, plazas and side streets filled with great restaurants and bars and its colourful market. It's also a good base to see nearby attractions including the Sumidero Canyon and traditional Mayan villages.
|Mayan City of Uxmal|
The ruins at Uxmal represent the pinnacle of late-Mayan architecture, design and layout. The buildings here date from 700-1000 AD when Uxmal had approximately 25,000 inhabitants and their layout reveal a detailed knowledge of astronomy. The Piramide del Adivino dominates the site, a spectacular structure with many symbolic motifs and sculptures depicting Chaac, the god of rain. Other buildings of note include the Nunnery Quadrangle, Governor's Palace and the Great Pyramid, which can be climbed to get a superb panoramic views of the whole site. A nightly light and sound show speculates on the decline of the city due to drought with the residents appealing to Chaac to save them. Close to Uxmal are three smaller sites with their own unique features. The Palace of Masks at Kabah has 260 images of Chaac, the Gran Palacio at Sayil is an elegant three-storey structure while Labna has a rare arch connecting two groups of buildings.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal
|Mayan City of Chichen-Itza|
Chichen-Itza is one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in the world and was recently named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It represents two major periods of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilisations - a Mayan site from the Classical period between the 5th and 10th centuries and a second settlement after the Toltec invasion with major construction between the 10th and 13th centuries. The latter represented a fusion between Mayan and Toltec cultures and represents some of the most important monuments at Chichen-Itza. The most remarkable structure is the El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kulkulkan, a stone representation of the Mayan calendar. The 25 metre high pyramid has 365 steps and at equinox a shadow of the serpent is cast down the pyramid connecting their heads at the foot to their tails at the top. Surrounding El Castillo are the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Warriors, the Group of the Thousand Columns and the Observatory. Chichen Itza is the most visited historical site in Mexico and can get very crowded but the wealth of its attractions make it an essential visit.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza
|Mayan City of Calakmul|
The Mayan city of Calakmul is located within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in central Yucatan peninsula. One of the most ancient of the Mayan sites that had continuous occupation for over 1,200 years, Calakmul has a series of well-preserved monuments shedding much light on Mayan culture. Its name translates as the 'city of two adjacent pyramids' and Structures I and II dominate the site. Perhaps the most noteworthy elements however are the 120 stelae found here which are inscribed with sculpture and reliefs detailing the history and daily life of the city.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ancient Maya City of Calakmul, Campeche
|Mayan City of Tulum|
The Mayan city of Tulum is located in a dramatic and beautiful setting on the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula overlooking the sandy beaches and turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Dating to the 12th century, Tulum was a late period settlement displaying both Mayan and Toltec influences. The city was guarded by thick city walls and a watchtower which demonstrate the growing emnity between Mayan states at this time. Many of the towns temples such as the Temple of the Frescoes are dedicated to the Falling God or Setting Sun.
The tiny island of Caye Caulker lies 34km northeast of Belize City in the Caribbean Sea. It's a great location to explore the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere. Some of the world's best diving and snorkelling is available here - there are over 500 species of colourful tropical fish, as well as numerous corals, molluscs, sponges and crustaceans. There's also the chance to explore underwater caves and observe manatees in their mangrove habitats. The island itself, just 7km long, is an uncrowded and unpretentious place of friendly locals, sandy streets, beautiful beaches and some excellent seafood just out of the water.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System
|Mayan City of Tikal|
Tikal is the largest and one of the most impressive Mayan sites, set amidst the jungle of Tikal National Park. Tikal was occupied between the 6th and 10th centuries and at its height it was one of the major centres of the Mayan civilisation, with up to 100,000 inhabitants and trading links as far away as Teotihuacan. The ruins comprise some 3,000 buildings over 16 km², including temples, palaces, causeways, ball courts and public squares. Most spectacularly, some of the tallest temples tower above the jungle treeline, which can be climbed to provide amazing views. Structures of note include the Q complex, Main Plaza, North and Central Acropolis, Seven Temples and Mundo Perdido. Its setting in the national park jungle means you'll share the experience with the resident wildlife including coatimundis, grey fox, spider and howler monkeys, toucan and weaver birds.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Tikal National Park
Antigua is one of the best preserved Spanish colonial towns in Latin America and a magnet for travellers to this region. Located in a spectacular setting underneath the Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes, it is a beautifully laid back town of Spanish Baroque buildings, ruined and preserved churches and many interesting cafes, restaurants and markets. Founded in 1543, Antigua was capital of the Spanish colonial empire in Central America for over two centuries until an earthquake in 1773 led to the relocation of the capital to Guatemala City. As well as exploring the historic buildings, streets and courtyards, Antigua is a prime location for learning Spanish, with over 30 language schools. Additionally, the nearby Pacaya volcano can be summited with a half-day hike, allowing you to get stand right next to red-hot lava flows and admire the view of nearby volcano cones.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Antigua Guatemala
Lake Atitlan, located in the Guatemalan highlands at 1,585 metres, has been described by the writer Aldous Huxley as 'the most beautiful lake in the world'. The lake, 20km long by 15km wide and reaching depths of 325 metres, is surrounded by the majestic volcanic peaks of Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro, making for a spectacular sight during daylight and at sunset. The surrounding villages and towns, including Panajachel, Santa Catarina, San Juan La Laguna and Santiago Atitlan, are populated by native Mayan peoples who maintain many of their traditional practises, costumes and beliefs. A boat ride can take you to various villages to learn about the lives of these indigenous people, with the shrine to the Mayan god Maximon in Santiago being particularly popular.
|Mayan City of Copan|
Copan is one of the most important of the Mayan sites and as the most southerly on the Yucatan peninsula, receives far fewer visitors than those further north. Copan was occupied from 2000 BC onwards but reached its peak in the Late Mayan Periods between 500 and 900 AD, thought to have been the capital and crowning achievement of the Mayan Empire. Its spectacular features include the Great Plaza with tiered seating for 50,000 people and the nearby Acropolis - the royal centre with numerous pyramids and temples. The latter includes the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway, whose 63 steps include some 2500 individual glyphs, the largest set of pre-Columbian inscribed texts in the Americas. The outer wall of the Plaza contains carved reliefs depicting Copan's 16 rulers. Although one of the most researched Mayan sites, much of Copan remains to be excavated and discovered in its jungle setting.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Maya Site of Copan
Roatan Island is one of the three Bay Islands off Honduras's Caribbean coast. Roatan is surrounded by over 100km of tropical coral reef, making second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef. This makes it a paradise for diving and snorkelling to view the coral, sponges and huge diversity of colourful tropical fish. Back on dry land, the island has stunning palm-fringed beaches, warm turquoise waters and a laid back Caribbean vibe.
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.