Most American’s international travel is limited to the beach destinations of Mexico and the Caribbean. Those who are more adventurous head towards Europe and Asia. Mostly overlooked, however, are the fascinating countries of Central America, most of which are as close to most Americans as a trip to either coast. This article will give you 10 good reasons, in no particular order, as to why you should consider Central America for your next vacation.
The cuisine of Central America is largely, as of yet, undiscovered in the US. That’s such a pity as the cuisine is varied and wonderful. The staple is rice and beans but the variations on the themes and the pairings are unlimited. Pork, chicken and seafood are the main protein sources. Delicious empanadas, a type of meat pie, is the most universal street food. Chicarrones, fried pork belly, is used in many dishes and is not to be missed. Tropical fruits are widely available.
Along the coast Caribbean and pacific coast seafood reigns supreme. Particularly along the Caribbean coast the Latin influences give way to Caribbean and some of the best cuisine available anywhere in the world.
One item of food deserves special attention. The countries of Central America used to be derisively referred to as “the Banana Republics” due to the influence American fruit growing companies had upon the government. Bananas and plantains have traditionally been grown in this area and form a major part of the diet. If you try no other food in Central America you need to try the bananas and plantains and taste these fruits as they were truly meant to be eaten.
Those of us in the north only ever get to taste a pale imitation of the real thing, bananas that are picked green to survive the transit up north to the super market. Down here at the source these fruits are left to ripen and sweeten on the vine making for an unforgettable eating experience for those unaccustomed to the real thing.
The southern part of Central America, specifically Costa Rica and Panama is known for its lush tropical rain forests and the wildlife that lives there. 3 types of monkeys live in Central America; howler, spider and titi (or white faced) monkeys. Sloths and many multihued lizards also inhabit the branches of trees.
Both below your feet and up in the trees many species of frogs including the colorful poison dart frogs make these forests their home. Up above colorful birds such as Toucan and Macaws can be common in areas.
With both Pacific and Caribbean coasts Central America has enough coastline for any beach lover. That much coast and two oceans bring a great diversity from undiscovered surfing spots to well developed tropical resorts.
Generally the best surfing is on the Pacific coast, with the most popular resorts in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In the Caribbean the best beaches are along the barrier reefs of Belize and numerous tropical islands off the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua.
Head to Belize for the best snorkeling in the region. A short boat ride from either Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker is Hol Chan Marine reserve. Here, a break in the Belize barrier reef system allows predators from the deep ocean into the lush inner waters. Sharks, rays and turtles are commonly sighted here. The Corn Islands off Nicaragua and Isla Roatan of Honduras are also excellent spots for diving and snorkeling.
Central America was home to the most advanced of pre-Columbian civilizations, the Maya. Their city states spanned from the Yucatan Peninsula in modern day Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and even into the Northern part of Honduras. The most magnificent ruins are at Tikal in Northern Guatemala and just over the border at Copan in Honduras.
However for the sheer number of ruins all within an easy days drive, you can’t miss with Belize. Among the major sites are Lamanai, Altun Ha, Xunantunich, and Caracol.
Long after the Mayan civilization had collapsed, the Spanish came here seeking gold and treasure but ended by establishing an empire throughout South and Central America. Panama City, Granada and Leon in Nicaragua, San Jose in Costa Rica all have excellent remains of their colonial days.
However the grand jewel of Colonial cities in Central America is Antigua, Guatemala. Founded in 1543, the city was the capital of Guatemala for over a hundred years. The city however was, and still is, prone to earthquakes and after a particularly damaging one in 1773, the capital was moved to present day Guatemala City. Much of Antigua today is still preserved in its earthquake damaged state.
Central America sits along the “ring of fire” a series of volcanic and seismic active areas that encircle the Pacific Rim. Many of Central America’s volcanoes are still active. Nicaragua has quite a few volcanoes within easy reach of the old colonial capital of Granada. Mombacho, just outside of town is inactive and now serves as a nature preserve. Further down the road Masaya still belches a steady stream of Sulfur Dioxide that can be seen for miles around.
Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is still very active; however the surrounding cloud forest means that the visitor can be lucky to get a clear view of the cone. Regardless even when the view is blocked, the surrounding forest offers many opportunities to spot wildlife.
Although one of the poorest economic areas in the western hemisphere, Central America makes up for it in its riches of musical tradition. Nowhere is this more evident than in Panama, where Latin and Caribbean influences meld and mix together to create a cornucopia of music styles.
One of Panama’s most famous sons is the international recognized Salsa musician, Ruben Blades. There is no better time to taste the music of Panama than Carnaval. Unlike other destinations where hedonism reigns, in Panama music is the queen of Carnaval.
The single best thing about Central America is the people, a diverse mixture of Latin, Indigenous and African ethnicities. They all exhibit the common friendly welcome to visitors. This distinct mixture of cuisine, music and dance that permeates life down here in the “Banana Republics” is not to be missed.