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It is entirely possible to take a morning flight from any major U.S. city and be people-watching in a colonial Guatemalan plaza or swimming at a rainforest-enveloped Costa Rican beach by evening. Central America is close, cheap, culturally and geographically diverse, and easy to navigate on a network of bus systems.
Some travelers on these circuits are surf-obsessed; others want to learn Spanish, hike volcanoes, raft jungle rivers, or explore Mayan sites. And many are blissfully agenda-free.
All prices in U.S. dollars
Rivers and Beaches Circuit
Costa Rica is a bastion for adventure sports, while Panama keeps a low profile, quietly attracting divers and wildlife enthusiasts. Word is starting to leak about a two-week itinerary that includes both countries.
San José, the capital of Costa Rica, has a few good museums but little else to offer. So upon arrival, skip town and take a bus 45 miles [72 kilometers] east to the central highlands' white-water capital, Turrialba. A 17-mile [27-kilometer] stretch of the Pacuare River's nearly continuous Class III-IV rapids may be the most scenic you ever sample (Costa Rica Rios Aventuras; www.costaricarios.com). The Caribbean coast, four hours east by bus, offers culture (Afro-Caribbean), tasty food (jerk), and a tranquil vibe. It even has the best surf break in the countryLa Salsa Brava, in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Shoreside shops offer board rentals.
Cross the border into Panama and pick up a bus, then a boat from Changuinola to Wetzo, the eastern entrance to La Amistad International Park, a 1.4-million-acre [566,600-hectare] UNESCO World Heritage Site that harbors jaguars, spider monkeys, and quetzals. From there, head east to Bocas del Toro, your base for snorkeling and diving excursions in an archipelago of 68 tropical islands.
Virgin dive sites still exist in the reefs and lagoons; Bocas Water Sports, on the main road, can lead you to them. Afterward, take a ferry to Almirante, where you'll catch a bus for the three-hour cross-country drive.
At the Panamerican Highway, head east, stopping for one last surf session at Playa Río Mar, near San Carlos, before reaching Panama City and nearby Balboa, where you can sign on for a full-day, ocean-to-ocean canal tour (Argo Line; www.big-ditch.com). TWO-MONTH ITINERARIES
Even if you're not a surfer, take advantage of the legwork done by those wave-hungry travelers who, over the years, have established a string of beach shantytowns along Central America's Pacific Coast.
Surfers come down via southern Mexico to paddle out to the breaks at El Paredon in Guatemala; El Salvador's La Libertad; Nicaragua's Poneloya Beach; countless breaks in Costa Rica, including Witch's Rock and Mal País; and the big point break at Santa Catalina, Panama. Surfers bring boards or buy them in Mexico and tote them around by bus.
If you catch the surfing bug, one of the best places to learn the sport in Central America is at the Witch's Rock Surf Camp (www.witchesrock surfcamp.com), in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Weeklong courses are $850; rentals are $20 a day.
Landlubbers simply follow the surfers' lead and make frequent inland excursions to places like the Montecristo cloud forest, at the intersection of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras; the Maya ruins in Copan, farther north in Honduras; the colonial city of Granada, on Lake Nicaragua; Costa Rican standouts like the Monteverde cloud forest and Tortuguero's sea turtles, along with lesser-known stops like Puerto Limón, which retains the shabby gentility of a pre-jet-age Caribbean port; and the palmy paradise of the Kuna Indians in the San Blas Archipelago. ONE-YEAR ITINERARY
C.A. Sampler Circuit
Travelers with an enviable amount of time can first do a mini-circuit that begins on the wilderness rivers in Chiapas, Mexico, takes an archaeological tour of Palenque and Tikal (in northern Guatemala), and ends with scuba diving in Ambergris Cay in Belize.
Next, head to Momostenango, Guatemala, for a total-immersion Spanish course, and then follow the surfer trail that hugs the Pacific Coast, with detours east to Honduras's Bay Islands, for diving and snorkeling, and southeast for lolling on white-sand beaches at the foot of twin volcanoes on Lake Nicaragua's mellow Ometepe Island.
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