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Trips
33 Awesome Ways to Travel the Planet

Central America: The Action Isthmus

  • Two-Week Itineraries
  • Two-Month Itineraries
  • One-Year Itinerary
  • Map


  • OVERVIEW

    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


    TWO-WEEK ITINERARIES

    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 country—La 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).

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    TWO-MONTH ITINERARIES

    Surf Circuit

    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.

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    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.

    —Claire Martin

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    MAP

    Central America

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        •  Introduction
        •  Africa
        •  Australia, New Zealand
        •  Central America
        •  East Asia
        •  India, Nepal
        •  South America
        •  Southeast Asia
               
     

    Resources

    Visas: None required in Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Honduras for stays of up to 90 days, or in Belize and Nicaragua for up to 30 days. Panama issues 30-day visas. El Salvador's consulates determine the length of visas. For specifics, visit the U.S. State Department Web site (www.travel.state.gov/
    foreignentryreqs.html
    ).

    Medical: An outbreak of dengue fever hit El Salvador in June. Yellow fever vaccinations are recommended for Panama. The malaria risk is highest in Belize. For more information, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Web site (www.cdc.gov/travel).

    Lowdown

    Airfare to Hub Cities
    East/West Coast to Guatemala City: $500/$600
    East/West Coast to San José: $500/$600

    Cost/Day
    $30 (includes food, lodging, and local transportation)

    Best Road Trip
    Guatemala's 90-mile [145-kilometer] Cobán to Huehuetenango route: up the Cuchumatanes Mountains, down the Río Negro.
     

    Related Web Sites

    Photo Gallery: Belize Caves
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    Photo Gallery: High Times on the Peyote Trail
    In highland Mexico, photographer Rachel Cobb captured visions of the Huichol, isolated Indians who take peyote religiously.

    Photo Gallery: Panama Portrait
    Jungle outposts, lost cities, Caribbean pleasure ports—photographer Brown W Cannon III exposes the Panama David Lee Roth didn't tell you about.

    TravelWise: Honduras
    Get trip-planning basics on entry requirements, weather forecasts, and more with links from Traveler magazine.

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