Underrated Escapes: 11 Beautiful Places in Central America

Planning a trip to Central America and unsure where to visit?  Spanning so many different countries, Central America is brimming with diversity, beauty, and history.  From seaside beach escapes to breathtaking ancient ruins and bustling cities to sleepy villages, this list of 12 most beautiful places in Central America will highlight some of the underrated and off the beaten path spots that should make your list when planning your next trip.

1. Flores, Guatemala

Flores is an island on Lago Petén Itzá that is connected to Santa Elena on the mainland by a narrow causeway.  There are so many reasons to visit this picturesque island – from its safe and relaxed small town vibe with narrow cobblestone streets and colonial buildings to its proximity to the ruins of Tikal and Ixpanpajul National Park, this would definitely make a unique addition to your Central American itinerary.  Hang out and people watch in the town square, walk around the island (which will only take about 30 minutes), walk across the causeway to visit the bustling Santa Elena market, check out Las Guacamayas Biological Station, head to the west side of the island to grab a boat ride, or check out the nearby National Parks to visit their ruins. However you spend it, you’re time in Flores will be memorable.

Flores, Guatemala

2. Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Semuc Champey is a collection of turquoise multi-level pools that sit on top of a natural limestone bridge smack in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle.  You can visit the pools on your own, but save yourself a very stressful and bumpy drive and join a tour group (and get to meet some other travelers while you’re at it!)  Utopia Eco-Hostel offers a great tour that will also take you on an exploratory look at the nearby Kanbah Caves.  Leave the flip flops at home and put on some solid shoes – to get to the pools you will either need to hike up a very steep hill or take the long way around for an easier stroll.  Either way, bring a bathing suit and a waterproof camera and get ready for a relaxing day in the pools.

Semuc Champey, Guatemala

3. Granada, Nicaragua

Warm year round and nestled into the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the gorgeous city of Granada draws travelers from all around the world.  Historically, this city is one of the most important in the country both economically and politically as it was once used as a major commerce port. Visit the nearby dormant Mombacho volcano, sail on the lake, go zip lining, and enjoy the colorful, colonial architecture.  Climb the beautiful Iglesia de La Merced for a panoramic view of the city, stop by the famous Granada Cathedral, relax and enjoy a boat ride to visit the Islets of Granada, and perfect your Spanish for easy travelling at Casa Nica Spanish School.

Granada, Nicaragua

4. San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

San Pedro La Laguna is a small town on the gorgeous Lake Atitlan in the Highlands of Northern Guatemala.  Dive into the volcanic lake for some swimming and rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard to explore the shoreline.  Drive to the base of Indian Noise Mountain, hike the 30 minutes to the top in the dark, then sit back, relax, and take in the beautiful sunrise over the lake.  Visit nearby Volcan San Pedro for a 3 hour climb ( with lots of stairs!) to the top for an epic  panoramic view.  After all that hiking, relax in the local thermal pools, and refuel for your next adventure by taking a cooking class for an authentic exploration of the local  Guatemalan cuisine.

5. Monteverde, Costa Rica

With so much to see and do, a trip to Costa Rica isn’t complete without a stop in Monteverde.  This small town in Puntarenas hosts the jaw dropping Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve which draws people every day from all over the world.  Perched high atop Costa Rica’s continental divide, the constant clouds provide moisture that catches on the tall trees and falls to the plethora of organisms below, which makes for a truly beautiful and unique ecosystem full of plants, animals, birds, and insects.  Visit the bat jungle, the biological reserve, the butterfly garden, check out nearby hikes like the Bosque Eterno de los Niños, and visit the San Luis waterfall.

Cloudforest Monteverde, Costa Rica

6. Leon, Nicaragua

One of the oldest cities in Nicaragua, the city of Leon is also one of the most beautiful.  Less touristy than Granada, this city is a mix of culture and proximity to gorgeous natural features which means that there will be something on the itinerary for everyone.  Check out the colonial architecture as you stroll through the old streets, hit the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian, stop by the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion, enjoy the closeness of the beaches Playa Las Penitas and Playa Poneloya, check out the nearby Ruins of Leon Viejo, and whatever you do, you MUST go 25 kilometers north of the city to Cerro Negro Volcano where you can enjoy the once in a lifetime adrenaline rush of volcano boarding.

Leon, Nicaragua

7. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Hot sun, white sand, crystal clear waters – the surf town of Santa Teresa on the West Coast of Costa Rica is the perfect place to relax, lie back, and enjoy the small town pace.  Surfers, yogis, and artists flock to this peaceful haven and enjoy a lovely mix of locals and tourists.  In the day, explore Playa Hermosa, Santa Teresa, and Carmen beaches (whether you’re a surfing pro or wannabe, the surf is some of the best in the country), snorkel, stand up paddleboard, scuba dive, kite-surf, fish, take a yoga class, or indulge in one of the many spas.  At night, wander the beach full of bonfires, listen to the live music, then do it all again the next day.

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

8. Ambergris Caye, Belize

Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize, is a gorgeous getaway.  On the island, you can do anything from visiting San Pedro, the only town on the island, to exploring a mangrove swamp and diving the Belize Barrier Reef or the exciting and unique Blue Hole – a deep circle of limestone brimming with marine life.  Need even more to do?  Visit the Hol Chan Marine Reserve for a chance to see some sharks, learn everything about American Crocodiles at the Education Sanctuary, and of course – take some time to relax on the beach and soak up the sun.

San Pedro, Belize

9. Uvita, Costa Rica

A small village in Costa Rica, Uvita is a visual feast for the eyes and a breathtaking getaway.  Found within the Marino Ballena National Park, this town is in the prime spot to watch the humpback whales that mate here every winter and spring.  With more than 3 kilometers of pure white sand, the Uvita beach is great for swimming and will show you a magnificent sunset every night.  Visit the nearby Uvita waterfall, Santa Lucia Falls, and the Oro Verde Biological Reserve.  Need a little more excitement?  Take some surf lessons, go canyoning, diving, sport fishing, take a yoga class, or take a boat ride to Caño Island.

Uvita, Costa Rica

10. Copan, Honduras

An ancient Mayan city nestled in the mountains; the gorgeous town of Copan deserves a stop when you are in Honduras.  If you’re a history buff and enjoy learning about architecture, you will love the Copan Ruinas, the Mayan Ball Court, and the Hieroglyphic Staircase.  If nature is your thing, visit the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve.  Whatever your interests, everyone can enjoy a visit to the Copan Hot Springs topped off with a night at The Tea & Chocolate Place where you can enjoy a hot drink, a local snack, and watch the sun go down.

Copan, Honduras

11. Santa Catalina, Panama

If you’re a surf nut who loves idyllic, quiet beaches surrounded by a jungle forest, head to Santa Catalina on the Chiriqui Gulf of Panama.  A little lacking in typical tourist trap amenities, the town of Santa Catalina is pleasantly off the map.  With consistent, high quality surf (as well as world class scuba diving, sailing, boating, fishing, snorkeling, and access to the Coiba National Park), you will enjoy the seclusion and the natural beauty of this sleepy fishing town.

Santa Catalina, Panama