From lush, verdant jungles to pristine white beaches,
Central America's vibrant terrain beckons with legendary beauty, culture and promise of adventure. Guests of this tropical wonderland can behold ancient Maya ruins, explore the rainforest canopy, and meet face to face with a playful bottlenose dolphin. As the region continues to gain popularity among tourists, local governments and resorts maintain strict environmental regulations to ensure protection of these precious surroundings. Still, savvy travelers will book their lodgings now, while vacationing here remains affordable and the landscape relatively untouched.
A former British colony, English-speaking Belize claims a variety of ethnic groups today - Creole, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, Garifuna and many others. Despite their disparate backgrounds, Belizeans are known for cultural tolerance and friendliness, and welcome visitors with open arms.
Divers and snorkelers know and love this Central American gem, home to the world's second largest barrier reef. Located on the Caribbean, just south of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Belize boasts unparalleled opportunities for discovery in and above water - whether diving the famous Blue Hole, taking a windsurfing lesson or scoping for crocodiles while cruising up the Sittee River.
Land adventures abound as well. The awesome Maya temples at Lamanai are a must-see, along with Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve - where shutterbugs can photograph jaguars, ocelots, pumas, howler monkeys and tapirs. Spelunkers can take their pick from numerous caving excursions, including a popular day trip called the "Black Hole Drop," which culminates in a 300-foot rappel into a jungle sinkhole.
Situated near a small tourist town on Belize's southern coast, Hopkins Bay Resort offers a luxurious spot to rest one's head after a day of eco-touring (hopkinsbayresort com).
The resort's five-star villas feature full gourmet kitchens, satellite television and private verandas. Guests can book any of several land and sea excursions, including a Mayflower Waterfalls hiking tour through the Maya Mountains. Nearby is a sister resort, Belizean Dreams, which offers spacious one- two- and three-bedroom villas with fine hand-crafted furnishings and outstanding service. (belizeandreams.com)
The Belize Tourism Board's helpful website provides a general overview of area attractions, with links to local dive outfits, reputable tour operators and transportation tips (www.travelbelize.org).
HONDURAS BAY ISLANDS
Roatán, Útila and Guanaja comprise Honduras's idyllic Bay Islands, along with a number of smaller outlying cays. Once claimed by Spain, and later by Britain, these Caribbean islands became a popular hideout for pirates during the 15th and 16th centuries. Even today, starry-eyed scuba divers scour the sea floor in search of sunken treasure.
These are the islands of movies and daydreams. Picture steep, sloping hillsides draped with jungle green, encircled by miles and miles of empty white sand. Most visitors flock to the Bay Islands to dive and snorkel the surrounding reef (and to take advantage of Utila's famously inexpensive scuba certification).
With more than 50 major dive sites, including spectacular cave and wall dives, it's easy to see why. Other outdoor pursuits include hiking through the mangroves, touring Maya ruins on the Honduras mainland, cave tubing, birding and, of course, relaxing on the beach. Visitors to Roatán, the largest and most developed of the bunch, find adventure plus all the comforts of home at Anthony's Key Resort (anthonyskey.com). A popular spot for families, AKR (as it's affectionately known) offers a number of day trips for all ages, including dolphin encounters and canopy zip-line tours. Couples seeking an intimate escape can happily disappear at the Victoria House on Ambergris Caye (victoriahouse.com). With only 42 rooms, including plantation-style suites overlooking white sand beaches, this luxurious hideaway sets the scene for romance.
The Honduras Institute of Tourism's website is a good place to start your Bay Islands travel planning (letsgohonduras.com.)
Belize Tourism Board
Radisson Fort George Hotel & Marina
Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort
Tranquility Bay Resort
Two Great Resorts One Great Vacation
Honduras Tourism Board
Roatan Charter Inc
Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort
Bananarama Dive & Beach Resort
Anthony's Key Resort
Belizean Dreams Resort
Hopkins Bay Resort
The Sanctuary Resort & Spa
Victoria House Belize
Costa Rica Tourism Board
Nature lovers fall head over heels for Costa Rica, which claims 6 percent of the world's biodiversity, according to the Costa Rica Tourism Board (visitcostarica.com). In fact, more than a quarter of the country's land is dedicated conservation area, so squirrel monkeys, macaws, three-toed sloths and other tree-dwelling locals make frequent appearances to guests trekking through the rainforests.
For an extraordinary outdoor experience, travelers head to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, perched an impressive 4,600 feet above sea level. Here, visitors can walk, ride horseback or take a zip-line tour through the trees, keeping an eye out for toucanets and the elusive resplendent quetzal.
Costa Rica's several active volcanoes offer another unique attraction. Irazu, the tallest at more than 11,000 feet, is an easy trip from capital city San Jose. Many travelers drive or climb to the Diego de la Haya crater to see the brilliant green lake there. Farther north, Arenal volcano is another popular hiking spot.
In addition to its lush inland landscape, Costa Rica also enjoys two lovely and distinct coastlines. Dotted with blackand white-sand beaches, the tranquil Caribbean side is ideal for snorkeling, sunbathing and sport fishing. To the west, the windier Pacific coast draws an international crowd of surfers. Frequent breaks, a variety of conditions and warm water make this an ideal spot for the experienced surfer and novice alike. Following a day of sand and sun, weary travelers can recharge at The Sanctuary Resort & Spa (thesanctuaryresort.com), located on the Pacific side. Along with the full-service spa, the resort features a number of special excursions - including a day trip to nearby hot springs.
Beaches, mountains, magnificent biodiversity - Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica have it all. Whether you prefer diving underwater caves, hiking through a cloud forest or lounging in a hammock, you'll find your passion here.