On a small slip of land fronting the Caribbean Sea, Belize is home to seven large and distinct ethnic groups as varied as the Maya and the Mennonites. Everyone lives side by side harmoniously, perhaps because in Belize the culture is Central American, but the vibe is unmistakably Caribbean. English is the language and laid-back is the lifestyle.
The land may be compact, but Belize houses more plant and animal species than exist in the United States and Canada combined, many protected on a vast number of natural parks and reserves. Belize also boasts the highest concentration of Maya historical sites in Central America.
Offshore, Belize's vibrant coral reefs (part of the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere) acts as a diving Disneyland for visitors. Don't be discouraged by a lack of scuba certifi cation, though, as the reef is just as easily enjoyed by snorkeling, sailing, fishing or merely looking at it from one of the many offshore cays. Rent a golf cart to get around the unpaved roads of San Pedro Town at the south end of Ambergris Caye, just a 20-minute puddle jump from Belize City and host to the most visitors in Belize. Caye Caulker, a smaller pedestrian island is a 15-minute puddle jump back in time where the main mode of transportation is walking.
The second-largest nation in Central America, Honduras offers a landscape both dramatic and dramatically varied. The black-sand beaches of the Pacific Coast and the white-sand beaches of the Caribbean Coast are divided by high, pinecovered mountains. With rustic charm, Honduras offers low-key and inexpensive travel like few places left on the planet. Tourism developed slowly here, meaning things were carefully planned. Eco-tourism is wildly popular, protecting the indigenous culture and natural heritage.
Spanish is the official language, though English is widely spoken, especially on the Bay Islands. Roatán, the largest of the islands, is surrounded by the rich coral reef, making amazing diving and snorkeling a must. Scuba newbies looking for certification flock to Utila, the island known as a "certification destination" for its easy, inexpensive training in ideal underwater conditions. Catering to a more elite crowd, Guanaja wows visitors with hikes through the tall, unique Caribbean pine forests.
On the mainland, Copán Ruinas, located on the northwestern border near Guatemala, is known as the Athens of the Maya civilization, showcasing the most advanced sculpture in the Maya world.
SEE IT ALL
A mecca for over a million surfers and nature lovers a year, Costa Rica knows a thing or two about entertaining visitors. The local motto, "Pura Vida" or "Pure Life" perfectly sums up the vibe laid-back enough to lack an army. With beaches, cloud forests and volcanoes, the varied topography acts as an outdoor playground. Catch a surf at Playa Tamarindo on the Pacific Coast; relax in natural hot springs in La Fortuna at the base of the active Volcán Arenal; zip-line through the cloud forests of Montevedre; or chill out to reggae beats on the mellow Caribbean Coast.
The time to visit Panama is now - the word is out and in a few years the landscape could be quite different. Thinking about Panama without thinking about the canal might be impossible - visiting the country without seeing the engineering feat would be a shame. But the raw, natural beauty of Panama, especially the incredible number of bird species, begs to be explored. Offshore, the famous archipelago Bocas del Toro has six verdant islands. Isla Colón, the largest and most visited, is a great jumping-off point for exploring the islets by water taxi. Nearby Isla Bastimentos is quieter, with an infectious, laid-back Caribbean feel.
The people of Guatemala are kind and patient, making every journey to this volcanic wonderland a pleasure. Indigenous Maya account for nearly half of the population and the sense of history is inescapable. Join a cycling group to explore the many traditional villages of the country's highlands; climb the active Volcán PaCayeea; or cave around Lago de Atitlán, a volcano-lined lake. As a last stop, see Tikal. Shrouded in jungle vegetation, this ancient Maya site is nothing short of surreal.
Like a Hollywood starlet, Nicaragua is being touted as the next big thing. Formerly known for civil unrest, Nicaragua is now one of the safest places to travel in Central America. From the restored colonial towns of Granada and León to the unmistakable Caribbean look and feel of the Corn Islands, a trip to Nicaragua is a matchless experience. One of the most unique islands on the planet, Isla de Ometepe, was formed by lava fl ow from two volcanoes. El Salvador is the most industrialized nation in Central America, but hikers revel in hard-earned ocean vistas in the Parque Nacional El Imposible, and surfers fl ock to Punta Roca, touted as Central America's best wave.
Belize Tourist Board
Ara Macao Resort & Marina
Belize Legacy Resort
Blackbird Caye Resort
Hamansai Adventure &
Hopkins Bay Resort
Coco Plum Island Resort
The Placencia Hotel and Residences
Radisson Fort George Hotel & Marina
Ramon's Village Resort
Hondurus Tourist Board
Anthony's Key Resort
Hotel Henry Morgan
Ocean Village Caribbean
Reef View Villas at Sandy Bay
Roatan Charter, Inc.
Turquoise Bay Dive & Beach Resort
By: Elizabeth Tippet, Photos by: Tony Rath and Panama Tourism Board