If you are looking to take a tropical vacation, then you should be curious about the best beaches in Central America.
On a world map, the stretch of land connecting North and South America doesn’t seem that big. However, it is actually quite a large place with a rich history and plenty of gorgeous oceanside vistas. For it’s small size, Central America contains a diverse array of cultural, archaeological, and natural wonders. The best beaches in Central America are, arguably, the best beaches in the world.
But, what if you’ve never even considered going to Central America? Truth be told, outside of the odd reference to “Belize” in pop culture, we tend to forget about this part of the world. Sure, we hear about them in the news sometimes. The amazing people living in Central America have had a tough go of things since decolonization. But they have bounced back and opened their doors to the rest of the world.
While their leaders find their footing on the world stage, everyone else is starting to realize how magical this part of the world really is. Tourists from around the globe flock to this part of the world to lounge and play on the best beaches in Central America. We've scoped out the best beaches in Central America for your next vacation -- see the beauty for yourself!
A Bit About Central America
Central America is, technically, still part of the North American continent. All originally settled by indigenous Mesoamerican and Isthmo-Colombian peoples, the area was colonized by Europe, mostly Spain. Eventually, in the 19th Century, the countries that comprise Central America seceded from the First Mexican Empire into their own union.
That soon faded away, leaving the seven states independent. Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala left the new union in 1838. Soon after in 1841, El Salvador declared its independence. Panama became its own state in 1903, but Belize stayed in a kind of governmental limbo until 1981. Still, even though they are all independent, many of the people still feel a sense of unity with their independent neighbors.
What is the Weather Like?
The reason there are so many contenders for the best beaches in Central America is because this is a tropical region. The temperatures are consistent and warm all year round, spiking just before the rainy, summer season and reaching their lowest during the dry winters. Trade winds play a big role in this climate development, as they navigate the rocky mountain ranges lining the region. Of course, in between the mountains and on the coasts, you will find rich, fertile land. Farmers grow tobacco, coffee, and other crops people want.
Why is Central America so Special?
Central America is a unique place due to its a large tropical regions full of volcanoes. A hotbed of volcanic activity, if you’ll forgive the pun, this creates a unique opportunity for Mother Nature to play some jazz. Central America contains seven percent of the globe’s total biodiversity. Migratory birds pass through the region in the spring and autumn, and many species (including humans) used the passageway of Central America to migrate north. This has created a place where life of all kinds thrives and adapts very quickly.
Efforts have increased in recent years to protect the biodiversity of the area by creating natural preserves. Over 300 species of plants and animals in the region are threatened, with more than a third seriously endangered. Of course, this is just what we know about. There are countless species that have yet to be discovered. In Belize for example, only about ten percent of the species living on their barrier reef have been discovered and classified. It’s a global frontier.
The Best Beaches in Central America for Rest and Relaxation
While in days past, timber and other crops have been the main exports from the region, tourism drives the economy today. The whole area is beautiful, so there are many places you can go. Below we break down the best beaches in Central America for you to visit on your tropical adventure.
1. Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Lake Atitlán is one of the best beaches in Central America, and one of the few not located on the ocean. Surrounded by luxurious mountains and much of it a national park, there are a number of lakeside resorts. However, this isn’t just a region for tourism, but rather an economically and culturally important part of the region. There is no single road around the lake, so most of the travel happens over the water. In most of the villages surrounding the lake, Mayan culture is the most prevalent.
The largest of these lakeside communities is Santiago Atitlán where the local religion combined elements of Mayan myth, conquistador legend, and Catholicism into their own theology. Different religious leaders possess the town’s effigy of the god, and grand parades are held when it moves from place to place. However, there is also an American presence in the region, too. Americans regarded Lake Atitlán as one of the best beaches in Central America as far back as 1960. It became a haven for hippies and counter culture types.
The area is steeped in Mayan history, as well. There are a number of archaeological sites near the lake, meaning people have been living here for more than one thousand years. Local fisherman in Chiutinamit discovered an ancient city submerged in the water. Since 2003, the Guatemalan government supports ongoing studies of the region, specifically areas underwater.
2. Bocas Del Toro, Panama
While Panama may be most known for the Van Halen song and its canal, it should be famous for it’s beautiful waterside getaways. Some of the best beaches in Central America can be found in Bocas Del Toro. The province is mostly a chunk of mainland, but it also includes a coastal area and archipelago. There are two main towns that are attractive to tourists: Isla Colón and Isla Bastimentos. The former is the larger area while the latter is the more rural of the two.
While there are plenty of the sort of luxury resorts that one would expect at the best beaches in Central America, but there are plenty of adventures just a boat ride away. You can go to Starfish Beach, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can swim in the shallow water with hundreds of starfish. They don’t mind humans, but divers are not supposed to pick them up.
There is also a place called Sloth Island which is, again unsurprisingly, an island teeming with the adorable slow moving tree dwellers. A guide is necessary for these trips and, because they are wild, you can’t interact with the animals. But it is a great place to see these creatures as they truly live.
The island hasample history as well. Christopher Columbus, of schoolhouse rhyme fame, visited the island in 1502. The area was initially part of Costa Rica until losing the area in an armed conflict with Colombia. Yet, in 1850, the region became a part of Chiriqui, Panama, eventually separating into its own province in 1970. There are two major national parks in the region. One is near Isla Bastimentos, and the other national park is a stretch of land on the Colombian and Panamanian borders.
3. Roatán, Honduras
While the beaches in Roatán may be paradise today, the area itself has a long and often violent history. Originally “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in the early 1500s, the initial onslaught of European visitors led to exposure to disease and being sold into bondage. Initially it changed hands from the Spanish to the British when it was finally given independence in the 20th Century. Controlled by the large corporations in the area, who sold fruit, Honduras is where the term “banana republic” comes from.
Still, Roatán is one of the best beaches in Central America for its beautiful vistas, fine expanse of coastline, and the hospitality of its locals. In fact, so much does Honduras depend on Western and American tourism, English is essentially the first language of native islanders, with Spanish being the second. However, mainland Honduras speaks Spanish more predominantly than English. There is plenty to do beyond lounging on the sands. Try amazing food, art galleries, and animal preserves during your stay.
4. San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Right near the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, you can find some of the best beaches in Central America in gorgeous San Juan del Sur. The city rests on the coastline and over the past 20 years, the town of 15,000 became the tourist capital of the country. A large statue of Jesus Christ, known as Christ of the Mercy, sits on a high peak at the North end of town. The site of armed conflict between Nicaraguan and U.S. forces in 1984, the city now features American conflict of a different kind as the Survivor series often films there.
This little oceanside village has a global reach. It boasts “sister city” relationships with towns in Germany, Norway, and two in the United States, Virginia Beach, VA and Newton, Massachusetts. There are plenty of resorts and activities to entertain travelers — including a number of famous lighthouses — but it can also be a place to settle down. There is a large expatriate community in San Juan del Sur. Whether you want to visit here or move here, it's undeniable that San Juan del Sur is one of the best beaches in Central America.
5. The Ruins of Tulum, Mexico
In Tulum, Mexico there is a lengthy history of humanity on those shores. Specifically, the area is host to an awesome collection of Mayan ruins. Essentially a fortress and trading port, the Tulum ruins used to host a richly cultural community as well. There are numerous murals and other depictions of the Diving God. European explorers to the ancient ruins through the 20th century helped to build the city as it is today. While there is an active resort scene, a beach with ancient ruins over a thousand years old makes it one of the best beaches in Central America.
If you prefer more authentic living, you can go to Tulum town, but it is not very close to the water. Home to almost 20,000 residents, it’s a great place to get to know the people who live here now after learning about those who lived here centuries ago. For a familiar resort experience, hit up the beach strip. The North part of the strip is more crowded because it’s closer to the ruins, while the southern end has become a kind of new age paradise. Full of vegan eateries, yoga studios, and other relaxing and spiritual fare, you can also maybe get to know yourself a little better.
6. Palencia, Belize
This tiny peninsula near the southern end of Belize boasts its place on the best beaches in Central America list because of its beautiful white sand beaches and mangrove forests. In the 17th century, Puritan settlers from modern day Nova Scotia sailed down for a warmer climate, finding this place. The settlement eventually died out, but by the late 1800s settlers returned.
Fewer than 5,000 people live in this tiny place, with most settling in the eponymous town. However, there are plenty of settlements, Riversdale, Maya Beach, and Seine Bright villages line the coast. You can visit the lagoons, wildlife sanctuaries, and even some ancient ruins. A fishing village, the seafood in the area is truly a highlight.
In the 20th century, tourism became the driving economic force in the region. After a particularly bad hurricane in 2001 that damaged over 95 percent of the buildings, developers came into rebuild. Today, this area is one of the hottest growing communities in the region.
7. El Tunco, El Salvador
Unlike most of the locales on this list of the best beaches in Central America, El Tunco doesn’t have some long history of famous happenings. In fact, until very recently not many even knew of this little town because it is well off the beaten path. You can only get there by bus, shuttle, or private vehicle, with the closest airport more than 20 miles away. However, it has incredible nightlife, local food, and the gorgeous Tamanique waterfalls just a short hike from town.
However, it isn’t just the natural splendor of the waterfalls that draw people to this little out of the way town. It’s the surfing. All year long backpackers, surfers, and other various types who love sandy beaches and big waves come to the area. With the increase in tourism is an increase in development, as well. There are a few resorts, or you can rub elbows with your fellow travelers in the many hostels in town.
8. Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Not only does Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica have some of the best beaches in Central America, it is also one of the best national parks in the world. This place has it all: beautiful mountain ranges, white sand beaches, and lush natural beauty. Established in 1972 by the Costa Rican government, this park is actually one of the smallest in the country. Still, it packs quite a lot into a small space, earning some 150,000 annual tourists each year.
While the infrastructure to handle the level of tourism it receives is still under construction, this is a revolutionary area. Because it is a national park, developers are working to ensure that it is not destructive or too disruptive to the natural environment. There are four beaches, including one connected by a natural land bridge of accumulated sand.
As for flora and fauna, this small park has the greatest biodiversity of any in Costa Rica. They host 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds, alone. With the Poás Volcano National Park closed indefinitely because of eruptions, Manuel Antonio National Park is the destination for the Costa Rican traveler.
A Beautiful Future for One of the Most Amazing Places on Earth.
Since there are no shortage of contenders for the best beaches in Central America, you might want to visit more than one in your lifetime. After years of struggling to find their place in the world, these nations may ultimately find that literally their place in the world is what they have to offer their neighbors. The whole region is like a global work of art, and we should want to keep such a place unspoiled. In opening their nations for our leisure and relaxation, the people of Central America are giving us a great gift.
What did you think of the list? Have you been to any of these places? Share your thoughts, stories, and reactions in the comments below. Remember to share the story with your friends on social media!
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