explore the world's second-largest barrier reef
Where: Belize Barrier Reef, Belize
Venture into an underwater world off the coast of Belize, home to the second-largest coral reef system in the world. Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize's several hundred islands, and Caye Caulker, a more budget-friendly paradise for backpackers, make for gorgeous getaways. Soak up the sun on white-sand beaches or scuba dive and snorkel alongside vibrant coral and magnificent marine life. Off the coast, you'll also discover the Great Blue Hole, a massive underwater sinkhole and the most famous dive destination in all of Belize.
witness rare wildlife in a cloud forest
Where: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde, Costa Rica
Visit one of the world's best known cloud forests for a chance to see Central America's most famous, regal bird -- the resplendent quetzal -- plus hundreds of other wildlife and plant species. Perched high atop Costa Rica's continental divide, the clouds continuously supply moisture to the forest, creating luscious flora and fauna with remote waterfalls and an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Hike to explore the jaw-droppingly beautiful cloud forest and spot howler and capuchin monkeys, while thrill-seekers can also book zip-lining and canopy tours. Take advantage of the unique opportunity to straddle the continental divide with one foot on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and the other on the Pacific side.
bike around a volcano in the rainforest
Where: Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Central America is rich in volcanoes, but Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica's northern lowlands is one of the most impressive. Until 2010, it was the most active volcano in the country. Now in a resting phase, you won't find the volcano spewing ash and lava anymore, but there's still plenty of exciting activities and stunning sights for visitors. The beautiful mountain has hiking and biking trails, geothermal springs, rivers for rafting, and a gorgeous lake nearby. With the tourism industry booming here, it's easy to book an eco-lodge and guided half-day or day-long mountain biking tour to pedal around the rainforest roads for unrivaled views of the region's natural habitats and geological wonders.
watch for humpback whales
Where: Uvita, Costa Rica
Watch for humpback whales migrating along the Pacific Coast from Costa Rica's Marino Ballena National Park, a prime spot for whales and other marine life like dolphins and turtles. Visitors have the best chance of seeing whales in September and October, but Uvita has two whale watching seasons -- from mid-July to mid-November and mid-December to mid-April. The Annual Whale and Dolphin Festival takes place during peak season in September, so spotting whales is almost guaranteed then. In the off-season, the marine park beach is still great for swimming and you can go canyoning, visit the nearby Santa Lucia Falls, or boat to Caño Island.
go whitewater rafting
Where: Pacuare River, Costa Rica
Rated one of the world's top rivers, whitewater rafting on Costa Rica's Pacuare River is a scenically stunning and exhilarating adventure to add to your bucket list. Whether you opt for a one-day or multi-day river adventure, rafting tours will guide you through some of the country's most diverse terrain, curving through lush rainforest with cascading waterfalls, deep gorges, and brilliantly colored plants, birds, and animals like jaguars, monkeys, and sloths. Add in the adrenalin-filled Class III-IV rapids, and you have an immersive tropical experience.
walk through the treetops
Where: Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica
Explore the majesty of a rainforest from a bird's eye view by traversing the Rainmaker Aerial Walkway in Costa Rica's Puntarenas Province. As Central America's first aerial walkway, it's still regarded as one of the top aerial paths for discovering the region's rich biodiversity of Morpho butterflies, varieties of birds, colorful poison-dart frog, and thousands of plant species. Begin with a river walk along the Rio Seco before ascending to the impressive canopy bridge system 20 stories above the ground. Designed for minimal forest impact, six suspension bridges span from platforms attached to massive hardwood trees.
travel through picturesque villages
Where: Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador
Wind along El Salvador's Ruta de las Flores ("The Flower Route") for picturesque colonial towns with native handicrafts and weekend food festivals touting the best pupusas (stuffed tortillas), the country's first coffee plantations, and plenty of waterfalls. Named for its serene route through the wildflower-dotted countryside (in bloom November through February), the 22-mile road weaves through five brightly colored towns: Juayua, Apaneca, Nahuizalco, Salcoatitán, and Concepción de Ataco. From Juayua, embark on the "Seven Waterfalls" tour, a six-hour hike through a series of breathtaking waterfalls. In Ataco, take a 90-minute morning coffee tour at the El Carmen coffee farm for a worthwhile introduction to world-renowned El Salvadoran coffee.
take a surf lesson
Where: Punta Roca, El Salvador, or La Libertad, El Salvador
Surfers flock to El Salvador to take advantage of the wave conditions. Punta Roca and La Libertad are two of the best places to catch a wave in Central America. Even if you've never touched a surfboard, there's room for those who are up for the challenge. With a quick board rental and surf lessons from the locals, amazing waves, and seafood as body-fuel, these beaches might turn you into a surf nut in no time.
Where: Antigua, Guatemala
Widely considered one of the best-preserved colonial cities, the historically rich, beautiful city of Antiqua is a major hub for backpackers, particularly those who want to immerse themselves in the Spanish language. The city in the central highlands of Guatemala offers an abundance of sights and activities for travelers -- from Spanish schools to pubs and restaurants to spectacular Spanish colonial architecture and prominent landmarks like the Santa Catalina Arch.
see the mayan ruins in the jungle
Where: Tikal, Guatemala
A trip to Guatemala wouldn't be complete without a visit to the steep-sided temples of Tikal. Located in the lowland rainforest of northern Guatemala, Tikal was one of the largest cities of the ancient Mayan civilization. Archaeologists estimate it once had a population of 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants. With its crumbling columns, intricate wall carvings, and five towering, ancient pyramids poking through the dense rainforest canopy -- which can be viewed and photographed from designated lookout points -- it will be an unforgettable experience.
shop central america's largest native market
Where: Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Spend a day strolling through Chichicastenango, a town (known as Chichi) in the Guatemalan highlands, for an immersive insight into Guatemala's indigenous Maya culture. Here, you'll find Central America's largest open-air craft market in a maze of stalls lining the narrow cobbled streets. Every Thursday and Sunday, craft vendors sell their wares -- from handicrafts like blankets, pottery, jewelry, and other souvenirs to phones -- to crowds of tourists and locals. While you're in town, visit the 16th-century Santo Tomás Apóstol Church, which has long been used for both for Catholic worship and Maya rituals.
take a dip in the jungle pools
Where: Semuc Champey in San Agustín Lanquín, Guatemala
A turquoise paradise of natural pools, caves, and waterfalls is tucked deep in the densely forested mountains of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. It takes some off-road forging by pickup truck or hiking to get to Semuc Champey, a collection of six tiered natural pools on limestone bridges and caves in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle, but booking a day tour with a local hostel like Utopia Eco-Hotel in the closest village, Lanquín, will get you to this idyllic spot for swimming from pool to pool, cave exploring by candlelight, and river tubing.
get up close and personal with a toucan
Where: Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve and Park in Copán Ruinas, Honduras
While the ancient Mayan city of Copán Ruinas warrants a stop when you're in Honduras for its Mayan ruins and stellar archaeological museums, it's also a great place for bird-watching. Step back in history to explore the preserved artifacts and hieroglyphics, then visit a tropical rainforest brimming with an amazing range of birds -- and the opportunity to interact with them directly. You'll spot everything from Buffon's macaws to keel-billed toucans in one of Central America's finest aviaries, Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve and Park.
visit the bay islands
Where: Bay Islands, Honduras
Spectacular, budget-friendly diving and snorkeling on the southern terminus of the world's second largest barrier reef attract visitors from around the world to Honduras' Bay Islands. Located north of the mainland in the Caribbean, the three largest of several islands -- Roatán, Utila, and Guanaja -- are each unique. As the most affordable island with 100 different dive spots to choose from, Utila is popular with backpackers. Roatán, the largest and most-visited island, is famed for its range of beach activities and dive sites with volcanic crevices. Guanaja remains remote with mountainous jungles, secluded beaches, and untouched coral reefs, though prices and lack of transportation there can be steep for most travelers.
go on an architecture tour
Where: León, Nicaragua
While it's not quite as polished as its age-old rival Granada, León is Nicaragua's political and intellectual center. It's rich in Spanish colonial architecture as well as arts and culture, and replete with students and backpackers. Whether it's on a self-guided tour or navigating the city with a local, visitors are bound to discover some of the country's most stunning architecture in León, such as the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion, the largest cathedral in Central America, as well as stunning streetscapes and thought-provoking art collections. Just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, León is also home to popular beaches like Poneloya and Las Peñitas.
surf down a volcano
Where: Cerro Negro Volcano, Nicaragua
For an adrenaline rush, travelers can head about 15 miles north of León, one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua, to experience volcano boarding the Cerro Negro, a young and active volcano. It takes about an hour to hike up to the top -- while battling the wind with a wooden board in tow -- before "surfing" down the 2,400-foot graveled slope on a board in less than three minutes (depending on how fast you want to go). From the top, it's possible to see as far as the Pacific Ocean, and views of the sun setting over the surrounding lush landscape are splendid.
tour the panama canal
Where: Panama City, Panama
Explore the a vast canal system built to allow ships passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Since opening in 1914, the legendary waterway -- comprised of artificial lakes and three sets of locks -- has been one of the modern-day wonders of the world. Witness this engineering marvel at the Miraflores locks, where you can learn about the history of the 50-mile canal and how it works at a museum. Then make Panama's vibrant capital and largest city, Panama City, your next stop. The city has a historic quarter, Casco Viejo, with charming buildings alongside the rest of its modern high-rise towers and trendy restaurants and boutiques.
sail around an archipelago
Where: San Blas Islands, Panama
Sailing around the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of nearly 400 islands and cays in the Caribbean between Panama and Colombia, is an adventure not to be missed. Whether you embark on a day trip or spend a week exploring the various, mostly uninhabited islands -- only stopping to snorkel or scuba dive along the way -- there are wallet-friendly tours for just about any budget. Indigenous people still live in this semi-autonomous region, where there are no hotels or resorts on the tiny islands. Many are only big enough for a couple dozen palm trees and some hammocks strung between them, which means that there are next to no tourists. In other words, it's paradise.