TravelDestinations

The 11 Best New Reasons to Visit Central America

From deserted beaches to raucous singletrack to ancient Maya ruins, these new adventures and resorts in Central America will warm you up

El Sunzal Beach in El Salvador is near the Acantilados hotel. (Laura Sausina)
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Itz’ana Resort

Belize Barrier Reef. (Daniel Holz)
Itz'ana Resort. (Valorie Darling Photography)
Itz'ana Resort. (Itz'ana Resort and Residences)

Belize

Opening in April, this retreat is a perfect base camp for exploring the best of Belize. Night-hike the world’s only jaguar reserve in search of the nocturnal cats? Check. Swim with whale sharks during their annual migration? Check. Sail to empty isles for private snorkeling sessions? Check. Float in the waters of the iconic Great Blue Hole? Check. Cast for wahoo lurking beyond one of the planet’s largest barrier reefs? Check. But good luck prying yourself away from Itz’ana’s lush 20-acre property. The 30-suite resort sits on the Placencia peninsula, a 16-mile-long finger of perfect white sand that separates a mangrove-lined lagoon from the Caribbean. It’s all too easy to spend your days bouncing from the Great House, offering one of the largest rum selections in the country, to the ceviche bar, which serves reef-to-table snapper and conch on a deck over the azure water. From $325 —Graham Averill

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Guatemalan Highland Tour

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Mountain biking in Guatemala. (Brendan James/MTB Guatemala)

Guatemala

In 2014, Vermont native Brendan James was working for a nonprofit in Guatemala when some locals loaned him a hardtail mountain bike and led him along ancient Maya paths weaving around Lake Atitlán. He found fast trails flowing through cool, alpine forests and a homegrown zeal for the sport that’s only flourished since. Today, Guatemala is becoming Central America’s premier fat-tire destination, with newly built singletrack and bike parks opening across the country. James now spends 150 days a year scouting those trails and leading trips for his guiding company, MTB Guatemala. This year he’s launching the Guatemalan Highland Tour, a seven-day, 96-mile cross-country epic with 29,000 feet of downhill. Along the way, you’ll follow livestock trails and old agricultural paths past 14th-century ruins, crash in small-town posadas, and relax in natural hot springs. From $2,375 —Tim Neville

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Mukan Resort

Tulum, Mexico. (Laura Sausina)
Mukan Resort. (Mukan Resort)

Mexico

Reaching this new eco-adventure lodge in the Riviera Maya requires a 45-minute speedboat ride through mangrove canals, so it feels far removed from the region’s hot spot of Tulum. But there are other reasons this luxurious property stands out, namely that its ten suites, bungalows, and villas are among the very few accommodations nestled inside the 1.3-million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site containing Maya ruins, a section of the 620-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef, and a jungle filled with diverse wildlife including 356 species of birds and 318 species of butterflies. Dive the reef in search of sea turtles, scout the biosphere and add threatened birds like the reddish egret to your life list, or fish for tarpon, permit, and barracuda with local guides who have plied these waters since childhood. The day’s catch is served on a dock over Sian Ka’an Lagoon. From $420 —Stephanie Pearson

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Isla Palenque

Isla Palenque (Isla Palenque)
Isla Palenque. (Isla Palenque)
Colba National Park, Panama. (Isla Palenque)

Panama

Want to play out a castaway fantasy? Newly revamped Isla Palenque, located on the pristine Gulf of Chiriquí, along the country’s Pacific coast, ticks all the right boxes—with some rather exquisite enhancements. More than half of the 400-acre private island is a nature preserve that neighbors Coiba National Park, a 38-island, 673-square-mile expanse filled with dolphins, leatherback turtles, and whitetip reef sharks. First envisioned as a safari-style camp in 2012, the resort owners reinvented it last summer by constructing eight thatch-roofed casitas just steps from seven gloriously empty beaches. Spend your days exploring reefs and nearby islands like Las Piñalitas by boat, kayak, or paddleboard, or hike to archeological sites full of pottery shards and stone tools left by the island’s pre-Colombian inhabitants. Come evening dine on local favorites like rondón, an Afro-Caribbean coconut stew, while keeping an eye out for breaching humpbacks. If you book through our travel partner Outside GO, you’ll get four nights for the price of three. From $770 for two people, all-inclusive —T.N.

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The Maya Experience, Ka’ana Resort

Ka'ana Resort. (Ka'ana Resort)
Maya ruins, Belize. (Ka'ana Resort)
Ka'ana Resort. (Ka'ana Resort)

Guatemala and Belize

Tikal, the capital of Central America’s ancient Maya civilization, was discovered in Guatemala in the mid-1800s, and its stone temples have been a popular tourist destination for de-cades. But the extensive system of roads and canals that connected Tikal to thousands of previously unknown Maya structures wasn’t uncovered until 2016, when researchers began using planes and lasers to pierce the dense jungle canopy and map what’s been dubbed the Maya Megalopolis. Fernando Paiz, whose Foundation for Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage spearheaded the research, also owns the plush Ka’ana Resort in neighboring Belize. Last spring he blended his two passions to create Ka’ana’s new Maya Experience, a deep immersion into the ancient culture. You’ll follow guides into the jungle on the way to the 77-foot-tall temple of Cahal Pech, learn to cook traditional dishes like the citrus-marinated pork known as poc chuc, or ride in a helicopter with Paiz and marvel as he recounts how the network of structures below is just beginning to be understood by archeologists. From $1,117 for two people —G.A.

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Origen Escapes

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Origen Escapes. (Diego Mejias/Origen Escapes)

Costa Rica

This country’s pura vida energy and epic surf spots aren’t a secret. But Costa Rica still has plenty of untapped terrain. Origen Escapes, a no-expenses-spared bespoke outfitter, specializes in taking clients to the country’s untouched corners. In December, Origen’s four owners—including Ofer Ketter, a former lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force, and expert waterman and Costa Rican native Felipe Artinano—used their years of expertise to launch the Transformational Travel Series, a group of one-to-two-week itineraries highlighting environmental responsibility and local conservation efforts. Adventurous travelers can swim amid a pod of spinner dolphins or raft 16 miles of jungle-shaded rapids, while citizen scientists can head off the grid with top naturalists to document new species or track migrating hammerhead sharks. From $1,200 per night —Jen Murphy

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Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort

Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort. (Sansara Resort)
Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort. (Sansara Resort)
Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort. (Sansara Resort)

Panama

While parts of Central America sometimes feel overrun with surfboard-toting gringos, Panama has maintained an undiscovered vibe, especially along the southerly Azuero peninsula. The country’s cultural heartland, this region features Spanish colonial churches, biologically diverse national parks, and some seriously great waves from December to May. Located in the sleepy village of Cambutal, Sansara’s 11 cabanas are just steps from the Pacific Ocean, and with nearby beach, point, and reef breaks, you’re sure to find the wave you’re looking for. Choose from all-inclusive weeklong surf or yoga retreats, or create your own à la carte trip filled with offshore tuna fishing, snorkeling, and afternoons spent lounging in the natural pools of a nearby waterfall. No matter which you pick, the use of bikes, SUPs, and kayaks is included in your stay. From $199 —J.M.

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Yemaya

Yemaya. (Yemaya Island Hideaway)
Yemaya. (Yemaya Island Hideaway)

Nicaragua

Political unrest in this country over the summer and fall—during which protesters clashed with security forces over government corruption—scared away so many travelers that numerous lodges and tour operators had to shutter their doors. Now, as the turmoil appears to be calming down, traveling here will help these businesses get back on their feet, and resorts that were never near the unrest are enticing visitors with deals. Consider Yemaya, a 16-bungalow hideaway on the northern tip of Little Corn Island, a carless, 1.2-square-mile dollop of sand 45 miles off the mainland in the Caribbean. The property was revamped in 2017 with five remodeled luxury suites, and it’s slated to reopen in time for the winter holiday season with cut rates of $95 per night, leaving you to splurge on sundowners from the beachside bar, in-room massages, and snorkeling trips on its 40-foot handcrafted sailboat. —T.N.

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Acantilados

El Sunzal Beach, El Salvador. (Ruby Ortiz)
El Casco at Acantilados. (Acantilados)

El Salvador

The surf-focused Salvadorean town of La Libertad has never seen anything like Acantilados. The sleek 19-room boutique hotel, which opened in November, sits cantilevered over a cliff, exponentially amping the drama of the infinity pool. Surf the classic right-hand point break of El Sunzal in the morning, with or without an expert instructor, then stave off gnawing hunger at El Casco, a renovated century-old colonial house on the property that serves pupusas, tamales, quesadillas, and nuegados—sweet Salvadorean dumplings. In the evening, soak your tired muscles in the saltwater pools, then head to the hotel’s craft-cocktail bar for a Martini Albahaca y Sandia, a mix of watermelon, basil, and vodka. Hikers should make the 90-minute drive northwest to Cerro Verde National Park and summit 7,812-foot Santa Ana, the country’s highest volcano. The view of turquoise Lake Coatepeque is worth it. From $159 —S.P.

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Honduran Coffee Route

Santa Bàrbara Mountain, Honduras. (Walter Mejia)
Copàn Ruinas, Honduras. (Chris Rogers)

Honduras

Even though crime has dropped by half over the past five years, Honduras still gets a bad rap. Wandering around the city of Tegucigalpa alone at night was never a great idea, but don’t judge a country by its capital. This fall, Central America’s second-largest nation has made it easier than ever for travelers to check out one of the things Hondurans do best: grow delicious coffee. The new Honduran Coffee Route isn’t a single road but a network of sustainable farms, regional tasting labs and research centers, and more than 60 lively cafés in six distinct growing regions. The maps and resources on the route’s website will help you craft your itinerary. Keep it simple by focusing on one region—like Copán, home to a magnificent tenth-century Maya city and seed-to-cup coffee varietals with hints of chocolate, caramel, and orange. Get a room at Hotel Marina Copán (from $124), which once catered to archeologists, and spend a morning taking a hike around Finca Santa Isabel, a 200-acre family-run coffee plantation with 85 species of birds, like white-breasted hawks and bushy-crested jays. If you’d prefer to have a guide, Copán’s Xukpi Tours can take care of housing and transportation. —T.N.

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The Whole Shebang

Oaxaca, Mexico. (Ethan Welty/Aurora Photos)
Granada, Nicaragua. (Oliver Wintzen/Alamy)

For cyclists who want to see it all—Mexico’s Maya ruins, Guatemala’s volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán, El Salvador’s sublime surf breaks, Nicaragua’s colonial cities, Costa Rica’s jungle, the Panama Canal, and the unsung spaces in between—sign up for the Mexico City to Panama City leg of TDA Global Cycling’s North American Epic. For 2019, this 2,467-mile, 40-day van- and chef-supported portion of the 9,013-mile journey has been rerouted so that all but eight miles are paved (though paved is a relative term, so bring a comfortable bike with beefy tires). From $8,000 —S.P.

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