Arenal, Tikal, Caracol: All three Central American destinations are certainly bucket-list-worthy. However, for newbies, the thought of navigating this region can seem a bit intimidating. To help you plan your own Central American getaway, we spoke to three experts to find out where first-time visitors should visit, what experiences they shouldn’t miss, what to pack, and more.
Read on for practical advice from Rob Harper, Business Development Director of Namu Travel (which specializes in customized boutique vacations in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua); Andra Howie, Product Manager at Windstar Cruises (which has itineraries in Costa Rica and the Panama Canal); and Ignacio Vallin, Product Director for Cox & Kings, The Americas (which offers guided private and small group journeys in the region).
Which country should I visit?
It’s unanimous: All three experts recommend Costa Rica for first-timers.
“Costa Rica would be top of mind since it's the most popular and has a great tourism infrastructure, which equals less culture shock,” says Harper. “Number two would be Panama, because Panama City is easy to get to and everything is in U.S. dollars, which is always a plus, and there are some great options in Panama — big city sights, the Panama Canal, beautiful beaches, [and] remote islands.”
Howie agrees. “Costa Rica and Panama are a world of natural and man-made marvels,” she says. “They are both a great option for first-time travelers.”
Vallin recommends both Costa Rica and Belize for their great infrastructure in terms of hotel accommodations, experiences, and services -- and says both have a done a great job of catering to U.S. travelers.
What are the most fascinating things I should see?
Harper strongly recommends visiting Costa Rica's national parks for their amazing rain forests, cloud forests and wildlife. He also recommends the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. “It’s fascinating, especially for history lovers. I actually like it better than Machu Picchu," he says. Additionally, he suggests visiting two beautiful, charming and historic old towns: Casco Viejo (also known as San Felipe) in Panama City and Antigua in Guatemala (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Howie suggests sticking to sights Costa Rica and Panama, since both are worth an extensive visit. Her favorites in Costa Rica are Arenal Volcano (where you can zip line, float trip, soak in the hot springs, and walk on hanging bridges), Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (which features magnificent flora and fauna, as well as cooler temperatures), and Manuel Antonio National Park (perfect for beach bums and wildlife lovers alike). In Panama, she suggests experiencing the Panama Canal via cruise.
What mistakes do other travelers make that I should avoid?
Harper says travelers miss out when they only stick to the most popular tourist attractions. “The number one mistake would be not getting off the beaten track and exploring some of the smaller places, because Central America has so much to offer every type of traveler," he says.
Howie agrees. “Eat the chocolate [and] coffee — but also, see where it comes from and how it’s made. It’s surprising what we don’t know about these foods that we adore.” Additionally, she urges first-time visitors to hire a naturalist if they don't want to miss out on under-the-radar sites and experiences.
Vallin says the biggest mistake clients make is trying to do all of the research themselves. “There are so many unique experiences that we offer, it would be a shame for clients to travel to the region and miss out on things like glamping at the ruins of Tikal, visiting private animal sanctuaries, or cooking and spending a day with a Mayan family,” he says.
What about safety—are there things and places to avoid?
Harper says travelers should always exercise the same vigilance they would in any city (i.e. not going out alone at night, keeping valuables safe, and taking safe modes of transportation). He also suggests avoiding excursions that aren’t suited to your physical condition — for example, long hikes if you've got a heart condition, or whitewater rafting if you can't swim. “There is literally something for everyone, so there isn't a need to do something out of your comfort zone,” he says.
Howie suggests working with a reputable travel company that is able to be a resource to you beyond just an entrance ticket and will give you the insight you need to make the most of your time and be safe doing it. Other tips: Have a good international phone plan with all the bells-and-whistles apps so you can know where you are, see where you need to head at all times, and have emergency contacts in your phone and written down as well.
According to Vallin, Central America has become a very safe region to travel, but he recommends that visitors keep up on the latest safety news or alerts. “I always tell clients to use common sense like you would in any part of the world,” he says.
When is the best time to visit?
All three experts pointed out that Central America has two seasons: dry season (December to April) and green season (May to November). “The whole region is best January to March, if you're just considering the weather,” Harper says. “The temperature, however, doesn't change much during the year. If you're looking for more of a bargain, try traveling in the green season, where it might rain in the morning and afternoon, but you'll still get plenty of sunshine.”
The experts also noted that the best time to visit might actually be determined by your interests — not the weather itself and depending on what you are aiming to experience, you’ll want to plan your trip around the peak activity times. For example, Vallin says that if clients want to snorkel or dive with the whale sharks in Belize, the best time to do that would be March and April.
What will I take away from a trip to Central America?
According to Harper, many visitors come back pleasantly surprised about how easy it is to travel to, from, and around the region.
Howie says, “You can’t really imagine the intensity of the colors on the resplendent quetzal, the sounds of the howler monkeys, the sand under foot, the heat in the air until you experience it for yourself,” she says. “Real life is better than the dream, so don’t miss out.”