Start \ Regions and countries \ North America \

Central America

Main attractions

Ruins of Tikal in the endless forests of Petén, Guatemala
Ruins of Tikal in the endless forests of Petén, Guatemala / Dennis Jarvis, / CC BY-SA 2.0

The beautiful Central American countries represent a transition: land bridge between the enormous North American and South American continents, narrow divide between Atlantic and Pacific oceans and meeting point of the mysterious, grand civilizations of the past and the rich European heritage.

Natural and cultural heritage of this region is very rich and by far - not fully studied yet. The highlights of Central America are:

  • Archaeological heritage, especially - heritage of Maya civilization. One of the great civilizations of the world developed in the northern part of Central America more than 2000 years ago. Maya have left many thousands of amazing landmarks and new ones are discovered every month. In every Central American country are found landmarks made by other developed cultures as well.
  • Biodiversity values - biological diversity of Central American countries is one of the highest in the world. Several large tropical forests still exist in Central America, although human activities are diminishing them. Unique biotopes have developed on isolated summits of mountains and some islands.
  • Historical cities and architecture - first European built cities in mainland America were built in Central America. Central American countries are proud owners of amazing cities, churches and other buildings in Renaissance, Baroque and later historical styles.

Natural landmarks

Volcanoes and geothermal fields

Arenal volcano in night, Costa Rica
Arenal volcano in night, Costa Rica / Photo Courtesy of CostaRicaPhotos.com
  • Arenal Volcano - Costa Rica, Alajuela. 1,670 m high volcano with perfect conical form. One of the most active volcanos in the world, very often offering a beautiful sight of red-glowing lava flowing down its slopes.
  • Concepción volcano on Ometepe - Nicaragua, Rivas. Perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone, rising almost 1.6 km above the lake, thus turning Ometepe island into the highest lake island in the world.
  • Masaya volcano and its acid rain - Nicaragua, Masaya. Very active and unusual volcano (635 m) with several active craters. One crater contains molten lava. Santiago crater emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide, which created acid rain and eliminated vegetation around the volcano.
  • Las Hornillas - Costa Rica, Guanacaste. Geothermal field at Miravalles Volcano with fumaroles and pools of boiling mud in different colors. Often it is mentioned that here are located also small geysers, but there is no proof to it.
  • Poás volcano - Costa Rica, Alajuela. 2,708 m high, very active and unusual volcano. Contains Laguna Caliente - lake of extreme acidity reaching up to 0.0 of pH, filled with acid-sulphate-chloride brine of light green color. Lake is up to 50 m deep, 300 m wide, temperature: 22 - 94 °C. Frequent phreatic eruptions may eject this acid up to 1 kilometre high. Sometimes this effect is considered to be a kind of geyser activity but the mechanism behind this phenomenon is different than in true geysers. Another unique phenomenon linked to this monument is acid clouds of Poás Volcano. Around the Laguna Caliente and for several kilometres down from it all the vegetation is stunted brown and black by the extremely acid clouds coming from this lake. As a result here exists one of the most weird "elfin forests" of the world, often adorned with beautiful flowers.

Caves

  • Chiquibul Cave System - Belize, Cayo District and Guatemala, Petén. Group of giant caves, one of the longest cave systems in Central America. Earlier served also as an underground bed for Chiquibul River. Contains some of the largest known cave passages (often 100 m wide and 50 m high) and rooms (Belize Chamber - 200 m wide and tall) in Western Hemisphere, countless dripstone formations. Total length of hydrologically linked explored passages - 97 km. Four largest caves are - Actun Kabal, Actun Tun Kul, Cebada Cave and Xibalba. Contains Maya artefacts.
  • Giant Cave at Caye Caulker - Belize, Belize District. Undersea cave, visited by cave divers only few times and... each of the teams returned with different data. One investigation shows that passages of this cave have a total length of 3,116 m, thus making it the longest known seawater filled cave. Another exploration shows that this cave is 600 m wide cave chamber - contender to be the largest cave chamber in the world.
  • Great Blue Hole - Belize District, Belize. Perfectly round undersea sinkhole, 318 metres across and 124 metres deep. Contains tilted stalactites possibly hinting at tectonic movements.
Semuc Champey tufa terraces, Guatemala
Semuc Champey tufa terraces, Guatemala / Mickaël T, / CC BY 2.0

Waterfalls

  • Hidden Valley Falls - Belize, Cayo District. More than 450 metres high waterfall. In the upper reaches of the waterfall there is a unique growth of fir, while down below there is a tropical jungle.
  • La Cascada Kiki - Panama, Chiriquí. Powerful waterfall with a vertical plunge. Reportedly the tallest waterfall in Panama.
  • Semuc Champey - Guatemala, Alta Verapaz. Tufa terraces over a 300 m long section of Cahabòn River, forming a group of small, emerald colored pools. These pools are in a deep, dangerous canyon and end with a cave, where the river disappears.
  • Waterfalls of Rio Celeste - Costa Rica, Guanacaste. Unique waterfall formed by thermal waters containing much lime and sulphur. The pool below the fall is sky blue, while the background of the approximately 30 m tall falls is colored orange by travertine and iron salts. Sometimes even the falling water is colored in glowing blue color what is an amazing sight.
  • Yamaranguila Falls - Honduras, Intibucá. 120 m tall, free falling waterfall. Considered to be the tallest in Honduras.

Ecosystems

Cloud forest of Mombacho, Nicaragua
Cloud forest of Mombacho, Nicaragua / Brian Johnson & Dane Kantner, / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Cerro Pirre elfin forest (Serranía de Pirre forest, Alturas de Nique) - Panama, Darién. Beautiful, stunted montane forest at the height of 1100 - 1200 m. Here live endemic species of birds, other animals, plants. Area still is poorly researched.
  • Cloud forest of Maderas - Nicaragua, Rivas. One of the two places in the Pacific side of Nicaragua, where cloud forest grows on the very fertile volcanic ground. This forest has developed around the summit of Maderas volcano (1,394 m) on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua and is very rich with rare species. According to the local legends, this misty forest is inhabited by fairies and spirits.
  • Monteverde cloud forest - Costa Rica, Puntarenas. Cloud forest with extremely high biological diversity. Nature reserve Bosque Nuboso Monteverde has the highest diversity of orchids in the world with more than 500 species, 34 new species were discovered in this forest. Here are found more than 2,500 plant species, 400 bird species and numerous other organisms.
  • Rainforest of Cocos Island - Costa Rica, Puntarenas. Very picturesque, 24 km² large island with high number of endemic species of plants and animals. The only island rainforest in the eastern part of Pacific Ocean. At higher elevations grow even cloud forests. Forests contain 70 endemic species of flowering plants, 65 endemic insects, two endemic lizards, three endemic birds and numerous other endemic organisms.

Finds of gemstones

  • Jadeite mines near El Ciprés - Guatemala, Zacapa. Some of the best finds of Maya jadeite - beautiful green gemstone of great importance to ancient Mesoamerican cultures.
  • Tablon mine of seam opals - Honduras, Lempira. Some of the most beautiful and expensive opals in the world, with extremely bright iridescence. May cost up to 5,000 USD per carat.

Man made landmarks

Maya cities

Copan, drawing of stelae by F.Catherwood
Stela D in Copán, Honduras / Drawing by Frederick Catherwood, 1844.
  • Caracol - Belize, Cayo District. The most important Mayan centre in the area of present day Belize. Inhabited since 1200 BC, flourished in 485 - 889 AD. At its heyday covered an area of 168 km². Contains the highest pyramid in Belize - Caana, some 45 m tall.
  • Copán – Honduras, Copán. Remnants of Maya city which flourished in the 5th – 9th centuries AD, when Copán was a capital city. City was located on the south-eastern border of Maya realm, surrounded by non-Maya peoples. City covered area of more than 250 km² and had population of more than 20,000 people. Abandoned around the 10th century AD. Here have been preserved stelas of high artistic quality, as well as the Rosalila temple and numerous other structures and artwork.
  • El Mirador - Guatemala, Petén. Ruins of the largest Maya city which flourished in the 3rd century BC - 150 AD, last time abandoned around the 9th century AD. At times here were living more than 100 000 people - thus it was one of the largest cities in the world then. Central part of the city takes some 26 km². Tallest pyramids are more than 70 m tall (La Danta) and belong to the largest constructions in the ancient world. There are other enormous pyramids: El Tigre is 55 m tall, Los Monos - 48 m tall. City is connected to the neighboring cities with magnificent straight roads - sacbeob.
  • El Tintal - Guatemala, Petén. Ruins of major Maya city where enormous buildings were constructed. Flourished in 300 BC - 150 AD. Tallest pyramid - Catzin in La Isla complex - is 50 m tall.
  • Joya de Cerén - El Salvador, La Libertad. Maya settlement, buried under 4 - 8 m thick layer of volcanic ash which was erupted by Loma crater around 610 - 670 AD. Buildings and home untensils have been preserved in exceptionally good condition and provide valuable information about the daily lives of people in this community. Even cultivated fields of maize, agave and other herbs have been preserved.
  • Quiriguá - Guatemala, Izabal. Ruins of a very interesting Maya city, which was founded around 200 AD and abandoned by 850 AD. Here have been preserved some of most elaborate stone sculptures in Central America and the tallest prehistoric stone sculptures in America. Stela E is 10.6 m tall and weighs approximately 65 tons, it has been brought from quarries 5 km away. Some other stelas are very large as well. Site contains sculpted Maya calendars which have provided much knowledge about this civilization.
  • San Bartolo - Guatemala, Petén. Remnants of interesting, old Maya city. City contains 26 m tall pyramid Las Ventanas, which was built from 300 BC to 50 AD. Las Pinturas temple contains unique murals with religious content which seem to be influenced by Olmec art. Found also samples of early, undeciphered Maya script.
  • Xunantunich, El Castillo
    El Castillo in Xunantunich, Belize / , Flickr, CC BY 2.0
    Seibal - Guatemala, Petén. Ruins of large and important Maya city. City was inhabited in 400 BC - 200 AD, then for some time it was in decline and flourished again in the 9th century, when here lived up to 10,000 people. Found remnants of thousands of buildings, last monuments were built in 889 AD.
  • Tikal - Guatemala, Petén. One of the largest and most important cities of Maya civilization. City flourished in the 3rd - 10th century AD. City contains impressive complex of ruined structures, including Temple IV - 64.6 m tall structure and 47 m high pyramid. Numerous art values - stelae, burials.
  • Xunantunich - Belize, Cayo District. Important Mayan city of Classical era, 200 - 900 AD. Contains numerous buildings, the best known is the 40 m tall El Castillo pyramid. Also site of legends: even the present name of this site stems from deterrent ghost - white dressed women with red glowing eyes seen at El Castillo.

Other Pre-Columbian settlements

  • Barriles - Panama, Chiriquí. Possible ceremonial centre and settlement, which was used roughly in 500 - 1000 AD. Here have been found very interesting, large stone statues. Statues show men, some with conical hats, there are also barrel-shaped stones.
  • Guayabo de Turrialba - Costa Rica, Cartago. Most impressive archaeological monument in Costa Rica: large city or ceremonial centre with an area of 218 ha. It was inhabited in 1000 BC - 1400 AD, around 800 AD here lived some 10,000 poeople. Site contains remnants of stone structures, paved streets and plazas, complex aqueducts, bridges. Here are located also the mysterious round stone balls characteristic for this region. Here have been found numerous petroglyphs which show animals, geometric figures and possible conceptual signs of proto-writing. Found also numerous golden items.
  • Monte Alto - Guatemala, Escuintla. Ruins of settlement, which was established by an early Mesoamerican culture around 1800 BC, regional centre in 400 BC - 200 AD. Here have been found 45 large structures, the largest is 20 m tall pyramid. In the site have been found interesting sculptures which may have been carved according to their magnetic properties.
  • Takalik Abaj (Tak'alik Ab'aj) - Guatemala, Retalhuleu. Ruins of an interesting Pre-Columbian city which bears influences of both Olmec and Maya civilizations. City flourished in the 9th century BC - 10th century AD. Here have been found colossal head sculptures typical for Olmecs, petroglyphs, some of the earliest Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions and impressive Maya structures.

Pre-Columbian temples

Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal, Guatemala
Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal, Guatemala / Walter Rodriguez, / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • El Diablo temple in El Zotz - Guatemala, Petén. 45 m tall temple, located on the tallest outcrop in this fortified Maya city. Here is located also natural cave where hundreds of thousands of bats live. Workmanship of this temple is of high quality. Royal burial from the late 4th centtury AD was found here in 2010.
  • El Tigre temple in El Mirador - Guatemala, Petén. Enormous structure topped with 55.8 m tall Maya pyramid, constructed in the 1st century AD.
  • La Danta temple in El Mirador - Guatemala, Petén. Possibly the largest ancient man made structure in the world, 70 m tall Maya shrine, the tallest structure in Pre-Columbian America. 2.8 million cubic meters of building materials have been used for it. Constructed in the 1st century AD.
  • Tikal Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest) - Guatemala, Petén. Approximately 55 m tall pyramid, built around 810 AD, possible burial site of ruler Dark Sun. Last major centre in Tikal.
  • Tikal Temple IV - Guatemala, Petén. 64.6 m tall pyramid, 190,000 m³ of construction material has been used for this structure. Built in 741 AD, possible burial site of Yik'in Chan K'awiil.
  • Tikal Temple V - Guatemala, Petén. 57 m tall pyramid, built roughly in 700 AD. Offerings and burials of huge importance for science have been found here.

Maya burial caves

  • Actun Tunichil Muknal - Belize, Cayo District. Important Maya sacrifice cave with skeletons of sacrificed victims. Includes the famous "Crystal Maiden" - crystallized, sparkling skeleton of a girl and dripstone formations modified by Maya to resemble human faces and animals.
  • Naj Tunich - Guatemala, Petén. Unusual Maya archaeological monument in a cave, extremely rich with artefacts. Buildings inside the cave, the only known masonry tombs of elite inside a cave known to science, petroglyphs, inscriptions.
  • Talgua Caves (The Cave of the Glowing Skulls) – Honduras, Olancho. Important burial cave of culture which developed on the border of early Maya realm. Bones have been deposited here around 1000 – 900 BC and since then often have been covered and cemented to the ground with glittering crystals of calcite. Found 23 burials, most of them have more than one person. Found also more than 20 ceramic vessels. Near the caves have been found traces of important settlement.

Other archaeological monuments

Spheres on Isla del Caño, Costa Rica
Stone spheres on Isla del Caño, Boruca cemetery, Costa Rica / Photo Courtesy of CostaRicaPhotos.com
  • Cancuén palace - Guatemala, Petén. Ruins of the largest Maya palace, located in Cancuén - once important city. Palace was constructed around 770 AD, initially some 200 rooms in a complex with area of 23,000 m² was found but now it is considered that it was much larger.
  • Diquis Valley Spheres and Spheres on Isla del Caño - Costa Rica, Puntarenas. Very unusual monument - perfectly round stone (granite) spheres, some up to 16 tons heavy. This is an ancient monument, although exact timing and culture are unknown. Many spheres in Isla del Caño are still in their original place - some are located in an ancient cemetery of Boruca people. Spheres have been found also in some remote parts of Osa Peninsula.
  • Isla El Muerto - Nicaragua, Granada. Small island near Zapatera. Cliffs of this small island are covered with large panels of Pre-Columbian rock art, mostly stylised animals, birds and humans. Also stone statues have been found here.
  • Possible Maya bridge at Yaxchilan – Guatemala, Petén un Mexico, Chiapas. Structures at the banks of Usumacinta River and in the middle of it hint at existance of the longest bridge of the ancient world. Bridge was approximately 200 m long and had two pylons in the river.
  • Sculptures and petroglyphs of Maderas - Nicaragua, Rivas. On the northern slopes of Maderas volcano in the cloud forest are found large basalt statues and petroglyphs. Oldest artefacts are from 300 BC. Whole Ometepe Island is very rich with archaeological heritage, most of it - very diverse petroglyphs.

Historical cities

Historical centre of Granada, Nicaragua
Historical centre of Granada, Nicaragua / Carlos Adampol Galindo, / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Antigua Guatemala - Guatemala, Sacatepéquez. Historical city with well preserved and beautiful buildings in Baroque and Mudejar style, one of most beautiful historical cities in Americas. This was the third capital of Guatemala, established in 1543 and destroyed by earthquake in 1717, when more than 3,000 buildings collapsed. City was destroyed once more in 1773. Since then the capital of Guatemala is in Guatemala City.
  • León Viejo - Nicaragua, León. Initial location of the city of León, which was founded here in 1524. It experienced frequent damage from volcanic and earthquake activity and in 1610, after a popular consultation it was decided to move the city to its present location. Old city was gradually buried under volcanic ash and rediscovered only in 1967. City has been preserved very well, without any alterations in its original planning, but the structures have been much damaged by earthquakes and storms.
  • Historical centre of Granada - Nicaragua, Granada. One of the most beautiful historical cities in Central America, with some 376 historical buildings. Established in 1524 - one of the earliest European cities in America which was a recognized urban centre since early years of its history. The architecture of historical buildings in this city bears Moorish and Andalusian influence. City is a historical rival of León - Managua is choosen as a capital city in order to settle the eternal fight of power between León and Granada.
  • Historical centre of León - Nicaragua, León. In the central part of this colonial city have been preserved numerous ornate and interesting buildings in Castilian style. Founded in the present site in 1610, university city since the 1813.
  • Mamitupo, Soledad Miria and other densely inhabited islands of San Blas Archipelago - Panama, Guna Yala. Mamitupo and several other small Caribbean islands at Panama are densely covered with wooden buildings of Guna people.
  • Panamá Viejo - Panama, Panamá. The oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of Americas, founded in 1519 and abandoned in the mid-17th century. City had a Renaissance planning with rectilinear street network. Ruins of historical buildings remain in this otherwise unbuilt area.
  • Portobelo - Panama, Colón. Small historical city on Caribbean coast of Panama, built as a part of Spanish trade route. Contains many valuable historical buildings from the 16th - 19th century. Around the city are many fortifications from the 16th - 18th century.
  • Tayasal - Old Flores (Noh Petén) - Guatemala, Petén. Last Maya city - Tayasal - existed on the island in Lake Peten Itza. It was conquered in 1697 and contemporary Flores city was developed here instead. Nowadays this small island is densely built area with many historical buildings.

Churches

Santo Tomás Church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Santo Tomás Church on the top of Maya pyramid in Chichicastenango, Guatemala / chensiyuan, / CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Cathedral of Guatemala - Guatemala, Guatemala City. Enormous cathedral in late Baroque - Neo-Classicism style. Main part was built in 1782 - 1815, towers were completed in 1867.
  • Cathedral of the Assumption, León - Nicaragua, León. Beautiful cathedral in Baroque - Neo-Classicism style, built in 1747 - 1814. The largest church building in Central America which forms a part of the identity of Nicaragua. Numerous tunnels connect this cathedral to other buildings in the city.
  • Chapel of San Jacinto - Guatemala, Quetzaltenango. One of the oldest churches in Central America, founded in 1524. The crooked, sophisticated building is an interesting example of Spanish colonial architecture.
  • La Merced Church in Antigua Guatemala - Guatemala, Sacatepéquez. Beautiful Baroque church, built in 1749 - 1767 and designed to withstand earthquakes.
  • Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama - Panama, Panamá. Ornate cathedral in Baroque style, constructed in 1668 - 1796.
  • Natá Church - Panama, Coclé. Possibly the oldest church in Panama and mainland America, founded by the Spanish in May 20 1522. This beautiful Renaissance - Baroque structure is in good condition.
  • Santo Tomás Church in Chichicastenango - Guatemala, El Quiché. Church in Renaissance style, built in 1545 on the top of Maya temple platform. Steps of Maya pyramid are revered by Maya up to this day. Nearby is a sacred, carved stone Cofradia of Pascual Abaj.

Museums

  • Museo de Jade - Costa Rica, San José. World's largest collection of American jade, contains numerous items of high archaeological and artistic value.
  • Museo Popol Vuh - Guatemala, Guatemala City. One of the largest collections of Maya art in the world. Contains a collection of Maya ceramics, small stone sculptures.
Bridge of the Americas, Panama
Bridge of the Americas, Panama / Jeff Dooley, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Other man made structures

  • Bridge of the Americas - Panama, Panamá. Iconic bridge across the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. This cantilever bridge is 1,654 m long, with 61.3 m clearance. Constructed in 1962.
  • Fort San Lorenzo - Panama, Colón. Beautiful example of the military architecture from the 16th - 17th century, part of Spanish transatlantic trade route. Construction was started in 1598, fort abandoned in 1821.

List of described attractions by countries

Central America consists of the following 7 countries:

Belize
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Guatemala
Honduras
Nicaragua
Panama

Clipperton Island (France) - small, remote island in the Pacific also is reviewed together with this region. It is outside the map on this page.

Map of Central America

Your thoughts?