If Central America is not a region that appeals to travelers
looking for upscale hotels and five-star restaurants, it is
certainly one that finds favor with people looking for natural
history on a grand scale and five-star adventure to suit every
skill and spirit.
It is the great outdoors that first put Central America on the
adventure travel map, offering today's active travelers the finest
options such as superb barrier reef diving, world-class fishing,
whitewater rafting, rain forest hiking and kayaking. These and
other active pursuits are no longer for aficionados only, for they
have been incorporated as options to more general tour programs.
And as the marketplace is showing, one of the nicest aspects of
action-minded vacations is their family appeal.
Consider the many ways Central American destinations fill the
bill for active vacations.
Scuba diving: The Belizean barrier reef, the
hemisphere's largest, runs along the coast of Belize and provides
world-class diving. While snorkelers will enjoy marine life marvels
just off shore, the ultimate experience for divers lies three hours
from the mainland: the Blue Hole, a 480-foot depression that is
1,000 feet in diameter and offers 200-foot visibility.
There are dive resorts on Ambergris Caye, offering full
equipment, boats and instruction to the beginner or advance diver,
and snorkelers will enjoy the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the Caye.
Qualified divers often choose dive lodges on smaller out islands
such as Glover's Reef, Lighthouse Reef and the Turneffe
Mainland dive lodges lie on the southern coast near Dangriga and
Placencia where dive boats head out daily and live-aboard dive
boats -- the Aggressor for 14 to 18 passengers, the Wave Dancer for
20 divers and the 36-passenger Rembrandt Van Jijn -- take off for
popular and remote sites.
Fishing: Fly or deep-sea fishing are tops.
Among the billfish, the catches are blue marlin (November to
March), white marlin (November to May) and sailfish (March to May).
The season for tuna, bonito and shark is year-round. Bonefish and
tarpon are the prize for saltwater fly-fishermen in the flats
around the Turneffe Islands and off Ambergris Caye, and tarpon and
snook run in such jungle rivers as the Monkey River south of
Placencia. February through May are the best months for river
Hiking & Trekking: Belize's many protected
areas are networked with nature trails for trekkers and hikers, who
add to their outings with river floats and cave exploration. Among
choices is a special-interest walk, the Panti Maya Medicinal Trail
near San Ignacio, specifically marked to inform hikers of the rain
forest's richness in medicines, poisons, seasonings and food
Horseback riding: Trails throughout Belize are
available for all levels of riding ability, and Mountain Pine Ridge
in the Cayo District of western Belize is a particularly good area
for horseback treks, offered by Mountain Equestrian Trails ranch,
Windy Hill Cottages and Chaa Creek Cottages, to name a few.
Spelunking: The country's natural wonders
include a great many limestone crystal caves (many once-sacred Maya
sanctuaries) and many with underground rivers. The property of
Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort off the Western Highway from Belize City
is honeycombed with caves, and the lodge offers cave touring and
river caving by boat or an inner tube.
Scuba Diving: Dive professionals rate Costa
Rica's Cano and Cocos Islands among the world's finest dive
locations. The reef at Cano Island lies just off the Osa Peninsula,
within an easy boat ride from such lodges as Aguila de Osa and
Marenco Biological Station. Cocos Islands, 370 miles southwest of
the mainland and a favorite of dedicated dive boat expeditions, is
known for its virgin reefs and big fish. Pacific coast resorts have
snorkel equipment for guests to explore the mazes of offshore
reefs, as well as dive shops and boats.
Golf: Costa Rica is the best golfing
destination in Central America. There are 18-hole courses at the
Cariari Hotel and Country Club in San Jose; on the Pacific coast
there is a good course at Hotel Tango Mar, and presently the best
in the country is the Robert Trent Jones designed, 18-hole
championship course at the Melia Playa Conchal in Guanacaste.
Opening Dec. 1 is the Marriott Los Suenos at Jaco Beach; its
18-hole golfing ground will include nine holes through the rain
forest and a second nine along the sea.
Windsurfing: Lake Arenal has become a
year-round mecca for windsurfers, who can also find challenges on
the waters of nearby Coter Lake. Another favorite windsurf site is
Salinas Bay on the northwestern Pacific coast.
Whitewater rafting: The Reventazon River, with
rapids for river-runners of some ability, are rated from Class II
rapids (moderate) to Class V (very difficult); they offer some of
the most challenging rafting in the country. The Corobici River
provides an easier and more leisurely river excursion of Class I
and II rapids. The Pacuare River is for the adventurous, rated
Class III or IV, and the Chirriopo River (class IV at high water)
is considered one of the finest whitewater rivers in the world.
Generally, the best rafting takes place in the wet season, July
through December, but the Reventazon and Pacuare in particular are
Hiking: The country's many volcanoes provide
wonderful opportunities for hikers. In the western part of the
country, are the Santa Ana and Izalco volcanoes, while in the east,
hikers can attack such heights as the San Miguel volcano, where it
is possible to descend deep inside the cone.
In the north, hikers can ascend the Montecristo volcano inside
the national park of the same name, and in the west near the town
of Apaneca there is a gentle five-mile track that leads to Laguna
Surfing: The Pacific coasts of Central America
have several surf breaks that have earned international reputations
for those in search of the big wave. The leading one is El Zunzal,
west of the resort town of La Libertad.
Windsurfing: Lake Coatepeque is the popular
center for windsurfing, as is the Costa del Sol, with its great
Fishing: Rivers and lakes offer fine fishing
grounds, particularly the rivers of El Peten, where bass is the big
catch, and Lake Atitlan where black bass and perch are found. Lake
Izabal has the largest variety of fish, including shad and bass.
The major species of sport fish along the Caribbean coast are
tarpon and swordfish.
Hang Gliding: Hang-gliding opportunities abound
in Lake Atitlan. Takeoff sites are above the town of
Hiking & Trekking: Treks and volcano
ascents can be highlights of an outdoor vacation in Guatemala, none
more interesting than the combination of bird watching and ancient
sites presented within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The most
accessible volcano trek is up Pacaya near Antigua.
Spelunking: For avid cavers, the country's
super-cave system is the Candelaria (a seven-mile-long network) and
Lanquin Caves in Alta Verapaz. Fairly new on the spelunking circuit
is the Actun Kan (Cave of the Serpent) near the town of Santa Elena
in the El Peten region.
Whitewater rafting: Guatemala offers whitewater
river rafting from mild to wild. Trips are available on the
Cahabon, Usumacinta, Chiquibul, Motagua and Naranjo Rivers.
Expeditions may include stops at remote archaeological sites, hot
springs, caves and native villages. In particular, the Usumacinta,
the longest river in the countries of the former Maya empire, flows
from Guatemala into the Gulf of Mexico, offering a terrific routing
to see ancient ruins.
Hiking: Several pristine reserves and national
parks offer fascinating environments for hiking and observing rich
varieties of plant and animal species. La Tigra National Park near
Tegucigalpa has some of the better-developed and more challenging
trails. Cusuco near San Pedro Sula, Pico Bonito near La Ceiba and
the Celaque cloud forest near Gracias are also national parks
offering good hiking possibilities.
Horseback riding: One of the many good reasons
to stay in and around Copan Ruinas is horseback riding. It is the
way to explore the archaeological site of Los Sapos or reach Chorti
Maya villages in the area. Hotels such as Hacienda El Jaral are
among those offering riding as a regular guest activity.
Scuba Diving: Beginning 29 miles off the
Caribbean coast lie the Bay Islands and their world-class dive
sites that are part of the barrier reef shared with Belize.
Wall diving, a variety of coral and fish, and several wrecks to
dive make the islands a Western Hemisphere favorite. Beginning
divers have a good choice of certifying dive courses, and
snorkelers can be equally happy on the major islands: Roatan (the
largest), Guanaja and Utila.
Among the famous dive sites are the Enchanted Forest, planted
with black coral and sea fans; West End Wall and CoCo View Wall off
Roatan, and Captain's Crack off Guanaja. Waters are generally
clearest for diving mid-February to mid-September. There are also
live-aboard boats operating in the islands, such as the
18-passenger Bay Islands Aggressor, the 14-diver Isla Mia and the
sailing ketch Maid'en Desert with three double cabins; all have air
conditioned cabins and compressors on board.
Whitewater rafting: Honduras is something of a
paradise for both whitewater rafters and those who prefer to paddle
more gently through wildlife habitats. Rio Cangrejal near La Ceiba
is the most popular whitewater location. Rio Sico at the edge of
the jungles of La Mosquitia, and Rio Plantano deep inside La
Mosquitia are other favorites that feature trips of three or more
days. Other rivers with organized rafting include Rio Chamelecon
near San Pedro Sula.
Fishing: In this country of lakes, freshwater
fishing is excellent, and Lake Nicaragua, the world's 10th largest,
has the world's only freshwater sharks. Tarpon is the catch in
Atlantic waters, as well as in the San Juan River, on the border
with Costa Rica; the river catch is at its best from January
through June, and the San Juan also has snook. The best fishing and
deep-sea charter boats are available in San Juan del Sur, a port on
the southern Pacific coast; the big catches are marlin, sailfish
and swordfish. There is also deep-sea charter fishing available
from the Montelimar Resort, the country's five-star property.
Hiking: Highland hiking and trekking, complete
with volcano ascents, are offered throughout the country. The most
popular trails are within the Selva Negra protected areas and on
Lake Nicaragua's larger islands.
Scuba Diving: The Corn Islands in the Caribbean
(opposite the air gateway town of Bluefields) offer pristine
reef-coral diving. Big Corn Island has a professional dive center,
complete with air tanks and a certified dive master. Dive boats
also offer day trips across the seven-mile channel to Little Corn,
which some divers call about the closest to an untouched underwater
paradise as exists in the Caribbean.
Surfing: There is good Pacific surfing at
Montelimar, and south at Manzanillo Beach. Surfers also head for
the beaches near San Juan del Sur.
Fishing: Deep-sea fishing in Panama is world
class, and anglers are well-served with fishing resorts and charter
boat facilities. The big catch in these Pacific waters is marlin --
black (December through April) and striped (April through May). The
most popular deep-sea fishing areas are around the Coiba Island and
Pearl Islands archipelagos (sail fish run here January through July
and blue marlin year-round) and the waters offshore of Pinas Bay,
where over 50 world deep-sea records are held.
Other opportunities are trout fishing in the rivers running down
Volcan Baru in the Chiriqui Province, and bass fishing in Gatun
Scuba diving: While divers are not as well
catered to as anglers (there are few decompression chambers in
Panama), there is reef diving off the Atlantic coast at Portobelo
and in the waters around the San Blas Islands where the waters are
clear and reefs inviting. In Pearl Islands waters are the big
species such as whaleshark, rays, grouper and dolphin. Not for
beginners are the coral reefs of the Bastimentos Island National
Park off Bocas del Toro, where manatee and dozens of fish species
swim. Beaches and reefs in this region will delight snorkelers.
Panama also offers the Canal, certainly one of the most unique
of dive sites, with such attractions as the remains of sunken
trains from the days of construction. Another unusual site is
man-made Gatun Lake with its submerged villages.
Trekking: Panama offers perhaps the ultimate
(and the toughest) Central American trek: the Darien Gap at the end
of the Pan American Highway. Trans-Darien expeditions taking about
two weeks are available in the dry season, January to April.
Another outing for those in good condition is up the Baru Volcano
in Chiriqui Province; early morning is recommended for the best
views of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Easier hikes are closer to Panama City on trails through the
rain forest of the 3,800-acre Barro Colorado Island.
Whitewater rafting: The Chiriqui River is open
to Class II to IV rafting December through April. The run is about
five hours, with waters running near the town of Boquete.