Central America: Experiencing the Destination

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.

Belize

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 Islands.

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 fishing.

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 products.

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.

Costa Rica

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 year-round rivers.

El Salvador

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 Verde.

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 Pacific rollers.

Guatemala

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 Panajachel.

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.

Honduras

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.

Nicaragua

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.

Panama

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 Lake.

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.

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