Skip to content

Home » Blog » The Top Central American Countries to Fly to from the US

The Top Central American Countries to Fly to from the US

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. Please see our Disclosure Policy for details.

Tourists in Lake Atitlan Guatemala

American travelers are always looking for fun places to visit. If you’re of a mind to visit tropical and equatorial locations, a lot of options might come to mind. Vietnam, Singapore, or tourist destinations like Bali and the Maldives; there are plenty of wonderful places to visit.

The trouble with a lot of these is they’re all located way out in the Pacific or in Southeast Asia, and the flights out there are, well, a lot. We don’t just mean in terms of expense; you’re looking at day-long flights, lengthy layovers, and half your vacation spent on transit before you even get where you wanted to go.

Fortunately, there are places you can visit to get a similar vibe, though a vastly different culture and a lot closer to home. Central America! The question is, what are the best Central American countries to fly into from the US for a trip?

The Definition of Central America

Before digging into the countries you can visit, let’s talk about what Central America even is.

Central America is the stretch of land between North America and South America… but that’s not quite telling the whole story. Some people consider the southern border of North America to be the southern border of the United States; in other words, they classify Mexico as part of Central America. Personally, we don’t quite count it, but when you’re down in Central America, it’s easy to see why a region like the Yucatan Peninsula can be lumped together. The United Nations, in fact, considers Mexico to be part of the Central American region for statistical purposes.

Another area of contention is the island nations in the Gulf. The Caribbean is sometimes considered its own thing and sometimes lumped into Central America. This one is a little more open to interpretation.

A Beach in Boca Chica Panama

There’s also the “Middle America” definition, which includes Mexico, but also stretches south into South America and claims both Venezuela and Colombia as part of the region. In some cases it even encompasses Guyana, Suriname, and more. Most people don’t use this definition, but it’s still seen occasionally.

Since there are so few countries in Central America, rather than just give you the top five, we’ll just list them all. If you want to visit the Caribbean, you can certainly do so, but it’s not quite the same experience, so that’s better saved for another post.

Central American Travel Advisories

Central America has something of a reputation as an unsafe, drug-filled, cartel-run region, mostly due to American media portrayal. The truth is, while some of that does go on, particularly in the more rural areas, there are plenty of places that are perfectly safe to visit.

People Planning a Trip

That said, you always want to check travel advisories before you visit any foreign country. As of the time of this writing, here’s the list of the places we’re covering below:

  • Belize: Level 2, due to crime. In particular, the south side of Belize City is given a level 3.
  • Costa Rica: Level 2, also for crime. There are no special high-risk areas to avoid; just exercise general caution.
  • El Salvador: Level 3. The government of El Salvador has declared a “state of exception” that allows them to arbitrarily take actions to halt gang-related crime, which has seen US travelers randomly arrested for little or no reason.
  • Guatemala: Level 3. Guatemala does have a tourist protection program that provides increased security and additional resources to tourists, however.
  • Honduras: Level 3 due to crime, with a level 4 for Gracias a Dios, the far eastern department of the country.
  • Nicaragua: Level 3, largely because of political unrest. In particular, there has been governmental exploitation of US tourists, though usually US-Nicaraguan dual citizens more than complete foreigners.
  • Panama: Level 2 due to general crime, with level 4s for the Mosquito Gulf and the Darien region.

Remember, the state department issuing all of these advisories is taking the worst-case scenarios and presenting the strongest case against travel to these areas. Meanwhile, plenty of people – including solo women travelers – have good experiences. It’s all just information to keep in mind, and an added incentive to bring as little as possible and keep your safety and security in mind at all times.

Basically, don’t let a travel advisory scare you away from a trip of a lifetime, but don’t be too carefree in areas where crime is real.

So, where can you visit, and what can you do in these areas?

Belize

Belize has some of the best hiking in all of Central America. More than that, though, it’s a famous location for diving, with crystalline waters and the world-famous Great Blue Hole, a massive underwater sinkhole unlike anything anywhere else on earth.

Caye Caulker in Belize

Belize is a paradise if you love the water, and even on land, you can see a fantastic array of waterfalls and lagoons. There is also a range of off-shore islands dotting the coastline that you can visit to check out, including famous spots like Ambergris Caye, Tobacco Caye, and Half Moon Caye.

Really, though, if you’re visiting Belize, you’re probably doing it because you’re going to spend most of your time under the waves, snorkeling, and diving in some of the most fantastic and unique underwater expanses in the world.

Costa Rica

If Belize is the best place to visit under the waves, Costa Rica is one of the best above the water. The stunningly diverse range of landscapes you can visit, from wildlife preserves to volcano hikes to the usual tropical beaches, means there’s something for everyone who likes getting out and closer to nature. Costa Rica is also a waterfall-lovers paradise, and it’s an incredible place to visit if you want to soak in some natural hot springs.

A Person Visiting a Waterfall in Costa Rica

Since Costa Rica is one of the more generally safe areas of Central America, it’s one of the most visited by tourists, and they generally love having that tourist income. There will be more than a handful of guides, service providers, and vendors vying for your attention – and money – so you’ll never spend long wondering what to do next.

El Salvador

El Salvador is an interesting country to visit. The attractions and things to do range from mist-shrouded tropical rainforests and lakes, to well-preserved Mayan ruins and other cultural relics, to stunning hubs of civilization including old cathedrals and churches. One minute, you can be hiking up the edge of Cerro Verde volcano, and the next you can see a show in the national theater, or even visiting Joya de Ceren, a UNESCO-recognized archaeological site.

A Cathedral in El Salvador

Suchitoto, a small colonial village, is a great destination. Cerro Verde is not to be missed. Just listing out the places you can visit would take the rest of this article, so we’ll leave it there. However, suffice it to say you can spend months in El Salvador visiting all of the coolest sights and still feel like you missed something.

Guatemala

Despite how small Guatemala is on the global stage, the country is packed with things that any curious and enterprising tourist can enjoy. The local culture is one of the last surviving Mayan-descended cultures, and there’s something for everyone around the corner. Small villages, large cities, lush beaches, stunning volcanoes? It’s all there to visit, often within a few miles of one another.

The Mayan Ruins of Tikal

Antigua, the previous capital of the country, is still probably the best destination to visit for that cultural and city life experience. It’s also a great home base to use to explore the surrounding areas. The volcano hikes are definitely worth the trip, with the highest peak over 4,200 meters tall. Afterward, a quick dip in some hot springs and a stroll through Mayan ruins will leave you feeling filled with the weight of history.

Honduras

Honduras is probably the least-visited of the Central American regions, and the reputation for crime certainly doesn’t help. But, as long as you play it safe, there’s plenty you can do in the western half of the country and stay perfectly safe. One of the best things to do, in fact, is travel; in particular, Rio Cangrejal is a scenic river that winds between slow, calm sections and lighter rapids for an excellent rafting experience. Trujillo is an incredible scenic tropical beach town with that Bali feel without the flight, and the islands all around could be anywhere in the great wide ocean.

A Woman on a Beach in Honduras

Most people tend to overlook Honduras, but if you don’t want to follow the same well-beaten paths that other Central American tourists have taken before you, it’s a good option for something a little different.

Nicaragua

Another somewhat hidden gem, Nicaragua has been opening up more for tourists in recent years. In times past, it was a haven for backpackers and explorers, but expats and more traditional tourists tended to stay away. Now, as it has grown a little safer and more open, it’s a good option. Some people love it, others find it off-putting, but there’s no way to know until you get there.

The City of Granada in Nicaragua

Granada is the hub many tourists use as their starting point, and it’s also home to some of the oldest architecture in the country. The beaches are top-notch, and it has some of the best surfing in Central America if that’s your thing. Ometepe Island is an adventure of its own, with a whole-day volcano hike experience ripe for the taking. A UNESCO heritage cathedral in Leon is also a cool place to visit.

Panama

Home of the famous canal, Panama is the most well-developed area of Central America and also the last on our list of traditional Central American countries to visit. Beyond the canal itself, though, there’s plenty to see and do in the country of Panama.

Note: Is the canal worth visiting? That’s up to you. If you like seeing massive ships drift by, learning about nautical history, and seeing a hundred-year-old marvel of engineering in operation, it’s definitely one of the modern wonders of the world. If you’d rather be enjoying wildlife in a jungle hike or swimming in the waters yourself, the canal isn’t necessarily a must-see.

Panama City in Panama

Panama’s national parks and lakes are excellent venues for more flat, non-volcano nature excursions, and the BioMuseo Natural History Museum is one of the finest in the hemisphere. And, of course, Panama City is a hub of international culture as a port town, so the tourism in that melting pot is incredible.

Mexico’s Yucatan

While Mexico is hard to definitively call part of Central America, the Yucatan Peninsula is definitely a great place to visit. We’ve talked before about Cancun and the cenotes you can visit there. It’s a world-renowned destination for resorts and relaxation, so why not give it a try?

Punta Cancun

The rest of the region isn’t exceptional on the scale of the other things we’ve mentioned, but a few treks out into the wilderness might not be a bad plan to get out of the bubble of the resorts.

Tips for Visiting Central America

If you’re considering visiting Central America, there’s a lot to keep in mind. In addition to safety, remember that you’re going to be spending your time in a tropical region, and that means it’s going to be warm to hot, humid, and full of pests. Bug spray and sun protection are an absolute must-have. And, since much of what you can do in these regions is hiking, make sure you’re well-prepared to spend that time on your feet with great hiking shoes and plenty of water.

Tourists Visiting Central America

Another thing to keep in mind is that most of the coolest things you can do, including jungle hikes and volcano climbs, require a local guide. It’s easy to line one up from your hotel, and it’s almost always under $20 to do so, but it’s essential for both safety and to avoid getting lost.

You also might consider a work exchange. Work exchanges are ways to spend a few hours a day volunteering with local communities and organizations. In exchange, you get free accommodations, you’re often given free meals and other benefits, and you get to both immerse yourself in the local culture and practice your Spanish. You don’t have to join one of these exchanges to have a great time in Central America, but it’s always an option you can consider.

Posted in

You may also enjoy:

Leave a Comment





Stephen & Giselle backpacking the Sierra High Route