Central America might not be the most traveled corner of the globe, but there's no question it's on the up. Thousands of tourists now flock to the beaches of Panama and the forests of Costa Rica each year, eager to spy out sloths and ride their first Pacific swells. However, there are still oodles of off-the-beaten-track spots and attractions in this S-bend between the Americas, with everything from hidden rivers to mysterious Mayan ruins on the menu for the more intrepid backpacker. Check it out…
The shimmering Celeste River of Costa Rica
Deep in the wild heartlands of Costa Rica, where the rain-soaked forests and the smoke-belching mountain cones of the Tenorio Volcano National Park loom all around, the winding Rio Celeste is a surprising slice of paradise. It rarely fails to draw a gasp from visitors on account of its bright turquoise appearance, causing the meanders to look like a glowing ribbon as they bend through the monkey-peppered tree groves. Although no one quite knows what causes the striking appearance of Celeste, it's thought that high silicon and oxygen content has something to do with it. Travellers will need to conquer a challenging 4.5-mile hike to get to the site, delving into the forests past gushing waterfalls and bubbling hot springs.
A private island in Panama
As one of the few remaining and steadfast off-the-beaten-track parts of Central America, Panama's Pacific coast promises treasures not found anywhere else in the region. One is the possibility of truly deserted islands, which can be found floundering out between the rollers of the south coast here by the bucket load. Travellers can now bed down in makeshift camping accommodation right on the beach, chop coconuts, and watch the stars glow overhead without an electric light in sight. It's all about channeling that inner Robinson Crusoe.
Backcountry Bocas by ATV
Bocas might be best known for its shimmering beaches and tropical climate, and there's no denying that's what brings the bulk of the crowds to this sand-ringed archipelago on the Carib side of Panama. However, many seem to skip over the fact that this wild region of Central America is home to oodles of protected reserves. That makes an ATV ride through the jungle paths a must. As sloths swing in the canopies overhead, woodpeckers and howler monkeys, green ibis and multi-colored parrots are all possible cameos to the safari with a difference.
The Maya mysteries of Tazumal
Anyone who's ever set foot on the hotel-peppered beaches of Mexico knows the Maya sites of Tulum and Chichen Itza. But what about the more off-beat ancient ruins of Central America's most mysterious civilization of old? Well, for those, visitors might just need to go somewhere a little less obvious. Cue Tazumal, which sits in the heart of the Salvadorian town of Chalchuapa. With stepped pyramids, colonnaded temples, and haunting burial mounds, it's packed with fascinating tales of human sacrifice and war in Mesoamerica.
Finding that inner pirate in Nica's Pearl Cays
Shiver the timbers and crack out the rum, because the Peal Cays of Nicaragua are the place to go and channel the spirit of the seafaring pirates of the Caribbean. Peppering the pearly blue waters just off the western coast of the country, they are everything you'd expect of a tropical paradise. Ivory-white sands fringed with lanky palm trees cover the shorelines, while clutches of mangrove meld with the coral gardens here and there. Beware: there's virtually no infrastructure in the Peal Cays at all, and nowhere official to bed down in – think makeshift camps and hitching rides with local fishermen!
Turquoise waters of Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Something like Guatemala's answer to the shimmering blue waters of Croatia's Plitvice Lakes, the countless splash pools of Semuc Champey are a real paradise to behold. They can be found spotting some clearings in the middle of the dense jungles of Alta Verapaz, running alongside the courses of the Cabahon River. After hiking for almost an hour into the wilds of the Guatemalan backcountry, visitors are invited to cool off in the crystal-clear waters of the Champey, which spill out over a series of limestone rocks between the occasional waterfall and thick lines of trees. Then it's possible to go underground, deep into the cave systems that sprout from the riverside, all followed – of course – by a ubiquitous bout of tubing. Nice.
Hit the waves of off-beat Uvita
If there's one thing that Costa Rica does better than anywhere else in Central America, it's surely got to be surf. (Hey, even the country cuts the same profile as a surf fin from above – well, almost.) Anyway, for some of the more off-the-beaten-track waves in the nation, it's perhaps best to shun the popular likes of Santa Teresa and Tamarindo (although these spots are world-class) and go for somewhere like sandy Uvita beach. Nestled on the Pacific in the south of the country, this undeveloped surf town has some great swells, not to mention rustic little treehouse digs to kick back in after a day's riding.
Boating across Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador
Some decades ago, boating along the surface of Lake Suchitlan wouldn’t have even been an option for travellers to the wilds of El Salvador. That's because it didn't exist – it was created in the late 1970s after the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Cerron Grande. Today, the whole reservoir has become famed for its biodiversity, with thousands of species of flowers blooming along the shores, and everything from herons to rare waterfowl alighting on the isles of El Chaparral and Los Enamorados. Oh, and ferry tickets will cost just a couple of dollars, so it's never one to break the bank!
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