25 Hidden Gems in Central America

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Central America is a land of captivating contrast, where vibrant cultures intersect with breathtaking landscapes. A wealth of hidden gems are waiting to be discovered, from ancient Mayan ruins to pristine beaches, thriving rainforests, and cultural landmarks. 

While many people are drawn to the popular tourist destinations, there are many lesser-known gems that are just waiting to be explored. In this post, we will be uncovering 25 hidden gems in Central America that are off the beaten path, providing an opportunity to experience the region’s unique culture, history, and natural wonders that are often overlooked by the mainstream traveler.

So, pack your bags and get ready to discover some of the best-kept secrets of Central America!

1. Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Ometepe is a large island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.

The island is home to two active volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, as well as flourishing rainforests, sandy beaches, and pre-Columbian petroglyphs. You can hike to the summit of the volcanoes, swim in natural springs and waterfalls, and explore the island’s unique culture, which combines indigenous traditions with Spanish colonial influences and expat hippies.

Ometepe is a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers in Nicaragua.

2. Xunantunich Mayan Ruins, Belize

Xunantunich Mayan Ruins is a significant archaeological site in western Belize that showcases the rich Maya civilization.

The site is home to several impressive structures, including El Castillo, a towering pyramid that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding jungle. Explore the ball courts, plazas, and temples that have been well-preserved over the centuries. The site’s name means “Stone Woman” in the local Maya language and is named after a ghostly apparition that is said to haunt the site. Spooky.

3. Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker is a small island off the coast of Belize in the Caribbean known for its laid-back atmosphere and clear blue waters, making it a popular destination for snorkeling and diving. Relax in the island’s cafes, bars, and restaurants, which serve fresh seafood and local delicacies (especially during lobster season).

The island’s motto, “go slow,” is a reminder to take it easy and enjoy the island’s natural beauty and charm.

4. Flores, Guatemala

Flores is a small island town situated on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala and is surrounded by thriving rainforest and ancient Mayan ruins.

Flores is known for its colorful colonial architecture, vibrant markets, and lively atmosphere. Explore the town’s charming streets, sample traditional cuisine, and visit nearby archaeological sites, such as the famous Tikal ruins.

5. Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The Corn Islands are two small, idyllic islands located off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

The islands are known for their crystal-clear waters, white sandy beaches, and chill vibes. Enjoy snorkeling and diving in the coral reefs, fishing for lobster, and sampling the local cuisine, which is influenced by both Caribbean and Nicaraguan flavors.

The Corn Islands are a little difficult to get to, keeping this Central American hidden gem under the radar. But once you get there, the islands are a perfect destination for those looking to escape the crowds and enjoy a peaceful island getaway.

Related read: Benefits of giving back whilst on vacation

6. El Tunco, El Salvador

This bohemian beach town in El Salvador is a sensory delight, awash with colorful sunsets, pounding surf, and the scent of pupusas wafting on the breeze.

El Tunco is known for its laid-back surfer vibes and stunning sunsets and is popular among surfers looking for warm waters and consistent waves year-round. It is a dream destination where days are spent chasing waves or exploring nearby waterfalls and volcanoes, while evenings are reserved for soaking up the lively local nightlife. El Tunco is a must-visit destination for surfers and travelers seeking a relaxed beach town atmosphere.

This Central American town might be a hidden gem for now, but at this rate, it won’t stay hidden for long. Discover more about El Tunco.

7. Volcan Masaya, Nicaragua

Volcan Masaya is an active volcano known for its impressive lava lake and surrounding views. You hike to the edge of the crater and observe the bubbling lava below; a mesmerizing and unique sight.

The volcano is also home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including several species of birds, bats, and monkeys, in the nearby Masaya Volcano National Park, which encompasses the volcano and surrounding forests.

8. La Fortuna Waterfall, Costa Rica

La Fortuna Waterfall is a stunning waterfall located near the town of La Fortuna in Costa Rica. The waterfall drops over 200 feet (60 meters) into a natural pool, surrounded by dense rainforest and towering cliffs.

Visitors can hike to the waterfall through the rainforest, and swim in the refreshing pool below the waterfall (it’s a pretty crazy experience). The area is also home to a variety of wildlife, including howler monkeys, toucans, and butterflies, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and hikers.

La Fortuna Waterfall is a must-visit attraction for anyone traveling to Costa Rica.

9. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

An ancient Mayan city located in the northern region of Guatemala, Tikal National Park is known for its impressive pyramids, temples, and other architectural ruins.

The site was once one of the most powerful Mayan cities in the region, and its impressive structures offer a glimpse into the ancient civilization’s engineering and architectural prowess.

Visitors to the park can explore the many ruins and temples, climb to the top of the pyramids for stunning views of the surrounding jungle, and observe the wildlife that inhabits the park, including monkeys and tropical birds.

10. Utila Island, Honduras

You’ve probably heard of Roatán, a popular destination for families and couples on a tropical getaway. But its neighbor, Utila, is a smaller and more laid-back island, with a more rustic and affordable vibe.

This hidden gem is popular among backpackers and divers seeking a more low-key and budget-friendly experience. Utila is known for its excellent diving opportunities, especially with whale sharks, and its relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

11. Bocas del Toro, Panamá

Bocas del Toro is a stunning archipelago located off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The main island of Isla Colon is home to the town of Bocas del Toro, which is a popular destination for backpackers, surfers, and eco-tourists.

The town has a lively and colorful Caribbean vibe, with plenty of restaurants, bars, and accommodations to choose from. You can explore the surrounding islands, go snorkeling or diving in the coral reefs, and hike through the rainforest to spot wildlife such as sloths, monkeys, and toucans.

12. San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur is a hidden gem tucked away on the southern coast of Nicaragua, beckoning travelers with its promise of endless sunshine and a laid-back surfer vibe that’s impossible to resist.

The town is a popular destination for surfers, beachgoers, and backpackers. Days are long and easy, from surfing and hanging out on the beach during the day to hiking to the top of the nearby hills for stunning sunset views.

San Juan del Sur also has a lively nightlife scene, with bars and restaurants serving fresh seafood and local specialties.

13. Granada, Nicaragua

Granada is a historic colonial city in western Nicaragua, known for its colorful architecture, picturesque streets, and rich cultural heritage. The city’s quaint colonial buildings, many of which date back to the 16th century, give it a unique and charming character.

Explore the city’s many museums, churches, and plazas, or take a boat tour of the nearby Isletas de Granada, a group of small islands on Lake Nicaragua.

The town is also known for its vibrant nightlife, with plenty of loud bars and tasty restaurants. Granada is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Nicaragua, offering a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty.

14. Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is a charming colonial town located in the highlands of Guatemala with colorful architecture, cobbled streets, and rich history.

The town was once the capital of Guatemala and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, renowned for its well-preserved colonial buildings and cultural traditions, not to mention the stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes. The town is also known for its lively nightlife, as well as a growing culinary scene attracting foodies from around the world.

I absolutely fell in love with Antigua, and as more people find out about this hidden gem it’s bound to explode.

15. Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park is a beautiful protected area located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, known for its stunning beaches, lush tropical forest, and diverse wildlife.

The park is home to a variety of animals, including monkeys, sloths, toucans, and iguanas, which can often be spotted along the hiking trails.

You can also enjoy swimming, snorkeling, and surfing in the waters of the park’s beaches, or relax and soak up the sun. The park is a popular destination for eco-tourists, nature lovers, and beachgoers, offering a unique opportunity to experience the natural beauty and biodiversity of Costa Rica.

16. Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala

Lago de Atitlán is a beautiful lake located in the Guatemalan Highlands, surrounded by towering volcanoes and green hills.

The lake is a popular destination for travelers seeking natural beauty and outdoor adventure. Visitors can explore the picturesque Mayan villages that dot the shoreline, and learn about the indigenous culture and traditions of the region. On top of many places to stay; the area offers a variety of activities, including kayaking (should definitely be in the best destinations to kayak around the world list), hiking, and swimming.

The easiest way to get there is by starting in Antigua, another amazing hidden gem in Central America.

17. Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano is a striking Costa Rican landmark, known for its impressive height and frequent eruptions. The volcano is surrounded by tropical rainforests, making it a popular destination for hiking, bird watching, and other outdoor adventures.

Visitors to the area can take a dip in the nearby hot springs, hike through the surrounding forests, or go on a canopy tour to see the area’s diverse wildlife from above.

The majestic La Fortuna waterfall is not far either, so you can hit two hidden gems in Central America at once.

18. León, Nicaragua

León, a historic city in western Nicaragua, is like three Central American hidden gems for the price of one.

The city is home to many notable landmarks, including the Cathedral of León, which is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

León was the hub of the Nicaraguan revolution which can now be remembered through museums, wall murals, and bullet holes.

Additionally, León is surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes, including nearby beaches and volcanoes where you can try the legendary volcano boarding.

19. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a protected area in Costa Rica, with a diverse array of flora and fauna.

Visitors to the reserve can hike through the lush forests, observe the many species of birds and mammals that inhabit the area, and take in the stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

The reserve is also home to several iconic zipline and canopy tours, allowing visitors to experience the forest from above.

20. Cangrejal River Valley, Honduras

Nestled in the wilderness of northern Honduras, just a short distance from the bustling city of La Ceiba, lies the enchanting Cangrejal River Valley.

This Central American hidden gem is a true paradise for nature lovers, with a crystal-clear river winding its way through a breathtaking landscape of dense rainforest and majestic mountains. The valley offers a plethora of outdoor adventures, from thrilling whitewater rafting and kayaking to scenic hikes and birdwatching expeditions.

Eco-lodges and charming guesthouses dot the valley, offering a chance to bask in the tranquil beauty of the region while contributing to sustainable tourism.

Related: All the glamping trends you need to know about

21. Parque Nacional Volcán Poás, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Volcán Poás is an impressive active volcano and stunning crater lake in central Costa Rica. Visitors to this Central American hidden gem can hike to the crater’s edge to observe the bubbling and steaming sulfuric water and enjoy the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and forests.

In addition to the volcano, the park features several hiking trails that lead through the cloud forest and offer opportunities to observe the area’s diverse plant and animal life.

22. Río Dulce, Guatemala

Río Dulce is a beautiful river located in the eastern region of Guatemala, known for its stunning natural scenery, abundant wildlife, and unique cultural attractions. Take a boat tour down the river, explore the lush jungle landscapes, and observe the many species of birds and monkeys that call the area home.

Along the way, you can also visit several cultural landmarks, including the historic Spanish fort of San Felipe, which dates back to the 17th century, and the nearby town of Livingston, which is known for its vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture and delicious seafood.

23. Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Semuc Champey is an amazing natural wonder located in central Guatemala with cascading pools and picturesque surroundings. A hike through the jungle brings you to the pools, which are formed by a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabón River.

The pools vary in depth and size, offering plenty of opportunities for swimming and relaxation in the clear, turquoise waters. The area is also home to several caves, including the popular K’anba Cave, which you can explore with a guide.

Also read: Dog-friendly countries in Central America

24. Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Lake Yojoa is the largest natural lake in Honduras known for stunning natural scenery, diverse wildlife, and outdoor activities.

You can explore the lake and its surrounding forests, and observe many species of birds, including toucans, parrots, and woodpeckers. The area is also popular for hiking, fishing, and kayaking.

Nearby attractions include Pulhapanzak Waterfall, a stunning 43-meter waterfall located just a few kilometers from the lake, and the Yojoa Lake Biological Reserve, a protected area home to many endangered species like jaguars and ocelots.

Related read: All the benefits of kayaking that will make you fall for it

25. San Blas Islands, Panama

Just off the Caribbean coast of Panama – one of the safest countries in Latin America! – are the San Blas Islands, a group of over 350 stunning islands known for their crystal-clear waters, white-sand beaches, and vibrant coral reefs.

The islands are home to the indigenous Kuna people, who have maintained their traditional way of life and customs for centuries.

Visitors to the area can explore the islands by boat or kayak, snorkel, or scuba dive to discover the amazing marine life and experience the Kuna culture by visiting their villages and meeting with locals.

The San Blas Islands are a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Panama, offering a unique opportunity to experience the natural beauty and cultural richness of the region.

What is the most underrated country in Central America?

I think the whole region of Central America is a hidden gem. Each country has its own unique culture and experiences to offer. But if I had to pick one country, Honduras is the most underrated country in Central America.

Honduras is often overshadowed by its more popular neighbors, such as Costa Rica and Guatemala. However, if you venture off the beaten path you will find a warm and welcoming country that is full of surprises, from the beautiful Caribbean coast to the rugged mountain ranges and dense rainforests. 

What is the most beautiful country in Central America?

Although I think every country in Central America has its own brand of beauty, sometimes places attract tourists for a reason. Many people consider Costa Rica to be the most beautiful country in the region due to its lush rainforests, pristine beaches, towering volcanoes, and abundant wildlife.

The country has a strong commitment to conservation and sustainable tourism, which has helped to preserve its natural beauty for generations to come. Additionally, whether you are headed to the the Pacific or the Caribbean, Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” lifestyle and friendly locals make it a popular destination for travelers seeking a laid-back and authentic Central American experience.

Central America is a treasure trove of hidden gems waiting to be discovered by adventurous travelers seeking off-the-beaten-path destinations. From the misty cloud forests of Guatemala to the sun-kissed beaches of Panama, this region is bursting with natural beauty, rich culture, and thrilling adventures. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a curious explorer, there is always something new and exciting to discover in Central America. 

Why not venture beyond the tourist hotspots and uncover the hidden treasures that this enchanting region has to offer? You never know what kind of unforgettable experiences and memories you may create along the way.

As an adventurous digital nomad, Rachel has honed her expertise in working remotely while traveling the world. Having already visited and worked in over 20 countries (and counting!), she is dedicated to sharing her wealth of knowledge with fellow digital nomads and slow travelers. Her blog, White Collar Wanderer, provides invaluable travel tips and destination guides tailored specifically to this community, ensuring that everyone can make the most out of their journey.