Prehistoric jungle canopies; mighty rivers, mountains and caves; pristine white sand beaches and vibrant corals; Central America has it all. Its culture is just as eclectic, offering a unique blend of colonial architecture and contemporary cities, ancient civilisations and Spanish flair.
Central America is a captivating cruise destination, home to a number of distinctive, culturally-rich and naturally beautiful nations. Wildlife lovers in particular appreciate the biodiversity of Central America, as rainforests abound with thousands of birds, neon frogs and other rare and endangered species. Echoes of the indigenous people meet elements of Afro-Caribbean culture, and the influence of Columbus and Europeans who bequeathed such enduring legacies are omnipresent.
A treasure-trove for eco-tourists
Costa Rica is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, with an astonishing diversity of landscapes and climate zones. Active travellers can revel in thrilling kayaking and snorkelling, hiking and zip-lining; while a host of beautiful beaches and gin-clear seas offer a perfect setting to chill out. Puerto Limón lies on Costa Rica’s lush Caribbean coast and from here tours head to Tortuguero National Park – a network of jungle-lined canals and lagoons home to crocodiles, caiman, monkeys, sloths and exotic bird life. Alternatively, take an open-air gondola across the forest canopy in the Veragua Rainforest in the La Amistad National Park to see sloths, toucans and howler monkeys, while gigantic 300-year old trees tower overhead.
Discover the country’s rich biodiversity during an eco-trek in the exquisite cloud forest of San Luis Park. Walking along a series of suspension bridges you will have close encounters with hummingbirds, butterflies, small mammals, languid rivers and raging cascades. Alternatively you can ride an aerial tramway deep into the lush Turubari eco-park park for a guided nature trek to see exotic gardens, ancient trees, rare iguanas and vibrant butterflies. Another option is a cruise along the Tarcoles River where there is the chance to marvel at the dense mangrove forests, wildlife and bird life.
The Mayan heart of Central America
Fishing hamlets and farming villages emerged on Guatemala’s Pacific coast as early as 2000 BC. They were the forerunners of the great Maya civilisation that dominated Central America for centuries. From Puerto Quetzal tours head to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of La Antigua. Nestled in the shadow of the spectacular Agua Volcano, La Antigua remains one of the best preserved colonial cities in Spanish America. Highlights include the beautiful, 16th century Cathedral Metropolitana and Palacio del Noble Ayuntamiento, which houses the Museo de Armas de Santiago and Museo del Libro Antiguo. At the centre of the Parque Central is the impressive Fountain of the Sirens. There are also tours allowing you to explore the lost temples of Tikal – one of the biggest excavation sites on the American continent.
From Santo Tomas de Castillo on the Bahia de Amatique in Guatemala there are tours to the Mayan ruins of Quiriguá. The UNESCO World Heritage Site spans 1.2 square miles and is known for its impressive stelae – massive, upright stone slabs bearing inscriptions. The stelaes of Quiriguá are larger than most, were crafted from tougher stone unique to the area, and feature 3D carvings of Quiriguá rulers.
The jewel of Colombia
Many cruises include a visit to Cartagena in Colombia. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city positively flaunts its Spanish colonial heritage, nowhere more so than in the marvellously restored Cuidad Amurallada (walled city) with its narrow cobblestone streets, Andalusian style plazas and parks. Don’t miss Plaza Santo Domingo, Plaza de Bolivar, San Pedro Claver Church, Santo Domingo Church and the baroque Palacio de la Inquisición. For a glimpse of the conquistadores military might, head to El Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – the largest Spanish fort in the Americas.
Lush Roatán is the largest of the eight Bay Islands, an archipelago patchwork that are the remnants of an ancient submerged volcanic mountain range, known as the Bonacca Ridge. There are plenty of opportunities to snorkel amid the Western Hemisphere’s most spectacular underwater reefs. Don’t miss the stilt-village of Jonesville and the reef-protecting mangrove tunnels.
The tiny country of Belize, about the size of Wales, is one of Sir David Attenborough’s favourite locations. Protected by the spectacular Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the natural wonderland includes the renowned Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. There is an impressive roster of excursions including the Mayan Xunantunich archaeological site with its imposing pyramid, El Castillo; the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary; Bacab Park and Butterfly House; as well as the manatee breeding grounds and Community Baboon Sanctuary.
Of the 378 islands of the San Blas Archipelago, only 49 are inhabited by the fiercely independent Kuna Indians who still practice archaic rites. Reflecting a lifestyle that has remained unchanged for thousands of years, the colourful people craft intricate jewellery and striking mola fabrics, and often sail out in their canoes to greet the arrival of cruise ships. It is a memorable welcome to this surreal corner of our watery planet.
Modern-day visitors have a wealth of fascinating excursions to enjoy during Central America cruises – whether it is a trek amongst ancient, mysterious Mayan temples, a visit to historic forts and colonial cathedrals, browsing fascinating museums, or meeting indigenous tribes far removed from modern-day civilisation.