Central America is a collection of seven (7) small countries which connect Mexico and the rest of North America to the large continent of South America. Despite the poverty, there are a number of significant sights to interest the traveler. The following are probably the most important:
1. Tikal, Guatemala
A destination accessible from Belize City involves traveling inland into the jungles of Guatemala for a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tikal, a distance of about 130 miles (200 kilometers). Tikal was a major Mayan city and flourished from approximately 300 – 900 AD. It was once home to over 100,000 people. The eventual decline of this civilization has never been, and probably never will be, adequately explained. However, once the people began to leave, the jungle began to reclaim the area, and it is only recently that great efforts have been made to make the area accessible to tourists.
Visitors are immediately impressed by the its numerous Temples (pyramids) and its large, expansive Plazas. There are over 3000 structures on the site which has been recognized by UNESCO for World Heritage status.
The first area that visitors come to is the Great Plaza, which contains Temple I (Temple of the Giant Jaguar), Temple II (Temple of the Masks), and the Central Acropolis, a complex of numerous Palaces.
Walking along the Tozzer Causeway, basically a raised road, brings the visitor to Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest) and ultimately to a 212 foot (65 meter) pyramid, known as Temple IV, (the tallest in the Mayan world). A difficult climb to the top of this temple affords a spectacular view of the complex.
There is another temple, Temple V near the South Acropolis.
2. Panama Canal, Panama
The Panama Canal, in the country of Panama, has had a storied history. However, it is undoubtedly one of the major engineering accomplishments of the modern era. It has served as a major contributor to the globalization of commerce on the planet by reducing shipping time and fuel costs. It has effectively linked areas of the world which almost never had contact with one another.
The idea of the canal began with the French around the year 1880. The project was abandoned and considered virtually impossible. Then, in 1903, in exchange for its help in Panama’s fight for independence from Colombia, the United States asked for and was given rights to build a canal.
The canal, after much difficulty and loss of life, was completed in 1914 and the Canal Zone remained under the jurisdiction of the US until December 31, 1999, when its control reverted to the country of Panama.
The canal has a length of 64 kilometers (40 miles) and has 12 locks (for raising or lowering the ship in transit), each of which is 1000 feet (300 meters) long and 110 feet (33 meters) wide.
Cruise ships regularly travel through the canal, and canal transits have become a very profitable lure for passengers. This is the way that most tourists experience this technological icon.
Another way to access the canal is part of a visit to Panama City which is located at the western (southern) terminus of the canal, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Major tourist attractions in the city include Old Panama, basically the ruins of the 1519 AD city, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) from the current city, and Casco Viejo, the historic, Colonial center of the city of today. Casco Viejo, with its narrow, cobblestone streets and magnificent Colonial buildings, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Specific attractions within the city center include the Salon Bolivar, the President’s Palace, San Jose Cathedral, and French Park, built to commemorate the French involvement in the country’s history. Just outside the city center is Metropolitan Park, a tropical forest reserve with several walking trails to allow visitors to access the colorful wildlife.
3. Copan, Honduras
The best excursion from Antigua Guatemala (see #4 below) is east into the neighboring country of Honduras to see the ancient Mayan ruins of Copan, a one-way trip of about 240 kilometers (130 miles). There is a daily shuttle service from both Antigua and Guatemala City.
The nearest town to the ruins is appropriately called Copan Ruinas and is a charming, small town with cobblestone streets, houses with tile roofs and a friendly, peaceful atmosphere. It is only one kilometer (½ mile) away from the ruins, just a 10 minute walk.
The ruins at Copan are not as large as some other Mayan sites, but they more than make up for a lack of size by their quality. This place seems to be the pinnacle of excellence in Art and probably also in astronomical observation. There are many carved monuments which should be the focus for the visitor.
History tells us that this site is old, perhaps going back to 2000 BC, although the heyday of the Mayan civilization here probably peaked between 465 and 800 AD.
The initial entry point to the complex is near the Ceremonial Court (Court of the Stelae) which is one of the most spectacular sections. A Stela is a stone column which here are carved with numerous glyph figures that probably memorialize kings or record historical events — they resemble stone totem poles.
Nearby is the Ball Court, a flat area with three sloping sides. Archaeologists do not know how the game was played, except that it was obviously very popular since fields of play are found in just about all Mayan sites.
To the south is probably the most exceptional structure in the complex. The Hieroglyphic Stairway consists of 63 stairs that contain over 1000 glyphs, which may tell the entire history of this civilization. Today, it is protected from the elements because the figures are extremely worn and difficult to read.
The nearby Eastern Court contains what is considered the most impressive temple (Temple 22) of the entire site. Note especially the carved doorways.
4. La Antigua, Guatemala
La Antigua Guatemala is the old Colonial capital of Guatemala. It lies in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes, Acatenango, Fuego, and Agua and its history has unfortunately been closely tied and partially determined by geological forces. Although it dates to the 16th century, much of the city was destroyed in 1773 by a catastrophic earthquake. Another earthquake in 1976 added to the destruction. As a result, many of the buildings are in ruins or are still being restored.
However, the city is still charming and shows much evidence of its former grandeur. Its cobblestone streets, fountains, plazas and tropical gardens are a delight to explore. Its multi-colored (primarily yellow, orange, and ocher) one-story buildings are evidence of optimism, not despair. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Probably the most vibrant part of the city is Central Park, which is a gathering place for both locals and tourists. It is lined with vendors selling all manner of handicrafts and souvenirs. Its “naughty” Mermaid Fountain is an interesting conversation piece. Nearby are several noteworthy structures. Catedral Santiago dates to 1542, although it has sustained much damage over the years and is still being restored. The Palace of the General Captains, with its stone columns, dates to about the same time.
Several other religious buildings or their remains are worthwhile to visit. La Merced Church has an intricately decorated, Baroque façade in yellow and white. It dates to 1548 and is said to contain the largest fountain in Latin America. The ruins of the Santa Clara Church are wonderful to stroll since the area around the ruins are well-kept and landscaped. La Recoleccion was once a huge monastery and, although also in ruins, has a glorious setting in the shadow of a volcano.
The former University of San Carlos de Borromeo is a striking Moorish building which is now a museum.
Two of the volcanoes above the city, Acatenango (3,900 meters or 13,000 feet) and Fuego (3,700 meters or 12, 350 feet), are considered “twins” and known jointly as La Horqueta. Agua is a bit smaller, at 3765 meters or 12,300 feet. Brave souls who climb their slopes are rewarded with fantastic views.
5. Barrier Reefs of Belize
The Barrier Reefs of Belize are the second longest in the world and are a treasure for scuba-divers and snorkelers. The beaches and resorts on the Cayes (islands) of the reef are idyllic destinations for those interested in fishing, sailing, swimming, exploring the reefs, or just relaxing.
The main entry point for most visitors into the country is through Belize City, the largest town. It is a seaport with the associated hustle and bustle, but it has retained much of its shanty-town character. Most travelers arrive here and then leave for the islands or elsewhere. A half-day in town is probably enough to get a flavor for the atmosphere and style of life.
Ambergris Caye is the largest and most popular of the islands. Its major town, San Pedro, a tiny, charming village of friendly, relaxed people, is mainly a place to pick up transport to a resort. The town is serviced by regular boat and small plane shuttles from Belize City, a 35 mile (75 kilometer) trip.
Caye Caulker is another island with regular service from the city. It is much smaller in size. Travel around the island is normally by foot or rented golf cart.
Divers will probably want to head out to Lighthouse Reef where they will find the famous Blue Hole, a cylindrical shaft of darker water over 400 feet (130 meters) in diameter, and Half Moon Caye, which besides excellent diving, is the location of Belize’s first National Park, a refuge for the almost extinct Red-footed Booby.
6. Costa Rica’s National Parks
Costa Rica’s National Parks are world-renowned because of the huge percentage of the country which is preserved by law. National parks, wildlife refuges, and reserves make up almost 30% of the country’s land area. Obviously then, these pristine conservation areas are the major focus of tourism for Costa Rica.
While most visitors enter the country through the capital of San Jose, it has little to offer except as a base of operations. The city was not even conceived until the late 18th century so, unlike most other Latin American capitals, does not have much of a heritage. The few places which might interest a tourist in the city include, especially, the National Theater which is neo-Classical on the exterior and Baroquely ornate inside. The Fuerte Bella Vista (Fort with a beautiful view), Central Park and the nearby Cathedral may also be worth a visit.
But the national parks are the thing. Thankfully, the best of them are within a day’s excursion of the capital, making it ideal as a starting point.
Just 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the east is Irazu Volcano National Park which provides an opportunity for visitors to get close to a very active volcano. Irazu, at a height of 3,432 meters (about 9,000 feet), had its last major eruption in March of 1963. Since then it has rumbled and smoked in 1994. Note the Diego de la Haya Crater which contains a lake whose color varies from pea-green to a brownish red. Note also the tiny villages on the slopes of the volcano with their neat and brightly colored homes.
On the way back to San Jose from Irazu National Park, stop at the town of Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica, to see its Basilica de los Angeles, an important religious shrine in the country.
About 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of the capital is Braulio Carrillo National Park, known as the “rain forest beside a highway”. The park sports five (5) different ecological zones with their associated wildlife. Take La Botella Trail for waterfalls and a view of Patria Canyon. There are many other trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty.
Poas Volcano National Park is only 45 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of San Jose. Here, visitors can actually drive to the rim one of the largest active craters in the world (1.5 km/1 mile across). Note that early morning is the best time for viewing the crater and the upper slopes of this 2,700 meter (9,000 foot) mountain since clouds tend to obscure things from mid-morning on. Another good activity is to walk the Botos Trail which leads to Lake Botos, an extinct crater.
A bit further away is Manuel Antonio National Park, perhaps the gem of the park system. It is located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the southwest, on the Pacific coast. This park is noted for its particularly stunning beaches with their offshore islands and lush rain forests surrounding them. There are four (4) lovely beaches, Manuel Antonio, which is perhaps the prettiest of them all, Espadilla Sur, Playita, and Escondido (be careful of rip tides).
The park is very small so visitors are limited to 600 per day (800 per day on weekends). Note also that this park is closed on Mondays. There are a number of walking trails available. Of note is Perezoso Trail which leads into the rain forest.
Another wonderful park is Tortuguero National Park, which lies 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the northeast, along the Caribbean coast. Here is a park which consists of forested deltas on an alluvial plain which teem with wildlife. This park preserves the natural habitats of 13 of Costa Rica’s 16 endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs, and manatees.
The area is also a green turtle nesting area, and Guided Turtle Walks are conducted during the nesting season. Check out El Gavilan Trail, a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) stroll which traverses both beach and rain forest.
Be advised that crime, particularly theft, is an issue in the country’s parks and cities. Do not leave valuables unattended.