Best Outdoor Adventures In Central America

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Central America is an outdoor lovers paradise.  With everything from hiking to caves and flowing lava to flowing emerald water, Central America has it all.  No matter if you’re a backpacker on a budget or a luxury traveler with money to burn, these are best adventures in Central America you should definitely at least consider doing.

ATM Cave

Where

San Ignacio, Belize

Why

This is an easily accessible cave not too far from San Ignacio, Belize, near the Guatemalan border.  As someone who doesn’t love water or the dark, I do love caves and really enjoyed this trip.  You do a hiking to get to the cave entrance and have to cross a river a couple times.  Once you’re at the entrance, you have to swim a bit to actually get into the cave before you’re just walking through the water.

In the cave, it’s all pretty easy.  You might have to do some squeezing between rocks, but if you’re claustrophobic, there is usually another way around the rocks, they’re just making it a little more exciting I think.  Eventually, you are out of the water and are climbing up into another area that if I didn’t have someone showing me around, I never would have seen.  That’s where you’ll see the pots and the skeleton.

Know before you go

  • You’ll want to wear good water shoes.  If I was going back now, I would probably go with my Chacos.  Closed-toe shoes might be required, though.  I can’t remember for sure.
  • You will get wet, there’s no avoiding that.  Actual swimming is minimal, though, so that’s good if you don’t like water.
  • You can only go into the cave with a tour and it can easily be booked in San Ignacio.  It is expensive, though, at around $95USD.
  • You can’t take a camera in here anymore because someone dropped theirs on a skull and broke it.

Semuc Champey

Where

Lanquin, Guatemala

Why

I don’t know if Semuc Champey can really be called hidden anymore, I mean, it is a stop on the gringo trail if you’re coming from Belize that pretty much everyone makes.  This is a little piece of paradise where you can relax in the emerald pools in the river, slide down natural waterslides, hike up a million stairs to an overlook, make your way through a cave by candlelight, float down the river with a beer, and jump off a bridge 40 feet above the water.

Like I said above, I don’t like water stuff, but I loved hanging out in the pools.  It was also a pretty awesome hike up to the overlook platform to see the pools from above.  It’s a great little place to just get away and relax with little or no Internet and stellar views.

Know before you go

  • You can get a tour to take you to the overlook, to the pools, to the cave, and to float down the river after.  It’s convenient, but not necessary if you just want to see the pools.
  • You can either stay in Lanquin and take a truck up during the day to get to Semuc Champey, or you can stay right up by Semuc, which I would recommend.  If you want to stay at Zephyr Lodge (the party place) it’s in Lanquin.  I would recommend El Portal up by Semuc.  It makes visiting on your own easier.
  • If you just want to hike to the overlook and swim in the pools, you can do that without the tour.  I would just ask for directions at your hostel.
  • If you don’t like water or the dark, I wouldn’t recommend the cave tour.  I skipped it because of those two things and I know you had to jump into the water in the dark which sounds awful to me.   All while holding a candle, your only light.  While I didn’t do it, the people I know that did, really enjoyed it.

Climb Volcan Pacaya

Where

Antigua, Guatemala

Why

If you like hiking, but aren’t a hardcore hiker, and want to climb a volcano, this is a great option.  It’s just outside of Antigua and from what I’ve been able to tell, way easier than climbing Acetenango, the next activity on this list.  If you’re limited on time, Pacaya is a great volcano hike.  You can find tours all over Antigua that will take you up.  The hike wasn’t as difficult as I was imagining and it offers great views of Acetenango, Fuego, and Agua.

There is a little shop at the top, yes at the top of an active volcano, that you can buy a souvenir at if you’d like.  Your guide will also probably bring a bag of marshmallows and some sticks so you can roast them on the hot rocks.  When I went we didn’t see any lava.  I’m not sure if you can at all.

Know before you go

  • You can find tours all over Antigua that are probably pretty similar.  I booked mine with Bigfoot Hostel, the one I was staying at.
  • There are morning and afternoon hikes.  I went in the morning and it was super cold.  I heard that it was really nice in the afternoon.
  • If you do go in the afternoon, you’ll get to watch the sunset, but you’ll also have to hike down in the dark.
  • Lonely Planet warns of thieves and bandits on the trail, but going with the tour is supposed to help reduce the risk of that, and it seems to be the only way you can go.  If you know otherwise, let me know and I’ll update this!

Climb Volcan Acetenango

Where

Antigua, Guatemala

Why

If you want a more challenging hike than Pacaya, this is the one for you.  This hike is possible to do in one day, but most do it as an overnight trip.  This hike is about four-mile up and ascends 5,000 feet.  If you do it in a day, you’ll have lunch at 13,000 feet before heading back down.  If you do the overnight trip, you’ll camp at the top (and have to carry everything up with you), but you’ll get to watch Fuego spew lava and rocks throughout the night.

Know before you go

  • This hike, according to this guide, is not for people of below average fitness.  Take that as you will.
  • If you do the overnight trip, you will have to carry up your stuff, so keep that in mind, too.
  • If you go overnight, you’ll need to bring, or get, some warm clothes for up at the top.
  • If you want to go by yourself, this post will be super helpful for you.

Kayak Lake Atitlan

Where

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Why

Lake Atitlan is a gem in Southeastern Guatemala, only a couple hours from Antigua.  The lake is surrounded by volcanos and has buildings and trees submerged beneath the waters.  It is about 1,100 feet at it’s deepest point.  While it’s awesome exploring the villages by land and hiking Indian Nose and Volcan San Pedro, it’s a totally different experience renting a kayak and seeing the towns from the water.

Know before you go

  • I know you can rent kayaks in San Pedro, but I’m not sure about any of the other towns.  If you’re based in another town, you can always to a day trip to San Pedro.  It’s super easy getting around the lake by boat.
  • It’s pretty cheap to rent the kayaks, I can’t remember how much exactly, but it’s not expensive.
  • I think we rented ours for two hours, but you can probably rent them for a whole day.  I know sometimes people kayak from San Pedro to San Marcos.
  • If you do kayak from town to town, just remember, you still have to kayak all the way back.

Surf El Tunco

Where

El Tunco, El Salvador

Why

While you can learn to surf all over Central America, El Tunco is a great place to learn.  Or, if you already surf, it’s a great place to go to experience some world-class surfing.  A lot of people, myself included except for a stop on a shuttle, skip over El Tunco, but it deserves some love.  It’s a cute little two-street town with smoothies, surfing, and sunsets that shouldn’t be missed.

Know before you go

  • If you’re a beginner, the best time to surf is early in the morning.
  • If you have more experience, the rest of the day and evening are better.
  • You can just find an instructor on the beach and set up lessons for the next day if you want to learn.
  • Definitely pack a drybag here.  There are some cave you can go into at low tide, but you’ll want to keep your camera and phone safe.
  • If you’re spending a lot of time on the beach, make sure you either have someone to watch your stuff while you’re in the water or don’t bring anything.

Dive Honduras’ Bay Islands

Where

Utila and Roatan, Honduras

Why

This is arguably the best place to go diving in Central America.  It also happens to be some of the cheapest diving in the world, too.  Most hostels are dive shops, too, and some offer free nights on days that you do a dive.  If you’re looking for more of a backpacker island, check out Utila.  Roatan will be more laid back, but will offer just as stunning diving.

Know before you go

  • Utila is a Whale Shark hot spot.  If there is word of them around, guides may make a detour so you can see them if you’re out on a dive.
  • If you are planning on doing a lot of diving, see if you can find a place to stay that offers free nights for days you go on dives.
  • Even if you don’t dive, you can still go here, you just might feel a little left out sometimes.  That happened on Malapascua for me in the Philippines, but I still loved it.
  • If you like weird restaurants and things like that, check out Treetanic on Utila.

Volcano Boarding

Where

Leon, Nicaragua

Why

As far as I know, this is the only place you can do this: volcano boarding.  Even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie like myself, this is a pretty awesome activity.  You hike up Cerro Negro, an active volcano, and then slide down the other side on a piece of wood.  It’s not as horrifying as it sounds.  The way the volcano errupts (which isn’t very often) the big rock goes to one side and the smaller dust and pebbles go to the other, which is the side you slide down.  The record going down this is like, 91 or 95 kilometers per hour.  I went a whopping 35.

Know before you go

  • You can find tours offered for this all over Leon.  I went with Bigfoot Hostel and thought it was fine, but we were only able to go down once.
  • Some places will let you hike back up and go down a second time.  If I could have, I probably would have.
  • There are also some places that have snowboards that you can take down instead of sledding style.
  • Keep your mouth closed on your way down so you don’t get rocks and dust in it.
  • While no one in our group left injured, it is possible to break things and get hurt while doing this, so just be aware of that.  The guide will give you a safety briefing, along with a jumpsuit and goggles, before sending you on your way.

Canyon de Somoto

Where

Esteli, Nicaragua

Why

If you enjoy or have always wanted to try Canyoneering, this is a great opportunity that often gets overlooked by backpackers passing through.  I knew about this when I was there, but didn’t make it and wish I did.  I need to go back just see a lot more of Nicaragua.  You hike, scramble, and swim your way through the canyon with the walls towering overhead.

Know before you go

  • There are tons of tours that can take you, but you can also visit on your own.  This guide will help you.
  • If you go on your own, definitely have a dry bag for your phone and camera.  Some tours may provide one, I would ask ahead of time.
  • Some tours offer tubing in the water, but it’s slow and doesn’t have rapids.
  • There are tours of different lengths from two to six hours.

Beach Bum on Corn Islands

Where

Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Why

While this isn’t an adventure activity, it’s definitely something you should do outdoors in Central America.  Big Corn Island is where you’ll first get dropped off and they have some good beaches, but I would take that panga over to neighboring Little Corn Island and hunker down in a beach hut there for a week.  If just laying around on the beach isn’t your thing, you can go snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, and learn to dive.  It was my favorite place in Central America and I could have stayed for two more weeks just laying around.

Know before you go

  • Most places on Little Corn Island don’t take reservations, but some do.  Try emailing them or sending a message on Facebook if you want to book ahead.
  • To make sure you have somewhere to stay, take the morning panga over form Big Corn.
  • I would recommend finding a place on the beach side of the island, aka the side you don’t get dropped off on.  There are a bunch of cheap beach huts.  Ours was $15 a night, but not the first row of huts, back a bit.  Still a 20 second walk to the water.  That was at Grace’s Place, next to the Cool Spot.
  • If you want to go paddleboarding or kayaking, I would recommend doing that on the food sid, aka this side you do get dropped off on.  The water is a lot calmer.
  • You can walk all the way around the island in a couple hours with stops.

Climb Telica

Where

Leon, Nicaragua

Why

If you want to get up close and personal with a volcano, this is the hike for you.  You can get right up to the lava and even camp in the crater.  Yes, in the crater.  Of an active volcano.  There are camping tours you can take or you can do it as a day hike.  Either way, if you want to see lava, this is probably the best place you could easily do that in Central America.

Know before you go

  • It is possible to hike Telica without a tour group, but I wouldn’t unless I was an experienced hiker.
  • Watch out for snakes on your way up.  There are rattlesnakes that can kill you very quickly, apparently.
  • The hike up is about four hours.  You can go up to watch the sunset, but you’ll be walking back down in the dark.
  • I would recommend booking the tour with Quetzaltrekkers in Leon.

Zip Line in Monteverde

Where

Santa Elena/Monteverde, Costa Rica

Why

This is the home of ziplining, meaning you have to do it here.  You’re probably not even allowed to leave until you do.  I’m kidding, you can.  This is a great place to try ziplining though.  There are a lot of lines, so you’re not just going for one ride, meaning it’s well worth the money.  The guides are fun and it’s just a great place to try this.

Know before you go

  • It can get a little chilly being up in the clouds, so be prepared for that.  I wouldn’t dress super cozy, but a light jacket and pants wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
  • You can most likely book a tour through your hotel or hostel.  Then you’ll get picked up right there when you need to be.  There are also tour agencies around town in Santa Elena that you can book through.
  • I think there were 15-20 lines that you get to use with some easy walks between beginnings and ends.  It’s not very strenuous.  It will be pretty wet, though.

Night Jungle Tour

Where

Monteverde, Costa Rica

Why

This is another must-do activity in Monteverde Cloud Forest.  This is a great way to get a totally different jungle experience.  You can see all kinds of wildlife.  You can admire the night sky.  And you can see tons of cool light up bugs.  Yes, that is the scientific term.  This isn’t any strenuous hiking, it’s basically a walk in the woods.  And even though I hate the dark, I really enjoyed this!  I even stuck my head in a tree before anyone else to see a porcupine.

Know before you go

  • It will probably be cold, so dress warm.
  • Bring a headlamp or flashlight if you have one.  If you don’t, I’m pretty sure they provide them, too.
  • When the guide tells you to turn off your flashlight to see the stars, do it.  Don’t use yours to look at them.  It doesn’t work and makes it harder for everyone else to enjoy.
  • Like any wildlife experience, there is no guarantee of seeing anything, so go into knowing that.

Explore Costa Rica’s National Parks

Where

Arenal, Costa Rica

Why

Costa Rica has so many amazing looking national parks, I couldn’t choose one.  You can hike through jungles and along beaches, at the base of volcanos or in the treetops.  No matter where you like hiking, there is a park for you.  There are some that are great for wildlife viewing, others not so much.  There are tons to choose from to make your trip amazing.

Know before you go

  • All of the parks are different, so choose one that is good for you.
  • Manuel Antonio is great for wildlife viewing.
  • Make sure you do your research on the parks ahead of time.  Some you need to know low and high tide for some hikes.
  • Make sure you know about the wildlife in the area as well for safety.
  • You can usually visit the parks with tours and on your own.  Do your research to find out which is best for you.

Bioluminescent Tour in Panama

Where

Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Why

Because it’s awesome.  That’s why.  But for reals, I didn’t know this was possible to see in Panama and when we were thinking about going, we weren’t even sure if it was legit because there wasn’t a tour being offered everywhere in Bocas Town.  We went out with a guide on a tiny little boat and watched the water glow beneath us as we zipped through the waters and swirled our hands around.

Know before you go

  • We only saw this tour at one hostel.  If your back is to the water on the main street, walk to your right. it will be around the corner next to a pizza place.  They had a sign out front about the tour.
  • You can swim at the last stop, but it was pretty chilly once the boat was moving.  Bring a sweatshirt or something and a towel if you want to swim.
  • I don’t think this is a super popular tour.  There were three of us on ours, but one didn’t show up, so we basically got a private tour.
  • This isn’t the most impressive place to see bioluminescence, but it’s still really cool to see if you’re in the area and have a few hours free in the evening.

Island Hopping

Where

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Why

While it may not be like the island hopping in EL Nido in the Philippines, you’re still going to be able to see some amazing beaches around Bocas del Toro.  It may just be split up between hiking to them, boating to them with tours, or biking to them.  It may even be a combination of all three.  Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos is popular as is Playa Estrella on Isla Colon.  You can also find snorkeling tours that would count as island hopping, too.

Know before you go

  • Make sure you know about and have enough money with you for park or beach entrance fees.
  • Definitely, have a dry bag for this, too.  You want to keep your electronics safe!
  • Sometimes the water was rough going between islands, so if you get seasick, take some Dramamine.
  • If you can, go snorkeling here.  I wish I would have because it looks pretty awesome.
  • If you like biking and want to see a beach, rent a bike in Bocas Town and bike across the island to Boca del Drago and Playa Estrella.  I did it and I’m not super fit.  There’s also a cave you can see on the way.  Just watch out for speed bumps on the road.

Need flights?  Check out Skyscanner!  It’s my favorite for finding cheap flights.  Consider flying into (or out of) San Jose, Costa Rica, Panama City, Panama, or Cancun, Mexico.

Have you done any of these things?  Which ones?  Do you want to do them?  

24 thoughts on “Best Outdoor Adventures In Central America

  1. WOW! Those are some incredible places to visit and some incredible adventures to be had. Those volcanoes are what I’d tackle first. What a feeling you must get standing atop of one seeing the lava…….thank you for the inspiration.

    1. Of course! I love volcanos, so I would love to go back and hike more of them, especially to see lava up close. I saw it erupting from Fuego when I was in Antigua one night!

  2. This is an amazing guide! I love that you have so many volcano related things! I was thinking I’d love to climb Volcan Acetenango, but then I saw the idea of volcano boarding…that looks even more fun!! I am totally with you on loving volcano related hikes and activities.

    You must have had an epic holiday trying all of these!! 😀

    1. I love all things volcano haha. If you can, you should do acetenango and volcano boarding! They’re totally different experiences. If you’re limited on time, a day trip to pacaya would be good and volcano boarding too. Unfortunately I didn’t do all of this, but I did do some! I’d love to go back for more though!

      1. Oooh that’s good though, you have an excuse to go back! Research for your blog! 😉

  3. One of my favourite activities we’ve ever done was the ATM caves honestly an amazing experience. Love this list, there’s so much more of Central America I’ve yet to explore.

    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed it, too! I definitely agree on needing to see a lot more in Central America

  4. What a detailed guide on outdoor activities all around Central America. Your pictures were beautiful and it made me want to consider traveling there in the future when my kids get a little older.

  5. A really comprehensive guide to South America. Not sure that I would be keen on water in dark caves either, however the scenery for many other sites looked well worth the efforts to get there

    1. Thank you! Definitely not for me, but there is so much else to see and do there, it’s awesome!

    1. I loooved Guatemala! I would highly recommend the Corn Islands, too. I can’t wait to go back and see more of CA. There is so much I didn’t get to do.

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