Editor’s note: This story was researched and written before the current COVID-19 pandemic. While we look forward to traveling again soon, we recognize that the most important thing we can all do right now is to stay home. For the most current information about COVID-19, check the CDC website.
With active volcanoes, Maya ruins, and extensive coastlines in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, Central America is an idyllic destination that is often overlooked by travelers. Given the region’s history of political instability, many foreigners are wary of visiting, wondering if Central America is safe, and end up missing out on the cultural, historical, and culinary richness of the seven countries that comprise it.
But while these fears are justified in some cases, you shouldn’t judge an entire region by its news cover. Not every country in the area is experiencing conflict, and while caution is always advised no matter where you travel, you certainly won’t be stepping into the war zone Central America is often made out to be.
To help you have an amazing—and safe— trip, we have compiled a list of the four safest countries to visit in Central America.
Costa Rica wins over the heart of every visitor with its “Pura vida” philosophy. The entire nation exudes a relaxed vibe that calls you to breathe in and enjoy life—something that’s not too difficult to do here. During your time in this mesmerizing country, you can watch sea turtles hatch on quiet beaches, climb the Arenal Volcano, or see monkeys and jaguars at the Manuel Antonio National Park.
Often considered a pioneer of eco-tourism, Costa Rica takes great pride in its natural resources and its status as a megadiverse country. In fact, 98 percent of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources, and 26 percent of its territory is made up of protected natural lands. Because of this natural richness, the country attracts intrepid adventure travelers who come to surf tall waves, zipline through canopies, rappel down waterfalls, and white-water raft down swift rivers.
As for safety, foreigners usually don’t have much to worry about. The Global Peace Index ranks Costa Rica as the 33rd most peaceful country in the world. For comparison, the U.S. is ranked at 218. The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives it a level 1 warning, making it safer than Spain and Italy in the eyes of the U.S. Basically, you should exercise common sense precautions like avoiding dark streets at night and hiding your valuables.
Costa Rica takes such pride in its commitment to peace that it doesn’t even have an army. As if that weren’t enough, it is considered one of the best countries in Latin America for LGBTQIA travelers, given locals’ open-minded attitudes towards sexual diversity and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Ready to book your tickets yet?
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If you judge Panama by its rankings on the Global Peace Index and the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory, you’ll soon be at ease. The former ranks Panama at 47th, and the latter suggests a level 1 advisory. Do keep in mind that certain areas should be avoided, including the Mosquito Coast, and the Darien region along the border with Colombia. Again, normal safety measures are recommended to avoid being pickpocketed or mugged, particularly in urban centers.
Now that you know Panama is much safer than most people believe, you should also know that it is much more interesting than most people imagine. In fact, many people simply know Panama for its famous canal, which continues to be a tourist attraction but which is not by any means the only thing the country has to offer.
Sure, take a scenic flight over the canal to see it for yourself, but also allow some space in your itinerary to swim with whale sharks in astonishing Bocas del Toro, or to soak up the metropolitan glitz of Panama City. Adventure travelers will also find plenty of thrilling activities, like hiking through cloud forests, watching the migration of humpback whales in the Pacific, and climbing the country’s highest point, Baru Volcano.
The best part about Panama? It seems like tourists have yet to wise up about it, so you can enjoy small village beaches and forest treks without hordes of Instagram-hungry tourists.
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Yet another wonderful but often overlooked country in Central America, Belize is impressively diverse for its tiny size. The English-speaking country boasts jungles riddled with Mayan ruins, the second largest reefs in the world, and idyllic islands scattered along its coast.
Divers absolutely love Belize because of the diversity of its reef, but also because of its famous Great Blue Hole. This underground sinkhole is the largest of its kind, and is equally impressive from above and from underneath the water’s surface. In fact, the great conservationist, explorer, and diver Jacques Cousteau included the “hole” as one of his favorite diving spots on the planet.
Even if you’re not a big fan of diving in a dark, seemingly unending ocean abyss, the Belize coastline offers plenty of opportunities for swimming in warm waters, paddle boarding, and kayaking through mangroves. One of the best things to do is to simply lay in a hammock with a bottle of cool beer in your hand and enjoy the sun kissing your skin.
The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives Belize a level 2 warning, which is the same level as countries like France and the U.K. That said, increased precaution is recommended, since its proximity to Mexico inevitably makes it part of Central America’s drug route. The south—where many of the country’s Mayan ruins lay hidden by the jungle—is of particular concern, so we recommend researching before planning a trip, or going with a trusted tour company.
LGBTQIA travelers might want to rethink a trip to Belize, as locals tend to have a more conservative mentality and may even be hostile to non-heterosexual couples.
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Like Belize, Guatemala has a level 2 warning from the Department of State. Certain areas present an increased level of risk, specifically the areas along the drug trade route. It is recommended that travelers do research before deciding their itineraries, particularly if they plan to go to remote regions that are not as frequented. Again, visitors looking to explore natural or rural areas might want to consider using a trusted tour company with local guides.
Once you have taken the necessary precautions, don’t even consider missing out on picturesque Antigua. The former capital of Guatemala, this well-preserved colonial town is one of the most beautiful towns in Latin America. Cobblestoned streets and colorful balconies are perfectly complemented by the volcanoes that surround the town, providing breathtaking views from almost any street.
Another must-see destination in Guatemala is Lake Atitlan, one of the most important in the region. If you want a simple thrill, you can hike around the lake and enjoy the invariably impressive views it provides. Those with a harder adrenaline addiction can opt for more extreme activities, like paragliding over or scuba diving.
No history or Indiana Jones lover can afford to skip out on the mighty Tikal National Park, the former capital of the Maya Empire. Surrounded by the jungle that once hid it, Tikal boasts the tallest existing pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, and is considered one of the most important archaeological treasures of the continent.
If this doesn’t seem like enough, you can also ride through the canyons of Rio Dulce, learn about Afro-Guatemalan culture at Livingston, explore the caves of Verpaces, and delight your taste buds with the country’s rich culinary tradition.
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More from SmarterTravel:
10 Natural Wonders to See Before They’re Gone
The 13 Safest Places in Mexico for Travelers
The Best Caribbean Destinations for Gay and Lesbian Travelers
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