The best beaches in Central America

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Ah, Central America – that big S-bend connecting Colombia to Mexico. With two coastlines writhing on the Caribbean Sea and the wild Pacific in a 1770 km (1100 mile) mix of coral gardens, foaming waves and emerald coast jungles laden with howler monkeys, there is no hardly any region richer in beaches on earth.

Whether you’re looking for a laid-back surf town where you can hunt barrels, a secluded island to channel your inner castaway, or a beer-drinking party spot on the Pacific Ocean, this corner of Latin America is made for you. This guide searches for the crème de la crème of coves and bays, narrowing down the best beaches in Central America to just 14 choices.

Manuel Antonio – Costa Rica

The best beach you need to hike to

Manuel Antonio is the piece de resistance of its namesake national park, a rainforest gem about halfway up the Pacific coasts of the province of Puntarenas. The beach is entirely within the reserve, which means you’ll have to earn your taste of paradise by taking a 30-minute hike through jungles teeming with sloths and howler monkeys. Facing south, the beige-tinged sand can be surveyed from Mirador Playa Gemelas on the distant promontory. The park opens at 7am, so arrive early to avoid the crowds.

Placencia – Belize

Best beach for peace and quiet

With a crocodile-filled lagoon on one side and the kaleidoscopic corals of Belize’s Barrier Reef – part of the second largest coral reef system on the planet, no less – on the other, Placencia is a little near the perfect place to be hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Central America. It’s quiet compared to Ambergris Caye, although it’s more accessible (no need for seaplanes!). The area is dotted with traditional Garifuna fishing huts and fringed by soft sands that grow twisted sabal palms and sea oats.


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Santa Catalina – Panama

Mainly on the map for the point break to the right of La Punta that’s a surfer’s delight from April through October, Santa Catalina is one of the long-lost fishing towns on the Panamanian Pacific. It’s still little more than a cluster of ramshackle fishing shacks and surf villas, but there’s growing interest, not least because it’s surrounded by two unoccupied, coffee-colored stretches of sand – Playa Arrimadero and Playa Santa Catalina. Oh, and don’t forget to visit Coiba Island just across the strait, where you can swim with mantas and whale sharks at certain times of the year.

Robeson Island – Panama

The best beach for pretending to be a castaway

You don’t get a moniker like Isla Robeson (Isla Robinson Crusoe in English) without some top quality beaches in the bank. Although the actual location where Defoe’s hero is believed to have been stranded is some 3000 miles (4830 km) away in Chile, this point in Panama‘s spectacular San Blas mountain range still bears all the hallmarks of a shipwrecked location. There’s no activity overload, just a few snorkeling reefs, a patch of inland jungle, and – of course – a powdery lip of white sand on the west coast.

Little Corn Island is the more untouched of the two Corn Islands © Christa Boaz / Getty Images

Little Corn Island – Nicaragua

Best beach to get away

Stretching 43 miles off the coast of mainland Nicaragua, Little Corn and Big Corn — together the two Corn Islands — offer a rare slice of the Caribbean not yet dominated by multi-star resorts. Little Corn is the more intact of the two; there is really only one resort, the fantastic bungalows looking out over the reefs of Yemaya. Far from it, you’ll paddle through coral reefs and hike through pristine coastal forests, where you’re more likely to encounter a scaly iguana than another human.

Red Frog Beach – Panama

A gentle bend from a bay at the northern tip of Isla Bastimentos, Red Frog is one of those beaches that could easily make the cover of travel magazines. It’s fringed by a jumble of jungle that grows sea grapes and bent coconut palms over a rolling Caribbean sea, which offers lovely waves between December and April. Stay at Red Frog Beach Island Resort if you want to open your villa door to see the daffodil-colored sand framed by your very own infinity pool – it’s the closest resort to the beach.

Santa Teresa – Costa Rica

Throughout Costa Rica‘s rainy season (May through August), waves roll over Santa Teresa like clockwork in sculpted wedges of Pacific water. They were the ones who first attracted surfers to this distant edge of the Nicoya Peninsula in the late 90s. Now the secret is well and truly out, and this former fishing town suddenly finds itself laden with yoga studios , bohemian surf camps and even a constant trend of Instagram influencers. But there’s plenty of room for everyone on the 5-mile-long (3-mile) playa, as well as some of the most reliable swells this side of Hawaii.

A row of yellow and white striped lounge chairs on the beach on a sunny day
West Bay Beach regularly tops lists of the best beaches in Central America © Jae-yoong Kim / 500px

West Bay Beach – Honduras

Best beach for active beachgoers

West Bay Beach is where Honduras makes its best Bahamian impression. A strand of creamy sand that wraps around the finger-shaped tip of Roatán Island, it regularly tops lists of the best beaches in Central America — and it’s hard to disagree. Come here to soak up the rays, board the glass-bottomed Coral Reef Explorer to see zebrafish and turtles in the surrounding reefs, ride a jet ski, and sip rum cocktails in the sand palapa bars. Sounds good, huh?

Conchal Beach – Costa Rica

Best beach for swimming and snorkeling

Playa Conchal is the last beach in the diadem of beaches that begins in the small resort town of Brasilito in Guanacaste. Sandwiched between the rocks of the Punta Sabana promontory and a sprawling Westin resort, it has no black or white sand, but is covered in a unique shingle of crushed seashells. The Pacific waters are crystal clear and there are fantastic swimming and snorkeling opportunities at the northern end of the bay.

La Flor – Nicaragua

Best beach to see sea turtles

Playa La Flor is actually a lot like the other black sand beaches that curve and curve south to the Costa Rican border from San Juan del Sur in southern Nica. However, this one has a major asset: the olive ridley turtles. Come here to witness one of seven annual nesting events known as the arrived – they take place between July and January, and the whole playa turns into a moving mass of shells and egg nests. About seven weeks later, you can return to see new turtle life spring into action to make the arduous pilgrimage to the Pacific.

Playa El Cuco – Salvador

El Salvador’s only contender for the best beach in Central America comes in the form of Playa El Cuco. It weaves its way along the Gulf of Fonseca in the south of the country, in a lava flow of dark black sand with knots of lanky palm trees and foaming waves and white caps crashing in front. You don’t come here for the postcard-worthy sand – you come to hear the calls of the fishermen in the early morning and to dine on tangy ceviche at the seafood restaurants. holidaymakers from San Miguel, but you can always stroll to more distant Playa El Esterón to the east to escape the buzz.

Guanaja-Honduras

Best beach for jungle treks

Guanaja is more than happy to let Roatán attract crowds and cruise ships. Meanwhile, this member of the incredibly wondrous Bay Islands is covered in protected jungles and hiking trails. The north coast is where you go for the beaches. From Michael Rock to Jim Bodden Beaches there is a series of coves and coves that are lapped by uberclear seas and have plenty of snorkeling. To sleep, take one of the treehouses at End of the World Resort – the name says it all!

People walk on the wide stretch of sand at Punta Uvita
Isthmus beach at Punta Uvita is one of the great wonders of the Dominical coast © Simon Dannhauer / Alamy Stock Photo

Punta Uvita – Costa Rica

The beach of the isthmus of Punta Uvita is one of the great wonders of the Sunday coast. It is also known as Whale Beach because it resembles the shape of a large whale tail splashing in the Pacific. You can walk its full length under the spiky coconut palms of Uvita Beach at low tide to see the salt-washed rock reefs at the tip. Also head to the nearby sands of Hermosa and Ventanas, where a cacophony of ficus trees and gnarled palms drop into the ocean. Oh and there is fantastic whale watching in the surrounding Costa Ballena between December and March.

Maderas Beach – Nicaragua

Best beach for a yoga retreat

It’s all about good vibes and consistent surf at Playa Maderas. Descend the rugged dirt roads north of San Juan del Sur and you’ll eventually emerge into a rocky bay wedged between stacked headlands. The main wave is an A-frame on all levels that breaks right in the middle. But you don’t need to have a board in tow to feel at home here. There are also blazing sunsets to watch from bamboo beer shacks, Zen yoga retreats like Buena Vista Surf Club and secluded coves like Playa Rosa on the menu too.

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