The Best Hikes in Central America

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Over the past two decades, countries like Costa Rica and Panama have transformed Central America into one of the world’s adventure paradises. It’s a land marked by smoldering mountains, dotted with coconut-strewn beaches, and dressed head-to-toe in jungles filled with sloths and crawling snakes.

This guide to eight of the region’s best hiking trails will take you from the wave-battered Pacific to the uncharted reaches of the Darien Gap. The goal? To reveal the most beautiful trekking trails and day hikes in Central America, with something for all levels, from beginners to Bear Grylls.

Spotting sloths can be tricky – they barely move! © Enrico Pescantini / Shutterstock

Sendero el Perezoso – Costa Rica

Ideal for wildlife observation
1.3 km (0.9 miles), 30 minutes, easy

Ask 10 people why they came to Costa Rica in the first place, and sloths will probably figure somewhere in the answer. Take this short detour off the main park trail in this biodiversity zero point, Manuel Antonio National Park, built to give hikers access to some of the most sloth-rich jungles in the world—hence the name.

The Sloth Trail begins less than a 10 minute walk through the forest from the main entrance to the reserve. Take the spur that heads west and follow the raised paths of the boardwalk; soon you will be eclipsed by phalanxes of silk cotton and buttonholes. They’ve been known to house two- and three-toed sloths, but spotting the critters can be tricky – they barely move! Try to get there nice and early, as there are more lazy people when it’s less crowded.

The end of the trail connects to the main intersection for all routes through Manuel Antonio. It’s a great spot, between the cinnamon sands of Playa Espadilla Sur on one side and the road to the much-photographed powder scythe of Manuel Antonio beach on the other.


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View of Volcán Concepción and Ometepe Island in Nicaragua from the slope of Volcán Maderas
Volcán Concepción is one of two cone-shaped peaks that overlook Lake Nicaragua © Alvaro Faraco / Getty Images

Concepción Volcano – Nicaragua

Ideal for a challenge
16 km (9.9 miles), 11 hours, difficult

Volcán Concepción is one of two cone-shaped peaks that overlook Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. It may not look like it, but it can be done in one push; start early, as it will take 10-11 hours for most, and the cool morning air is a blessing on the first ascent.

Speaking of climbs, the real killer here is the elevation gain. The summit is at a relatively gentle elevation of 1610m (5282ft), but the base level of the hike is only 130m (427ft), which means there is a long way to go before you reach the top. ‘reach the top. The first few sections go through lush jungle, then you get a zigzag mud track along the spine of the mountain.

The last stage above 1200m (3937ft) is trickier. This is where the scree takes over, and there are steep parts you may be asked to climb against a dizzying backdrop of swirling lake waters and surrounding coffee plantations. But there’s a payoff: Clear days at the summit mean visions of a cloud-studded crater rim. and even the Mombacho volcano far to the north.

A beautiful mountain stream in the jungle forests near Boquete, Panama
Panama‘s Lost Waterfalls Trail is one of Boquete’s most popular round-trip routes © Martin Sarikov/500px

Lost Waterfalls Trail – Panama

Ideal for waterfall enthusiasts
3.3 km (2.1 miles), 2-3 hours, easy

The good news is that none of the three waterfalls on this hike are exactly lost. In fact, they’re pretty well known, as it’s surely one of the most popular round-trip routes from the eco-mecca of Boquete. The fact is they feel lost, as you’ll have to navigate through thick Amazonian jungles woven with creepers and cobwebs to reach them.

The waterfalls themselves are dotted almost equidistant along the route. The first is the largest, a roaring cataract that foams over a ridge of damp stone. The second is where to swim – it gurgles in a deep, inky pool. The third is like something out of a Jules Verne novel, framed by lush vines and colorful orchid blossoms deeper in the Panamanian rainforest.

It costs $7 for admission to the Lost Waterfalls Trail and an additional $8 for a taxi from Boquete (one way). Wear sturdy, waterproof boots and bring a rain jacket for this one – it’s notoriously muddy and wet from start to finish.

Poás Volcano – Costa Rica

Ideal for looking directly into a volcano
4.6 km (2.9 miles), 2.5 hours, moderate

The whole of Central America is dotted with more volcanoes than you can shake a hiking map at. One of the most accessible is Volcán Poás, in the heart of north-central Costa Rica. It sits in a national park amidst jungle-covered peaks, about 50 minutes north of Alajuela and a 90-minute drive north of the capital, San José, making it prime territory for a day trip. ‘a day.

There’s a visitor’s center at the trailhead where you can learn a bit about the somewhat baffling volcanology of Poás – just dismiss the fact that it’s erupted 40 times since the 1820s and hit the trail . It first stretches east to Laguna Botos, the first of two crater lakes, passing through cloud forests rich in resplendent quetzals and hummingbirds.

The final ascent takes you over a high ridge at around 2500m (8202ft). There, a 180-degree panorama reveals the second crater lake, Laguna Caliente, which burns with sulfur and smoke within Poás Crater itself. It’s actually the largest open crater on the planet, measuring a whopping mile from tip to tip.

Presentation of Central America

Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica

Ideal for seasoned hikers
20 km (12.4 miles), 2-3 days, difficult

Above the sierras and clouds of southern Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripó is the highest peak in the land of Pura Vida. It’s a real challenge that requires good physical condition and a certain determination, taking a total of two or three days on the mountain. Even getting to the trailhead takes some effort, requiring an odyssey through the Cordillera de Talamanca to the small trekking town of San Gerardo de Rivas.

From there, it’s a full day’s walk over steep, rocky trails to the tin-roofed hut at Crestones base camp. This is where things get really interesting, as day two brings sections of high altitude cloud forest and paramo, a biome of hardy rosette plants and sparkling yellow wildflowers. At the top, some 3,821m (12,536ft) above sea level, you can marvel at the surrounding lagoons and 20,000-year-old glacial valleys!

Muddy road in a jungle leading to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.  Sign jaguar xing (crossing).
Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is considered the frontline of jaguar conservation on planet Earth © Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock

Tiger Fern Trail – Belize

Great for seeing jaguars
5.5 km (3.4 miles), 3-5 hours, moderate

If you can get away from the sugary sands of Belize’s cays and atolls, a biodiversity paradise awaits inland. Of the many reserves, the main one is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which is precisely where you’ll find this moderately challenging out-and-back route winding through primeval jungles.

The Tiger Fern Trail weaves through dense thickets of Belizean pine and hardwood, at times crossing a babbling stream over moss-covered rocks. It takes you deep into jaguar conservation territory, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for big cats as you go.

Near the top there is a rustic campground with stunning views of the Maya Mountains, as well as a duo of waterfalls where you can cool off. The best time to come is during the dry season (December to April), when the trails are generally less muddy and the plunge pools much clearer.

Telica Volcano – Nicaragua

Ideal for scanning the center of the planet
13.1 km (8.2 miles), 1-2 days, moderate

You can climb Volcán Telica in León, northern Nicaragua, in one or two days. It’s not a very difficult route, starting with flat farm fields and then a steep push up the nerve cone itself.

It’s really all about the view at the top. Looking outside, you’ll see a sort of Nicaraguan Serengeti, sweeping west towards the Pacific in endless brush fields dotted with the occasional mango tree, a haze of heat sitting at the valley floor.

But it’s the crater view you’ll be talking about. Look down to see a smoke-spitting hole, plumed with sulfur and wisps of ash. At night – and this is why you might prefer to spend an evening on the slopes – it even burns red with hot magma and lava.

Pipeline Trail – Panama

Ideal for getting closer to the jungle
6.1 km (3.8 miles), 2.5 to 3 hours, moderate

The Pipeline Trail is a straight valley walk through the Bajo Mono, the hiking playground just north of the town of Boquete in the heart of western Panama. It’s actually named after the industrial pipe that joins the path at the trailhead, but that could just as well be because of the nearby rainforest, which looms like a tunnel when you really start.

Yes, it’s jungle on all sides here. A symphony of emeralds and greens rise above the canopy, the smell of rotting leaves abounds and you feel like snakes are moving through the underbrush. Suddenly you will be amazed by the appearance of the great Cenizo – a towering tree said to be over a millennium old. The finale is a ribbon-like waterfall that tumbles through a gap in the jungle-covered ridges above.

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