Strung with liana vines and shaded by mighty silk cotton trees, surrounded by salt-sprayed oceans and turtle-filled reefs, Central America teems with life and nature.
In fact, the region is often hailed as the most biodiverse place on earth, which is evident with every bend and twist in every backcountry trail through the region’s national parks.
This roundup of national parks will help you narrow down your myriad options for nature reserves between Panama in the south and Guatemala in the north – with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras in between. They’re the best of the best, with options for families keen to spot two-toed sloths and budding explorers looking to leave the rat race firmly in the dust.
Read on for the 10 best national parks in Central America.
Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica is ideal for families
Small but mighty, Manuel Antonio National Park in west-central Costa Rica packs a punch. Straddling a series of jungle-covered headlands south of Quepos City, this reserve has enough biodiversity to make you drop your gallo pinto. Sloths – two- and three-toed varieties – are the stars of the show, and there’s even a dedicated hiking trail (the Perezoso Trail) to help you spy those famous Big Lebowskis jungle sloths. Inside the park boundaries, you’ll find stretches of taupe sand at Espadilla Sur and Manuel Antonio beaches, at the end of tree-lined paths patrolled by howler monkeys and green iguanas.
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Avoid the crowds at Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras
Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park hugs the transparent waters of Lake Yojoa in the depths of west-central Honduras. It rises in a symphony of craggy rock spiers tufted with jungle, looking like something at home amid the karst hills of Southeast Asia. The rare cloud forest habitats you can access on day hikes from the village of La Guama are home to a kaleidoscopic array of birds – hummingbirds, toucans, flycatchers and more. The best part? It’s well off the beaten track, which means you can channel the good Bear Grylls vibes as you head into the jungle.
Adrenaline seekers should head to Arenal Volcano National Park in Costa Rica
Arenal has established itself as one of Costa Rica’s adventure hotspots. Its centerpiece is the perfectly conical peak of Arenal itself (which unfortunately cannot be climbed, given the volcano’s habit of spewing magma up to five times a day). The real adventure awaits you in the national park on the slopes surrounding the crater. More than 29,600 acres of land are crisscrossed by whitewater rivers and zigzag hiking trails that end in searing hot springs. Stay in the nearby town of La Fortuna, where backpackers congregate in bars to share stories of the capuchin monkeys and snakes they’ve spotted on the trails.
Anyone who loves history will love Guatemala’s Tikal National Park
The haunting ruins of ancient Yax Mutal, once one of the largest Mayan cities in Mesoamerica, tower above the lush forests of Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala. Today, visitors can observe the remains of more than 3,000 structures, including the 154-foot (47 m) tall Tikal I Temple and the Great Plaza, the ancient gathering point for Mayan priests and merchants. It all swirls in the emerald jungles of the El Petén region, where jaguars prowl the undergrowth and harpy eagles rule the skies.
Marvel at the volcanoes of Masaya Volcano National Park in Nicaragua
Located between two of Nicaragua‘s largest cities – Managua to the north and Granada to the east – Masaya Volcano National Park is home to two mighty volcanoes and a series of five craters. Most striking of the lot is the gaping mouth of Santiago Crater, which the conquistadores dubbed the mouth of hell for its seething lake of molten lava. You can get bewilderingly close to the smoke belching opening by hiking to the lookout points on the west rim. It is also possible to come at night to see the crater core glowing red magma in the depths below.
Leave civilization behind at Darien National Park in Panama
The bridge between Central America and South America is devoted to the wild lands of the Darien Gap, one of the most impenetrable and inhospitable parts of the planet. No road passes through here; no train lines cross the jungle. On the Panamanian side of the border, the region is protected by Darien National Park, a 2,240 square mile (5,800 km2) UNESCO-listed expanse that stretches from the wave-swept Pacific to the Colombian Sierras. Adventurers who come usually settle in the former Spanish gold mining outpost of Santa Cruz de Cana. And when we say it’s remote, we mean it: expect a 2-day hike to get there (or a quick hop in a propeller plane).
Counting Sea Turtles at Sipacate-Naranjo National Park in Guatemala
Stretching 12 miles of wave-washed coastline, Sipacate-Naranjo National Park marks the point where the winding Rio Acome emerges from the jungle and empties into the Pacific Ocean, and tops the list of best places to visit in Guatemala. This patchwork of mangroves and coffee-colored sands is best known as a key breeding ground for olive ridleys, leatherbacks and green sea turtles. The peak nesting season is between June and August.
Expect Sensational Beaches at Isla Bastimentos Marine National Park, Panama
The Isla Bastimentos Marine National Park covers the eponymous Isla Bastimentos, a crown jewel that is the Bocas del Toro region of Panama’s Caribbean. Surfers should already know for the reliable dry season breaks of Red Frog and Wizard Beach. But you don’t need a board in tow to appreciate biodiversity. It’s downright booming here, with caimans slapping in murky waterways, sea turtles congregating in reefs, and rare strawberry poison dart frogs glowing pink on palm branches. lush. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park is Best for Wildlife
Occupying a huge slab of the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Corcovado National Park is regularly hailed as the biodiversity star of Central America. The wide variety of life found in the 164 square miles (425 square km) of land is startling. Wildlife survives in a range of habitats, from humid mangroves to cloud forests shrouded in mist above. The park also spills into ocean water which teems with killer whales, manatees, and spinner dolphins. The El Tigre trail is one of the few day hike options here, taking you on an 8 km loop for around 8 hours in the eastern part of the reserve.
El Boquerón National Park in El Salvador is the most accessible from the city
You don’t have to go far from the crowded heart of San Salvador, El Salvador’s frenetic capital, to find yourself climbing the side of an active volcano. Cue El Boquerón National Park, which surrounds the great volcano of San Salvador. A 30-minute hiking trail from the car park can take you from lowland hydrangea forests to a ridge 1960m above sea level. From here it is possible to see a smoking cinder cone sunk deep in the crater.