Steamy rainforest, smoking hot volcanoes and stunning reef-fringed shorelines, Central America is a god-given playground for the adventurous. Whether you’re packing a surfboard, a wetsuit and a GoPro or simply a pair of hiking boots, Andy Turner rounds up the best activities in the region.
Once off limits due to gang violence and civil war, El Salvador is now becoming a firm fixture on the international surf scene. Reliable waves peel elegantly along its 300km Pacific shoreline, and unlike nearby Costa Rica or Nicaragua the water stays a swimsuit-friendly 25–30°C (77–86°F) year-round.
While the country's beaches only come in shades of volcanic grey, the breaks more than make up for it. Today you’ll find gringo-friendly surf resorts, from the affordable El Dorado to the distinctly upmarket Las Flores, dotted along the coast.
Bored of snow, surf or skate-boarding? Why not point yourself feet first down an active volcano instead? Cerro Negro in Nicaragua is ground zero for the emerging craze of volcano boarding (more akin to tobogganing as you spend most of the time on your butt).
After a sweaty climb with a piece of plywood strapped to your back, you reach a height of 738m, before donning a fetching orange jumpsuit, hopping on your board and yelling “Vamos!”.
While you can slow yourself down by sticking out your feet, local operators Bigfoot have clocked speeds of over 80kmph. The fact that Cerro Negro is overdue an eruption, having been quiet since 1999, also adds a certain thrill.
If you’re after world-class underwater action the island of Coiba, off Panama’s south coast, deserves your full attention. Once a penal colony, Coiba makes for a perfect dive site thanks to its crystal clear water and nutrient-rich currents comparable with those in the Galápagos and Cocos Islands.
A multi-day dive trip will give you the best opportunity to see its range of critters from tiny seahorses and bizarre-looking frogfish to truck-sized whale sharks.
With a park ranger station the island’s only nod to civilisation, Coiba makes for a serene escape from the backpacker trail.
First used by biologists for a monkey-eye view of the forest canopy, ziplines turned out to be way too much fun for just boring old science in the 1990s. Costa Rica was one of the first places to develop them into adventure attractions and today boasts the world’s widest range of ziplines.
Fly past squirrel monkeys and waterfalls in the forests around Volcán Arenal or try the full “Look guys, no hands!” experience using a “superman” cable.
Apart from indulging your inner Tarzan, it’s the best way to see the sheer scale of Central America’s tropical forest.
There are plenty of stellar Mayan monuments above ground in Central America but you’ll also find intriguing evidence of this unique civilization in a series of subterranean caves and sinkholes.
One of the most atmospheric sites is Actun Tunichil Muknal, or “ATM”, in Belize. Here, you wade through waist-deep water and squeeze through limestone fissures before flicking on your head torch to reveal stunning stalactites and stalagmites – plus, something a whole lot creepier…
Laid to rest on several platforms are several calcified skeletons, thought to be the victims of Mayan human sacrifice.
The most remote region of the most enigmatic country in Central America? Tick! Take a river trip ten days up the Río Platáno in Honduras’s La Mosquita province and flat whites, wifi and satnav will seem far, far way.
Only a few operators have the know-how to tackle this challenging region, among them La Moskita who have taught the likes of Ewan MacGregor and Ray Mears jungle survival skills. After a day spent rafting rapids and hiking through primeval forest you’ll be ready to string up a hammock, zip up your mosquito net and ponder how on earth you got into this.
From here you’ll find a number of tempting treks, among them the ascent of Volcán Santa María, a perfect cone of black. Just downhill is Volcán Santiaguito, which regularly spits out a plume of ash that makes for the perfect summit selfie.
Non-profit Quetzal Trekkers offers a monthly full-moon ascent that culminates in a truly memorable dawn breakfast.
Explore more of Central America with the Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.