IMAGE: Wikipedia — Lake Atitlan is just one stunning highlight for any traveler to Central America.

There’s an often-overlooked strip of land below the United States, also known as Central America.

Although it’s only a short flight from the US, it’s been ignored for years in favor of the tropical islands in the Caribbean. While Costa Rica has been on travel itineraries for decades with its stable economy and peaceful reputation, names like Nicaragua and El Salvador still conjure up images of revolution and machine guns.

The good news is that the wars have been over for years and you’ll be hard pressed to find any guerrillas in the midst. The better news is it’s easier than ever to get there and prices are a lot lower than most destinations in the Caribbean. I was in Guatemala a few months ago and spent a night on what might be the most beautiful lake I have ever seen.

It was an adventurous drive. There was winding breathtaking scenery, winding mountain roads and a lot of suicide dogs that were hell-bent on ending their lives on the grill of my rental car. The lake is called Atitlan, and it looks like a cross between Puerto Mont and the Amalfi Coast. It’s the kind of place that artists want to paint. 

As I was dodging the dogs, suddenly the road ended. I could see from my GPS that I was miles from the lodge I had booked online earlier that day. I asked a policeman how I was supposed to get to the place and he pointed at a boat. Okay then. The hour long boat ride turned out to have even more amazing views than what I had seen from the car and when I finally reached my destination, I was blown away.

The views were amazing, the food was fantastic, the weather was perfect. It was the kind of place where you have to keep taking pictures, only your camera just can’t capture what you see. I travel fast and rarely linger in a place for very long but Lake Atitlan could have kept me for days.

Travel doesn’t get much better than Guatemala. Most savvy travelers leave Guatemala City as soon as they arrive and head for the old city of Antigua. Antigua delivers. The cobblestone streets and old churches look like a movie set. If you don’t feel like you’re in a tropical enough setting, the sound of marimbas will get you there. These giant xylophones with multiple musicians striking them at the same time don’t seem to go with my first image of Central America, but the music is wonderful and definitely sounds tropical. 

IMAGE: Wikipedia — The streets of old-world Antigua are quaint and gorgeous.

On the other side of the country is Tikal. Out of all the ancient ruins I’ve scrambled over in the Americas, Tikal is the clear winner for me. George Lucas apparently likes it too. He filmed scenes for Star Wars there. The ruins are spread out through a dense tropical jungle. Pyramids rise out of the trees defying the nature that tries to cover them. Monkeys swing through the trees. Toucans fly overhead. If that’s not enough excitement, there’s a lodge inside the park where you can stay and be up close and personal with these ancient ruins. 

Nicaragua has cleaned up its old image and has some great colonial cities like Leon and Granada. It also has one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. You can drive your car right to the rim and peek over the smoking edge.

The island of Ometepe is another hidden gem. It’s located right in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and a short ferry ride to the island allows for amazing hiking, great beaches, natural springs, and more butterflies than you may have ever seen in one place. Where else but Nicaragua can you find ash boarding? I’m not kidding. You can surf down the side of a mountain on volcanic ash.

Neighboring Honduras has the spectacular, albeit smaller, ruins of Copan and world class scuba diving on the North coast islands of Roatan and Utilla. Panama has the canal. There’s UNESCO world heritage sites in El Salvador, and Belize has one of the most visited and amazing dive sites in the world, the Blue Hole. Costa Rica prices are higher than it’s neighboring countries but the country is full of great National Parks and has a good head start on delivering what tourists want.

IMAGE: This Is Honduras — The ruins at Copan are an underrated gem for archaeology buffs.

The point is that no matter where you go in Central America, there’s exciting one-of-a-kind experiences that you won’t find elsewhere. Competition has been heating up with low cost carriers like Spirit airlines flying to Central America for half the price that other companies have been charging. Central American companies like Copa and Taca airlines sometimes offer free stopovers at their hub for adventurous travelers. If you don’t like to exchange money, most Central American countries are as happy as can be to take your greenbacks. 

One of the greatest advantages to travel in Central America is that if you live in Texas, California or Florida, you can be almost anywhere in a few hours. So next time you have a 3 day weekend or a few days to escape, try something new. Try Central America. You’ll be surprised at what you’ve been missing. 

Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog, www.thetravelingwizard.com

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