Ranking the Best (and Worst) Countries in Central America for Travelers

Ranking the Best (and Worst) Countries in Central America for Travelers

There are eight countries within Central America if we decide to include Mexico (which I am here, for a number of reasons, including the fact that the United Nations places Mexico within the Central America geoscheme). ALL of these countries are pretty amazing in their own right. But let’s face it, some places are simply more interesting, inviting, fun, beautiful, friendly, etc.

Yeah, it’s tough to rate countries from “best to worst” or “favorite to least favorite” but what the heck, why not give it a try?

This is my attempt to try to quantify the un-quantifiable and place these countries from least favorite to favorite — these are the places I would recommend friends to go and spend their precious vacation time.

This is based on my 6+ months driving through Central America, exploring the highlights and spending some time off the tourist track thanks to having my own wheels.

So, let’s get to the list of the best countries in Central America! But if “best” to you means “safest,” then be sure to instead read my guide to the safest countries in Central America, which is a little different. Here, we’re talking about the best in terms of coolest, most interesting, most incredible, etc.

Where are the best places to explore in Central America for travelers? After visiting them all, here's my take on this question...

8. Honduras

Ah, Honduras, sorry to give you last place, but somebody had to take the fall. Admittedly, we spent a limited amount of time in the country as we just passed through, so this placement might not be totally fair. 

To be clear: I’m not saying there’s anything bad about Honduras, it’s actually a pretty cool place and every country has cool things to offer. But if we’re speaking strictly about which places I would most strongly recommend to friends with limited vacation, well, I just think there are cooler destinations in the region… Okay? 

The biggest things that we might have wanted to explore would be the Copan Ruins (but we’d already seen so many awesome ruins over the past few months) or the famous islands along the Caribbean Coast (mainly for divers, which we are not), but that would have required us to drive all the way across the country and leave the truck on the mainland.

Add in the fact that Honduras is surprisingly expensive for what it is, and we simply preferred to move on to Nicaragua.

That’s not to say that there aren’t pleasant little towns, beautiful things to see and friendly locals, but that’s equally true in any of the neighboring countries which seemed to us to be both more interesting and more affordable (given our limited time and budget).

What I Liked: Very normal, despite its perhaps undeserved reputation for being dangerous, indeed I’ve talked or chatted with many who have traveled through and enjoyed it, even some that traveled through Honduras with kids in tow. Honestly, Honduras felt more “normal” or “safe and sane” than the next country on my list.

What I Didn’t Like: Overpriced and the most heavily potholed roads of the trip.  Kids and adults would pretend to work to fill in those holes (they would fill in like four or five) and then stand there with shovels asking for money, this was like every mile along the road. If they were actually working on a daily basis, there would be no potholes left.

7. El Salvador

El Salvador is a tiny country, so it’s understandable that it would be tough to compete with the bigger countries in terms of things to see and do.

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We spent our time exploring the beautiful coast, from the surf capital of El Tunco in the north (err, west) to El Cuco in the east.

El Salvador does have a sort of menacing atmosphere though with a very large presence of armed security guards everywhere (even riding on the back of Coca-Cola delivery trucks) and massive fortifications around individual houses on the coast and even around some communities (like El Tunco).

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It’s got a curious vibe, but the coast is undoubtedly beautiful, and the people are kind and friendly.

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What I Liked: Loved the delicious pupusas and the cool surf towns, the first time I really imagined myself giving surfing a try.

What I Didn’t Like: The heavy armed presence and general vibe of insecurity, something that I haven’t seen in any other Latin American country to date (in Central or South America).

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Read More: The Best Places to Visit in El Salvador

6. Belize

Belize is a curious little country nestled below the famous Yucatan Peninsula. I really had no idea what to expect from this country but found it to be a diverse and interesting country.

In the first place, it is an English speaking country in the middle of Latin America, with a currency pegged to the dollar. After three months in Mexico, it was strange to step into Belize.

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We spent most of our time along the coast in places like Placencia or the famous islands like Caye Caulker, but we spent a good bit of time inland in Belmopan, Orange Walk, and San Ignacio.

The coast of Belize is stunning and heading out to the islands is idyllic.

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There is so much diversity in the scenery in this small country, from humid, tropical jungles, to wild coastlines.

It’s a curious mix of cultures too, with a large community of former African slaves, Latinos, a ton of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants/descendants, ethnic Mayans, and a large population of German Mennonites who roll through the countryside on horse-drawn carriages. I really loved the mix in such a small place.

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What I Liked: The laid back coast, places like Placencia and Caye Caulker the most, some surprisingly good food, like the seafood (of course) and more surprisingly the delicious meatballs.

What I Didn’t Like: Inland the people are generally not very warm and friendly, unlike people along the coast or on the islands. Belize City is also a dump that gives off a definite sketchy vibe (though that was the only place like that in the entire country).

Read More: The Best Places to Visit in Belize

5. Panama

Panama, oh so famous for its canal, but what else do they have to offer? Well, they’ve got a beautiful coastline (a theme through much of Central America). But they’ve got some awesome nature areas (like Soberania) where you can see tons of jungle wildlife.

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They also have Panama City, which is probably the most modern and well-developed city in the region.

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The Canal itself is an impressive engineering marvel, but there are also pleasant little towns like Boquete.

It’s hard to place my finger on what I liked about Panama, perhaps it was mostly due to Panama City and the contrast after so long traveling through similar terrain in Central America (it had been basically the same since Chiapas, Mexico).

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What I Liked: New Year’s Eve in Panama City was crazy — I have never seen so many fireworks in my life. It’s truly a spectacle.

What I Didn’t Like: Driving in Panama City was BAD. They are some of the worst drivers I’ve seen in Latin America (Peru is the only place worse), it was like a near accident on a daily basis.

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Read More: The Best Places to Visit in Panama

4. Costa Rica

Costa Rica has long been the destination of choice for Americans traveling to Central America for vacation or to live. It’s a country rich in biological diversity, wildlife, and natural landscapes.

It was fun to finally feel free to venture pretty much wherever we wanted, well off the beaten path, or wild camping where we wanted, without feeling paranoid about safety and security (something of more concern in neighboring countries).

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This is the place to come for adventure sports activities like white water rafting, zip-lining, horseback riding, and to see some amazing wildlife, which is pretty much guaranteed, and in numbers and frequency that you just don’t see anywhere else in the region.

We got to see one of the most incredible sights on the trip when an “arribada” of sea turtles stormed the beach during broad daylight to lay their eggs. There were literally hundreds on shore.

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There is definitely a lot of tourist infrastructure in place and a huge amount of tourists that come through, though that can be kind of off-putting.

The Nicoya Peninsula and Corcovado Peninsula are stunning. The area around Arenal was also a highlight. Even the bustling big city of San Jose was agreeable enough.

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What I Liked: The relative safety and security of the country is much better than elsewhere in Central America. The fact that you can see so much incredible wildlife so easily.

What I Didn’t Like: It is crazy-expensive. For everything. Much more expensive than anywhere else and yet development-wise it is basically on par with the others, so you are often paying exorbitant prices for the exact same level of services or accommodations that you’d find in a neighboring country for half the price.

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Read More: The Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica

3. Nicaragua

Alright, we are getting into the Top 3 now! Nicaragua was a highlight of our travels through Central America, even though we only explored a relatively small chunk of the country, it was full of memorable places.

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I loved the gritty, colonial city of Leon. I loved exploring the island of Ometepe situated in the middle of a massive lake. Granada was a great colonial town and was filled with things to do.

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Even the sleepy little town of San Juan del Sur was fun.

I felt like there was a huge concentration of great places to go within a relatively small area, and all of it was surprisingly affordable.

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What I Liked: The beautiful landscape, friendly people, cheap prices, and the sheer amount of things to see and do.

What I Didn’t Like: The food is fairly underwhelming and repetitive (if you’re eating where the locals eat, rather than more upscale touristy places), but that is somewhat of a common issue throughout the region.

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Read More: The Best Places to Visit in Nicaragua

2. Guatemala

Guatemala, what can I say, you are incredible!

The ruins of Tikal are still probably the coolest I’ve ever visited (yes, even cooler than Machu Picchu).

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The terrain is varied and interesting, whether you’re in the thick jungle near Tikal, the high mountain roads and town (where you can actually feel cool weather!), to massive volcanoes, and wild (and relatively quiet) coastlines.

I will always remember watching lava erupting and flowing down the side of a volcano, or releasing baby sea turtles on the beach, or loading my truck onto a rickety old raft to be able to continue down the road.

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Guatemala is also incredibly affordable and simply full of great places, whether you are in Flores or Antigua. It’s no wonder that Guatemala is one of the most popular places to learn Spanish as well.

What I Liked: Tikal was perhaps the coolest single place, but there were so many highlights here, whether it was Day of the Dead in San Juan Sacatepequez or hanging out in the little touristy towns around Lago Atitlan. You could easily spend a few months (or much more) in Guatemala.

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What I Didn’t Like: There isn’t much that stands out. There are some extremely terrible roads to drive, especially if you get caught at night. I found the people to be friendly and honest (unfortunately, other travelers have contrary opinions/experiences).

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Read More: The Best Places to Visit in Guatemala

1. Mexico

The Big #1! If we’re going to include Mexico for consideration, then #1 obviously had to go to Mexico.

Important Note: I know, sometimes Mexicans get outraged to be included with Central America, and every Internet geographer likes to rage at me in the comments (“Mexico is in North America!” Duh, all these countries are in North America) but I included Mexico for a number of valid reasons, and even the United Nations includes Mexico in Central America. So, if you don’t like that, please take up your war with the UN, not me.

Anyway, there is an impossible amount of places to explore in Mexico. We spent three months driving through the country and were only able to scratch the surface.

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Everybody already knows about the stunning beaches of Mexico, whether in Baja or the Yucatan. But there is so much more to Mexico.

I loved my time in little towns like Tequila, or San Ignacio, or Zipolite. I was blown away by big cities like Mexico City (seriously one of the coolest cities in the world), or Oaxaca, or Merida (a place we even imagined living).

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There are the famous beautiful beaches, the big towering mountains, windy high passes, incredible desert scenery, and stunning canyons.

Mexico is a land of superlatives and deserves to be visited more frequently as well as to be explored beyond the popular beach resort towns like Cancun.

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The food is incredible (and so varied), the people are friendly, the history is rich, and the culture is incredible.

You can find pretty much whatever it is you might be looking for in Mexico, it is by no means a one-dimensional country.

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What I Liked: Exploring the country beyond the stereotypes that we hear about drug traffickers and danger.

What I Didn’t Like: Corrupt police (definitely not a myth) and the frequency of blockades and social protests (in some parts, particularly Chiapas). Mexico held the majority of the highlights of this massive road trip, but also the majority of the negative experiences as well (although there were few in Mexico, they were basically non-existent in the other countries).

Read More: The Best Places to Visit in Mexico (Not on the Beach)

Overlanding Central America - www.desktodirtbag.com

What Do You Think?

So there you have it! The “Best and Worst” countries of Central America… Is my list totally off-base? Should Honduras be #1 and Mexico #8?

Everyone’s list is bound to be a little different, but that’s my honest take on Central America from Best to Worst. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve traveled to any or all of these countries.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my article on the safety and security of driving through Mexico and Central America, as well as my responses to the most frequently asked questions about this road trip. Also, don’t forget to check out my article about the biggest myths about Central America travel.

No matter which of the countries you are traveling to on this list, I’d highly recommend picking up travel insurance to protect yourself against injury, illness, and theft. I use and recommend World Nomads for travel insurance.

Traveling to Central America on your next trip? Book the perfect room on Booking.com today! If you’re planning to travel to Central America, please remember to pick up international travel insurance to protect yourself against illness, injury, and theft. I use and recommend World Nomads for its combination of affordability and coverage.

Wish you could travel more? Click here to grab my free resources for affordable, long-term travel.

Read Next: The Safest Countries in Central America

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Where are the best places to explore in Central America for travelers? After visiting them all, here's my take on this question...

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Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West. Since then he set out traveling to Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

Comments 39

  1. Avatar

    Ryan, I really appreciated your list I work in international development and have travelled extensively, but haven’t spent time in Central America barring Mexico & Costa Rica. I’ve had my eye on Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua! Thanks for your insights!!

    P.S. I honestly don’t understand all of the hostile rhetoric! You’re one person entitled to your perspective.

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    Great article, but you underestimated Belize! Visiting Caye Caulker, you should definitely had visited Ambergris Caye! You missed a the great La Isla Bonita!

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    Hey, I have an idea: if you say that Mexico is not part of Central America, then simply ignore it and move every country up on the list by one notch. Problem solved.

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    I do have to at least shine some light on some facts and hopefully others readers don’t take this as the determining facts, especially since it showed up 1st on google.

    Honestly you have some good points and I can agree with you on Nicaragua and Guatemala. Other then those I’d have to flip this list upside down and truthfully Mexico should always be left on its own. Its a totally different beast and isn’t comparable to any of Central America (to anyone ready this yes he’s right about Mexico).
    Anyways like I said you have some good points for someone who drove through these countries, But for anyone like myself who’s a backpacking / hitchhiking / chicken bus / tica bus taking / hostel traveler… go to Honduras and El Salvador. I actually have to tell people all the time to go because they read articles like these that say they are “dangerous” (you shed light on this and your right about it being safe) “expensive” or “not much to see”.
    I’m not going to write up a huge post to explain it…just discover the places for yourself. Hit up Utila or Roatan or Copan in Honduras then take a bus to Santa Ana then Playa El Tunco and cruise down the pacific coast to see some really good waves, waterfalls and beaches. As for the others on the list…Belize only go to the island called Caye Caulker. Some of the coolest hostels and really fun for 3 days, people from all around the world are visiting that small island. As for Costa Rica…I live here now and its pretty damn amazing but the facts of it being expensive are 100% true. Nothing here is free except nice long walks on the beach. Panama is also expensive but I would check out Bocas Del Toro for some fun and beaches (Filthy Fridays).

    As for Guatemala and Nica…They are…Paradise for prices and for attractions.
    sorry if this seems harsh but I just love Honduras and Salvador too much and hate when people skip them because of lists that say they arn’t up to par with places like Costa Rica or Panama.

    Keep traveling and do what you do!!

    Matt
    @mattmans_world

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    1. Avatar Post
      Author

      Literally in the same article:

      “Central America” may mean different things to various people, based upon different contexts:

      The United Nations geoscheme for the Americas defines the region as all states of mainland North America south of the United States and specifically includes all of Mexico.[4]

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    Nice post! I’ve spent the last 2 years in Central America (Honduras and Costa Rica) and really like the region. I’d suggest you give Honduras another chance though… it has a bad reputation but I was pleasantly surprised after spending a year there.

    The Copan ruins are beautiful and have a different feel than Tikal with less impressive structures but some very detailed sculptures and even a small tunnel area. Right next door is another area of ruins called “Sepulturas” which are smaller but the place was empty when I visited so it was really cool to appreciate them without anyone else.

    The Bay Islands are really nice even if you aren’t a diver. The water was so clear and beautiful. It is quite expensive though and is completely different than mainland Honduras.

    Other places I enjoyed were Pulhapanzak waterfall, the old churches in Comayagua, the Spanish forts of Gracias, Trujillo, and Omoa, and the Caves of Taulabe.

    Basically, anywhere outside of the 2 main cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, aren’t very dangerous for tourists and the people were very friendly towards me.

    Also, compared to Costa Rica, the food in Honduras was much better. They borrowed pupusas from El Salvador and they have their own specialty called “baleadas” which are large tortillas filled with beans and cheese (eggs, meat, avocado, and platain are sometimes added as well).

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      Author

      Thanks for the tips Joseph! One of these days I hope to explore Honduras in some depth… Just to be clear, I didn’t really have anything against Honduras, it was just that we were already driving along the coast and had that small section of Honduras in front of us.

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    Central America is Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua,Honduras,Costa Rica, Panama. Belice.
    100% agreed with you that Guatemala is the best from Central America.
    Mexico just beautiful as well but Mexico is part of North America.
    Good article.

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    Hi Ryan,

    I really enjoyed the article finding it helpful with me possible planning a trip to Central America early next year.

    I am shocked at how many people feel the need to arge with you over whether Mexico is part of north/central america, especially after you explained your decision to include it at the top of the article.

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      Author

      Thanks, Andy, yeah I don’t really get it either… I guess it is easier to argue with a writer on the internet rather than the United Nations. Enjoy your travels!

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    I apologize if you mentioned it, but what was the time frame you went to mexico and central America? I am very interested in this trip. I would start out in Mexico, but still have the fear of stories I hear about. Can you tell me about safety of the travel in Mexico?

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      Author
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    I am a Nigerian community health advocate, last year I missed the opportunity to visit Mexico having heard fantastic and fearful stories about the country. I have not stopped thinking about visiting Mexico someday. God willing. Thanks for sharing your experience with us here.

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    I’m a Latina who has traveled all throughout Latin America and the rest of the world for that matter…I have never ever heard a Latin American lump Mexico together with Central America…not one…like ever..it simply isn’t done..so pulling out the maps (backed by UN or not) is totally moot dude.

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      Author

      My girlfriend is from South America (born and raised) and has lived her entire life there, and they were taught from grade school that Mexico is part of Central America. So yeah, its totally done, by the U.N., other Latinos. I’m not just inventing stuff here. I’ve also traveled across most of Spanish speaking Latin America (missing Venezuela, Paraguay, and Uruguay), spent at least four years living or traveling there (and am a fluent Spanish speaker), and have traveled around the world too. 😀

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        My wife is from Colombia and no, they are not taught it is part of Central America. They are taught it is part of North America. Don’t be so stubborn.

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          Author

          That doesn’t really change the fact that some are taught that it is part of Central America (which is part of North America), nor does it change the fact that the UN includes it with Central America. I’m not sure why my article has become the focus — take up the battle with the UN or others, it’s not like I invented this out of thin air.

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            I am a native of Central America, and in fact there is no such continent as Central America. We are clearly taught that the 7 nations of Central America are part of North America. But that being said, it’s great that you took the time to visit Central America!

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            Author

            Eric, I’m not saying it is a continent… In the comment you just responded to I say “Central America (which is part of North America)”… Central America is a region or sub-region of the North American Continent.

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    My husband and I moved to Guadalajara Mexico 6 months ago. We love it here! We drove from Arizona to Guadalajara with 3 dogs and a loaded trailer. We had no problems driving here as long as we didn’t drive at night (random speed bumps, cows and other debris in the road that you can’t see). We were never stopped by the police either, even though we expected to be. We took the toll roads along the coast. We are interested in exploring Central America too, so thank you for writing about your experiences.

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      Author

      You should definitely explore Central America, there are so many incredible things left to see… Especially take some time to explore Guatemala.

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    I don’t know how you can give an opinion about a country with only having spent one night there and moving on to the next country. I just finished spending a week in Honduras and had a blast exploring their ruins, ranches, thermal spa waters, canopy tours, museums, Macaw park. That was just one area of Honduras in Copan. I look forward to visiting their coastal regions next such as la Ceiba, Tela, and their Bay Islands. So to give an opinion and categorize a country as last place without exploring it is simply utter ignorance.

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      Author

      For sure, I didn’t say there aren’t things to see and do. So where would you place it then? #7? Better than El Salvador? #1, better than Mexico and everywhere else?

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      ROATAN HONDURAS HAS THE LARGEST LIVING CORAL REEF IN THE WORLD AND SECOND LARGEST CORAL REEF NEXT TO AUSTRALIA BEING THE LARGEST. THE WATER IS A BEAUTIFUL BLUE CRYSTAL CLEAR. A DREAM PLACE FOR SCUBA DIVING. PODWER SAND BEACHES AND ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO VACATION. THE RIGHT CHOICE TO GET AWAY FROM BIG CROWDS OF TOURIST IN PARADISE!

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      Well said. If you must give an opinion which will be read and taken seriously, perhaps you should then limit your opinions to places that you in fact visited . In the case of your article you should clarify you didn’t visit Honduras, therefore were not able to rank it fairly. The Country ( which I have in fact visited) is beautiful and diverse, the food delicious ( yes, I also thought it was expensive), the people friendly. It just doesn’t belong at the end of such list.
      And we shouldn’t confuse Latin America with Central America, your article has as a headline ”Best countries to visit in Central America” , that doesn’t include Mexico.

      1. Avatar Post
        Author

        I did visit Honduras. I never said it wasn’t beautiful, diverse, or that it was filled with angry and rude people. I’m also not confusing Central and Latin America. If you don’t like a definition that includes Mexico with Central America, please take your fight up with the United Nations, not my website.

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    First of all how can you judge Honduras like that if you didn’t even try to enjoy it. Second please do some research and educate yourselves. Mexico is NOT in Central America, saying that it is or that part of it is just makes you look ignorant. Mexico is in NORTH AMERICA. You can’t just “lump”it all together. Also Central America is not part of North America its part of AMERICA. Horrible article.

    1. Avatar Post
      Author

      First of all, there is North America and South America (the existence of these two large land masses is pretty obvious) and whether you want to consider them each separate continents or subcontinents of one America doesn’t really make a difference (I know in much of Latin America they are taught that it is one continent, but regardless still consists of two major subcontinents). North America is everything Panama and north… Central America is a region or sub-region of North America, see this handy map, and is not considered a subcontinent of America or the Americas.

      Second of all, culturally, historically, even geographically, a big part of Mexico (the whole Yucatan including Chiapas — which was only connected to the rest of Mexico in the 1950s and 60s, and which also at various times sought independence from Mexico — would undoubtedly be considered part of Central America (just think about the borders of the ancient Maya civilization) despite the modern political borders. That whole part of Mexico has more in common with Guatemala and El Salvador than with Monterrey, Mexico City, or Cabo San Lucas.

      Furthermore, the United Nations considers ALL of Mexico to be part of the Central America geoscheme, so here’s another handy map for you. Please note within the geoscheme that the region of “Northern America” should not be confused with the continent/subcontinent known as “North America” (refer back to point one) which itself is made up of Central America, Northern America, and the Caribbean. If the U.N. can lump it together, I don’t see the problem with doing so in my article.

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      I am just going to throw my two cents in here. As a person born in central america and who has lived half her life in both the us and Nicaragua i have found that some things just change depending where you learn them. Is mexico part of central america to some yes to some no. How many continents are there even that depends what country your in. Lets just settle down and take it easy on the caps, after all this is just an opinion piece.

      1. Avatar Post
        Author

        Very true, Kat! I always have trouble wrapping my mind around the five continents they are taught in much of Latin America… Like Antarctica doesn’t even count? Europe and Asia are two separate continents with no really clear border between them, but America is one continent despite the fact that it isn’t even really accessible between the two?

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    You better ‘Belize it’! In 1984, we traveled at the right time when vacations were affordable. We spent Thanksgiving at Ramon’s Reef Resort (@$35 per night) in San Pedro at the south part of Ambergris Caye

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    Good article. I don’t need help with travel, been to 23 foreign countries 40 US states and live 9 months a year in the Baja. Thanks for loving Mexico!

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    1. Avatar Post
      Author

      Sure, but all of Central America (Panama and north) is also part of the continent of North America, not just Mexico. And if we’re speaking from a strictly geographical and historical perspective, one could consider part of Mexico (specifically Chiapas and the Yucatan) to be part of Central America. In any case, I decided to lump it all together for this post.

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