7 Ancient Ruins of Central America

Many of the peoples of Central America were prolific builders and empire-makers; when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found bustling metropolises and impressive monuments. Today, the ruins of cities built by the Mayans, Toltecs, Zapotecs and others serve as a testament to their civilizations, and many of them are preserved as World Heritage Sites scattered throughout the countries of Central America. A great way to begin learning about these ancient cultures is to visit 1 of these 7 sites; if you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet some of the descendants of these amazing builders.

7. Caracol, Belize

Long thought to be a relatively unimportant Mayan city, Caracol has revealed itself to be one of the most influential political centers in the Maya Lowlands during the Classical Period of the Mayan civilization. The complex was larger than Belize’s capital city today and supported a population twice as large. The site was rediscovered in 1937 and archaeological work has been ongoing since 1985. Caracol was a dense city, with approximately 270 structures per square kilometer, which is denser than Tikal at its height. Caracol weathered the initial collapse of the Mayan empire, but was fully abandoned by 1050. When Europeans arrived, the site had already been disused for 500 years. The largest building at the site is Caana, the Sky Palace; the ruin is, in fact, one of the largest buildings in Belize.

Caana, Belize

6. Las Mercedes, Costa Rica

Las Mercedes was an important political center for the Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica. Associated with the Huetar, a Chibchan-speaking people, Las Mercedes was rediscovered in the late 19th century, when a railway connecting the capital city to Puerto Limon was built. The site has been excavated several times, although the earliest “excavations” were unscientific and many artifacts were removed. Las Mercedes was inhabited from around 1500 BC until 1500 AD, when the Spanish arrived. Glass beads at the site indicate the Indigenous peoples may have traded with the Spaniards. Spanning 25 hectares, the site has 3 large complexes, with a total of 15 platforms and many plazas, retaining walls and causeways. The causeways, which are paved, are a particular testament to the skill of the people that built them.

Photo by: International Expeditions / Jim O'Donnell
Photo by: International Expeditions / Jim O’Donnell

5. Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Popularly known as the “Pompeii of the Americas,” Joya de Ceren is remarkably well preserved. Much like its ancient Roman counterpart in Italy, this Mayan farming village was covered in volcanic ash when the nearby Loma Caldera erupted, dumping between 4 and 8 feet of ash over the town. The inhabitants fled, but they left behind utensils, ceramics, furniture and even half-eaten food when they escaped the town. Excavations have uncovered about 70 buildings since the site’s 1976 discovery, all of which give us remarkable insight into day-to-day life and Mayan civilization in the late 6th century. Even the farm fields, which had been planted just hours before the eruption, have been preserved. Joya de Ceren was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and archaeological work has been ongoing since the late 1980s.

Joya de Ceren

4. Copan, Honduras

The ancient city of Copan lies in western Honduras, in the far reaches of the Mayan cultural region; in fact, Copan would have been almost surrounded by peoples from the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region. Nonetheless, the city was occupied for more than 2,000 years and, between the 5th and 9th centuries AD, became an important center of Mayan culture. The site contains multiple temples and the royal Acropolis, as well as a court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame ōllamaliztli. Copan is famous for a series of stelae depicting rulers and Altar Q is the most famous monument in the entire complex. During the 8th and 9th centuries, the population of Copan declined, as did its influence. Today, Copan is the best-known Mayan site in Honduras, as well as a World Heritage Site.

Copan

3. Canta Gallo, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Indigenous peoples are most closely related to the Choco-speaking peoples of Panama and Colombia. Most of these groups weren’t prolific builders, unlike the Aztecs and Maya further north. That’s part of what makes Canta Gallo so special; it’s one of the few sites in Nicaragua where you can see the ruins of ancient pyramids built by some of the country’s Indigenous peoples. To get there, you’ll need to travel deep into the jungle of Indio Maiz in southwestern Nicaragua. The site is sacred to the Rama Indians, descendants of the Chibcha. Relatively little is known about Canta Gallo, but some believe it is a lost city. Since the area is remote, the ruins have yet to attract mobs of tourists, meaning that this is a site where you’ll actually be able to get up close to the ruins.

Photo by: Niina  / Bizarre Globe Hopper
Photo by: Niina / Bizarre Globe Hopper

2. Teotihuacán, Mexico

Is it possible to write about Central America’s ancient ruins without addressing Mexico? Although not usually classed as part of Central America proper, Mexico’s Indigenous peoples were drivers of empire and modern Mexico is littered with the ruins of civilizations like the Maya, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Toltecs. The inhabitants of Mexico’s most famous ruins, however, remain unknown; the Aztecs claimed common ancestry with the Teotihuacans, but the ethnicity of the inhabitants is the subject of debate. Perhaps a multi-ethnic center, Teotihuacan was at one time the largest city in pre-Columbian America and its influence was felt throughout Mesoamerica, from Tikal to Copan. Today, it is is famous for its pyramids, including the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, as well as the Avenue of the Dead and its multi-family residences.

Teotihuacán

1. Tikal, Guatemala

The ruins of Tikal are instantly recognizable from the famous Tikal Temple I, a 47-meter tall limestone step pyramid with a Mayan roof comb. The temple is also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar. Of course, Temple I isn’t the only building at Tikal; there are many more buildings. Given that Tikal was once the most powerful city in the Mayan empire, the complex of temples, altars, palaces and pyramids only makes sense. The site is divided into several groups, including the Great Plaza located at the core of the site, the Central Acropolis to its south, the North and South Acropolises and the Plaza of the Seven Temples. Located in the Peten rainforest in northern Guatemala, this World Heritage Site is perhaps one of the best-known in Central America.

Tikal, Guatemala

10 Things to See and Do in Honduras

Honduras has long since been known for its violence and tends not to be at the top of people’s vacation destinations but not everywhere in this wonderful country is dangerous. By taking a little extra precaution and staying away from the bigger cities, visitors can explore the breathtaking landscapes, swim in stunningly clear waters and be privy to exceptional wildlife. From raging white water rafting to serene lakes with hundreds of species of birds to turquoise waters teeming with marine life; there is truly an experience for everyone here. Discover 10 of our favorite things to see and do in the country of Honduras.

10. Visit Parque Nacional Cusuco

It may be the hardest place to reach on this list but the scenery and wildlife in the Parque Nacional Cusuco is worth all the trouble it takes you to get there. Local guides can be hired at the visitor’s center and it is recommended you do so, as they have a wealth of information about the forest and wildlife. There are five different hiking trails that lead from the visitor’s center, two of which lead to waterfalls and swimming holes. The wildlife in the park includes parrots, toucans, and a large population of quetzals; famed to be the loveliest of all tropical birds which are on the brink of extinction. Hikes will also take you to the famous midget cloud forest and introduce you to a variety of frogs and reptiles. Camping is possible right at the visitor’s center and provides early morning wildlife sightings, which are often the best.

Photo by: Joe Townsend
Photo by: Joe Townsend via Flickr

9. Bird at Lago de Yojoa

It is the largest natural lake in Honduras, largely underdeveloped, ringed by tropical forest and over 400 species of birds call this lake and the surrounding area home. Lake tours are the most popular way to see the hundreds of species of birds where experienced guides can take you to the best vantage points. The tranquil waters make it an ideal place to fish or sail, while drinking in the dramatic scenery that surrounds you. Although it is largely still a well-kept secret, there are a number of impressive hotels that have popped up along the lake to stay at. One of the favorite places to stay here is the microbrewery that produces four or five new beers each week. Other activities other than birding include hiking in the mountains, tubing, zip lining and visiting the butterfly farm. Lake Yojoa, Honudras

8. Whitewater raft down the Rio Cangrejal

If you feel like a thrilling adventure, white water rafting down one of the most challenging rivers in Central America is sure to get your heart pumping. From September to January is the best time to raft this river and visitors should expect to raft up to 20 miles of rapids that range from Class 2 to Class 6. Huge drop offs that come out of nowhere, narrow dark passages and mazes of boulders are just normal on this adventure. Count on being surrounded by wildlife including howler monkeys, bright colorful butterflies, jumping fish and many species of birds. Many companies offer half-day shorter trips for less experienced paddlers but still count on it being an exciting ride. Water levels can fluctuate heavily throughout the year so make sure to do your research before you go.

Barna Tanko / Shutterstock.com
Barna Tanko / Shutterstock.com

7. Dive the Waters of Roatan

Thick green forests, white sandy beaches and sparkling blue waters await visitors to Roatan. Unknown to many, this island is a hotspot for divers and snorkelers. The entire island is surrounded by a shallow reef, making it perfect for both beginners and experienced divers. It features thousands of marine animals, many drop offs and canyons, and the Caribbean’s largest variety of coral and sponges. It is easy to get your dive certification here for beginners as native English speaking instructors tend to flock to this island. If diving isn’t your thing, snorkeling is excellent anywhere around the water. For dolphin lovers, head over to Anthony’s Key Resort where you can play and swim with well trained dolphins. Plenty of accommodation choices, marine rich waters and white sandy beaches set the stage for the perfect island getaway. Diving Roatan, Honduras

6. Explore Pico Bonito National Park

It is one of Honduras best known National Parks and features abundant wildlife that enthrall and excite visitors. The landscape here is diverse, ranging from a low tropical rain forest to a high elevation cloud forest to extremely dry forests on the backside of the park. What this means for visitors is a wealth of animals, waterfalls and breathtaking views. The Lodge at El Pino is the most protected area of the entire park, as this privately owned area employs security to ensure laws are followed and that no hunting occurs. This small luxury eco-lodge is on 400 acres with private trails, lookout towers, roaring rivers and the most wildlife in one place. Here visitors are encouraged to hike through the rain forest with a guide, white water raft down the rivers, boat through a manatee reserve and snorkel the clear waters. This is truly a gem not to be missed.

Photo by: Denis Fournier via Flickr
Photo by: Denis Fournier via Flickr

5. Shop at Mercado Guamilito

Get your bargaining skills ready before heading out to shop at Mercado Guamilito, one of the best places to shop in Honduras where everything you could ever want can be found at rock bottom prices. Handicrafts are the specialty at this market including paintings, pottery, hammocks, wood carvings and leather goods, just to name a few. Open year round the market is made up of hundreds of stalls including delicious local food and exotic flowers for sale. Bargaining is a way of life in this country and it pays to work on your skills before heading here as most vendors will try and charge foreigners a higher price. A little Spanish, polite manners and a big smile will go a long way with these locals. Leather is a popular commodity here and expect to pay significantly less than you would at home. Make sure you take the time to explore the whole market, including the food for an authentic Honduras experience.

Street Market

4. Escape to Cayos Cochinos

This group of two small islands and 11 smaller coral cays boast some of the best diving, snorkeling and beaches in all of Honduras. Many visitors choose to escape to Cayos Cochinos as it is located just a short boat trip away from La Ceiba, Nueva Armenia, or Sambo Creek, making it the perfect one day getaway. Large white sandy beaches coupled with sparkling turquoise waters is what you will find here at this exquisite protected nature reserve. There are several companies that offer daily snorkel or dive trips and many that offer multi-day trips with lodging in one of the few hotels. Sea kayaking, snorkeling, soaking up the sun, visits to the tiny villages and a step back in time is what awaits you here. If you are looking for the ultimate relaxation and don’t mind the lack of amenities (electricity and running water are non-existent in many places); the Cayos Cochinos is the perfect getaway.

Photo by: fabulousfabs via Flickr
Photo by: fabulousfabs via Flickr

3. Visit the Copan Ruins

Copan was once one of the great centers of Mayan civilization nearly a thousand years ago and today the beautiful remains have some of the most impressive pre-Columbian art. The ruins are located just outside the modern yet charming town of Copan Ruinas; and can be reached by foot or bus. Visitors should expect extremely extensive ruins with some of the most well preserved hieroglyphics. Along with the ruins is an excellent museum that features Mayan artifacts and a reconstructed temple. Included in your admission is access to Las Sepulturas, ruins that are believed to be the remains of the “Beverly Hills” of Copan. This is where the upper class of Copan lived and their houses were built and decorated accordingly so, this is still evident in the carvings and details found on the ruins. Tombs and burial sites are also found here and it pays to take along a guide who can explain the history and what has been found. Copan, Honduras

2. Dive at Utila

The island of Utila is known all over the backpacking world as the cheapest and best place to learn how to dive in all of Latin America. It also happens to be home to plenty of whale sharks year round, but especially plentiful in the months of March and April. The island itself is tiny and a little rough around the edges, with the entire population living in one settlement. But what visitors come here for are the reefs and the incredible diving. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and around Utila tend to be about 20-35 feet and weigh around 20 tons. They tend to travel by themselves as opposed to in a pod but many singular whale sharks are found at one time around the island. The warm waters and clear visibility along with colorful reefs, turtles, dolphins, schools of fish and rays make this the perfect destination to get underwater. Whale Sharks -Honduras

1. Visit the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve

This amazing reserve encompasses over 5,200 square kilometers of tropical rain forest, complete with over 39 species of mammal, 377 species of bird and 126 reptiles and amphibians, as well as over 2,000 indigenous people. Visiting here is like stepping into another world and getting here can be tricky as there are no roads that lead directly here so you must either take a flight, boat or join with a tour. What visitors can expect is dugout canoe trips up the river, spotting of rare and endangered wildlife and amazing hikes through the jungle. Stay with a local family, use the local tour operators and see how eco-tourism works at its best. This reserve also happens to be home to the site of Ciudad Blanca (White City), one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan civilization. Unfortunately visitors are not granted access to this site yet as it was just discovered and is heavily guarded.

Photo by: Rainforest Alliance
Photo by: Rainforest Alliance

10 Things to See and Do in Nicaragua

Nicaragua is just recently becoming one of the hottest new destinations for tourists in Central America. It has been kept under the radar in the past, shadowed by the more developed country of Costa Rica. Fortunately for visitors looking to give Nicaragua a chance, it will not disappoint in terms of things to see and do. From the amazing Caribbean waters of the Corn Islands to the nesting sea turtles to the lush jungles and towering volcanoes; there is no shortage of incredible natural wonders to explore. Whether you are looking for an adrenaline packed vacation or something a little more relaxing, here are 10 incredible things to see and do in Nicaragua.

10. Explore Granada

Many travelers love to use this colonial city as their home base when exploring the country. The city is breathtaking with pastel colored buildings, historic churches and cobblestone streets. Its interesting history and the fact that it is relatively safe draws a lot of tourists here. There are multiple forms of transportation to get around town, including horse drawn carriages, but luckily most attractions here can be reached by foot. Mombacho Volcano is located just outside of town and offers activities such as canopy tours, hikes and a few hot springs. Other visitors here like to take a boat out to the Granada Islets, horseback ride around the farms at the base of the volcano or visit one of the cigar lounges. Making this city your home base ensures there is enough to do within footing, yet still gives you access to many day trips, it’s the perfect combination for your trip.

Granada, Nicaragua

9. Visit the Turtles

There are several beaches in this country where the sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs, sometimes in droves of hundreds. It occurs several times throughout the year and Nicaragua is one of the few places in the world where visitors can witness this amazing event. On the pacific side, the two beaches to see this incredible event are La Flor and Chacocente. They are both dedicated wildlife refuges and under constant supervision. These beaches can be reached by both public transportation or guided tour. On the Caribbean side there is no particular beach to seek out as the turtles here live and feed all year round and therefore can be seen along the entire coast. If you choose to visit the turtles in nesting season or hatching season please respect them by keeping your distance and following all guidelines and rules set out by the guides.

Pete Niesen / Shutterstock.com
Pete Niesen / Shutterstock.com

8. Go Volcano Boarding

Volcano boarding is a fairly new sport for the adrenaline seeking junkies that visit this country. Cerro Negro, the small active volcano is the perfect spot to try this sport. Many tour operators out of Leon offer this thrilling experience where you strap a board or sled onto your back and head up the volcano. Hiking to the top takes less than an hour and then the fun begins. The companies provide protective gear such as knee and elbow pads, as well as goggles and jumpsuits. With the choice of boarding down like a snowboard or sitting and sledding down, visitors will fly down the black rocks and try this once in a lifetime opportunity. It is up to you how fast you want to go but we suggest giving it your all as you only get one shot at it.  Nowhere else in the world can you experience the thrill of sliding down an active volcano.

Volcano Boarding, Nicaragua

7. Experience Miraflor National Park

This unique national reserve features three different climates and a variety of flora and fauna spread throughout. One of the most impressive features of this reserve is the variety of orchids; there are over 200 species throughout the park. These orchids not only grow in their typical flowering plants, but also on the ground and between the rocks. Nine communities are housed on the reserve and offer visitors a unique way to stay. Farmers open their doors to tourists and invite you to stay with a family, learning about life in the Miraflor National Park and the landscape that surrounds them. Wander through cloud forests, rivers and waterfalls during your excursion to this incredible diverse park. Whether you go for just a day or stay a few with a local family, the park will not disappoint.

MiraFlora National Park

6. Explore Leon

Leon is a colonial city full of breathtaking churches, incredible art collections, happening nightlife and colorful colonial architecture. A lot of visitors come here just to experience Volcano boarding, but end up loving the actual city itself. Walking is the transit of choice to get around town and plan on stopping in to check out one of the 13 churches. Leon is not as well preserved as Granada and tends to be less touristy, perhaps even more authentic with bullet holes still present in many of the buildings. There are a ton of volunteer opportunities in this city as well as many non-profit organizations that lead tours and treks to the nearby natural wonders; giving back to the community.

City of Leon, Nicaragua

5. Visit the Granada Islets

Located in Lake Nicaragua are 365 islands scattered off the coast of Granada, the result of Mombacho Volcano blowing its lid years ago. The islands are covered in lush green vegetation and many are occupied by private individuals with vacation homes. Taking a boat tour around the islands is perhaps the best way to explore them and many tours are available from Granada. The bird population here includes cormorants, herons, parrots, hawks and vultures. The monkey island is one of the most popular islands here as the boat can pull up close enough for visitors to reach out and feed them. The monkeys happen to be gentle and love to interact with people. Most of the guides are well informed and will talk to you about the history of the islands, the different architecture and the lake itself.

Photo by: Mukul
Photo by: Mukul

4. Surf in San Juan del Sur

Surfers from all over the world are learning about this incredible surfing location yet it still remains largely less crowded than its neighbor Costa Rica. With over 300 days of offshore winds, there are plenty of swells year round for both beginners and experts. The beach town of San Juan del Sur is the perfect place to call home while you explore the surrounding beaches as it is loaded with restaurants, accommodations and other travelers. One of the most popular beaches for surfing is Playa Maderas, it features a consistent sand bottom beach break and is only 15 minutes from the town. Surf camps are plentiful on this beach and beginners will have no problem finding someone to give them lessons. If you are looking to head out on a boat and find the ultimate wave, join a group going to Colorado where the river mouth beach break provides some of the most incredible barreling rights.

San Juan del Sur

3. Hike a Volcano

This country is often referred to as the country of Lakes and Volcanoes and it would be a shame to visit here without summiting on one of the many volcanoes. There is an impressive line of volcanoes that run north to south and offer everything from crater lakes on top of the volcano, active lava and bellowing smoke that pours out. San Cristóbal Volcano is the highest most active volcano in the country and exhibits some of the characteristics we most associate with volcanoes, cone-shape, smoking and a gigantic stature that towers over the landscape. It is one of the hardest but most rewarding climbs in the country. For something a little easier, head to Masaya Volcano, the most accessible one in the country. Here visitors can drive up to the smoking Santiago Crater where white gas pours out of the top. A national park has been erected around this volcano and visitors can hike to numerous summits and even visit a bat cave.

Masaya Volcano

2. Escape to the Corn Islands

If you are looking for a laid back island complete with palm trees, soft silky white sand and stunningly clear water teeming with marine life; the Corn Islands is where you will want to head. Big Corn and Little Corn are named respectively for their size and for those looking for the ultimate peace and quiet, Little Corn is perfect. With no cars allowed on the island, a handful of restaurants, accommodations and two dive shops; this is the perfect home base for snorkelers and scuba divers. Big Corn on the other hand offers a plentiful variety of restaurants, accommodations, nightlife and more amenities. A short plane ride from the capital city of Managua or a ferry from Blue Corn will get you out to these incredible islands in no time. Eat, relax, swim and dive – these are the four major ways to pass the time here.

Little Corn Island

1. Visit Ometepe Island

This island in Lake Nicaragua never fails to impress visitors with its towering volcanoes that rise dramatically out of the lake. This island has been largely untouched by tourism, offering pristine wildlife, wide beaches, clean waters, a handful of archeological sites and may just be a traveler’s paradise. It is often thought of as the “oasis of peace” and is considered one of the great rock areas of the world due to the number of petroglyphs and stone carvings that have been carved into its boulders. Visitors here can wander the many beaches, stay in adorable B&B’s, climb one of its two volcanoes, bike around the island, take a dip in the natural springs and much more. Visiting Ometepe should be on the top of your list for an unforgettable destination in this wonderful country.

Ometepe Island