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Top 10 Central American Beaches

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By: Carolyn McCarthy

Francis Ford Coppola PresentsThe Turtle Inn welcomes guests to powder-soft sands in Hopkins, Belize, one of our favorite picks for Central American beaches

Central America has always attracted intrepid visitors in search of unfiltered natural beauty. Now, a set of top-tier, and often eco-friendly resorts is reinventing the region as a world-class beach destination, complete with unspoiled coastlines, coral reefs, and corduroy waves.

When to Visit: The region is at its best during the dry season (also peak season), which is usually from December to May, though it varies depending on the exact location. (All prices quoted here are for peak season.) The rest of the year, prices fall, but so does the rain. Solitude seekers may want to avoid the holiday season (mid-December through February), when some of these Central American beaches are crowded with locals.

Get a taste of these exemplary seaside resorts with our Central America Beaches slideshow

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Central America.

Ambergris Caye, Belize

A barefoot lifestyle and a love of reggae rule this pocket-size English-speaking nation, which feels more Caribbean in culture than Central American. Ambergris Caye, located off the northeastern coast and a quick flight from Belize City, is a 25-mile-long island known for its soft beaches and car-free tranquility. Sequestered at the north end of the island, Matachica Beach Resort is renowned for its charm and seclusion. The thatched-roof cabins come with porches for catching a breeze; the turquoise Caribbean waters offer world-class snorkeling right off the dock at one of our favorite Central American beaches. From $250/night, includes breakfast, airport transfers; www.matachica.com

See our Belize Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Belize.

Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

With tourism so new here, visitors are often treated more like friends of the family. The country’s Balsam Coast is known as a surfers’ paradise, but those seeking solitude should check out the ultra-remote Barra de Santiago, on the northern Pacific coast, a national park with estuaries and mangroves on a broad, tawny sandbar. Inside the park, El Salvador’s first ecoresort, La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge, debuts in style with thatched-roof bungalows set in a stand of coconut palms. In August and September, guests can see thousands of endangered Olive Ridley turtles hatch in the park’s sanctuary and then help release them into the ocean. Getting to one of our favorite Central American beaches entails a complimentary 1.5-hour car transfer from San Salvador or, at an extra cost, a chartered plane or helicopter ride. From $146/night, includes all meals, airport transfers, kayak use; www.lacocoteraresort.com

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals El Salvador.

 

Bocas del Toro, Panama

With accessible rain forest, lush beaches, and a pulsing capital, Panama is flaunting assets that much of the world didn’t even know it had. Right now, vacationers are hopping the 1-hour flight from Panama City to the rural archipelago of Bocas del Toro, a treasure trove of empty islets and white sand off the northwestern coast of the mainland. At the picturesque Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, guests are lulled to sleep in two-story, thatched-roof cabins perched over the sea on stilts and reached via a long wooden boardwalk. French doors open onto private decks; solar panels are used to generate power. At mealtime, vegetables are plucked from an organic garden, and seafood comes from the daily catch (the chef prepares an exquisite lobster stew). For an extra fee, take a water taxi to the numerous quiet cays and play Survivor for the day, whiling away the hours watching passing dolphins on one of our top picks among Central American beaches. From $374/night, includes breakfast, dinner, airport transfers; www.puntacaracol.com

See our Panama Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Panama.

Hopkins, Belize

At Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort, a 20-minute flight from Belize City, a couple of hammocks swaying on the boat docks are a signal to come and unwind on a pristine Central American beach. Guests wax enthusiastic about the tree house accommodations, surrounded by black orchids and replete with skylights for stargazing (in air-conditioned comfort). Despite the draw of lazy days spent by the freshwater pool, adventurous vacationers can borrow kayaks and bikes, as well as explore nearby Mayan pyramids, waterfalls, caves, and the world’s only jaguar preserve. (With 40 percent of the country protected through private trusts and public lands, nature breathes easy in Belize, at least in comparison to its more industrialized neighbors.) The resort also has its own PADI dive facility, and divers have access to an underwater wilderness that is populated with manatees, whale sharks, and eagle rays. From $275/night, includes breakfast; www.hamanasi.com

See our Belize Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Belize. 

Mal Pais, Costa Rica

Locals would like to keep the villages of Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, on the southwestern coast of Nicoya Peninsula, a surfers’ secret. Even so, amateurs and experts alike are welcome to ride the waves here. Development in the area is nascent, so visitors can enjoy wide ribbons of uninterrupted sand fronted by warm tide pools. Newcomer resort Beija Flor weighs in as a surprising good-value retreat. The 11 guest rooms and one villa are sparsely chic and set in a tropical garden. When the surf isn’t up at this top Central American beach, guests indulge in spa treatments, yoga classes, and sunset horseback rides. The open-air restaurant serves an appealing French-Asian fusion cuisine. Driving to the resort is possible, but flying to nearby Playa Tambor via a local airline from San José is best. From $60/night; www.beijaflorresort.com

For more trip-planning information, see our Costa Rica Travel Guide, then search for Costa Rica travel deals.

Placencia, Belize

Situated on the slender Placencia Peninsula that juts off Belize’s southern coast, Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn is anything but Hollywood glam (in a good way). Bungalows outfitted with handsome Balinese furnishings and private pools are tinged with rustic details like outdoor showers; entertainment comes in the form of complimentary bikes, kayaks, and paddleboats; a Thai massage at the spa; or simple wooden tables for card games on one of the best Central American beaches. The restaurant Mare skews Italian with brick-oven pizza and a Coppola-heavy wine list. Fly direct to Belize City from Miami, Houston, or Dallas in 2 hours; from there, it’s a 40-minute trip on a charter plane. From $375/night, includes breakfast; www.blancaneaux.com

See our Belize Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Belize. 

Roatán, Honduras

Roatán – north of mainland Honduras in the Caribbean sea and the largest of the Bay Island chain – is surrounded by more than 60 miles of living reef and is one of the most affordable places worldwide to learn scuba. Open-water certification courses last three to four days, after which divers can troll for rare whale sharks. The secluded plantation-style Reef House Resort organizes three dives daily. Non-divers can swim with sea turtles in the saltwater pool or explore the island’s west-end, which has some of our favorite Central America beaches. The best time to visit is February through June; fly direct to Roatán from several U.S. cities, including Houston and Miami. From $145 per person, per night, all-inclusive dive package (based on double occupancy); www.reefhouseresort.com

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Roatán.

 

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

With the buzz of great values and laid-back tropical style, Nicaragua flashed onto the radar and was dubbed the new Costa Rica. Not so fast. Thanks to colonial charm and untouched natural beauty, Nicaragua deserves recognition in its own right. Ridgetop Pelican Eyes…Piedras y Olas Hotel & Resort overlooks fishing village San Juan del Sur, which sits in a bay rimmed with golden sand on the country’s southwestern Pacific coast. The resort boasts starch-white villas set in tropical gardens, with vaulted cane ceilings and spectacular views. Other perks include sailing trips and several infinity pools, which are a welcome alternative to trekking down a staircase to the beach. To reach Pelican Eyes, fly into the capital city of Managua and the resort will arrange a shuttle for the 2-hour ride to one of our top Central American beaches. From $322/night, includes breakfast; www.piedrasyolas.com

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Nicaragua.

San Juan del Sur (outskirts), Nicaragua

Thirty minutes outside the village of San Juan del Sur and near the Costa Rican border, Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge – set up by a French couple as a conservation project – rests on more than 4,400 acres of protected forest, complete with an estuary and private beach (one of our favorite Central American beaches). Fifteen primitive-chic bungalows blend into the jungle hillside; each is crafted from a medley of local timber and outfitted with private decks facing west to catch the sunset. Not for acrophobes, the bungalows are connected to the main lodge by a 325-foot suspension bridge that crosses a leafy canyon. Guests dine at La Bastide, which serves Nicaraguan-Asian-French fusion cuisine with many ingredients (like the brown sugar) produced on-site. To get there, fly into the cities of Liberia or San José in Costa Rica, or to Managua, and then take a 2- to 3-hour car transfer to the resort. From $322/night, all inclusive; morgansrock.com

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Nicaragua. 

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Lucky for visitors, the remote northwestern Nicoya Peninsula has remained under the radar despite Costa Rica’s recent popularity. Like Hawaii circa 1960, the area has wild, empty stretches of pale sand backed by palm and almond trees and only rough roads to get you there. Sumptuous Florblanca resort has 11 airy, elegant villas on a lush 7-acre property; accommodations are linked by a footpath, which leads to a quiet beach. Complimentary yoga classes are held in an ocean-facing dojo; bike, surfboard, and snorkeling equipment rentals are included. The resort is serious about environmentalism, meeting the rigorous sustainability standards of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. To reach one of the most far-flung of these Central American beaches, fly to San José and from there, the resort will help arrange a commercial or charter flight, or a (6-hour) ground shuttle. From $350/night, includes airport transfers; www.florblanca.com

For more trip-planning information, see our Costa Rica Travel Guide, then search for Costa Rica travel deals.

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