Central America vs. South America: Where Should You Go?

From the sun-kissed beaches in Belize to the towering peaks of Argentina, both Central and South America host some of the most diverse natural wonders, colourful cities, pristine beaches, and local, authentic experiences on the planet. So, where should you go on your next adventure? We can’t make that decision for you (sorry!) but we’re here to compare Central America vs. South America, to help point you in the right direction.

A row of women in colourful traditional outfits, Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca | © Persnickety Prints/Unsplash
Central AmericaSouth America
Area507,966 square kilometres17.84 million square kilometres
Population42 million422.5 million
LanguagesSpanish, Mayan languages, English Creoles, Miskito, Ngäbere, Garifuna, English, Kuna, Embera, BribriSpanish, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, Quechua, Guarani, Aymara, Nahutl, Mayan languages, Mapudungún

Why you need to visit Central America

Central America might only be the size of Texas, but don’t let that fool you; this region sure packs a punch. With the relaxed, laidback vibes of the Caribbean on one side and the powerful swells of the Pacific on the other, you can’t go wrong. As for the terrain, it’s nothing short of breathtaking. Tropical forests, rolling mountains, rocky beaches, and volcanoes are just a few of the unique environs that offer something for everyone.

Where is Central America?

Situated on the southern part of the North American continent, Central America is bordered by Mexico just to the north, on the southeast lies Colombia. On the east, you’ll find the Caribbean Sea, and the western side is where you’ll see the Pacific Ocean.

In Central America, there are seven countries considered to be part of this region:


If blue water holes and snorkelling adventures come to mind when you think of Belize; you wouldn’t be wrong. With massive Mayan Ruins, and even larger picturesque beaches, you won’t be bored here.

Costa Rica

Do rainforests, jungles, perfect beaches, and volcanoes sound like your calling? If yes, then an active escape to Costa Rica might be the destination for you.

A person ziplining across the trees in Costa Rica
Reach new heights in Costa Rica | © Perry Grone/Unsplash

El Salvador

While it may be the smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is known for its beaches and vibrant mountainous landscapes dotted with volcanoes.


One of the greatest drawcards of Guatemala is the ancient city of Tikal – but there’s far more to this country than meets the eye.

A man riding a bike in Guatemala
Spend time getting lost in Guatemala| © Jeison Higuita/Unsplash


Often, Honduras is generally overlooked as a must-visit destination. However, it’s home to crystal-clear waters, pristine beaches, and top-notch dive sites along the Mesoamerican reef, the largest of its kind in the Western hemisphere. And you can bet that the coral is full of marine life, including whale sharks!


Nicaragua is filled with breathtaking landscapes, and if you’re into colonial architecture, you’ll certainly need to have your camera close by. If this country is on your travel bucket list, don’t hesitate to visit.


Panama is filled with flawless beaches, fascinating wildlife, tonnes of history, and the world-renowned engineering marvel: The Panama Canal.

When to visit Central America

The best time to visit Central America is during the dry season from mid-December to April with pleasant temperatures and mostly clear skies. However, this is known the peak season, with some significant holidays like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Easter that overlap during this time. The prices for hotels, flights, and transport will be significantly higher compared to the low season, especially in popular tourist destinations. Make sure you book ahead to avoid disappointment.

What to do in Central America

There are so many things to experience in Central America, so here are a few ideas to get you started on your adventure.

  • With hundreds of ruins in Tikal, an ancient Mayan citadel in Guatemala is a must-visit stop for history lovers and architecture enthusiasts.
  • For nature lovers, start your bird watching experience at Rancho Naturalista – a premier birdwatching lodge in Costa Rica. While you’re there, consider visiting Tortuguero National Park, which is known for its turtle nesting and diverse bird species.
  • Edge your way through caves and cross river beds in the jungle, and discover Mayan artefacts in Belize’s underworld by raft or kayak.
  • Practice your Spanish speaking skills across the region, as the best way to learn is through complete cultural immersion. There are plenty of Spanish speaking schools if you’re looking for a more formal environment to learn the language. Or, you could opt for the more natural route by mingling with local families.
  • If you’re a thrill-seeker, you can hike along to Cerro Negro (an active volcano) in Nicaragua and slide down it on a sandboard.
  • Visit the coffee plantations in Boquete, Panama in the highland mountains. Here, travellers can explore local coffee plantations and learn about the process from bean to brew, and indulge in a cup or two.

Must-try dishes in Central America

Guatemala – Desayuno Chapin en Guatemala

For breakfast in Guatemala, you can expect to find a big ol’ plate of fried kidney beans (or frijoles), fried plantain, an egg or two, and a serving of soft corn tortillas to mop it all up with.

Nicaragua – Baho

Super-succulent pork, boiled plantain, and a cabbage salad wrapped in a banana leaf are a good stomach filler served throughout Nicaragua that you need to sink your teeth into.

El Salvador – Pupusa

This street-food snack is a staple of the Salvadoran diet. However, this grilled tortilla can frequently be found across Central America. Fillings vary, but bean paste and cheese are typical.

A person cooking pupusa, traditional food of El Salvador
This is a perfect snack to keep you going | © Ceasol/Flickr

Costa Rica – Casado

From beef, chicken, or pork – this dish is a sensory overload, and your meat of choice is accompanied with fried plantain in a sweet sauce, a soft corn tortilla, salsa salad, and rice. Each restaurant will offer its variation, but each one is sure to be as delicious as the last.

Why you need to visit South America

As the fourth-largest continent on earth, it’s no wonder that South America makes for an overwhelming choice when it comes to decided where to go, and the options for unforgettable tours, experiences, and memorable encounters are endless. This continent is colourful, intoxicating, and, within moments of arrival, you’ll find yourself wanting to stay forever. Some of the must-do experiences include a trek to Machu Picchu or a visit to take in the magic of Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, but there are far more places and adventures that are waiting to be uncovered.

Two people overlooking foggy hills and trees in Andes mountains, Peru
Travel solo or find a travel buddy to embark on an active adventure through South America | © Peter Hershey/Unsplash

Where is South America

As the name suggests, the continent of South America is located primarily in the southern hemisphere and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Given the sheer size and scale of the region, South America is geographically diverse and is characterised by mountains, dry savannas, coastal plains, and jungle terrain.

In South America, there are 12 countries considered to be part of this region:


From huge glaciers to colourful cities and vibrant restaurants, there are many reasons why you should start thinking about Argentina. In Argentina, you’ll uncover a new sight to behold at every turn, with a dose of history that calls for a closer look.

View of the Perito Moreno glacier, Argentina
Perito Moreno Glacier is even more impressive up close | © Rachel Jarboe/Unsplash


Known as South America’s beating heart, Bolivia is home to a remarkable culture filled with its unique quirks and atmosphere. This is where you’ll find the Amazon rainforest, Andes Mountains, and Lake Titicaca – the world’s highest navigable lake.

Two cars in Bolivia in the desert
Jump in a 4WD in Bolivia| © Sahitya Kakarla/Unsplash


Brazil is nothing short of incredible, and we challenge you to name a more vibrant or colourful country in the world. Here, the world’s greatest celebration – Carnival – is celebrated just a stone’s throw away from the mighty Amazon.


If you’re looking to be dazzled by the wonders of nature, Chile is the place to go. This is where you’ll find a long Pacific coastline, Chilean Coast Range mountains, Easter Island, the Atacama Desert, and delicious wine.

Statues in Easter Island in Chile
Easter Island, Chile | © Thomas Griggs/Unsplash


In Colombia, vibrant jungles cover the landscape, adrenaline-fuelled adventures can be found at every turn, wildlife is abundant, and the colourful architecture will make sure you never want to leave. This popular spot for travellers is bordered by the Amazon River, the Caribbean Sea, and the Pacific Ocean.

View of the colourful buildings in Colombia
Explore the streets of Medellin in Colomba | © Milo Miloezger/Unsplash


Ecuador is one of the very few countries on Earth where the two hemispheres meet. Here you’ll find Spanish colonial architecture, the Andes Mountains, and the abundant wildlife of the must-visit Galapagos Islands.


This tiny country certainly flies under the radar, but it is brimming with rainforests and plenty of wildlife encounters for you to relive your very own David Attenborough-inspired adventure.


Landlocked between Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, Paraguay is home to a landscape of subtropical forests, rivers, waterfalls, and a handful of historic landmarks, it’s one country that might not be on your travel checklist – but it should be.


While it’s most famous for Machu Picchu and the Incan Trail, Peru serves up a limitless feast of adventure. While Machu Picchu may have initially captured your attention, there are many more highlights.

A young person dressed in traditional outfit in Cusco Peru
Cusco, Peru | © Ben Ostrower/Unsplash


Suriname boasts a robust Caribbean influence with great food, and even better nightlife, and is located on the on the northeastern coast.


Uruguay is the perfect destination for anyone looking for a vacation free of crowds and tourists.


Ever wanted to visit the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall? Well, in Venezuela you can do precisely that at Angel Falls, and so much more!

When to visit South America

There is no such thing as a wrong time to visit South America. Of course, this depends on where you want to go, what you want to do, and the activities you wish to experience. Given the sheer scale of the continent, it should come as little surprise that there are some different climates in action. As a general rule, the closer to the equator a country is – like Ecuador and Peru – the more consistently warm it is. If the destination has a higher altitude of a city, it will be much colder. High season is considered to be between December to March, where the weather across the region is the most stable. However, prices will be at their peak at this time.

What to do in South America

  • The Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina has to be seen to be believed. So, why not head there for your next hiking adventure?
  • Island hop between the Galapagos Islands where you will find blue-footed birds, exotic fish, giant turtles, iguanas, and a host of other animals.
  • If you’re in Peru, you cannot miss a visit to Machu Picchu. But keep in mind that there are plenty more trails than the Inca Trail for you to hike along. The Inca Trail is by far the most popular route but is by no means the only trail. In reality, there are many trails for you to trek along; many with fewer travellers.
  • Hop into a 4WD and hit the road for a few days to experience the magic of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
  • Rio Carnival in Brazil is considered by many to be the most fabulous party on earth, and it should be at the top of your bucket list with good reason.
  • Sandboarding is Chile’s answer to snowboarding and a fun, physical activity that takes you skirting down steep dunes. Head to the Atacama Desert to experience this for yourself,
  • Visit the famous Coffee Triangle in the Central Region of Colombia. Here, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the world’s best coffee beans.

Must-try dishes in South America

Brazil – Feijoada

It might not look pretty, but this hearty meat and black bean stew is simply unbeatable.

People sharing Feijoada in Brazil
Tasty and delicious, this is a dish you won’t want to miss | © Helder Ribeiro/Flickr

Peru – Ceviche

Some say it’s Peruvian sushi – and it is seriously delicious. Freshly caught fish is prepared in a marinade of chilli peppers, lime juice, red onion, and salt.

Cerviche in a bowl
Cerviche is delicious, tangy, and a one-of-a-kind food experience | © y6y6y6/Flickr

Uruguay – Chivito

A simple sandwich will do wonders for the stomach. This version in Uruguay is loaded with ham, bacon, steak, cheese, mayonnaise, bacon, olives, and an egg.

Ecuador – Cuy

Yes, we’re talking about guinea pig. It might be light on the meat, but it’s cooked on an open spit to result in crispy skin with a distinct – and memorable – flavour.

Bolivia – Salteña

Like an empanada, but better! These delicious savoury pastries are filled with beef, chicken potatoes, olives, peas, carrots with a dash of mystery spices.

Where will you be heading next? Let us know in the comments below! 

Gemma is a travel-lover from Melbourne. When she's not surrounded by the great outdoors, Gemma can be found spending her time with family and friends or planning her next trip overseas.

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