Central America is the gateway to some seriously noteworthy cities that deserve your time and attention. And where are the best places to visit, you ask? The answer: the underrated ones. You know, the cities that most visitors overlook in favour of more popular destinations? They might not be the most Insta-worthy destinations, but they’re sure to impress you.
To help spark that lightbulb moment of where to go for an off-the-beaten-track adventure, these are the most underrated cities in Central America that you need to visit this year.
1. Flores, Guatemala
Flores is adored for more than just being the first stop en route to the mighty Tikal ruins. While the ancient (and impressive) Mayan ruins are reason enough to visit Flores, there’s plenty of other reasons why Flores should be added to your itinerary. This quaint town has shown itself to be a gem of a destination, thanks to its laidback local feel without the tourist frills found in other larger cities.
Flores sits on an island in Lake Peten Itza, the country’s second largest lake. But, it’s the nightly market along the waterfront where you can experience first hand one of Guatemala’s greatest draw cards – the food. The easygoing atmosphere of the market boasts delicious local flavours and dishes including tostadas, tamales and tacos galore. And for dessert? Some of the best hot chocolate you’ve ever sampled made with locally sourced cacao.
Travel to: Guatemala
Navigating the cobbled roads through town, travellers can admire the pastel-coloured buildings and local artisans at work. Plus, it only takes approximately 30 minutes to walk all the way around the town. Flores is also an ideal setting for you to go swimming or snorkelling. For travellers in search of an exhilarating attraction, look no further than Jorge’s Rope Swing, and before the day is out, head over the water to the Santa Elena market.
Flores, such fond memories. We were only going to use Flores as a transit on our way to Tikal National Park, however we ended up staying 4 nights in total. Flores located on Lago Peten Itza captured our hearts. The quaint streets to wander through, homes with amazing doorways and windows all were a photographers dream. Cafes with stunning views over the lake where we enjoyed lazy breakfasts and long lunches. Our dinners were enjoyed in the waterfront restaurants where we could watch the local fishermen enjoying peaceful moments whilst fishing for their dinner and stunning sunsets.
Time your visit for one of their Fiestas. We visited around May and joined in with one of their religious festivals. The small winding streets decorated with colourful flags for the local priest and his entourage to wander through blessing local homes as they went. Fireworks exploded to warn off any evil spirits whilst children screamed in delight.
We would recommend using the services of the local travel agents in Flores for your visit to Tikal National Park. They advised us to take an afternoon shuttle bus arriving at the entrance to the Park at around 3pm as we were staying one night in the park. At this time you could purchase your tickets for the next day but the bonus was it gave you a few extra hours that afternoon to wander around on your own. On arrival source a local guide to book your sunrise and sunset tours. – Jane, To Travel Too
2. Leon, Nicaragua
Even as Nicaragua’s second largest city, Leon certainly flies under the radar. Far less-touristy than Granada, it’s jammed-packed with history, adventure-filled activities and is home to beautiful sights. Leon is the birthplace of Nicaraguan independence, and marks of the revolution are evident on street-side murals and tributes across the town. While you’re there, make sure you pay close attention to the burgeoning food scene and unique architecture.
When in Leon, you won’t be short of things to see or do, and it’s easy to fully immerse yourself in the local culture of Leon. If you’re a thrill-seeker, you can hike the Cerro Negro (an active volcano) and slide down it on a sandboard. Or, if you’re looking for a cathedral so magnificent it rivals the domes of Santorini, the Leon Cathedral is the largest in Central America and should be added to your bucket list.
See Also: The Top 5 Must-Visit Places in Nicaragua
For the foodies, if you want to eat some of the countries best street food, take your pick from local savoury dishes like Gallo Pinto and more. Most importantly, if you’re craving a dip in the ocean, head to Las Peñitas beach for a surf. Safe to say, the variety of experiences you can find in Leon are as endless as they are diverse.
3. Cahuita, Costa Rica
Costa Rica has become synonymous with the saying “Pura Vida,” meaning to live a simple and pure life and in Cahuita, the city truly subscribes to this ideology. About an hour north along the Carribean coast from the party-centric town of Puerto Viejo, Cahuita shares hedonistic qualities and is a place where you can enjoy the natural beauty of your lush surroundings. It’s also the perfect destination for spotting tropical fish in the exposed coral reefs, so if you’re looking for the best snorkel spot, this is it! Or, if you’re looking to catch some waves (even if you’re a beginner surfer) head to Playa Negra.
Whether you stick close to shore on the secluded palm-fringed beaches or head deep into the jungle, you’ll instantly be wooed by the charm of Cahuita. Back in town, the modest city centre boasts colourful wooden houses and is a sweet respite from the more crowded spots so you can really get in tune with Costa Rica’s unique environment and biodiversity.
4. Suchitoto, El Salvador
Set in the mountains overlooking Lake Suchitlán, Suchitoto oozes cultural pride. The Spanish colonial town is one of many off of the Ruta de Las Flores, a road that stretches between smaller mountain towns, and takes its name from the wildflowers that fill the roadside when in full bloom. But, what sets Suchitoto apart from the rest of the nearby cities is the weekly market that overflows onto the cobbled streets and the main square of the well-preserved town. The market celebrates local artists and chefs in the rows of stalls that take over the area. Travellers can shop for fresh produce, snack on fried plantain and purchase many handmade souvenirs to take back home.
Anytime during the week, travellers can experience the artistic spirit of the town at the Mercado Municipal de Suchitoto or by visiting Centro Arte Para La Paz, a community-run gallery and museum. But, there’s more to Suchitoto that can easily be discovered with a little bit of exploring. Hike to Los Tercios waterfall, spot local wildlife and osprey on Lake Suchitlán and enjoy savoury pupusas in the stunning town square overlooking the cathedral, Santa Lucia.
5. Roatán, Honduras
Often, Honduras is a generally overlooked as a must-visit destination. Think 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 dazzling coral is full of marine life, Including whale sharks!
Roatán is the kind of place you step foot on and feel like you’re living in one of those immaculate screensavers you’ve fawned over. The island stretches far enough that travellers can find secluded coves and empty beaches.
Roatan is known for being a scuba diving mecca, so that was the big draw for me. I did my entire dive training there all the way up to being a scuba diving instructor! Diving on Roatan is very easy compared to some other parts of the world. The water is warm, there’s generally little to no current, and the visibility is usually great. The reef is very close to the shore, so you can access fantastic sites really quickly on a dive boat (it’s great for divers who get seasick!) and in some places even swim from shore to snorkel on the reef.
The Roatan Marine Park and local dive shops strictly enforce reef-friendly diving and snorkeling practices which has left the reef in a very healthy condition. There’s lots of colorful soft coral, small critters and bigger marine animals like turtles, rays and sharks.
Another thing I love about Roatan is a very long slow season. This leaves lots of opportunity in the year to visit at a lower price, while getting to enjoy all the island has to offer without sharing with thousands of cruise shippers or other tourists. High season is from Christmas until Easter and low season is the rest of the time. I’d avoid mid-October through the beginning of December due to rainy season, but the summer and beginning of fall are a good time to visit!
Arch’s Iguana Farm in French Harbor is a cool place to visit. Mr. Arch has had an iguana sanctuary on his property for many years and his family is very involved in all kinds of environmental conservation on the island. There’s also a sloth sanctuary next door!
If you rent a car, a hidden gem in the east end of the island is La Sirena de Camp Bay restaurant. They serve traditional island food on a dock out over the water. It’s beautiful and the drive up there can take up to an hour depending on traffic, but it’s very scenic.
For divers, try to see if you can set up diving on both the north and south side of the island (you’ll probably need to use two different shops for this). The underwater topography is actually quite different on both sides and it’s interesting to see both! – Rika, Cubicle Throwdown
6. Boquete, Panama
While the town itself might fail to impress, it’s Boquete’s location in the lush highland mountains that make it an outdoor-lovers haven and is not to be overlooked. Here, travellers can explore local coffee plantations and learn about the process from bean to brew, and of course, indulge in a cup or two.
With caffeine flowing through your body, there’s plenty of places to roam if you’re searching for impressive scenery and hidden waterfalls. Also worth noting is that hiking trails are in abundance and leave plenty of opportunity for wildlife spotting. The Lost Waterfall is a noteworthy destination with sightings of monkeys and birds galore. While you can easily sit still with a fresh glass of orange juice from the region, there are so many experiences calling you to keep exploring such as river rafting, mountain biking and climbing.
7. San Ignacio, Belize
While Belize is home to the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere, somehow travellers continue to overlook the beauty of Belize. But, perhaps it’s the air of mystery and allure of what can be found in the caves or under the sea which helps to preserve areas like San Ignacio.
San Ignacio’s urban environs never fail to unleash the explorer within travellers who visit. Edge your way through miles of cave networks and cross river beds streaming through the jungle on Actun Tunichil Muknal and discover Mayan artefacts in Belize’s underworld by raft or kayak.
What we loved about San Ignacio was getting to explore the area and learn about the country from the friendly locals. Belize has such a rich history!We did a couple of organized tours in San Ignacio. One was a visit to the Xunantunich ruins on horseback, which was educational and lots of fun! We rode through the beautiful jungle and saw so much wildlife.We also visited the ATM Cave, famous for having actual Mayan sacrifices still available for viewing. Both activities taught us so much about Mayan culture – we’d definitely recommend them! – Natasha and Jarden, A Global Stroll
Searching for more inspiration of where to go and what to do? Take a look at our compilation of 18 bucket list experiences from across the globe that you need in your life (you can thank us later).