Vacation seekers flock to Central American tropics as an alternative to Caribbean, Mexico

Jonathan Mejia, special to

Beach at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
Richard Cummins | Getty Images

Many vacationers have passports bearing the seals of a Latin American or Caribbean country. Now, an increasing number are flocking to six countries that, until recently, have been the best kept secret among destination travelers.

Central America — specifically Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – collectively generated more than $5 billion in tourism last year, government data show. In fact, Central American countries are popping up more frequently on "Best of" travel guides, with those countries offering an alternative to the often crowded beaches of Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico (before Hurricane Maria).

Alyse Cori, owner of travel agency Travelwize, told CNBC that Central America tops other popular tropical destinations, simply because countries in the region have a wealth of attractions aside from beaches and resorts.

"There is more there," Cori said, pointing to the ecosystem and cultural diversity. "You can immerse yourself. You get the best of both worlds. It's not flat." Still, she voiced concern that Central America might get too "commercialized" in the face of more tourism.

Celeste Brash, a freelance writer and guide book writer for Lonely Planet, says price and accessibility is a factor as well. "It's quick and easy to get there," Brash said. "It's also cheaper than a lot of the Caribbean destinations."

Cheap, however, might be a relative term. Airfare to Central America can be relatively reasonable, but the wide range of attractions offered by each country means out-of-pocket costs can add up quickly. Recently, CNBC took a look at what each country has to offer.


Blue Hole in the Lighthouse Reef, East of the Turneffe Atoll in Caribbean Sea, Belize.
Mlenny | Getty Images

In Belize, where tourism accounts for nearly 13 percent of total employment, the country attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, figures from its Tourism Board show. One of its more popular destinations is the Great Blue Hole, a giant submarine sinkhole just off Belize's coast near the center of Lighthouse Reef. The Great Blue Hole is part of the larger Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System.

According to Travelwize's Cori, Belize has cachet with vacationers who like water sports. "It's a scuba divers dream," she said.

Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park, Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Christer Fredriksson | Getty Images

Costa Rica's tourist sector, which in 2016 topped $3 billion, is so integral to its economy that it eclipses money earned from traditional export staples like coffee and bananas, according to official data.

One of the country's main attractions is Manuel Antonio National Park. Located on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast, it is encompassed by rugged rainforest, white-sand beaches and coral reefs. The country is renowned for its diversity of tropical plants and wildlife, like three-toed sloths, endangered white-faced capuchin monkeys and hundreds of different bird species.

"Costa Rica is its own entity, it's safe, easy, and everybody speaks English," Lonely Planet's Brash said. "It's definitely the most organized and caters the most to tourists."


Tikal Pyramids, Guatemala
Elijah-Lovkof | Getty Images

Guatemala pulls in around 2 million tourists each year, who gravitate to a landscape rich with history and striking landmarks. One is Tikal, a park with Mayan ruins and temples that sits in an ancient citadel within the rainforests of northern Guatemala. Its iconic ruins include the massive ceremonial structure Mundo Perdido (Lost World) pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.


Scarlet macaws at the Mayan Ruins of Copan, Honduras.
Stuart Westmorland | Getty Images

Each year, Honduras offers its 2 million-plus visitors a plethora of attractions that give travelers lots to do. Macaw Mountain, a vast private reserve, is a safe haven for the species of bird that bears its namesake.

Carlos Lopez, general manager of Grand Roatan Resort, told CNBC that "Honduras has everything: beach, mountains, lake, ruins ... it's a country that all tourists look for. It's what makes it unique: it's diversity of options."


Bocas del Toro Province, Panama
Bocas TV | Wikipedia

Euphemistically called the "Miami of Central America," Panama is one of the region's most popular destinations. The country — which The New York Times ranked as the top place to travel in 2012 — offers more than just pristine beaches and resorts. Its 2.5 million visitors are regularly drawn to its broad cultural attractions, golfing and of course the Panama Canal.


View of 'Laguna de Apoyo' volcanic lagoon and the Mombacho Volcano in Granada.
Inti Ocon | AFP | Getty Images

Sandwiched between Costa Rica and Honduras, Nicaragua – infamous for prolonged era of political and economic instability in the 1980s — has slowly evolved into a tourist paradise. Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's once and current strongman president, has vowed to use tourism to help eradicate the country's grinding poverty.

Experts say it's working, with the country's scenic landmarks and rich ecology serving as a major attraction for international tourists. Places such as the Mombacho Volcano National Preserve and the Islets of Granada are complemented by eco-friendly hotels, surfing and lots of architectural gems.

"Nicaragua is just killing it right now," said Brash. "Everybody I know is going there."

Correction: The name of Alyse Cori's firm is Travelwize.