Central America & Cuba

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Central America

The Secret Seven

From beautiful colonial cities and ancient Mayan sites to volcanoes, vast lakes and tropical beaches, Central America (and Cuba) has it all. Here are seven stunning sites among the region’s rich pickings.

Tikal, Guatemala
This magnificent Mayan complex of pyramidal temples, causeways, plazas and public buildings was inhabited for more than 1,000 years before being abandoned in the 10th century. Now, the Unesco-listed ruins of this vast, once-vibrant city, discovered in the heart of Tikal National Park, near Flores, are surrounded by lush green jungle. Here, you can hear the calls of howler monkeys as colourful toucans and parrots fly overhead.

The Great Blue Hole, Belize
Jacques Cousteau brought this huge underwater sinkhole, near the centre of Belize’s Lighthouse reef, to the world’s attention back in 1971, when he sailed his ship, Calypso, to fathom its depths and subsequently declared it one of the world’s top 10 scuba diving sites. Formed by glaciation, the hole plunges 124 metres deep and measures 300 metres across; and its crystal waters are home to spectacular species of fish, reef sharks and even hammerheads.

The Bay Islands, Honduras
This small archipelago, set on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef), consists of three main islands and several smaller ones. Lush and tropical, this is one of the best places in the world for snorkelling (the reef is mere metres from the shore). And while this untouched Eden remains relatively unknown to the outside world, it’s home to the original pirates of the Caribbean and has an impressive history, spanning Mayan civilisation, Spanish exploration, colonial adventuring and the British empire.

Ometepe, Nicaragua
The largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake anywhere in the world, this sliver of paradise is formed from two volcanic peaks connected by a low isthmus, creating an hourglass shape. First inhabited about 4,000 years ago, human traces are to be found in the ancient petroglyphs (carved stone panels) and stone idols scattered on the northern slopes of the Maderas volcano.

Sendero de los Quetzales, Panama
Sendero de los Quetzales – or Quetzales Trail – is said to be the first made by the indigenous inhabitants of this region. The easy hiking trail runs from Boquete to Cerro Punta through cloud forest and crossing Volcan Baru: a dormant volcano standing 3,475 metres tall and Panama’s highest point. The climate here is refreshingly cooler than the lowlands and the lush vine-strewn forest teems with birdlife, including, of course, the resplendent quetzal (pictured).

Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Found on the remote north Caribbean coast, this isolated national park – all lush rainforest, long beaches, swamps and lagoons – is only accessible by boat or floatplane. Inland, jaguars and cougars stalk the forest, monkeys and sloths swing through the canopy, and toucans and hawks flit about in the sky. On the beaches, green turtles lay their eggs under a waning moon between July and September.

Viñales Valley, Cuba
Located in Cuba’s western reaches, this idyllic, fascinating landscape comprises fertile valleys dotted with palm trees and peculiar mogote hills – rounded limestone outcrops. Tobacco and other crops are cultivated at the bottom of the valley, using oxen and other traditional agricultural techniques – a far cry from the ‘modern’ face of the country on display in Havana.

First published: Compass magazine, Winter 2011-12
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