Rich in pre-Columbian history, the Central America area was dominated by the Mayans and the Aztecs until the start of the Spanish expeditions to seize the territory for the Spanish empire in the 16th century. The official language is Spanish, but some Mayan languages are still spoken. In Panama, the indigenous Embera Indians still live a traditional lifestyle.
Visitors to Central America by ship may be enjoying a rather special Caribbean cruise option, the opportunity to snorkel on Belize's barrier reef, an exciting transit through the Panama Canal, and an in-depth exploration of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. There are also opportunities to extend a trip with a Costa Rica land programme.
For many, a transit of the Panama Canal is a bucket list experience, and with reason. This extraordinary engineering project began workin 1881, but faced numerous challenges with high worker mortality and technical challenges. Eventually it was opened in 1914, owned first by the Americans who finally completed the project, and then under American Panamanian control. In 1999 it was taken over by the Panamanian government.
A huge and fascinating lock system at either end of the canal lifts ships to the level of the Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created by flooding the valley between. Following the building of a wider lane of locks, a project competed as recently as 2016, ships up to 120,000 DWT (Neo-Panamax vessels) are able to transit the canal, where huge cruise ships and cargo ships sail alongside much smaller vessels in a magical experience, particularly for shipping nerds. Make sure your scheduled transit is during daylight hours for full enjoyment. As well as spotting other shipping, you will see amazing flora and fauna through the day including the opportunity to see monkeys, sloths and toucans.
The lush landscapes and beautiful shores of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize create a Caribbean itinerary with a difference, including national parks and maritime reserves, such as the Jeannette Kawas National Park, a formidable panorama of the biodiversity in Honduras; Les Cayos Cochinos, a small archipelago classified as a marine reserve and located on the world's second-largest coral reef; the green jungle of the Cuero y Salado National Park at the confluence of several rivers; cays where you can explore the treasures of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System; the heart of Garifuna country in Guatemala; and ancestral Mayan traditions in coastal Belize.
Costa Rica stands out as a highlight for Central American cruises, with convenient direct non-stop flights from London to San Jose. A Costa Rica cruise on the Pacific Coast can be combined with an exciting land tour in this beautiful country, with lovely hotels, good roads, stunning scenery and some very exciting activities including hiking, white water rafting, ziplining and more.